Yasmin Nair

Angelina Jolie, Queer Theory, and the Gods of Neoliberalism

Filed By Yasmin Nair | September 21, 2007 10:51 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: Angelina Jolie, Kenny Fries, lesbian, neoliberal, queer, queer identity, Samuel Delany

I once sang in a choir. No, really, I kid you not. I was raised by atheists, but sent to the kind of institution where you sang hymns every morning. Singing the praises of the Lord and his sexy, rock star son with the golden tresses and the gaping wound for a heart was an exotic activity for me. All my friends had gods to go home to, and their religions ran the gamut from obscure sects of Jainism to Islam. At the age of eight, for too many reasons to recount but mostly because I briefly longed for what, in hindsight, was really the drab existence of others (did my parents have to collect tantric sculptures, I’d wonder, when everyone else was content with reproductions of Monet?), I began a search for God. Any god would do. To the horror of my parents, I roamed from faith to faith, seeking the perfect saint or god. Guru Nanak’s giant heavy-lidded eyes were beautiful and kind, but I needed something more. I contemplated the Buddha, but he was too quiet and I moved on to Krishna.

Krishna. There was a god designed for love. Sex, precisely. Is there a cultural studies scholar from here to Gurgaon who will dispute that he is the god of masturbatory fantasies, created explicitly to enable young girls to ponder the mysteries of desire within the safe enclave of religious longing? The libertine god is famed for his conquests and is often shown playing, of all things, a flute. And always with scantily clad women at his side, in blouses so tiny that their breasts spill out from all sides -- giant orbs of sumptuous flesh thrilling to his song and touch. I lusted for them all, man and women.

My brush with faith didn’t last long. I suspect my disappointment with religion had everything to do with certain prayers going unanswered: entire pantheons simply deserted me. So I just kept reading. I couldn’t bring God/gods into the house, but I could read anything I wanted and I consumed everything from Dickens to Sybil. I have a distinct memory of going from the book to the dinner table and asking my father, too small for my feet to touch the ground, “What does the word “crotch” mean?” As I recall, crotches figured prominently in Sybil. Somewhere between lusting for forbidden gods and wondering about crotches, I must have become queer.

What does any of this have to do with Angelina Jolie?

I “came out,” whatever the hell that means, at the height of queer theory, in an English department swarming with queers who were determined to bust all binaries and turn the world queer as fuck. Being queer in academia in the mid-’90s, in certain spaces, was practically mandatory. We were going to conquer the world by applying our gerundive might to it, queering everything from sitcoms to manifestos.

Enter Angelina. You, my friends, might think of her bemusedly as she now bats her eyelids and murmurs about only having slept with four men. Two of them, she coyly reminds us, were men she married. Yeah, the girl’s practically a virgin. Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, it will soon be revealed, is the result of an immaculate conception. Perhaps the press was on to something when it trumpeted the kid’s birth as the most anticipated since that of Jesus Christ.

But my friends and I remember someone else altogether, a woman who looked like she could drive off the edge any minute and who snogged her brother in public. We loved her for that especially, for going against heteronormativity: the thing that seemed the biggest curse of the time. Admittedly, the fact that she played a politically incorrect tomb raider did register with us on occasion. But we let that pass for a vision of the Jolie encased in leather. Angelina was our queer queen. Her madness and taste for blood and cutting added to our collective thrill.

Look at her now. A Mia Farrow for the 21st century, roaming the globe in search of children to adopt into her rainbow-hued family. When she gives birth, the event takes on portentous proportions. Some of us long for private rooms in hospitals, the kind where you don’t have to share the remote with the loon in the next bed who wants to watch the Home Shopping Network. Angelina got the entire country of Namibia.

Re-invention is the mother of celebrity. So while it shocked us when Angelina set up house with Billy Bob and turned earnestly and even insanely heterosexual, we knew what was up. There’s a point at which a hint of bisexuality is a sexy and profitable thing: both straight men and dykes get to fantasise about you and come to see your movies in droves. But there’s a point at which bi-ness can seem too much like, ew, ick, lesbianism, and the unacknowledged truth in the entertainment world is that a dyke is a box-office killer.

