Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
My Eyes Are My Eyes
“Marvin always gets the things he wants,” Miss Goldberg croons, in submission to her inexhaustible student. But what is it that he wants? Following the psychosexual torments of a teenage boy growing up in the American upper-class in the nineteen sixties and seventies, William Finn’s 1979 musical one-act In Trousers is a beautifully abstract non-answer, presenting to its audience an image of reluctant homosexuality and the misogyny that culminates as a result. The character of Marvin – a sadistic, “seizure” prone, sexually frustrated adolescent – is as complicated as he is rich, but is not incomprehensible. When presented alongside the hour long cacophony that is William Finn’s In Trousers, the thoughts outlined in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema” and Andrew Sullivan’s “What is a Homosexual?” can help to shed some light on Marvin’s desires and motivations throughout the show.
Laura Mulvey’s, “Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema” addresses the inherent misogyny of the movie-going experience through the function of gender dynamics and fetishistic and psychoanalytic structure. While her essay is specifically concerned with the cinema, Mulvey’s thoughts on male and female nature are social revelations which defy the boundaries of the big screen. As an example, in this essay Mulvey famously coins the term “the male gaze” in reference to the scopophilic look of the active male on the passive female, in which he derives pleasure from the projection of his desires onto her; a complex which is abundantly present in In Trousers, as well as having simply become an unavoidable truth of womanhood, both within the society in which its was identified and recent society. In her dissection of the inner workings of the male, Mulvey explains that he 1) resents women as the direct result of the castration anxiety which they provoke, and 2) derives pleasure from subjecting women to his “controlling and curious gaze”, both in fetishistic looking and narcissistic looking, in which the self is projected onto a more visually pleasing image. An elaborate political weapon, Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures” confronts cinematic misogyny through themes of perceiving and perception.
While far more personal in nature, Andrew Sullivan’s essay “What is a Homosexual?” explores similar themes, as he recounts his experiences growing up homosexual in an intolerant world. Through his own experiences he offers simple truths regarding the constitution of young homosexual life, namely that, in order to lead a somewhat tranquil life, young homosexuals must develop the skills of “mimesis”: self-concealment, impersonation and deceit, and the subtle expression of their natural emotions through various outlets (artistic, athletic, academic, etc.), all of which are exercised by the character of Marvin in In Trousers.
Excepting a brief reference to the homosexual eroticism of the ‘buddy movie’, Mulvey’s essay does not at all account for homosexuality in her studies of the sexism of narrative cinema. The relationship of Sullivan’s work to Mulvey’s then becomes the explanation of why that may be. Sullivan writes, “No homosexual child, surrounded overwhelmingly by heterosexuals, will feel at home in his sexual and emotional world” – and because of this he learns the “ritual” of impersonation of the heterosexual, which may very well include the objectification of women. This suggests that perhaps the reason homosexuality is not accounted for in Mulvey is that homosexuals become an active part of the problem, whether or not they are truly interested in the subject matter, for fear that they will be recognized as defective in their society or discriminated against if they behave otherwise. Outside of this relationship between Mulvey and Sullivan, there are also multiple instances of the accounts in Sullivan’s piece exemplifying the thoughts of Mulvey’s. For example, Mulvey muses on the ego’s adoring perception of oneself after the childhood “mirror phase”, in which, “… [A] child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body.” The personal vitality of one’s self-image is visited in “What is a Homosexual?” when Sullivan writes that whence trapped between feeling “wicked” and “ridiculous” as a tortured young homosexual, his ego caused him to fear the latter more profoundly. The character of Marvin only acts as further validation of this case, as he periodically announced that he “loves being Marvin”, and invites the audience to look at him in his triumphant shower scene. Additionally, Mulvey provides as a part of her narrative Budd Boetticher’s ideas that the woman’s entire importance in a story lies within her ability to inspire love or fear in the male protagonist, and that in herself she has no importance at all. This is touched upon by Sullivan when he describes the lengths that he would go to in his adolescence in order to avoid women (throwing himself into his schoolwork, plays), but more directly elaborated on in In Trousers, wherein the female characters are named in terms of their belonging to a male character: Marvin’s wife, Marvin’s high school sweetheart, and Ms. Goldberg, who, it can be deduced, belongs either as daughter or wife to a ‘Mr. Goldberg’.
