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Worshipping Convention: The Trouble With A Star Is Born
Emma Christie , December 16th, 2018 10:59

Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born has been a huge commercial and critical success this year. But has its seductiveness blinded audiences to some troubling politics?

“Why’d you come around here with an ass like that?” Bradley Cooper, or rather country-rock star Jackson Maine, stares with supreme derision and hollow disappointment at his wife, Ally (Lady Gaga). The question is a jab at one of her lyrics. Just prior to all this, Ally has been sobbing in the bathtub, for no reason, and for every reason: her husband is an alcoholic, her career is rocketing to terrifying heights, her husband can’t handle it. Jack is drunk, because Ally’s new musical persona disgusts him.

The bathtub encounter is significant because, for most viewers, it seems to have escaped significance entirely. Drunk Jack is cruel in a way that is destructive beyond the apology he offers a few days later (her: “You really hurt me.” Him: “I’m sorry.” They embrace). He regurgitates her own lyrics, which he sees as somehow unforgivably tacky, back at her; he tears her to pieces for alluding to his father (a cruel flourish too on her part, but an isolated one), calls her embarrassing, calls her ugly. He sounds like a furious, hurt toddler. Somehow, though, when I’ve asked people about the movie, they flap their hands and say it was so sad, so heart-warming, so lovely.

To be fair, this was also my immediate response when leaving the cinema, because Cooper’s screenplay and the stars’ acting are full of tricks, and are often clever and funny. Still, I walked out of the movie feeling strange, knowing that I’d been asked to suspend my disbelief at numerous corners of the plot, to form a rickety tent of emotional investment.

Here are a few instances. Firstly, country rock only produces mega-stars on the scale of Jackson Maine in Cooper’s ahistorical, male-oriented, American-dream imagination. Secondly, repeatedly indulging the behaviours of an alcoholic within the context of a codependent relationship, no matter how sweet and devoted this relationship is, is not a path to recovery. Thirdly, repeatedly forgiving your partner’s maliciousness, drunk or sober, is not a behaviour that should be enshrined on screen between two halves of a glamorous, supposedly relatable couple. Fourthly, as convincing and as real as Ally is as a character, the relentless re-inscription of her insecurity as a person and as a performer is such a tired, unhealthy attribute of the on-screen ingénue.

I suspect it’s taken me a few weeks to come to these conclusions because the film is beautiful, and the actors are beautiful, and we want to root for them and their success. As an audience, we are buttered up by sweet, genuinely moving moments that are nevertheless strategically placed: Ally applies fake eyebrows and mascara to Jack in the tub as they giggle; Jack helps Ally through a tough recording session; he proposes to her with a ring made of a guitar string; they throw pies at each other and flounder around in whipped cream; they rescue a dog.

So the movie, as whole-hearted and seductive as it is, is structured by a constellation of uneasy prejudices and assumptions. All of them, to me, seem to lead back to that moment in the bathtub when Jack takes brutal aim at that line: “Why’d you come around here with an ass like that?”.

What’s the issue with this line? There are a number of answers to this. Firstly, as Jack makes clear, he feels cuckolded by the prospect of Ally admiring an ass, which, to him, clearly isn’t his. Having a juicy, appreciable ass does not fit with Jack’s sense of his own masculinity, so the ass must belong to someone else. To Ally, he fires back: “Oh, you have a boyfriend? That hurts.” The prospect of Ally’s theoretical infidelity is enough for him to cuss her out, viciously: “He [my father] had more talent in his little finger than you have in your whole fuckin’ body… you’re just fuckin’ ugly.”

The second level on which Jack objects to the line is presumably in the way it fits in with Ally’s newly stylised and streamlined ‘feminine’ image. When she first performs, she looks like a camping-themed centrefold, or Christina Ricci’s country siren in Black Snake Moan, wearing (my very own favourite summer outfit of) tiny denim cut-offs and a white tank top. She’s incredible, she looks hot, Jack falls in love with her. By the time she is nominated for three Grammys, though, her hair is a vivid jewel-like orange, she wears iridescent corsetry and bedazzled bombers, she has a crew of backup dancers (“Dancers?” asks Jack, incredulously), a team of stylists and makeup artists, an enormous billboard with her face on it.

It’s at this point in the film that every single one of Jack’s encouragements comes to sound like a veiled threat. Before a signing, the couple stand in a tight embrace on a rooftop, gazing out at the billboard. Jack says: “If you don’t dig deep in your fuckin’ soul, you won’t have legs.” In other words, “if you don’t tell the truth out there”, you’re fucked. It sounds like a threat, for me made doubly unsettling by his tight grip on her torso, his low growl, and the fact that they’re standing hundreds of feet above the ground.