Why do I care? Why is Angelina on my mind? Is it because she is no longer as queer as I’d like or because she/queerness has simply failed to be interesting? I shall call my beloved M., with whom I shared a TA office. M., who put up that picture of Sigourney Weaver stretched out in a fishnet body suit. I like girls, it said. Deal. I shall call her tonight and muse aloud about what all this means and what the point of calling myself queer might be, and wait to hear her sardonic wit crackle back at me. “Your issues,” she once surmised in her usual brilliant and off-hand way, “have everything to do with cathexis.” Only M. could have managed to say that so gently but precisely.

There is, really, some strange sadness here. As if I’ve been betrayed by God, any god, many gods. Even the sight of Angelina’s sumptuous lips cannot allay my worst fears: this is where the queer ends up. Not with a bang that explodes the world as we know it, but with a shy whimper about only sleeping with the men she cares about. In an interview with Ann Curry, she spewed some twaddle about motherhood changing her, making her softer and gentler, like a woman should be. On top of everything else, she turns out to be a bloody essentialist!

Is this the end of “queer?” Or is this just what queer was always destined to be? As it turns out, Angelina is probably still as queer as fuck. She collects children and talks about how it’s not blood that makes families. She speaks well of gay marriage, which makes today’s queers really happy. She is the goddess of neoliberalism, a stunning face and body that appeals to our “humanitarian” impulses to give money to alleviate crises without worrying our pretty little heads about the harder issues around, oh, trade policies that actually create the crises in the first place.

Angelina, baby, has it all been a sham all along? I’m not entirely sure what queer means any more since, these days, I spend a good bit of my energy eviscerating queer theory for never having been anything other than an insidious handmaiden of neoliberalism. Much like those orb-breasted women mooning around Krishna. “Sybil,” it turns out, may barely have had one personality, leave alone sixteen. Much like Angelina, whose wild queerness turns out to have hidden a saintly girl who marries half the people with whom she sleeps.

*******************************
On a not entirely unrelated note, here are my two latest reviews:
Samuel Delany, Dark Reflections:

Kenny Fries, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory


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What a treat to find this on Bilerico this morning! Thanks, Yasmin. Now I want to read more of your thoughts on queer theory as "an insidious handmaiden of neoliberalism ... "

I learned a new word from your article, Yasmin. (And I have a feeling a lot of others are wondering about it too...)

cathexis: the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree).

Over Pseudointellectualism | September 21, 2007 1:07 PM

"especially to an unhealthy degree" - - how apt. This is one of those pieces that I feel like I should send a bill to the author for wasting my time reading. Sorry Angie isn't perfect enough for you even tho she's one of the few celebrities actually putting their money and time where their mouths are.

Me too Bill. At least with Obsession, you could just wash it off when you didn't want to smell it anymore.

Yasmin, I look forward to more articles - you really do have a wonderful way of drawing one into a narrative.

Thanks, Jessica! And that, in sum, is actually my book as well -- I should expand on that a bit more in future pieces...
And a belated thanks, btw, for your piece on why you don't do "bi." I've had similar issues myself, but have only managed to spew vaguely personal invectives against the word. Now, when someone asks why I'm not "bi," I can just direct them to your post.

Bil and beer (may I call you beer?), I like the idea of a perfume named Cathexis. There goes my million-dollar idea. Okay, yours.

Over Pseudointellectualism, the problem with Angie is that her solutions are the easy way out. And the problem is exactly that she does put her money where her (very beautiful) mouth is. The problem is that we've decided that throwing money at problems is all that we need to do. Which helps us to justify making multi-millionaires out of people like Gates, Bono, and Jolie. So that they can go around dropping money in the name of charitable giving/debt relief attempts - all of which help them to make more money in the end. And so the cycle goes on. For a really interesting piece that takes a swipe at Brangelina and also considers the problems with the solutions they propose, take a look at Paul Theroux's Winter 2005 op-ed in the New York Times (Bil, okay for me to post these things?):

December 15, 2005
Op-Ed Contributor
The Rock Star's Burden
By PAUL THEROUX

Hale'iwa, Hawaii

THERE are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can't think of one at the moment. If Christmas, season of sob stories, has turned me into Scrooge, I recognize the Dickensian counterpart of Paul Hewson - who calls himself "Bono" - as Mrs. Jellyby in "Bleak House." Harping incessantly on her adopted village of Borrioboola-Gha "on the left bank of the River Niger," Mrs. Jellyby tries to save the Africans by financing them in coffee growing and encouraging schemes "to turn pianoforte legs and establish an export trade," all the while badgering people for money.

