(Though I’m writing this in 2016 when the idea of gender is much more nuanced, I am describing the 1970’s and my socialization at that time was still framed in the binary terms of male and female. In trying to document the experience of my youth, I hope that the tone of this essay does not come across as reactionary.)
At what point do one’s childhood friends subtly divide into the tribes of gender? As a heterosexual man, how were my first feelings of desire elicited? For me, predictably, everything began with “Horror, Incorporated.” The ‘damsel in distress’ motif was a common mechanism of tension and release in the horror films that I watched on television. The female lead in these movies was threatened, pursued, captured, prodded, tormented and even carried like a bride by the monster. The male hero rescued the beleaguered heroine from threat, while implicitly reinforcing the socially-programmed traits of the genders: men expressed themselves through will and action, women were vulnerable and submissive. By film’s end the status quo was restored, conventional gender roles confirmed and the audience reassured that the world would be further populated.
The first time that I remember the ‘damsel’ possessing any vaguely sexual charge was while watching “The Day the Earth Split in Two” (also known as “Crack in the Earth”). Dana Andrews stars as a scientist, who in attempting to harness the energy of the Earth’s core, accidently causes the planet to break in half; his intentions were good. During the last quarter of the film I noticed that his love interest, Janette Scott’s, dress was torn at the shoulder. I forgot the fate of the planet and focused obsessively on the exposed shoulder whenever it was in the frame.
At age twelve, I began to develop crushes on specific girls at school. Lori Nelson feathered her hair in the then-ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett style and wore orange, corduroy bell-bottoms with silver details on the pockets. She was a farm kid and rode a horse competitively in figure eights around barrels during the Amery Fall Festival. One day I read in the newspaper that “Revenge of the Creature,” a sequel to “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” would be playing on television that night, well after my bedtime. The movie starred . . . ‘Lori Nelson.’ I stayed awake in bed until my parents fell asleep, then crept into the living room and turned on the television to watch quietly. In the middle of the movie the telephone rang; my father had been called to the hospital for an emergency. I turned the television off and hid behind the sofa while he groggily worked his arms into his coat, found his car keys and left. I resumed my identification with the lovelorn man-beast and his fascination for Lori Nelson with a feeling of the forbidden, stealing this experience in the middle of the night, watching the oddly sexualized image of the woman in her swimsuit, unconscious in the arms of the monster. The next day, tired in math class, I proudly told Amery, Wisconsin’s Lori Nelson that I had seen her in a horror film on television the night before.
On my thirteenth birthday, my parents allowed a few of my friends to sleep over at our house in the woods. We arranged our sleeping bags around the television for a long night of watching movies. Just after midnight, to wake ourselves up, we took a walk along the Apple River which ran near the house. This walk represents the first time I’d been outside at midnight on my own. When I try to recall the atmosphere of the night now, the ‘Asa Nisi Masa’ scene in Fellini’s “8 ½” comes to mind, children pretending to be asleep until the adults retire and then engaging with the magic that only they apprehend. One of my friends pointed at the river and said, “What’s that?” We all turned and saw a mysterious yellow light, flashing rhythmically, wavering in the water. We approached it as closely as we could along the shore. It faded from our sight and we changed our position to locate it again. We couldn’t wade out to investigate more closely because the river was too deep and rapid. We had just watched “It Came from Outer Space” and concluded that the only explanation could be that a flying saucer had crashed and that the light was the rescue beacon for others of its kind. (I walked back to the spot the next afternoon and discovered that the flying saucer was only a road construction warning light that someone had thrown in the river. I never told my friends at school the mundane truth, however, and allowed them to circulate the story of the UFO that we’d seen.)
We returned to the living room to watch more movies and, one by one, my friends fell asleep. At five in the morning I was the last boy awake with the original “King Kong” playing on the television, a primary model for the desperate otherness of the monster in later films such as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The monster has natural sensitivities just like us, they want to belong and participate, they want to love, but instead they are shunned, vilified and ultimately destroyed. I associate the scene in which King Kong disrobes the captured Fay Wray with the moment that night was first connected to day for me. I saw the sun rise after having stayed awake through a whole night, experiencing the whole cycle that I had only slept through before.
My next innocent crush was Theresa, the daughter of a turkey farmer. In the sixth-grade we had a month of square dancing in our physical education class for which the boys and girls assembled together in the middle school gymnasium. I maintained two secrets during this month: I loved square dancing and I wanted to dance with Theresa. If I allowed myself to dance too enthusiastically, however, I would be humiliated on the playground later, so I cultivated a fine balance between internally exulting in the dance and outwardly expressing the weary, put-upon disdain of the tribe.
During this month of square dancing, in the fall of 1975, an animated series called “Return to the Planet of the Apes” played on Saturday mornings. I created a fantasy, casting Theresa in a scenario involving the apes. Every night when I first got into bed, I ran the movie in my head. Each night it grew more complex, but the story always contained certain common elements. The apes on horses had captured Theresa in a net and taken her back to their camp. I snuck through the woods in the dark toward the light of a fire, where Theresa was bound with her hands tied behind her back. I found a path through the bushes that emerged directly behind her and I untied her hands. I told her to wait until I gave the signal and then we ran through the trees together, holding hands. The apes inevitably recaptured us and I was knocked unconscious with a wooden club. When I woke up, bound to Theresa by the fire, I began to plot a new escape. I instinctively kept these fantasies to myself.
Early in high school I discovered Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” by means of a coincidence. We were currently studying “Catcher in the Rye” in English class and, on the same day that Holden Caulfield mentioned in the book that “The 39 Steps” was his sister’s favorite film, I noticed in the newspaper television schedule that the film was playing. The scene in which Madeleine Carroll removes her stockings by a fireplace while uncomfortably handcuffed to Robert Donat aroused a voyeuristic thrill surprisingly similar to my ‘Apes’ scenario: an incompletely formed sensation of mystery, bondage, attraction and control. My personal experience of sexual arousal was emerging and the movies I saw conditioned my response, providing me with a visual foil for these new feelings. I suspect that the young, straight men of my generation were all metaphorically bound to the projected and stylized fantasy of Hitchcock’s Madeleine Carroll and, as I reflect back on these early memories from middle age, I note that these early emotions of attraction were also connected to the alienation of the monster and a sense of fetishistic peril. Within the confines of social puritanism, the chaos of strong emotion and sexual desire is inherently transgressive.
The first time that I experienced nudity in a movie was in the first R rated film I saw, “Animal House.” I believe that I was only fifteen at the time (and probably looked twelve), but the owner of the Amery Theater didn’t turn away paying customers. I had had glimpses of nude women earlier, paging through Playboy magazines that a friend had found hidden amongst his father’s hunting gear. My recollections of those photographs are of tan lines and a little tuft of hair below the woman’s stomach that looked like the tail on a stop-motion character in a Rankin-Bass Christmas special.
The peeping in “Animal House” felt different, probably because I was older; I was ready to be activated by the visually mediated pose of nude women for the gaze of men. John Belushi’s Bluto, our onscreen surrogate, peeps through a window at a group of topless undergrads engaged in a pillow fight that is not action staged as spontaneous play for the women, but as a submissive, sexualized tableau for the male viewer. The scene is a perfect visual metaphor for the cinematic voyeurism into which I was socialized. The screen is our window and I am the Peeping Tom; I am granted license in the dark theater, as in the privacy of my own imagination, to engage with a taboo curiosity discouraged by the light of day. To simply paraphrase Jean Luc Godard, “Cinema is the history of men filming women.” The movies condition a reflexive, voyeuristic relationship of subject to object that everyone must later reconcile with their first attempts at real-life relationships.