This threat is made only moments after he has remarked that the billboard doesn’t do her nose justice, how much he loves her nose, that the whole billboard should just be of her nose. The nose has by now in the film become an iconographic stand-in for all of Ally’s insecurities: it’s the thing potential producers have always said she would have to change, and he loves her in spite of it, or because of it. Jack seems curiously invested in continuing, at every juncture, to foreground Ally’s nose and her insecurities, making it a weird crucible of all their romantic interactions (“I just want to take another look at you”, he says, staring at her nose-heavy profile), just as he is invested in retaining her absolute allegiance to what ‘real’ music should be. Bluntly put, real music is his music. Jack enforces her ‘soulfulness’, her ‘genuineness’, the “truth”, her pre-commercial talent, her nose, with a violent tenacity that reads in the grip of his arms across her chest and his rumbling growl. It does not seem like an act of love, but rather one of self-perpetuation.

Now we come to the third and maybe the most interesting way of reading the line about asses. Its most obvious meaning is this: Ally likes a guy’s ass, and it’s tempting her into all kinds of “obscene” thoughts. She delivers the line, for the first time, while mounting one of her spry young male backup dancers. This blows Jack’s mind. Unsurprisingly, perhaps: anal sexuality, outside of very specific parameters, comes with truckloads of discursive baggage. All of this baggage swirls mercilessly and bleakly within Jack’s mind, inescapable.

The idea of a woman liking a man’s ass traces a bright red disruptive thread through years of psychology (and, before that, sexology). To start somewhere deeply obvious, Sigmund Freud famously associated anal retention and erotic fixation on the anus with a desire for control, and, in later life, with miserliness. Infants might refrain to an unhealthy extent from emptying their bowels, until what built up inside them would inevitably exit, causing pleasure and pain, reinscribing a perversion or “hysteria” in which “these parts of the body, as well as the tracts of mucous membrane protruding from them, become the seat of new sensations and innervating changes”. The pleasure of engaging the anus as an erogenous zone through “the loathsome excrement” resulted, for the child, in a double-bind of enjoyment but also a deep shame or “sensation of loathing”.

Freud can be tiresome, but the extent to which we have given his theories of anality and polymorphous perversity credence means that this ‘loathsomeness’ endures. What’s also interesting is that the pain-pleasure quasi-penetrative erotic engagement of the ass is accompanied by a kind of de- or re-gendering. The use of the word “hysteria” (from the Greek ‘hystera’ or uterus, used hisorically – and indeed to this day – to describe ‘women’s ailments’ or enervation), even at this early juncture of psychology, shows how anal sexuality is shameful once for its association with excrement, and shameful twice for its association with penetrability and therefore, assumedly, femininity.

And yet, in this lyric – “Yes,” Ally says, “that’s my song” – she exhibits decidedly dominant behaviour. The implication behind liking an ass is wanting to grab it, to play with it, maybe even to penetrate it. We run into a wall here. As feminist sociologists Breanne Fahs and Jax Gonzalez make clear in a 2014 study, women’s enjoyment of anal sexuality is (forgive the expression) a black hole of clinical and sociological research. There is some research, notably theirs, on women’s experience of anal penetration. Most women in their study, among whom the mean age was 34, and who were of all sexual orientations (although the majority were straight), reported having to work awfully hard to enjoy anal penetration, and that it was frequently male partners who “begged” for it. One subject, in fact, reported an experience of receptive anal sex that was enjoyable because, as in Freud’s description, it united pleasure (penetration) and pain (“tearing”). The most interesting and relevant insight from this study is that the prevalence of anal sex in straight porn is rescripting the “good sexual citizen”. Women are expected to get fucked in the ass.

But Ally isn’t asking for this: her fixation is on chasing a male ass. There is significantly less research on the social norms and discourse around women’s enjoyment and sometime penetration of male anuses in straight relationships. A study released this year, by Anderson, Braneman, and Stiritz, is pioneering, but its focus is not so much on women who are interested in penetrating men’s asses as it is on the men who might be penetrated. Still, its takeaways are revealing of heterosexual men’s attitudes toward having their asses sized up by a female partner. It’s unlikely that this is news to young men reading this, but one respondent commented that anal sex within a straight dyad still has a “very homosexual connotation”. As the authors put it, “there exists a wide assumption that only gay and bisexual men desire or receive anal pleasure”. While they observe a decline in the “homohysteria” that is imbricated with these assumptions, and while 24% of respondents reported having received anal pleasure at least once (most often by their own hand), the findings pick up the Freudian thread of homohysterical self-loathing, and a valorisation of masculinist sexual domination that sees being penetrated – especially in the ass – as an admission of homosexuality and effeminacy.

