Don’t Hug Me .I’m Scared

DHMIS 3Directed by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, Don’t Hug Me .I’m Scared is a short film series where the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. Making its YouTube debut in 2011, several years elapsed between the release of the first video and its sequels due to lack of funding. Stylized in the vein of contemporary children’s programming, the show employs the mediums of puppetry, animation, costume, and song. There are three primary characters but we never learn their official names: two are puppets – one a green bird and the other a yellow muppet-like fellow – and the third a human-sized individual costumed entirely in red with a mop-like face. For sake of clarity, I will refer to these characters as “Robin”, “Manny”, and “Harry” respectively. (These are the names the YouTube community appears to have agreed upon.)

loveEach show is centered on a particular theme (creativity, time, love, computers, and health, so far) and text magically emerges midair to introduce new concepts. These videos are not your standard educational programming, however. Innocuous at first, things quickly take a turn for the worst as the inanimate objects/animals that began talking to offer seemingly useful advice turn despot, their guidance becoming flawed and insidious.

RedBesides stating that the series aims to “teach the puppets the most important subjects of life” and to “save them from ignorance” in their crowd funding videos, its creators have offered little information in the way of clarification. As such, the YouTube community has taken the matter into its own hands. Broadly speaking, most fans of Don’t Hug Me .I’m Scared appear to be of the mindset that the show is meant to be a commentary on the dangers of children’s television, calling attention to the indoctrinating and proselytizing qualities of those programs. They don’t stop there, however. Determined viewers re-watch the videos over and again, seeking out “Easter eggs” that shed more light on the relationship between these characters and the context in which the events that transpire occur. Serious theorizing takes place in the comment section as viewers attempt to find logic in the chaos.

While I tend to agree with the notion that the series operates as a critique to children’s programming (and have attempted to posit a narrower explanation for the general proceedings), I think much of its value lies in its brazen inexplicability. Queering the normative, it turns everything we take to be true on its head by taking that truth to the absolute extreme. For approximately five minutes, this show barges into your quiet and comfortable life and just a quickly ends, leaving you reeling. Offering no explicit alternatives, its power lies in its ability to disrupt via the irrational. So it is perhaps pointless to even try to impose lucidity on it.

dinnerIt was only after viewing John Water’s Pink Flamingos that I came to think of Don’t Hug Me as relevant to this course. Like Water’s film, the series is rather dark in humor, capitalizing on the crude and warped. One might even say it’s campy, for it regales with its “embrace [of] the low, the bawdy, and the common”. Death and decay feature in some form in each video, fresh organs nonchalantly make appearances and are sometimes just as coolly consumed, and there is always blood. It is evident, as well, that the series appeals to only a certain range of people, for while the first video averaged 302,169 likes, a notable number of people – 20,154 – disliked it just as much. Could it be they were experiencing disgust?

As Berlant and Wportraiterner suggest, kinship and the notion of the couple are sites that queer culture can invert. In this series, there is no indication as to what binds Robin, Manny, and Harry besides perhaps friendship. They appear to live together (this supposition might be thrown into conflict with the emergence of episode five, however, as the kitchen is not the same as episode one) but are by no means a nuclear family as they vary in species and all present as male (this is only presumed on the basis of voice register).

When it comes to relationships episode three is by far the most notable, focusing on the concept of love. Upset by Robin’s killing of a butterfly, Manny takes off into the forest and soon finds himself greeted by yet another butterfly offering to share the gospel of love with him. Flying over a rainbow, Manny comes to the land of love where he learns that “everyone has a special one”. Monogamous and heterosexual, this love is “perfect” and “pure”, “protected with a ring”, and has “always been” this way. It is then revealed, however, that for Manny to experience this love, he has to pledge himself to Malcolm, the king of love, a giant head who must be fed gravel to be kept content. As the fellow love-goers share, it is also requisite that Manny changes his name, permits his brain to be scoured of certain thoughts, and forgets “about anything [he] ever knew”. Indeed, as this video suggests, there is ample evidence that heteronormativity is in fact a cult.malcolm2

Don’t Hug Me .I’m Scared: the surest and shortest path to WTF.