It seems to have been Africa's fate to become a theater of empty talk and public gestures. But the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help - not to mention celebrities and charity concerts - is a destructive and misleading conceit. Those of us who committed ourselves to being Peace Corps teachers in rural Malawi more than 40 years ago are dismayed by what we see on our return visits and by all the news that has been reported recently from that unlucky, drought-stricken country. But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions.

I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education or affordable drugs. Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children's Village. I am speaking of the "more money" platform: the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief. We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for - and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.

If Malawi is worse educated, more plagued by illness and bad services, poorer than it was when I lived and worked there in the early 60's, it is not for lack of outside help or donor money. Malawi has been the beneficiary of many thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, and yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.

In the early and mid-1960's, we believed that Malawi would soon be self-sufficient in schoolteachers. And it would have been, except that rather than sending a limited wave of volunteers to train local instructors, for decades we kept on sending Peace Corps teachers. Malawians, who avoided teaching because the pay and status were low, came to depend on the American volunteers to teach in bush schools, while educated Malawians emigrated. When Malawi's university was established, more foreign teachers were welcomed, few of them replaced by Malawians, for political reasons. Medical educators also arrived from elsewhere. Malawi began graduating nurses, but the nurses were lured away to Britain and Australia and the United States, which meant more foreign nurses were needed in Malawi.

When Malawi's minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa's problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared with the kleptomania of its neighbors. Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing.

Mr. Gates has said candidly that he wants to rid himself of his burden of billions. Bono is one of his trusted advisers. Mr. Gates wants to send computers to Africa - an unproductive not to say insane idea. I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state's expense to work in their own countries.

Malawi was in my time a lush wooded country of three million people. It is now an eroded and deforested land of 12 million; its rivers are clogged with sediment and every year it is subjected to destructive floods. The trees that had kept it whole were cut for fuel and to clear land for subsistence crops. Malawi had two presidents in its first 40 years, the first a megalomaniac who called himself the messiah, the second a swindler whose first official act was to put his face on the money. Last year the new man, Bingu wa Mutharika, inaugurated his regime by announcing that he was going to buy a fleet of Maybachs, one of the most expensive cars in the world.

Many of the schools where we taught 40 years ago are now in ruins - covered with graffiti, with broken windows, standing in tall grass. Money will not fix this. A highly placed Malawian friend of mine once jovially demanded that my children come and teach there. "It would be good for them," he said.

Of course it would be good for them. Teaching in Africa was one of the best things I ever did. But our example seems to have counted for very little. My Malawian friend's children are of course working in the United States and Britain. It does not occur to anyone to encourage Africans themselves to volunteer in the same way that foreigners have done for decades. There are plenty of educated and capable young adults in Africa who would make a much greater difference than Peace Corps workers.

Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth. Such people come in all forms and they loom large. White celebrities busy-bodying in Africa loom especially large. Watching Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie recently in Ethiopia, cuddling African children and lecturing the world on charity, the image that immediately sprang to my mind was Tarzan and Jane.

Bono, in his role as Mrs. Jellyby in a 10-gallon hat, not only believes that he has the solution to Africa's ills, he is also shouting so loud that other people seem to trust his answers. He traveled in 2002 to Africa with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, urging debt forgiveness. He recently had lunch at the White House, where he expounded upon the "more money" platform and how African countries are uniquely futile.

But are they? Had Bono looked closely at Malawi he would have seen an earlier incarnation of his own Ireland. Both countries were characterized for centuries by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs, malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather. Malawi had a similar sense of grievance, was also colonized by absentee British landlords and was priest-ridden, too.

Just a few years ago you couldn't buy condoms legally in Ireland, nor could you get a divorce, though (just like in Malawi) buckets of beer were easily available and unruly crapulosities a national curse. Ireland, that island of inaction, in Joyce's words, "the old sow that eats her farrow," was the Malawi of Europe, and for many identical reasons, its main export being immigrants.

