Dumbledore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell


I was all set to write about J. K. Rowling’s announcement that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay, but Jason Mittell over at JustTV beat me to it. Rather than reiterating his excellent post, I’ll just point you to it with this link.

Here’s a segment of the comment I left on Jason’s blog, highlighting what I see as a particularly odd aspect of the whole event:

On a structural level, it’s interesting to note that Rowling is commenting on and characterizing an absence in her text, a profound lacuna. It’s not just that Dumbledore’s queerness is there between the lines if you know to read for it (though with one stroke, JKR has assured that future readers will do so, and probably quite convincingly!). No, his being gay is so completely offstage that it’s tantamount to not existing at all, and hence, within the terms of the text, is completely irrelevant. It’s as though she said, “By the way, during the final battle with Voldemort, Harry was wearing socks that didn’t match” or “I didn’t mention it at the time, but one of the Hogwarts restrooms has a faucet that leaked continuously throughout the events of the seven books.” Of course, the omission is far more troubling than that, because it involves the (in)visibility of a marginalized identity: it’s more as though she chose to reveal that a certain character had black skin, though she never thought to mention it before. While the move seems on the surface to validate color-blindness, or queer-blindness, with its blithe carelessness, the ultimate message is a form of “stay hidden”; “sweep it under the rug”; and of course, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

We’ve got two more movies coming out, so of course it will be interesting to see how the screenwriters, directors, production designers, etc. — not to mention Michael Gambon — choose to incorporate the news about Dumbledore into the ongoing mega-experiment in cinematic visualization. My strong sense is that it will change things not at all: the filmmakers will become, if anything, scrupulously, rabidly conscientious about adapting the written material “as is.”

But I disagree, Jason, with your contention that Rowling’s statement is not canonical. Come on, she’s the only voice on earth with the power to make and unmake the Potter reality! She could tell us that the whole story happened in the head of an autistic child, a la St. Elsewhere, and we’d have to believe it, whether we liked it or not — unless of course it could be demonstrated that JKR was herself suffering from some mental impairment, a case of one law (medical) canceling out another (literary).

For better or worse, she’s the Author — and if that concept might be unraveling in the current mediascape, all the more reason that people will cling to it, a lifejacket keeping us afloat amid a stormy sea of intepretation.

One Nation Under Stephen


I felt a delicious chill as I read the news that Stephen Colbert is running for President. (He made his announcement on Tuesday’s edition of The Colbert Report, the half-hour news and interview program he hosts on Comedy Central.) Why a chill? For all that I enjoy and respect Colbert, he has always prompted in me a faint feeling of vertigo. Watching his comedy is like staring into a deep well or over the side of a tall building: you get the itchy feeling in your legs of wanting to jump, to give yourself up to gravity and the abyss, obliterating yourself and all that you hold dear. Colbert’s impersonation of a rabidly right-wing, plummily egotistical media pundit is so polished and impenetrable that it stops being a joke and moves into more uncannily undecidable territory: simulation, automaton, a doll that has come to life. Unlike Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Colbert’s satire doesn’t have a target, but becomes the target, triggering a collapse of categories, an implosion, a joke that eats itself and leaves its audience less thrilled than simply unsure (cf. Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, at which he mapped uneasy smiles and half-frowns across a roomful of Republican faces).

Judging from Colbert’s offstage discussion of his work, like his recent interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, he’s a modest, sensible, reflective guy, able to view his Report persona with wit and detachment even as he delights in using it to generate ever more extreme, Dada-like interventions in popular and political culture — his Wikipedia mischief being only one instance. My half-serious worry is that with his latest move, he’s unleashed something far bigger than he knows or can control. The decision to place himself on the 2008 Presidential ballot, even if only in South Carolina, has been received by the mainstream media primarily as another ironic turn of the comedy-imitates-reality-imitates-art cycle, noting the echo of Robin Williams’s Man of the Year (2006) and comedian Pat Paulsen’s bid for the White House in 1968. But I think the more accurate and alarming comparison might be Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the character played by Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In that film, Rhodes goes from being a bumpkinish caricature on a television variety show to a populist demagogue, drunk on his own power and finally revealed as a hollow shell, a moral vacuum. The unsubtle message of Kazan’s film is that TV’s pervasive influence makes it a tool for our most destructive collective tendencies — a nation of viewers whose appetite for entertainment leads them to eagerly embrace fascism.