Check out the YouTube channel here

dark play or stories for boys

Written by Carlos Murillo, dark play or stories for boys was conceived at a summer playwriting workshop at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2005. In 2006, it was presented at the Latino Theatre Festival in Chicago and in 2007, it gained national acclaim at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

10631190_10152416392481319_2028894599510406227_oSeveral months of the past relived in the course of a few minutes in the present day, dark play is a mind-fuck-of-world crafted by Nick, the narrator and protagonist. An undergraduate student, Nick finds himself thrown back to his teenage years when the woman he’s sleeping with, Molly, stumbles upon the multitudinous scars that litter his torso. Confronted with the question of how he received them, Nick vacillates throughout the entirety of the show between remembrance and reality, trying to reconcile whether he should tell Molly the truth. The truth, of course, is anything but simple. Originating in a time of virtual chat rooms and seemingly unfounded duplicity, Nick explains how when he was fourteen, he crafted an Internet persona named Rachel and won the heart of a naive sixteen-year-old named Adam. Drawn into the pretense, Nick becomes addicted to the relationship. Crafting numerous other online personas to sustain the world he has created and to permit him to spend what little time in person he can with Adam, he spirals into a pit of lies. Finding it necessary to kill off Rachel, Nick then intricately lays out for Adam a strategic plan that ultimately culminates in Adam stabbing him to death. Nick, however, does not die. The show ends with him sharing this story with Molly, who refuses to believe him, and a nonchalant return to reality.

While Nick never explicitly states it, one can imply that he is gay and devastated by the fact that Adam will never love him because he is not female. Hints are recurrently dropped throughout the show regarding Nick’s sexuality. When slipping back into the memory of the past – specifically what we can infer to be his time with Adam – Nick expresses the sensation as such:

“And that’s when time stops

And I feel the familiar sensation –

Sweat glands juicing up,

A hardening between my legs

That low grade migraine

When I’m like an atom in a particle accelerator

And the world around me slows like it’s moving through peanut butter.”

Each time the audience returns to the present with Nick, he recounts this physiological response. He does this eight times throughout the show.

When offering a hypothetical situation to a teacher, Nick describes the actor in the scenario in a manner that sounds remarkably like himself and adds the clarifier “gay”. A little while later, when delineating the virtues of the Internet, Nick expresses that the worldwide web is the one place “where a kid [his] age and… of [his] demeanor” can escape, emphasis stressed on the word “demeanor” in the script. Indeed, Nick’s activities online seem rather akin to cruising, for not only is he canvassing an extremely public space but also he later appears to be doing so in the interest of sex. For instance, Nick outlines some precursory stunts he pulled online before meeting Adam, one of which included posing as a “pair of nubile, underage, sex-hungry Asian chicks” looking for a “mature American man to show [them] the ‘American way of life’”. This incident is also significant for another reason. Upon opening one of the several hundred email replies he received in response to the ad he posted, Nick finds himself confronted with the photograph of a naked man. While reticent in his reaction, Nick does describe it as “trigger[ing] a feeling in [him]”.

CT  CTH 0127 fringe-ott.jpgThe show is also peppered with the word queer, and interestingly enough, Adam always interjects it when he’s describing his feelings for Rachel. Indeed, it seems like an authorial dig at the homosexual overtones, almost as if Murillo is having Adam subconsciously recognize that his online relationship is actually with a man. What more, there is the fact that Nick engages in oral sex with Adam twice. When reflecting on it after the first time, he admits that he “wanted it to happen” but found himself simultaneously unsatisfied because Adam cried out Rachel’s name, not his. Adam’s participation in sex, once while inebriated and the second time while completely sober does suggest a trade-like-quality to him. While he does present himself as heterosexual and primarily interested in falling “in love” with women, he does not appear to rebuff Nick’s advances.

When it finally comes to the point where Adam is to kill Nick, Nick employs the online persona of Olivia, an ostensible homicide detective, to communicate strict instructions on how to go about the matter. Olivia (really Nick) stresses to Adam that when he stabs Nick, he is to tell him that he loves him. She makes him promise that he’ll do so, in fact. Olivia appears seven times through the show before making the purpose of her character known and recites those very words each time, foreshadowing what is to come.

When one reads the show from front to back, Nick’s resolution to die seems so rational that it feels like an appropriate solution to a horrendous situation. Because of this impression, though, I don’t think we interrogate what is really being implied by not just the act of murder but also Nick’s entreaty of it. Not unlike Paul in Willa Cather’s short story, Nick seeks out particular corners of the Internet because he feels a certain listless emptiness in everyday life. And like Paul, once it registers with him what he is, Nick seeks out a means of self-destruction. He describes it as a “darkness and danger lurking in [his] soul” and when embodying Olivia he communicates to Adam that

“Nick is beyond depraved.

He’s become an inhuman monster.

He must be put down.

We need you to eliminate him”.

