Question #2: Mysterious Lesbians & Nation Traitors in Soldier's Girl

| 1 Comment

I had a whole post planned in my head about nation traitors and the film Soldier's Girl, but then I read Muñoz's introduction to "Performing Identities" and became absolutely enthralled. I will discuss nation traitors at the end of my post, but I want to first talk about the Muñoz piece, and my personal reaction to it. Perhaps this a bit overly personal, but I think it's fairly humorous as well, so I hope that makes up for over-sharing:


Muñoz's discussion of Marga Gomez, mesmerized, watching the "lady homosexuals" on the David Susskind show really hit home for me. Growing up, my first introduction to "real life" lesbians was watching the Maury show. I was probably 10 or 11 and I was flipping through channels and, suddenly, the caption on the bottom of the screen read something like "Surprise! I'm a lesbian!" I had an idea of what the word meant, and I knew it kind of, maybe, somehow applied to me.  So, I stayed on the channel, turned the volume down so only I could hear it, and locked my bedroom door so no one else could catch me watching the show and put the pieces together. Much like the "pre-Stonewall stereotypes of lesbians" on the David Susskind show, the women on Maury had short hair, were dressed in masculine attire, and were overweight (Muñoz 3). But, they had leather jackets. And those jackets somehow made them exotic and glamorous in my eyes, and "not as the pathetic and abject spectacle that [they would] appear to be in the dominant eyes of heteronormative culture" (Muñoz 3). Thus, just as Marga Gomez's fascination and desire for the lady homosexual's wigs allowed her to disidentify with "these damaged stereotypes and recycle them as powerful and seductive sites of self-creation," so the leather jackets of the lesbians on Maury allowed me to do the same (Muñoz 4). I thought they were fascinating and I wanted to get one of those leather jackets and become one of them--as long as I didn't have to cut my hair--and as long as no one in my "real" life would find out.


Over the years as I grew into a teenager, I continued to invest the leather jacket with the mythical, the erotic, and the forbidden--all of the things lesbian identity meant to me. At 17, I bought a fake ID and a leather jacket and convinced one of my friends to drive into San Francisco with me (we lived 45 min. out in the suburbs) and go to the Lexington. I remember looking at myself in the mirror, wearing the leather jacket, and thinking it didn't look good on me, but that I wasn't wearing it for myself. I thought that, somehow, simply by wearing the jacket, it would let all the lesbians I passed know "hey, I'm one of you" and it would it would make me seem "mythical, erotic and forbidden"-- just like the lesbians on the Maury show had seemed to me. When we finally got to the Lexington, and made it in with our fake IDs, I was shocked to discover that I was the only one wearing a leather jacket!  Without those jackets, how was I supposed to know whether they were "really" lesbians or not?  What if they were really straight, and they were just there to out me?  After about 15 minutes of failing to find a fellow jacket wearer and "known" lesbian, I got scared, and told my friend I wanted to leave. In my eyes, the jacket had become disinvested of its mystical lesbian power, so I took it off and I never wore it again.


Now on to nation traitors and the film "Soldier's Girl," which I will be showing a clip of in class on Wednesday.


First, here is a plot summary of the film:


Barry is a private with the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Calpernia, a former Navy medic, now works as a showgirl at a transgender revue in Nashville, Tennessee when the two meet in 1999. When Barry and Calpernia begin seeing each other, Fisher begins spreading rumors on base about their relationship, which appeared to be a violation of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy about discussing the sexual orientation of military personnel. Barry faces increasing harassment and pressure, which explodes into violence over Fourth of July weekend. While Calpernia performs in a pageant in Nashville, Barry is beaten to death in his sleep with a baseball bat by Calvin Glover, who had been goaded by Fisher into committing the crime. The film ends with a discussion of the aftermath. The film depicts Fisher as a sexually confused manipulator jealous of Barry or Calpernia or both.


My interest in the film, and its relation to our class, centers around the way in which Barry and Calpernia serve simultaneously as US soldiers/patriots and, by virtue of their gender and sexual positions, as nation traitors. After all, to be patriotic is often conflated with upholding hegemonic American values, including heternormativity. How, therefore, does Calpernia inhabit the seemingly contradictory identity of former soldier and transperson?  And, for Barry, of solder and partner of a transperson?  How does the film formally complement these two divided and/or contrasting selves? 


One possible response to this question is that Barry maintains these identities through a linguistic fracturing of the self. While on the base or with his military friends, he goes by his surname, Winchell. And, while he introduces himself to Calpernia as "Winchell"--and she is comfortable calling soldiers by their last names given her own military background--she soon asks for his first name and, from then on, he is "Barry" in his scenes with her. This division of identity--between Winchell the soldier & Barry the partner of a transwoman-- is further complimented by the film's employment of color and mise en scene. In Calpernia's home and dressing room, Barry is surrounded by soft pinks and pastels & rainbow flags, and he is permitted to cry. On the base, however, the shots are overwhelmed by dark greens and browns, the American flag is ever-present, and Winchell acts sternly and agressively, adhering to what seems to be a code of brotherhood respect.  This leads me to wonder, can the two selves ever merge, unifying his identity as "Barry Winchell?"