When observing Marvin’s relationships with these women, it becomes evident that his relationship with Miss Goldberg in particular is the most complex in the terms of the mystery of his wanting. She is his drama teacher in his freshman year of high school, a crucial and oft revisited year of Marvin’s life in the musical’s nonlinear timeline. This is the year he has turned fourteen, and feels that since he is now much older and much more mature, he should naturally get to experience the wonders of the sexual universe: with the experienced and elusive Ms. Goldberg, in particular. It is especially significant to their relationship that she is Marvin’s drama teacher, as Sullivan addresses theatre as an avenue that homosexual teenagers often go down because it is a “profession of appearance”, in which the heterosexuals around them are denied their habitation of ignorance. When Marvin is on the stage, it is a rare moment of honesty of self-expression; he gets to share his love for himself and who he is with his whole community. It becomes very clear that this is why he comes to fetishize Ms. Goldberg – she has given him a voice. In the song “My High School Sweetheart”, Marvin dotes on his casting in the role of Columbus in the school play – a role which denotes exploration – he says, “I love Miss Goldberg, she cast me in her play. She gave me words to say.” Whereas before he has had to express himself through his “fits” (in “Marvin’s Giddy Seizures”, he acts out having a seizure to garner the attention of his classmates), which Sullivan might describe as a “tiny revolt of personal space”, he now has a perfectly rational excuse to be heard and looked at, gifted to him by Ms. Goldberg. The complex and often disturbing relationship between these two characters is also the result of a desperation by Marvin to be the sole proprietor of the gaze, which Mulvey describes, and thereby masculinity. Miss Goldberg, although named in terms of belonging to men like the rest of the women in the play, has a certain degree of belonging to herself that is unique to her, simply because she always wears sunglasses. When she is wearing her sunglasses, she can see without being entirely seen. Mulvey says, “… the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification,” which proves to be true in “The Rape of Miss Goldberg”, in which Marvin attempts to seduce Miss Goldberg, but more than he wants her to “introduce him to the wonders of the bed,” he wants her to take off her sunglasses and show him her eyes for the first time: he sings, nefariously, “Now it’s my birthday, and here’s my surprise: I’m gonna see your eyes, Miss Goldberg, I’m gonna see your eyes, my darling” while Miss Goldberg demands in contempt, “Don’t touch my goddamn eyes” and, later in the song, “My eyes are my eyes; your hands are your hands.” Miss Goldberg’s sunglasses represent her unwillingness to participate in scopophilia, a power which Marvin feels he must repossess by seducing her and exploring her body in total, possibly because when she is disallowing him to exercise his male gaze on her, she is also excluding him from heterosexuality – as Sullivan points out: “In the arena of dating and hormones, exclusion is naturally traumatic.” When the lights go down on the couple at the end of the number, it is implied that Marvin has succeeded and they are going to have sex – and when the lights come back up moments later, Marvin is miraculously seen wearing Miss Goldberg’s sunglasses; in this moment more than the moments of sexual implication just before, she is entirely vulnerable to him.
As opposed to Marvin’s relationship with Miss Goldberg which, in an unconventional way, allows him to express his homosexuality, his relationship with his wife is often representative of him receding into his heterosexuality. Marvin does genuinely have affectionate love for his wife: in her power ballad “Love Me For What I Am”, Marvin’s wife tells of when they first met and how they fall for one another. She only asks that Marvin will love her for what she is, and not who she tries to be; which is consequently exactly what Marvin wants in a partner and exactly what his Wife cannot give him. Still, he finds that the sentiment is admirable. Although he loves her, he finds that he is terrified to have sex with her. This could relate to Mulvey’s ideas about the castration complex, in which, “[A woman] connotes… her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure.” As a hiding homosexual man, there is a larger degree of resentment for his wife in her lack of a penis: it causes anxiety in him in the castration threat, and it is a constant reminder of his sexual preference for men. Later, in accordance with Mulvey’s idea that, “[Woman] can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic); bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning,” Marvin’s Wife is revealed as having given birth to two boys. The song “The Nausea Before The Game” is a moment of “erotic contemplation” (Mulvey) by Marvin, in which he makes an analogy comparing his first sexual experience with his Wife to a football game that he is the star of, but is terribly nervous for: He yells “Hut!” several times during an interlude by the other ladies, is referred to as “the boy with the ball”, and waits for “the whistle sound” before proceeding to have sex with his wife, which is referred to as “the game”. His football analogy in this moment is representative of Marvin attempting to disassociate from his homosexuality. Sullivan writes, “Many of us [young homosexuals] also embraced those ideologies that seemed most alien to what we feared we might be: of the sports jock, of the altar boy, of the young conservative. They were the ultimate disguises.” In the same vein, the act of marrying his Wife is a refusal by Marvin to acknowledge his homosexuality for the rest of his life in his complete personal fidelity to her; of course, it doesn’t turn out that way once Marvin encounters “dear, delightful Whizzer Brown”, but the attempt is made.
In contrast to his Wife, Whizzer does not represent a threat of castration, however his relationship with Marvin still shows signs of Marvin’s resistance to homosexuality. As the result of a misogynistic and extremely dependent lifestyle, Marvin expects Whizzer to play the feminine role of housewife despite being his secret male lover – in fact, the first thing Marvin says about Whizzer in the lyrical canon is that he hates his food. Literally effeminizing his male lover is Marvin’s withdrawal into the security of heterosexuality, and an attempt to get the best of both worlds in a sense: he can avoid the castration anxiety at the same time as he is being fed and cleaned up after by an effeminate figure. This is a particularly strange dynamic because the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, at least in In Trousers, is only sexual in nature; Marvin praises their various sexual encounters in the song, “Whizzer Going Down”, the only song where Whizzer is mentioned. This is in perfect accordance with Sullivan, who writes that, based simply on the difficulty of finding other homosexuals in intolerant climates, “… male homosexual culture has developed a culture more of anonymous or promiscuous sex than of committed relationships.” Additionally, where Mulvey argues that “… [a woman’s] visual presence tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation,” the homoeroticism of the two male characters, as in the aforementioned complex of the “buddy movie”, propels the plot forward. The power of the character of Whizzer in Marvin’s life is attested to in two distinct ways: first, he has a name that is all his own, which Marvin’s Wife, High School Sweetheart, and Miss Goldberg do not, and second, he does not have to physically be present in order to alter the course of the story. Whizzer never appears on stage, he is only described in length by Marvin during “Whizzer Going Down”. He is thereby never subjected to nor participating in scopophilia, which Marvin can allow, unlike in the case of Miss Goldberg, because Whizzer quells his frustrations with who he is and what he wants. Marvin muses, in song : “Isn’t it delightful, playing easy?”
While forever psychologically puzzling and at times downright strange, the character of Marvin in In Trousers is first and foremost a young man discovering who he is in relation to his world, a subject which is endlessly relatable. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”, alongside Andrew Sullivan’s, “What is a Homosexual?”, in exploration of his journey of discovery, succeed at least in part in explaining the motivations behind what Marvin does and what Marvin wants throughout the story, specifically pertaining to his relationships with Miss Goldberg, his Wife, and Whizzer Brown.