It is clear that Nick comprehends himself as abnormal and perhaps within the context of psychosocial development, Freud would point to him losing his father at the age of eleven as the precipitator. Without a father figure to complete the cycle of male-identification with and the added caveat that the man he knew as father lied to him about their lineage for more than a decade, perhaps this is why Nick “became” queer.10383846_10152416404981319_4841902767104532302_o

In any case, while on the verge of death, Nick experiences a resurrection and white light moment, an upwelling of love pervading his body. He lives and when we meet him again some time later, he has only just finished in engaging in heterosexual sex. This leaves us to wonder the implications of his heavily machinated murder. If intended to “kill the gay” within, was he reborn straight? Is he bisexual? Or, does the possibility exist that his feelings for men have simply reposed as dormant for so long? He notes his physiological response to the past to us, but does he really permit himself to realize what those feelings insinuate?

Cool and collected at the end the show, there is a slightly flippant and ascendant color to his tone. And, as he states in the beginning of the play, he has a chronic proclivity to “make shit up”. So, where does that leave us?

Does anybody really know?

Fried Green Tomatoes

DVD Cover of Fried Green TomatoesOn January 24th, 1992, Universal Movie’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” opened in 673 movie theatres across the nation. Directed by Jon Avnet, the movie was a silver screen adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. While Flagg was (and still is) generally credited with writing the screenplay for the film, the director, Jon Avnet, actually composed the majority of the script.

To follow the narrative of “Fried Green Tomatoes”, one needs to understand that the movie is really the composite of two stories. Set in southern Alabama, the film vacillates between the present day (or, what was the present day in the early 90s) and the early 20th century. While visiting a member of the family at a nursing name, Evelyn Couch meets 82-year-old Ninny Threadgoode. Rather open with strangers, Ninny begins sharing with Evelyn the life of Idgie Threadgoode, a woman who grew up in Whistle Stop, a neighboring town, nearly sixty years ago. From there, the past begins to chronologically weave itself into the present, and Idgie’s world becomes just as real as Evelyn’s. From the death of her brother to train side cafes to cancer, the audience follows the cultivation of a relationship between Idgie and Ruth Jamison. As Evelyn learns more about these women’s lives, she is inspired to take charge of her own and concurrently develops a profound friendship with Ninny, the present-day Idgie.

Marketed as a tale of friendship and how it can transcend across time to unite mere strangers, the film (to this day) seems to be largely written off by the public as innocuous in content and significance. Anyone with a keen eye, however, can immediately recognize that Ruth and Idgie’s relationship can’t fully be conceptualized by heteronormative standards of female interaction.

Sprinkled throughout the film, there are subtle interactions between Ruth and Idgie that lend themselves to suggest something more between them. These range from word choices, to tonality, to facial expression, etc. In an earlier scene where honey is retrieved and shared, Idgie’s imploration for Ruth to taste the honey and the looks they exchange almost bespeak of allegorical sexual exchange. Later, when Ruth announces she’s getting married and then pecks Idgie on the cheek, Idgie looks off in what can only be described as wounded and confused.

After she is married, Ruth quickly becomes the victim of domestic violence and the first person she turns to is Idgie. She then moves in with Idgie and the two open a café together. It is also during this time that Ruth has a child and Idgie along with another female character, Sipsey, help her raise the boy. When Frank, Ruth’s husband, shows up vowing to bring his wife and child home, he also intimidates the household with his ties to the Klan. Subsequently following these threats, Ruth asks Idgie whether she should “move on” to let Idgie settle down. Without a beat, Idgie replies that she’s “as settled as [she’d] ever hope to be”.

After Frank is killed and Idgie is on trial for his murder, Ruth is called to testify. Upon being asked why she moved in with Idgie, she replies, “Because she’s my best friend and I love her”.

From my perspective, the Ruth-Idgie dyad is best understood in Rich’s terms “lesbian continuum” and “lesbian existence”. Ruth and Idgie do many things together without or with minimal assistance from men, particularly jointly living and working together (lesbian continuum). While evidence of sexual desire between the two women might be disputable in the eyes to some, we can say with certainty that they do lead a voluntarily chosen life together where men do not dictate their movements and where they are economically independent (lesbian existence).

Drawing on the erotic, I think one could argue that Ruth and Idgie derive a sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction from each other. Before they began spending time with each other, each woman was constricted to some degree by a sense of powerlessness; Idgie perpetually grieving for her brother and Ruth checked by scripture and the expectations of her gender role. Once they truly embraced each other, however, those personal limitations melted away and they became unwilling to allow themselves to concede to that position of vacuous living ever again. And, while Ruth did suffer at the hands of her husband for three years, I’m not sure she would have ever left if it hadn’t been for the personal agency she cultivated in her relationship with Idgie. Indeed, Ruth and Idgie are truly women-identified women.