No wonder Jack’s head explodes when he hears that line, and sees Ally mount her backup dancer – presumably in quest of ass. His response is to crush a pill with the heel of his cowboy boot, snort it shirtless, get wasted, and yell at his crying wife. Despite Jack’s anxieties about Ally having a “boyfriend”, his real anxiety seems to be about the fact that his self-enclosed masculinity is threatened: a weird substitution takes place in which Ally’s articulated desire to look at and maybe to touch a man’s ass becomes a potential penetration, and thus emasculation, of Jack himself.

Moreover, Ally’s anal sexuality is also bound up in her new commercial brand and success. Gender historian Gail Kern Paster has written extensively about the scripting of so-called “leaky women” in seventeenth-century English drama. In the plays of Ben Jonson and his ilk, and in the burgeoning commercial climate of early modern London, there was an elision of meaning between women who were whores (i.e. those whose sexuality was often exercised) and women who spent and made money with abandon. Both types of women were thus metonymised as easily traversable orifices. I’m struck by how relevant Paster’s insights continue to be to commercially successful women characters. Ally is shoehorned into a very similar mould: she starts making money, she becomes a brand, even as she exhibits a transgressive penetrative sexuality on stage suggestive both of fucking and being fucked, and weeps in the bathtub. The liquidity and hungry seepage of Ally’s person, her ownership of the orifice, is fast becoming unbearable to Jack, and he ends up “at the bottom of the bottle” again (Ally’s lyric).

A Star Is Born is a potent, easy-to-love film in many ways. Bradley Cooper as Jack is beautiful and rugged, as is his love story with Ally; its rough edges only encourage us to root for them. They are sexy and lovable and emotive, and they have a very cute dog. But let’s realise why we empathise with Jack in particular, and, parallel to this, how his disgust at “an ass like that” operates within the film. Bradley

Cooper, who wrote, directed, and starred in this pet project, does not position Jack’s horror at Ally’s anal interest as a criticism of his self-involved masculinity. Not at all: the viewer seems to be expected, in fact, to sympathise with Jack and his sensibilities. These sensibilities are defined, unfortunately, by a keen investment in the marginal white masculinity of the country-rock genre. He takes steps to protect this self-image and his “real” music, one of which is his chokehold on his wife’s self-presentation, lest she extrude from his musical “truth”. Cooper and the team behind this film are complicit in this curtailing. Ally’s song in which the key lyric appears, ‘Why did you do that?’, also contains the line “this is not, not like me”. Even though she’s calling the shots in her career, picking out her own bright clothes and hair against Jack’s wishes and refusing to become a blonde, as her manager Rez demands, Cooper and Jack insist as one that her performance is somehow “embarrassing”, and not genuine, even though it is decidedly hers.

Jack also insists on his own heterosexuality apart from Ally. When Rez comments that Jack, for once, has “no drink”, Jack responds caustically: “no socks.” Rez goes on to clarify that he is wearing socks, but that they’re the “female insert” kind that expose his ankles. Jack is baffled: real men wear real socks. Frankly, between the female insert socks and Rez’s role in turning Ally into a sparkling “butterfly”, Jack might as well have just called him a fag. The audience laughs along. Aren’t we better than this?

A brilliant recent article by Richard Brody in the New Yorker pointed out that films following the trajectory of A Star Is Born, from What Price Hollywood? (1932) to the Barbra Streisand original (1976), have always been fundamentally about the sacrifice of the male star for the woman’s career, and how sad this is. With its searing focus on Jackson Maine, or rather with Bradley Cooper’s searing focus on himself, 2018’s remake is no exception. Yes, the romance is charming, the people are beautiful, and the songs are great. Yes, Jack’s life is deeply sad, as are his addiction and his suicide. But audiences have effectively been treating Jackson Maine like the homophobic, misogynistic, and probably racist grandfather you still love and laugh at when the family gets together. Sometimes you have to laugh at the shit he says! Sometimes, even, you might agree with something he says about some woman in the public eye, or a Kardashian, or gay people who have to shove it down your throat all the time. Sometimes he might actually be articulating your bemusement at a certain transgression, or at a denial of convention…

Cooper’s American landscape is deeply culturally nostalgic, and makes space for throwback masculinist artists like Jack. It allows audiences to laugh at transgressive sexuality, and it allows them to throw their wholehearted support behind a conventional heterosexual paradigm, and behind the American Dream. Let’s not be seduced.