Richard Gere in American Gigolo, 1980
DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL: PHALLOCENTRIC ECONOMICS, TRIANGULAR TRADE & OTHER SHADY BUSINESS
by Mishana Hosseinioun
“All economic organization is homosexual.” — Luce Irigaray
Paul Schrader’s erotic thriller, American Gigolo (1980) does much more than simply explore the roving life of male prostitute, Julian Kaye, played by quintessential Hollywood sex-symbol Richard Gere (idolized by men and women alike); it supplies viewers with first-hand evidence supporting Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray’s phallo-critical theory that “all economic organization is homosexual”1, or “hom(m)osexual” (between males), as she would specify. What is more, the film adds layers of complexity of its own to Irigaray’s argument. While, in her essay on ‘Commidities among Themselves,’ Irigaray writes of male-to-male relations lubricating all capital flow, many elements in American Gigolo point to the ever-present nature of homosexuality in the economic realm and beyond. As the latter would suggest, the homosexuality that Irigaray regards as the basis for all economic transactions is perhaps just one of the many outward manifestations of repressed homosexuality in society. As such, a scene that depicts a transaction between Julian (or the effeminate, “Julie,” as he is called) and a married couple—exemplary of the homosexual economic organization to which Irigaray refers in her central thesis—can be read as one of the more pronounced expressions of subdued homosexuality of male characters in the film. Given its rich symbolism and rhetoric charged with an unmistakable hom(m)osexual undertone, this particular sequence calls for deep analysis through the lens of Irigaray’s critique of Lévi-Straussian kinship structures.
This sequence is just one instance in which American gigolo, Julian—in exchanging his sexual services with a woman in return for money—actually inserts himself into a transaction with another male. Upon entering the Palm Beach home of a client, Julie addresses the man of the household: Look mister, someone’s made a mistake here. I don’t do fags. When the husband tries to explain that it is not what he meant, Julie promptly stresses that he does not do couples either, to which the husband takes offense and retorts, no, no, no, you don’t understand, it’s just my wife Judy. Not me! Just her. The camera, turning back on Julie to capture his response to the husband’s emphatic disavowal, does not miss the telling shift in Julie’s eyes which graze a nearby male statue just milliseconds before he blurts out, OK. Such body language implies a nonverbal show of understanding on Julie’s part, of the husband’s true homosexual intentions; while the movements of Julie’s lips—a part of the body that is spoken through by culture—cannot similarly engage in the taboo as his eyes do, and are thus obliged to acquiesce to societal convention by forming the word, OK.
Only moments later, the husband continues, but I can watch, greedily asserting his only right that would bring him close to another man without appearing overtly homosexual. He states this less as a question than as a reiteration of a contract already established non-verbally between the two men. ‘Course, Julie says, reassuring the husband, as though merely confirming their pre-signed agreement. Would you—would you like a drink? the husband offers, to which Julie mumbles, No, yet simultaneously pairs with body language that would suggest otherwise. Mid-No, Julie, loosening his tie and making deep eye contact, begins to walk in the husband’s direction. With fear in his eyes, the husband scolds, Not yet!, which represents his being made uncomfortable by what he obviously felt (and possibly enjoyed with guilty pleasure) as Julie’s sexual advance towards him. As the camera zooms in swiftly onto the husband’s panic-stricken face in this scene, a slender, crystal statuette is made apparent just behind, to the side, and in line with the husband’s head, perhaps serving to mirror his psyche at that very moment and, more specifically, showing that he is reminded of how his relation with another man will always be mediated by a third party. The arms of this handless figure stick up in the air and the head drops lifeless to one side, in an almost feminine rendition of the crucified Christ2, foreshadowing his wife who will later be seen lying in a similarly passive position in a bed in the next room.
Immediately afterwards, Julie changes the topic, exclaiming, I think I’d like my money now, to which the husband, with similar aloofness, responds oh sure—sure, the second sure, fully aware of itself as a line spoken straight out of a socially-approved skit for two men seemingly conducting “business as usual”. Despite never having met one another before this particular interchange, Julie and the husband’s dialogue here strangely appears rehearsed, which can only mean that they play a similar role with other men, day-in and day-out. Both seem to recognize that their proper sounding dialogue, tailored to cultural standards, is simply a way of escaping the unease prompted by direct hom(m)osexual confrontation and the patent shadiness of their business. “Hom(m)osexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself of relations among men,”3 writes Irigaray, summing up the sexual struggle that takes place in this film sequence. In this situation, the homosexuality plays itself out through superficial dialogue, and in the following scene, through the ‘superficial’ wife.
Julie follows the husband into the bedroom, on the way, passing a phallic shaped cactus, perhaps symbolizing the husband’s “prick” (i.e. cactus needles) which is in a state of chronic unpleasure,4 given that it presumably cannot relieve itself of the tension of pent-up homosexual desire. As the two men enter the room, lying on the bed, in white sheets, is the almost naked, crucified, silent, doll-like, wife whose blonde hair and pale skin make her the closest thing to invisible (not unlike the crystal statuette from the previous scene) so as to maximally erase her from the subsequent sexual exchange in the bedroom; by her bedside lies an abstract piece of art, yet-again, phallic in shape. Its position on the nightstand is significant in that it both represents an unconsciously fetishized object that might be used to arouse the husband sexually and to make sexual contact with his wife bearable. While the hard, twisted, cold metal seems to highlight the frigidity and frustration surrounding his relationship with her and signals the violence that lies ahead, it is possibly evocative of the husband’s infantile fixation and fear of “sterility”, otherwise know as castration.
