Polyamory, Constructionism, and the Queerness of Hollywood

Two thoughts have been stirring around my brain lately, and they require a bit of creative thinking, potentially: 1) Actors and actresses are, effectively, in on-going polyamorous relationships, 2) performers embody the rejection of (dangerous) ideologies of essentialism. 

Polyamory and Queer Hollywood 

The philosophy of polyamory says that it’s possible, even natural, for a person to be in love (or to be in some kind of sexual/family-like relationships) with more than one person at a time. In contemporary Western societies, such a notion is deemed immoral and unnatural by most people, even though it’s likely the historical norm. Present-day social constructions define the moral and natural, as well as the scope of possibilities. 

Of course, actors and actresses are not the characters they play, and when discussing fictional characters we focus on the fictional character in most cases, but for purposes here, we’re going to place a brief pause on that practice because I want to explore the notion that movie stars (and theatre stars) participate in very unique relationships, very “liberal” or “weird” relationships and these stem from an otherwise very conservative Hollywood institution.

Take the case of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gosling and Stone have co-stared in several movies where they fall in love (falling in love is a very modern idea in itself – two hundred years ago people who were afflicted with such an “illness” where deemed dangerous to society and deemed weak). In these movies, Gosling and Stone–rather their bodies–share numerous passionate kisses and much more. Throughout these films, Gosling has been married to a woman, and Stone has dated various men. In addition, throughout these on-screen relationships between Gosling and Stone and their own real-life relationships with other people, they have each been in other on-screen relationships with various people.

So, effectively, Gosling, Stone, and the other people they have been in relationships with both on- and off-screen are participating in a very queer, polyamorous relationship–at the very least something very different than the idealized monogamous, patriarchal relationship.  

In another example, think of a long-running television show such as Walker: Texas Ranger or Full House. These shows have people who are in long-term romantic, sexual relationships with their real-life spouses and on-screen spouses. 

Or, think of Meryl Streep. She has been married to Don Gummer since 1978 and in that time span has been in a (fictional) relationship with many, many different men and women through the various roles she has played.

Of course such on-screen relationships are not “real” in the typical sense, especially as they are on a stage of some kind and have dozens and dozens of lights and cameras all around them, but the biological, physical, psychological bond cannot be fully deleted. And, as I have learned in my studies of film and culture, many a real-life relationship between Hollywood stars started when they were brought together in an on-screen relationship.

The real and reel cannot be fully separated. 

Constructionism and Queer Hollywood 

While there are–absolutely–many important conversations about the importance of a gay actor playing a gay character, a Asian actor playing an Asia character, a crip actor playing a crip character and many concerns when Hollywood uses normative White people to play such roles, Hollywood’s approach is somewhat queer from the perspective that it rejects essentialism and embraces constructionism.

Essentialism says who we are is essential to our being and that we are born certain ways. Queer Theory embraces constructionism and how our identities emerge from society and constantly change. 

Hollywood performers can and do identify in any number of ways–as related to ableism, class, gender, sexuality, race–and play characters that identify in any number of ways–as related to ableism, class, gender, sexuality, race. These don’t have to align. A person doesn’t have to identify in real life as a trans man to play such a role and playing such a role does not make the person in real life a trans man. Acting can be, simply, acting. Although, for sure, an actual trans man could bring more legitimacy to the role and help others trans people because representation and visibility matter. 

Attraction, behavior, and identity are all separate, whether we are talking about a person’s real life, fictional life, or the middle grounds where these morph and overlap. That these can be changed and manipulated in fiction is indeed very queer. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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5 replies

  1. This post was really interesting to me. It does illustrate how PhD thinking and M.S. or M.A. or A.M. thinking is different. PhDs are supposed to be steeped in the philosophy of their specialty, while Master’s degrees have learned the techniques of experimentation (even if it is “only” thought experiment), analysis and interpretation. It also points out how interdisciplinary a humanities degree is that allows the brain to see analogy and association in many different ways.

    It also is very relevant to the topic of polyamory, discussed on the radio show, ‘Philosophy Talks’ last week (live-streamed on KALW and broadcast after each Sunday on many other NPR stations on other days of the week). It is also streamed on demand for 2 weeks at WREK and would be listed there under “this week” starting on the Sunday after its original broadcast.

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  2. Why would you say that polyamory is “likely the historical norm?” Polygamy has, of course, been known in several cultures, chiefly meaning wealthy men could have more than one wife, but that is far from being polyamory. And of course people have always to some extent carried on extra-marital relationships, but with some stigma attached to the point that they were and are mostly carried out in secret.

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    • Thanks for your comment and for reading. Basically, when looking at world history and when looking at early, early humans (and proto-humans and their ancestors and the long process of evolution), we see very different types of relationships and sexual behavior that look much more like polyamory than polygamy and monogamy or marriage, etc. Also, there are even cultures today where women will seek to have sex with numerous men when getting pregnant because they believe each man will leave a certain trait or feature – thus the men are picked according to what kind of child the mother wants.

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    • “Also, there are even cultures today where women will seek to have sex with numerous men when getting pregnant because they believe each man will leave a certain trait or feature – thus the men are picked according to what kind of child the mother wants.” — what cultures would those be? and, how can we know what the mating habits of early humans were? I’m sincerely interested. In many pre-human animals, there is “polyamory” in the sense of multiple mating partners over time, but in these instances there are no permanent family groups either (other than mother/child family groups).

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  3. Interesting! Both the post and the comments.

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