Another point of interest for me, in the film, is how Calpernia and Barry's bodies become sites of trouble or are troubling/troublesome. In what ways does offering up his (Barry's) queer body as a vehicle of military service revise notions of the American body, as well as the attendant categories of identity, sexuality and patriotism? Do he and Calpernia have agency over their bodies, or are their bodies being written or acted on by others?  How do the film's formal elements contribute to the way in which their bodies are perceived?  


In the scene I will show in class on Wednesday, Calpernia is performing as a showgirl at the nightclub Visions (it's the night they meet), and Barry's army buddies are shoving $1 bills down her underwear. Clearly, their hands are all over her--her body is figured as spectacle and it is publicly accessible. Yet, she is on her home turf and she is the one who has constructed herself as spectacle--she has chosen to perform and, when a fight breaks out, she intervenes with her body, literally standing between Barry and his fellow soldier to break it up. She then takes Barry by the hand and leads him into her dressing room, where she cleans up the spill on his shirt (his body). Also, while Calpernia's body is often on display, it is Barry's body that is beaten (ultimately to death) later in the film. Therefore, while his body is never depicted as available or vulnerable, in the end, it becomes so, and it becomes so not in the soft hues of Calpernia's private bedroom, but in the cool green/brown world of the military barracks--with a baseball bat (a symbol of the traditional American pastime) and only feet from an American flag.


Another interesting thing about the characters' bodies is that the film does not include a "genital reveal" sequence, or a moment when the trans character's genitals are revealed.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post (about my big project, which is on this topic), genital reveal sequences are a canonical feature of 90s and 00s trans cinema, and often play out as moments of "truth" about the character's body while serving as a moment of sensationalism for the audience.  Therefore, by refusing to give us that moment, what is the film saying about Calpernia's body?  Does this deflect attention away from her body, or increase our desire to know and see?  What does it mean that we also are prevented from seeing Barry's genitals?  Instead, during their sex scenes, we see close-ups of the character's faces as they moan with pleasure. In fact, the scenes of Barry going down on Calpernia and Calpernia going down on Barry are virtually identical. Furthermore, these scenes are interspersed with Fish (Barry's roommate) catching a male & female soldier in bed together (it is forbidden for soldiers to date and/or have sex).  These scenes, therefore, be interpreted as both normalizing--their sex is just like straight sex--and as a way of reinforcing it's anti-patriotism--Barry having sex with Calpernia is against the military's rules just as the male & female soldier having sex is against the military's rules.


Another point I want to discuss (regarding the clip I'll show on Wednesday) is the "mission" that Fisher gives Barry. After watching Calpernia perform, Fisher tells Barry that it is his "mission" to find out if she has a penis or a "gash." By using the military word "mission" and using it to find out about Calpernia's body, Soldier's Girl merges the world of the military with the queer world of Vision's nightclub. And, as Barry thwarts his mission, telling Calpernia when they are alone that his mission was to "find out how she learned to dance like that," he de-values both the seriousness of a military "mission" and the importance of anatomy. Reporting back to Fisher after his time with Calpernia, he states "she is a lady," answering with a reference to her gender identity & expression, rather than her genitals. While these are my initial thoughts on the scene, I can't help but feeling there is more to it.





1. What do you make of the "mission" Barry gives to Fisher?


2. How do you see Calpernia's body working as a site of spectacle or performance, a tool, a locus of patriotism, and/or nation traitor in this scene?  What about Barry's body?


3. How do you see the straight world of the military and the queer world of the nightclub merging together in this scene?


4. Do you see Barry's identity (Barry

1 Comment

I dont have much (useful) to say about your post, except that I love everything youre thinking.

first, im totally with you about the "real life lesbian" mesmerizing childhood moment, knowing nothing about it but knowing it somehow was you. i love munoz and am so excited to talk about his work tomorrow.

second, your questions and project on nation traitors and this film is really great. i have to admit that when i first watched the film i wasn't so fond of it. but intellectually now with your questions i am enrolled. i can't wait to watch the clip tomorrow and talk about these questions.

third, i am particularly interested in barry as a nation traitor and the consequences of his traitor-ness. its almost as if the military world already "wrote off" calpernia as a traitor/troublemaker/etc (as someone who didnt matter). they only get upset about barry because of his "who he is = a military man = american = moral person = etc" and how his relationships with calpernia is a "traitor" to that. its almost as if its not just the queerness thats bad, the bad part, the worst part is the becoming queer traitor part....

Leave a comment