Wailing Against the Pansies: Homophobia in Whiplash

No sissies here. 

Photo courtesy Daniel McFadden/Sony Pictures Classics

From time to time, a movie comes along that everyone feels is about something.

Such is the case with Whiplash, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s panic-attack-provoking new film that follows the sadomasochistic relationship between a conservatory teacher, Fletcher (J.K Simmons), and his driven, jazz drumming pupil, Andrew (Miles Teller). Most reviews of the film, which is currently rolling out in theaters across the country, pick up on one “about” or another. Slate alone has already offered two compelling readings—the latent twistedness of pedagogical relationships and the nature of creative genius. But another of Whiplash’s preoccupations remains underexplored (if consistently mentioned in passing) in the critical conversation: its aggressive inclusion of homophobia.

To be clear, this is not to say that the film or Chazelle are themselves homophobic; rather, I’m interested in the way the film relies on homophobia—as rendered in speech and gender ideology—for so much of its dramatic intensity. And, more important, I’m curious about how that dependency might complicate the film’s widespread adoration.

Examples of vile verbal gay bashing abound: “Listen up, cocksuckers!” is a standard Fletcher greeting to his studio jazz band, and the insults only get more elaborate from there. (“That’s not your boyfriend’s dick; don’t come too early,” Fletcher snaps at a sax player during one of the calmer rehearsals.) While the teacher’s slurs modulate into anti-Semitism and other offensive realms here and there, homophobia remains his home key—which is fitting, since he feels modern culture to be irredeemably “pansy-assed.” According to Fletcher, our moment’s emblem—“Good job”—is an invitation to mediocrity fashioned for fags.   

Many critics, including my colleague Forrest Wickman, have articulated Whiplash’s central concern as something like: Does great art or creative genius require brutal discipline? But that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Fletcher’s remarkable tendency toward homophobia suggests a different question: Is great art or creative genius still possible in a culture that’s gone sissy?

The short answer to that query should be obvious, but Whiplash succeeds in setting up and exploring a stronghold of dissent. Fletcher and Andrew are both obsessed with Greatness, but the specific sort they’re after is important: It’s a wholly masculine definition of the term, one tied to notions of jackhammer precision, overwhelming prowess, physical dominance, and solo victory. (That these are all possessing of clear erotic resonances—matching tempos with sticks and all that—must already have inspired a swath of queer theory papers on Fletcher and Andrew’s “fraught” relationship, but I digress.) Alternative values like sensitivity, idiosyncrasy, gracefulness, and collaboration, despite being deeply compatible with jazz, are not admitted to their rehearsal room.

The trouble is, this masculinist vision of greatness is increasingly sepia-toned, off-key in a world in which traditionally butch institutions as hardheaded as professional football and the military are being challenged to “soften” their approach. A great social sissification does indeed seem to be underway—so how better to rail against it than by rhetorically assaulting the real-life “sissies” who so easily serve as a symbol of that trend?

But even if this framing explains why Fletcher might reach for homophobic invective with such ease, it does not account for why those words are so particularly effective in a jazz setting. Or indeed, why audiences—myself included—seem to be finding them somehow realistic or natural enough to pass without really offending. What is it about jazz, as a specific social context, that encourages us to accept homophobia within its confines so readily?

D.H. Lawrence once wrote, not entirely approvingly, that he “should like to know why nearly every man that approaches [artistic] greatness tends toward homosexuality, whether he admits it or not.” The presumed affiliation between male artists and queerness is one of the more wizened specters of our cultural haunted house. Notions of male-appropriate activities have certainly shifted over time, but by the turn of the 20th century, a sense that art-making was somehow effeminate—and hence, the makers likely “funny”—seems to have solidified.

Historian George Chauncey conveys how this association caused a great deal of worry in 1920s Greenwich Village, where actual queers were living alongside many artists and intellectuals who were actually straight. Malcolm Cowley’s memoir of the period is emblematic of that anxiety:  

I came to believe that a general offensive was about to be made against modern art, an offensive based on the theory that all modern writers, painters, and musicians were homosexual … I began to feel harried and combative.

“Harried” and “combative” are pretty apt descriptors for how jazz has historically engaged with the pansy-artist trope. While there have of course always been queer people (notably women) working as jazz musicians, acknowledgement of their presence is a recent phenomenon, and it remains uneasy. A 2002 New York Times article by Francis Davis outlines the situation:

In jazz the rule remains ”Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This attitude is ironic because the jazz subculture has been notoriously free and easy, ahead of the beat on most social issues. Safety in numbers may have as much to do as sensibility with drawing gay men to certain professions, like hairdressing and floristry. In general, the performing arts are another area in which the news that someone is gay hardly comes as a shock. But there are ways in which jazz and all of popular music have more in common with baseball than with theater or dance. (Jazz even has its own body of statistics, in the form of discographies, recording dates and musical lineups.) Despite a growing number of female instrumentalists, the audience for jazz remains overwhelmingly male, which perhaps explains why jazz itself remains an enclave of machismo.