It is a melancholy thought that it is easier for many Africans to travel to New York or London than to their own hinterlands. Much of northern Kenya is a no-go area; there is hardly a road to the town of Moyale, on the Ethiopian border, where I found only skinny camels and roving bandits. Western Zambia is off the map, southern Malawi is terra incognita, northern Mozambique is still a sea of land mines. But it is pretty easy to leave Africa. A recent World Bank study has confirmed that the emigration to the West of skilled people from small to medium-sized countries in Africa has been disastrous.

Africa has no real shortage of capable people - or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa's belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for. Again, Ireland may be the model for an answer. After centuries of wishing themselves onto other countries, the Irish found that education, rational government, people staying put, and simple diligence could turn Ireland from an economic basket case into a prosperous nation. In a word - are you listening, Mr. Hewson? - the Irish have proved that there is something to be said for staying home.

Paul Theroux is the author of "Blinding Light" and of "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town."

Ooh -- I can't wait to read your book.
And thanks for these thoughts on how the culture of high-profile philanthropy not only doesn't address root problems but often actually shores up wealth disparities.

You'll have to send us a copy of your book to review, Yasmin! I'm sure one of our contributors would LOVE to review it!

Over Pseudointellectualism | September 21, 2007 8:59 PM

I'd rather have anyone, celeb or not, your sexual frustrating sexual fantasy or not, throwing money at things that money does in fact help in the short term than doing nothing at all which is what most celebs opt to do. There are far more worthy targets of your endless supply of polysyllabic invective from the stateside comfort of your keyboard.

I suppose if you saw Angie literally feeding a starving child you'd start screeching your 50 cent words at her about how she's not really solving the problem and is probably just doing it for publicity and to make herself richer in the end ... while the child is thinking, "Shut the fuck up, lady! I'm trying to eat here!"

Anthony,

Thanks for your comment. I know you also sent another one, asking my identification as a "queer lesbian who sleeps with men." That one doesn't seem to have shown up yet on this page, but I'll respond to it anyway.

I don't identify as a bisexual because I find that label too constrictive. I use "queer" even though I've long felt that queer theory has failed to enact a radical politics (I wrote about that in a post titled
Angelina Jolie, Queer Theory, and the Gods of Neoliberalism
. Still, I find "queer" the most potentially flexible term I could use and cling to its radical promise (even if that promise has often failed!)

I find that the term "bisexual" doesn't go beyond sex and gender binaries; it implicitly and explicitly prioritises man-woman relations above all other possible configurations. I identify - politically and personally - as a lesbian. Hence: "queer lesbian who has sex with men" :-)

As for your point: "...but it seems to me that Don't Ask Don't Tell and marriage became the major issues after HIV cocktails made it a more manageable disease for the (mainly) upscale white men who could afford it." Yes, absolutely - I agree!

Wolfgang,

Thanks for your comment. I've addressed a number of your points in previous responses to others. Coming out is still a fraught enterprise for many, and even those of us who think of ourselves as "out" find ourselves having to "come out" on a daily basis because yes, most of straight society still sees us as the non-normative and insists that we keep our real and/or metaphorical identity papers in full view at all times. Ideally, we should be working for a world where noone makes any assumptions about anyone's sexual or gender identity.

But I have to say that I don't agree with the theory of "trickle-down" activism or of enacting horrendous law and order "solutions" while we wait for a better world. We should be consistently pushing as hard as we can for the best possible solutions. There's too much at stake to compromise.

Hate crimes legislation and marriage are not just short-term solutions -- for too many of us, they are *the* solutions. And it's easy - as the current bloated state of the prison industrial system tells us -- to forget the consequences of the solutions we seek. What's supposed to happen to the millions jailed for life or put to death while we cheer on idea of enhanced penalties? Do we magnanimously let them go once we've decided that, at some future date that might never arrive, there's no longer a need for hate crimes legislation?

While I value the idea of community, I don't believe in a united community above all else. I believe in a political and radical world. And sometimes that means we give up our idea of community in favour of solutions that can actually benefit everyone, not just the narrow interests of a few. In our case, the concept of "true equality" has become shorthand for privilege.