I’d be lying — or at least being flippant — if I claimed to believe that Colbert could be another “Lonesome” Rhodes. I’m neither that cynical about our culture nor that paranoid about the power of media. But given that we live in an era when the opportunities for self-organizing social movements have multiplied profoundly through the agency of the internet, who is to say where Colbert’s campaign comedy will mutate smoothly into something more genuine? Maybe he is, at this moment in history, the perfect protest candidate, smoother and more telegenic than Nader and Perot by orders of magnitude. He just might win South Carolina. And if that happens … what next?

Britney and Bush: The Comeback Kids




Last week saw an astonishing play of parallels across our media screens – a twinned spectacle of attempted resurrection which, while occupying two very different sets of cultural coordinates, were perhaps not so distinct when examined closely. If it’s true that the personal is the political, then the popular must be political too; and it’s no great stretch to say that, in contemporary media culture as well as contemporary politics, the rituals of rejuvenation are more alike than dissimilar.

Britney Spears’s opening number at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 9 has by now been thoroughly masticated and absorbed by the fast-moving digestive system of blogosphere critics, with TMZ and Perez Hilton leading the way. I won’t belabor Britney’s performance here, except to note that when I, like much of the nation, succeeded in finding online video documentation the next day despite the best efforts of MTV and Viacom, it was just as fascinatingly surreal (or surreally fascinating) to watch as promised: a case where the hype, insofar as it was a product of derision rather than promotion, accurately described the event.

The other performance last week was, of course, George W. Bush’s September 13 address to the nation discussing the testimony of General David Petraeus before Congress. Again, there is little point in rehearsing here what Petraeus had to say about Iraq, or what Bush took away from it. For weeks, the mainstream media had been cynically predicting that nothing in the President’s position would change, and when nothing did, the outraged responses were as strangely, soporifically comforting as anything on A Prairie Home Companion. The jagged edges of our disillusion have long since been worn to the gentle contour of rosary beads, the dissonance of our angry voices merged into the sweet anonymous harmony of a mass chorus (or requiem).

What stands out to me is the perfect structural symmetry between Britney and Bush’s public offering, not of themselves – I’m too much a fan of Jean Baudrillard to suppose there is any longer a “there” there, that the individual corporeal truths of Britney and Bush did not long ago transubstantiate into the empty cartoon of the hyperreal – but of their acts. Both were lip-synching (one literally, one figuratively), and if Bush’s mouth matched the prerecorded lyrics more closely than did Britney’s, I can only ascribe it to his many more years of practice. I’ve always considered him not so much a man as a mechanism, a vibrating baffle like you’d find in a stereo speaker, emitting whatever modulated frequencies of conservative power and petroleum capital he was wired to. Unlike his father or the avatars of evil (Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld) that surround him, Bush has never struck me as sentient or even, really, alive – he gives off the eerie sense of a ventriloquist’s dummy or a chess-playing robot. (Admittedly, he did at the height of his post-9/11 potency manifest another mode, the petulant child with unlimited power, like Billy Mumy’s creepy kid in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.”)

Britney, by contrast, seems much less in synch with the soundtrack of her life, which is what makes her so hypnotically sad and wonderfully watchable. I flinch away when words emanate from Bush the way I flinch when the storm of bats flies out of the cave early in Raiders of the Lost Ark; Britney’s clumsy clomping and uncertain smile at the VMAs is more like a series of crime-scene photos, slow-motion film of car wrecks, or the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center. Like any genuine trauma footage, you can’t take your eyes off it.

Where Britney and Bush came together last week was in their touching allegiance to strategies that worked for them in the past: hitting their marks before the cameras and microphones, they struck the poses and mouthed the words that once charmed and convinced, terrified and titillated. The magic has long since fled – you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice, whether in the form of a terrorist attack or a python around the shoulders – but you can give it the old college try, and even if we’re repulsed, we’re impressed. But is it stamina or something more coldly automatic? Do we praise the gear for turning, the guillotine blade for dropping, the car bomb for exploding?