Davis’ article came on the heels of a controversial investigation of homophobia in JazzTimes, in which the writer bluntly observes, “I’ve met a multitude of jazz figures who pride themselves on soulfulness and sensitivity, yet are as sensitive as rednecks on the subject of homosexuality.” Of course, gay rights and wider cultural acceptance have progressed rapidly since the early aughts, and more gay jazz musicians have come out in the intervening years—so naturally, jazz culture has become somewhat more open along the way. But the sense of jazz as “an enclave of machismo” remains largely in force: Whiplash’s penchant for homophobia—and, more important, our smooth acceptance of it—are clear evidence of that.

Why such persistence? As Davis points out, jazz performance and fan culture can sometimes feel more like a sporting event than a symphony concert. Chazelle picks up on this athletic aspect of the genre and amplifies it to an absurd, drum-skins-spattered-with-blood degree in Whiplash. His hyperbolic rendering of jazz musicianship as a kind of dick-measuring contest is so extreme (and, in a dinner party scene where Andrew almost comes to blows over the importance of his talents versus a family friend’s football skills, so on-the-nose), in fact, that the film practically demands to be read more as a portrait of the gender anxiety writhing beneath the surface of an artform than as a realistic portrayal of artistry.  

It’s an anxiety that’s easy enough to unpack. In How To Be Gay, David Halperin observes how certain kinds of performances always come with gendered expectations. Men are meant to “perform” on the baseball field or on the comedy stage; women, meanwhile, are more suited to the theater, ballet, or recital hall. This schema is simplistic, obviously, but Halperin’s invocation of John Berger’s famous formulation remains powerful: “Men act and women appear.” Sporting contests are called “events” and not “performances” precisely because we expect men to be “doing something, not merely appearing.” Halperin continues: 

Sports are understood to constitute action. That is what makes them socially appropriate for men, as well as affirmative and consolidating of masculine gender identity. … By contrast with sports stars, those entertainers whose job it is not to win a contest but to perform a scenario on a stage—whether in serious theater, the Broadway musical, the opera, or the ballet—are feminized as a consequence. Even though such performers often do exceptionally strenuous things on stage, they are considered not to do but to appear. And for a simple reason: Their action is predetermined and dictated by the stipulations of a preexisting script.

“Feminine” performers—women, gay men, or sexually suspicious straight men—are meant to subordinate themselves in the service of someone else’s vision. Call it playing a role or fulfilling a function; either way, they are not seen as the authors of their own creativity, and are therefore not “masculine.” If this seems like a stretch, try calling, as I sometimes like to do, a friend’s athletic practice a “sports rehearsal”—you will very quickly hear this implicit orthodoxy zealously enforced.

I mention all of this only to point out what a tricky position the men of Whiplash (and really all jazz musicians) find themselves in with regard to gender expectations. They are meant to be utterly macho in their virtuosity and physical stamina; and yet, they can’t help but find themselves on the wrong sort of stage. Their (straight) masculinity is always being undermined by the feminine boards beneath their feet, and no amount of fancy finger work can entirely make up for that fundamental lack of support. Even improvisation, which strives for the kind of self-authored prowess Halperin describes, must (in most jazz genres) ultimately submit to the structure and needs of the tune. If there is masculine cred to be found in the improvised solo (of which, save for Andrew’s final, wildly implausible “triumph,” there are strikingly few in Whiplash), it is always already diluted by a context of subordination, at root, merely serving to get us from bar 1 to 16.

Add all this to the fact that Fletcher and Andrew also suffer from the artistic castration complex that the academy brings down especially harshly on jazz music—real musicians don’t teach, they play; real prodigies don’t need school, they just practice—and it’s no wonder Whiplash’s world is so tightly wound, its stakes so exaggerated, and yes, its vernacular so deeply homophobic. When you think about it, the phenomenon is incredibly familiar: Your gender performance or sexual orientation is in question? Deflect attention as quickly as possible onto the real pariahs, the pansy-assed cocksuckers over there who, in their outness, are responsible for bringing so much of this suspicion into play in the first place.

Fletcher’s behavior, then, is understandable, if certainly not laudable. But what about ours? Regardless of one’s personal exposure to jazz music, we’ve all absorbed the idea that jazz is a boys’ club, and we all know that boys’ clubs are usually bastions of homophobia. But does that fact excuse us for brushing off (however nervously) homophobic behavior in spaces, fictional or not, where it is, in Chazelle’s words, “what the world is like”? That’s a hard question, and I’m as implicated by it as anyone—disturbed as I was by Fletcher’s homophobic tirades, I did not walk out of my screening.

Of course, for a movie as well-made and compelling as Whiplash, walking out is probably overkill. But I am beginning to think that the critical love it’s enjoying should be a bit more measured. As I said, I do not think that Chazelle or this movie are inherently homophobic; and yet I wonder if our reception of it might be, at least a little. Whiplash is “thrilling,” and “bracing” and all the other shock-based, Oscar-baiting adjectives that critics have applied to it—and especially to Simmons’ performance—as much for its inclusion of virulent homophobia as for its gore or violence or musical veracity.

Should we countenance that sort of thing just because it feels (or has historically been) “a part of the world” being depicted, especially when that depiction is not a period piece, but is set in the present moment? Should we be “thrilled” by it? (What does being “thrilled” suggest about our relationship to forms of prejudice that have only just begun to become uncouth?) Should we praise it? Wholeheartedly reward it?

I’m not sure I like the sound of that.