The Modern Language Association convened December 27-30 in Philadelphia for its 120th annual conference. The conference, known for its often unorthodox and lurid panel discussions, had a more serious tone this year, as academics considered the future of the humanities in this country. Academe of today, however, still finds itself gravitating towards low culture and trends, if not absurdity.
The MLA members are mostly English professors, though professors of other languages attend. The annual MLA convention stretches over several days and consists of a series of panel discussions in which professors and graduate students lecture other professors and graduate students.
Women in Prison Lit
Classes on pornography appear from time to time in course catalogs at colleges across the country. Often taught under the guise of women’s studies, pornography courses expose students to a variety of movies, pictures, and other erotica. Now, porn scholars are investigating the written word, a vestige of what some might have thought was our pre-porn past. A panel, “Women Write Pulp: Rediscovering a Tradition,” at the recent MLA conference convened to explore these newfound “texts.”
A little-known, but apparently substantial, literary genre is lesbian pulp fiction of the 1940s- 1960s. In recent years, pulp fiction magazines, so named because of the paper on which they are printed, have seen a resurgence. Lesbian pulp has remained undiscovered, though the Feminist Press has introduced a noir series composed of titles by women authors.
Lesbian pulp was a product of the Second World War. The genre reached its height in the 1950s and disappeared in the 1960s. The books may redefine what many may have conceived as an uptight, conservative era, an era in which many women either vicariously, through lesbian pulp, or bodily were experimenting with lesbianism.
The evidence for lesbian pulp as eye-opening and empowering is largely anecdotal. While women did read lesbian pulp, the primary consumers of the literature were men and the genre began to disappear with the advent of new forms of pornography, the panelists noted.
Notable lesbian pulp titles include:
- Journey to a Woman
- Dormitory Women
- The Girls in 3-B
- Women’s Barracks
Queering the Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon would be considered by many as the quintessential noir. The Dashiell Hammett novel is a classic American detective fiction, and the 1941 movie helped launch acting legend Humphrey Bogart into greater roles. The 1941 movie depicts a number of interesting stereotypes, particularly with regard to the queer villain, for consideration by interested film students.
The queering of the Maltese Falcon begins with the character Joel Cairo, played in the movie by Peter Lorre [pictured], a delicate, fashionable man who carries perfumed handkerchiefs. Cairo is one of the bad guys, and so the question arises: Why is one of the villains—and not Bogart—queer? The answer, according to Scott Stoddart of Marymount Manhattan College in his paper “‘Queer Eye’ for a ‘Straight Dick’: Contextualized Homosexuals in Film Noir”, is complex and, quite likely, political, influenced from the highest echelons of government. Stoddart theorizes that J. Edgar Hoover likely played a role because he influenced Hollywood production codes. Hoover, according to a panelist, deemed homosexuals security risks and used the negative depiction of homosexuals as part of a larger anti-communist initiative.
Theater Bombs Find Fans in the Classroom
In the 2001 movie How High, rappers Method Man and Redman use the ashes of a dead friend to cultivate marijuana plants. The resulting marijuana is so powerful that, when smoked, it produces the ghost of the dead friend. The ghost provides Method and Red with answers to a college entrance exam, and the friends soon find themselves at Harvard.
Method Man, Redman, and their ilk may not smoke their way into college soon, but they may find another way into the classroom—as a result of their acting. The study of “lowbrow” and “grossout” comedies like the Scary Movie series, Not Another Teen Movie, and Dude, Where’s My Car? is not antithetical to the critical attention of academics. Indeed, these movies embody ambiguities: they both poke fun and embody stereotypes, particularly of black males. A paraphrase of a possible analysis, as given by Paul Bonila of the Community College of Philadelphia:
In Not Another Teen Movie, Malik, a black teen, opines, “Sure, why not? I am the token black guy. I’m just supposed to smile and stay out of the conversation and say things like: ‘Damn,’ ‘Sh*t,’ and ‘That is whack.’” And, for the rest of the film, Malik says exactly those phrases and so embodies the stereotype despite his self-consciousness.
Audience members then commented by noting similarities between these movies and television, notably the series South Park and Chappelle’s Show.
Most people probably don’t remember the 1999 release of The Sex Monster, though it was discussed at the recent MLA conference and, according to Julia Mendenhall of Temple University, appears frequently on HBO. It is not, however, some esoteric art-house film that would appeal to academic-types. It was a flop, needlessly resurrected in Philadelphia last week.
In The Sex Monster, a man persuades his wife to engage in a ménage-a-trois, and the wife, to her husband’s dismay, truly enjoys having sex with women. She cuckolds him with a variety of women—the other actresses in the movie. The movie, however, is worthy of scholarly attention because of the attention it pays to “lesbian titillator stereotypes” and “lesbian predator[s], and also Freudian notions of “castrating females.”
Discussions of films such as The Sex Monster do indeed help to underscore the Modern part of the Modern Language Association. As its members contemplate the gulf between their work and the public’s interest in and enthusiasm for it, the MLA might consider a return to the Great Books on which the once elite association focused. Perhaps it is what the public expects its children’s English teachers to do.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.