March 17, 2010

Androgyny, Green Slime, Decadence

Reading this review of Howl’s Moving Castle supplied much grist for this post: the reviewer Stephanie Zacharek claims that Howl, the hero of the movie, is “sexless”, while I had found him to be a fascinating and erotically charged figure. Zacharek links Howl’s “asexuality” to his androgynous appearance (and resemblance to Michael Jackson) – at first surprising me with her apparent ignorance of the (historical) relationship between queer desires (and aesthetics) and the androgynous body.

I'd been similarly startled when someone had quibbled with my description of a 'character' in a 'screenplay' as "flamboyantly androgynous" – he questioned the ability of these two styles to go together. But androgynous is fabulous. Susan Sontag writes:

As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one's sex.

According to NY Times, androgynous is the new black. The figure of the androgyne is ubiquitous in the postmodern world (such as in the goth subculture) perhaps because of an ethos that is comfortable with the crossing of boundaries. There are a few parallels between the contemporary and the nineteenth century androgynes – the decadent artists and writers whose literary and artistic strategies were in very different ways meddling with boundaries, and which are still viewed by many writers and critics as dubious or second-rate.

Zacharek has another sort of androgyny in mind: the transcendent. In western Christian theology, angels are androgynous. They are “sexless,” have “no gender,” and are “unmarriageable”. (Angels must be free of sexuality just as homosexuals must be free of their homosexual desires to get “respect” and “compassion” from the Catholic Church! – but now I am muddying the waters). This idea perhaps got attached to the Western idea of androgyny itself: the androgynous were expected to transcend both sexual difference and the physical act of sex itself.

But Zacharek is, of course, mischaracterizing the young wizard’s androgyny, which comes from an aesthetic specific to Japanese art and literature – and embraced with alacrity by the anime/manga traditions. The figure of the Bishonen – “beautiful boy” – is feminine/androgynous but emphatically sexy, and desirable to a large international constituency of women and men who watch/read in these genres. Bishonen often have "masculine" traits such as "very strong martial arts abilities" and "sports talent", thus, strangely, both buying into normative constructions of gender and blurring the looks/behaviour concurrence that sometimes reifies the queer practice of gender. In this way, bishounen is an entity different from the angelic androgyne of the Western imagination which operates from the lack of, rather than an excess of, gender-expression – its androgyny, we could say, may seem inauthentic to someone looking for the ideal (western) androgyne.

Howl, when we first meet him in the movie, is an impossibly beautiful bishonen who wears tight breeches, a ruffled white shirt, pink-and-grey cape, a green stone pendant, dangling earrings, and, best of all, impeccably textured blonde hair. (He may be a dandy, but we are quickly reminded of his manliness – he saves young Sophie and flies amidst battle airships as a large black bird. Christian Bale’s voice in the English dubbed version also helps – really.) If any doubt remains that our Howl likes to take pains over his appearance, it is dispelled the moment he dashes out of the bathroom shrieking because his hair has turned orange (Sophie mixed up his magic potions). Howl’s natural hair color is black – but, unembellished, he cries, "I give up, I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful;" brings on the Spirits of Darkness; and begins to ooze green slime.

It is interesting that Howl uses magic to perform the apparently mundane task of changing his hair color (they could just dye his hair back, Sophie reasonably points out). His method is too-much. Too-much, we know, is decadent. Too-much is a trick. Too-much fantasizes about itself, and when the fantasy is disturbed, breaks down luridly like a silly teenager.

I like Bishonen because they problematize androgyny for me, and play with the dangers of decadence.

Sophie’s response to Howl’s tantrum is, “Such drama!” But the decadent androgyne cannot but be theatrical. S/he cannot at all be invisible – s/he must go to extremes. She is not balanced – her 'two' genders don’t cancel each other out. S/he is a corrupted or awful copy of the angelic androgyne, or a campy or decaying androgyne. S/he oozes an excess of mixed-up genders and not-quite artifice. S/he will not be endorsed by those who want their androgyny straight, nor by bores. When all else fails, s/he will make unnatural overproduction of green slime.

I find it interesting that Zacharek, who encounters Howl without encountering his bishounen context, can only register his inauthentic androgyny by comparing him to the most kitschy androgyne of them all: Michael Jackson.

Incidentally, there is a symposium on MJ at Notre Dame next week. Surprise, surprise! Academia is finally willing to turn to him after his death.


  1. I hadn't even made the MJ connection! but it completely makes sense. I was thinking more of bowie in 'labyrinth'.

    also, I disagree on the christian bale count.

  2. And since we're arguing about Christian Bale -- his voice makes the character for me!

  3. I loved this connection between Sontag's camp and the Howl character! Well-written blog, too.

  4. Yeah Jen, I saw the Japanese version (with subtitles) and Bale is much more impressive.