The Appropriation Game

(Seasons greetings. Just hitting up my mostly dormant blog, prompted by my pal @iycrtyl on Twitter, to just mark down something about the spectacle of Benedict Cumberbatch incarnating Alan Turing for the world.)

You may remember that Alan Turing was queer. As the final info-slides in what I’m going to call the Heteronormative Establishment’s Appropriation Game (IMDB) note, he was given a “choice” around the age of forty between cure and carceral penance — hormonal injections and prison — for the crime of his homosexuality, which, unsurprisingly, resulted swiftly in his suicide. The Queen apparently pardoned him posthumously last year, although not the many thousands of others who remain in his position and are still alive. Anyhow, now we can all gloss over the fact that he was destroyed by the state and a homophobic culture by celebrating a blockbuster that’s essentially yet another Keira Knightley heteromance. I got nothing against Knightley really; it’s ace that she’s got blue stockings on, and wildly out-acts Cumberbatch, and whacks him in the face for breaking off their engagement. I can’t debate the verisimilitude of the Alan-and-Joan relationship or indeed any of the lurid spy matters I gather might have been straightforwardly made up. All I know is that the movie is not a good tribute to Alan Turing in the sense that is a structurally anti-queer movie. My evidence for this is simple and unoriginal. Lots of people have been saying it. It’s that no embodied queerness confronts the viewer. It’s not just Cumberbatch’s straightness that hurts one’s eyes, it’s the whole screenplay’s. Excepting (genuinely heartrending) glances between the child-actor and his schoolmate in the flashback sequences, all references to queer desire in this Turing biopic are discursive. Visually, there is literally nothing in-your-face in it. Nothing remotely Brokeback Mountain. Turing’s confessor is the state. The words “touch my penis” (which, Cumberbatch protests, is evidence that the film is “pretty explicit”) are spoken in front of a cop. Structurally, we sit in the cop chair to interrogate the relevance of Turing’s queerness to history in order to discover and judge ourselves to be tolerant. Then, as cop, we have our minds blown by an expert explanation of Possible Knowledge and Science. We can all emerge more enlightened from our session in the police station. Woahhh. This queer here does a great imitation of a valuable human, you gotta see it. Let’s give him a royal pardon. What a guy.

By all means, download the movie if, like me, you take pleasure in lush wallpaper and a bit of 1930s/’40s steampunk. But the ideological struggles determining the meaning of the Turing centenary surely revolve around the past and present policing of deviant and un(re)productive bodies.Britain has lately made a concession around gay marriage, but in doing so it has also engineered a deal around it. Nice productive integrated bourgeois gays might have become officially establishment-adaptable, fine; but this also works to turn desiring mobs into an aseptic miasma of pink pounds. A consensus now emerges that they should put away their visible queer physicality, please, along with their rage against the state (so unnecessary now). Meanwhile, last year the same state demanded, on threat of arrest, DNA samples from men who were convicted decades ago, like Turing, of consensual ‘gross indecency’. British buggery may only have been decriminalised eleven years ago, but we’d all “defend gay rights to the death” these days – as long as we don’t have to watch gay sex. A very tame institutional concession (by the way, more accurately, it’s still ‘separate’, not ‘equal’ marriage – and anyway, who cares) now functions perfectly together with UKIP and Tory bluster about excessive visibility and publicity: overdemanding B&B patrons in court, unreasonable classroom agenda-pushers and Church of England spoilsports. This is the same racialized and classed hierarchy of phobic tolerance that enables society to turn a blind eye as the British border agency detains asylum-seeking queers for years at a time, and then frequently deports them to their deaths. It’s the same hierarchy of phobic tolerance that enables a new anti-obscenity law to be passed (who could it possibly affect? not our new friends, the good gays). So, this is the context in which to hear Cumberbatch et al assessing as unnecessary and unsubtle any actual visual representation of the erotic acts that brought Turing to his unjust and premature end. Mainstream movies can’t just arbitrarily sex up ostensibly historical plots, you know! His sexuality was only “one part of his character”, we are told. The Imitation Game, they say, is “subtle storytelling”.

On subtlety, then. Three times in The Imitation Game, we have to hear the mawkish ideological dictum in full (I may not have got it quite right, but this is basically it): “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” Three times, I tell you. “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”; in full. Like most people (I imagine) I cringed the first time, guffawed in disbelief the second time, and heaved in the face of the third. Quite apart from the content of the refrain, paying £6 to have my intellect treated this way really is a form of self-degradation perfected. Well, so, OK, Hollywood is a synonym for hebetudinous. But maybe it’s worth noticing what it’s doing here. Hooray for us for going hip-hip-hooray for a gay man who beat the Nazis! Too bad he apparently died at the hands of the good old Allies in a bit of text on a slide you might miss right before the end-credits. This is a particularly virulent example of born-this-way-ism being deployed to jingoistic ends.

The reason it’s okay to be a homosexual and a jerk is, pace the Imitation Game, the fact that you successfully and ingeniously served king and country, plus science and humanity. Whether or not king and country thought you were a spy or a fraud along the way. And, it’s okay that you’re gay despite (or maybe because of) the fact that you don’t have “that sort of” relationship with Keira Knightley, to whom a vast proportion of the film, like all films with Keira Knighley in them, is dedicated.

benedict-cumberbatch-keira-knighley-dance-in-imitation-game-trailer

Except …. remember? It was not okay that Turing was gay. Not according to the society he lived in, the society the Queen only exited a few months ago.

“Chemical castration” and off-stage suicide take up about one and a half minutes at the end of the movie. The suicide happens narratively right after Keira, married to someone else, walks into his disorderly and lonely post-war flat, witnesses his physical and mental suffering, and vindicates him with the words (you guessed it) “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Sometimes weird gay boys, working hard to imitate normality, surprise us all.

Queer suicide shouldn’t strictly speaking come as such a big surprise, given that in our society, half of queers consider it. Pardon my gallows humour. But actually, if what’s meant by “the things no one can imagine” is the feat of cracking the Nazi Enigma and inventing the ‘Turing machine’, thereby saving millions of lives at the time and giving us all the computers we cherish today? Unfortunately, no, the state destroyed all that knowledge so that it wouldn’t help the Russians. Yay, the state!

It’s literally an obscene travesty. So, I say, fuck using Alan Turing for nationalism. Fuck that a thousand times. And to all the self-styled Cumberbitches, incidentally, I also say fuck you.

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