Julie is asked to engage in sexual relations with the wife as the husband, standing watch at a safe distance from the bed, yells a series of command. “Woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself,”5 reaffirms Irigaray, clearly describing the way in which the wife here is merely an object to be filled, a vehicle through which the two men can carry out their homosexual exchange, and nothing more. When Julie attempts to contest this tripartite system by whispering to the wife to forget that her husband is also in the room, the husband reasserts himself and barks from the back of the room, Oh, no, no, from behind—it has to be from behind! in blatant reference to anal sex. Further evidence that there is no escape from this “triangular trade,” in which the female body is merely utilized a means to an end within an otherwise homosexual exchange, comes from the way in which the camera refuses to ever really capture Julie and the wife alone in a single frame. As soon as the husband no longer becomes visible in the background, the phallic artwork on the nightstand enters the frame and stands in for the second phallus that is required in the transaction, emphasizing Irigaray’s argument of how an exchange cannot take place in society in the absence of hom(m)osexual parties.
Later, the husband orders Julie to slap her—slap that cunt which demonstrates the husband’s frustration at having a woman stand in the way of his homosexual encounter with Julie, just as it shows how the repression of his homosexuality manifests itself into physical symptoms, namely as sadistic outbursts. The expression, cunt, reduces the wife to her mere genitalia, which is tragically the source of the husband’s pleasure as well as pain given that the cunt is both a window and a wall leading to and separating him from a homosexual encounter. In other words, his homosexual desires can only be achieved by means of a female body, yet are eternally doomed to suppression given the lack of direct access to another male; he vocalizes, and thus externalizes this repressed tension, by literally projecting his anger onto her body which is a constant reminder of his infantile fear of castration, as well as a reminder that his encounter with another male is forever sentenced to mediation, filtration, and thus, to dilution, by that cunt.
Not only does this film sequence provide backing for Irigary’s argument that all exchanges are ultimately homosexual6, it draws attention to the repressed hom(m)osexual desires that stir within males on a more regular basis and that desperately seek outlets for articulation. Given that forms of socially acceptable expression of such desires are limited and are, thus, never fully satisfied—as this particular instance in the film suggests—a patriarchal society is left but with one thing as its last avenue of expression: violence; hence, the murder of the wife on the night of the sexual exchange with the gigolo. Although this attempt to exterminate the female from the triangle-trade altogether is successful in one respect, the film shows how the entire monopoly falls apart as a result.7
In painting hom(m)osexuality as central to all socio-economic intercourse, Luce Irigaray once and for all complicates the kinship structures near and dear to the late “father of modern anthropology,” Claude Lévi-Strauss; yet even Lévi-Strauss, who writes that prohibition gives rise to a counter-claim, may not realize that his argument extends beyond the sphere of the incest taboo and already treads into the domain of homosexuality. Lévi-Strauss’ theory is even at work in American Gigolo, where Julie’s sexual transactions almost invariably contain male involvement and can be taken to represent the residue left behind by repressed homosexuality in society. In the same way that incest prohibition creates a need to make up for a subdued desire, the prohibition of homosexuality evidently calls for some sort of compensation, as well. “[…] every negative stipulation of the prohibition has its positive counterpart. The prohibition is tantamount to an obligation, and renunciation gives rise to a counter claim.”8 Just as a man’s renunciation of his sister calls for an obligation to give his sister to another, and claim the other’s sister for himself, figuratively speaking, certain men’s renunciation of their homosexuality makes it inevitable for other sexual forms of male interaction to spring up. All of this makes for the fact that Julie and the husband display a sort of censored homosexuality.
Whether it is Julie’s obsessive behavior towards picking and choosing clothing and scrutinizing himself in the mirror in the privacy of his own home, as the ultimate expression of his being stuck “in the closet,” or the way in which the convertible Mercedes he drives also speaks to the tension that lies between the need to keep a lid on his true sexual orientation as well as the inability to fully repress his identity—hom(m)osexuality, as American Gigolo and Luce Irigaray’s Neo-Marxist theory of “Phallocentric Ecnomics” have shown, lurks around every corner, and “bums a ride” (rides a bum) only when safe.
–Mishana Hosseinioun is a Drafter with the 2048 Project: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together at the UC Berkeley Law School and a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, England.
More writings by Mishana Hosseinioun:
[i] Luce Irigaray, “Commodities among Themselves” in This Sex Which Is Not One (Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un) (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), ch. 9, p. 193.
[ii] Paying for the homosexual “sins” of the men.
[iii] Ibid., p. 172.
[iv] Derives from Freudian Pleasure/Unpleasure principle.
[v] Ibid., p. 193.
[vi] Ibid., p.192.
[vii]Julie, who goes to jail after killing the pimp in an unconscious attempt to remove a second bothersome male figure from his transactions with females, demonstrates that he cannot manipulate the system without effectively removing himself from the monopoly.
[viii] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté) (Boston: Beacon Press, rev. ed. 1969), p. 51.