The Dog- Activist or Attention Seeker

This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending Reelout, Kingston’s queer film festival with the purpose of reviewing of the film The Dog (Berg and Keraudren). The film is a documentary telling the story of John Wojtowicz, the man responsible for a high profile robbery attempt at a Brooklyn bank in 1972. As is depicted in the film, several hours into a tense hostage situation, John announces to members of the media and police force that he is gay, and is attempting the robbery in an effort to finance a sex change for his male lover. The film was entertaining because of John Wojtowicz’s charismatic personality and outlandish sense of humour. Nevertheless, considering The Dog from a gender studies perspective reveals how the film’s focus on John’s interpretation of events led the views of relevant voices in the LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) and feminist community to be overlooked.

As is the case with any genre of film, documentaries have biases. The Dog’s bias stems from the film’s focus on John Wojtowicz’s telling of events. As a result of Wojtowicz’s own intersectional positionality The Dog presents a narrative of hegemonic masculinity. Intersectional analysis captures the way John’s unique positionality has developed through his experience of multiple forms of oppression and privilege (Aulette and Wittner 7). In particular, Wojtowicz experiences oppression as someone who is non-heteronormative, working-class, and a member of the sometimes racialized Italian- American ethnic community. Despite this oppression, John also takes advantage of his position as a white, cisgender, male to portray himself as possessing the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity refers to culturally valued portrayals of masculinity, which are linked to power in a particular society (Aulette and Wittner 7). Despite his intersectional experiences of oppression, John depicts himself as hegemonically masculine by emphasizing his authority and aggression, as well as by enforcing women’s subordination using misogynistic language. For example, John attempts to draw parallels between the film The Godfather about the patriarchal and violent Italian Mafia and his own exploits. Additionally, in recounting the story of the robbery John refers to himself as “the fucking man” and emphasizes that the police feared him (Berg and Keraudren).

By focusing on John’s perspective the documentary takes on an androcentric character, which privileges a masculine view of events, as well as oppresses the views of feminists and women in general. The androcentric oppression of women in the film is evident in John’s use of the word “bitch” as a derogatory term referring to women (Berg and Keraudren). Additionally, he calls his bank robbing accomplice, Sal, “a girl who don’t get fucked” in an effort to highlight Sal’s apparent incompetence by associating him with femininity (Berg and Keraudren). Unfortunately these issues are glossed over because there is no opportunity for a critical feminist perspective as John’s relatively compliant mother is the only woman interviewed throughout the film.

A close analysis of the scene near the end of the film in which Liz Eden/Ernest Aron’s sex change is discussed exemplifies the way music, language and images are used to support hegemonic masculinity and overlook experiences of the transgender community. Transgender is an umbrella term describing individuals whose biological sex does not reflect their gender identity, thereby challenging binary understandings of sex and gender (Aulette and Wittner 49). The scene portrays trans issues using a campy style, which typically aims to deconstruct normative attitudes towards gender and sexuality and is often associated with LGBTQ subcultures.

The camp style is evident in the use of up-beat disco music to parallel images of Liz Eden in glittery and revealing outfits after having her sex change. However, this campy aesthetic is only an arbitrary sign, socially constructed to suggest the empowerment of transgender individuals without actually providing a chance for community members to voice their opinions. As a result Liz and other trans identified individuals are misrepresented in the scene. For example, although at this point in the narrative Liz has had her sex change operation, John continues to refer to his former partner using the “he” pronoun and still uses the name Ernie (Berg and Keraudren). In this way, the film undermines Liz’s agency by refusing to acknowledge her desire to be a woman. Additionally, John’s fixation on male versus female binaries misrepresents members of the transgender population who perceive themselves as different than either a man or a woman, identifying instead as a transman or transwoman (Aulette and Wittner 49). Finally, the scene’s singular focus on Liz, who is an individual of a lower socioeconomic status and a sex-worker, does not speak to the diversity of transgender people. This diversity makes the narrow range of interview subjects a major shortcoming of The Dog.

I’ve spent a lot of time thus far critiquing the film, but it is worth noting that I was still thoroughly entertained at the screening. In part, my enjoyment of the experience came from the wonderful atmosphere provided by Kingston’s Reelout film festival. I attended the film at the screening room, which is a more intimate alternative to larger corporate movie theatres. I also enjoyed the inclusive and politically charged environment of the screening. It was clear from the loop of adds playing before the film that the festival was also a platform for those supporting causes not directly related to the queer community to voice perspectives. This critically aware group of people brought together by Reelout is reason enough for me to attend the festival again next year.

Works Cited

Aulette, Judy and Judith Wittner. Gendered Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

The Dog. Dir. Allison Berg and Frank Kerauden. Perf. John Wojtowicz, Carmen Bifulco, Jeremy Bowker. Unleashed Films, 2013. Film.

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3 thoughts on “The Dog- Activist or Attention Seeker

  1. I appreciate your immediate recognition of the fact that documentaries have biases. That recognition allows for a critical analysis of all aspects of the film. In particular, I loved your intersectional analysis. You touch on all of the aspects of oppression faced by the leading character, providing a very thorough analysis.

    I enjoyed the multiple quotations from the film that you use. The quotations really aid in proving your point about the prevalence of hegemonic masculinity and the lack of a critical feminist perspective.

    My favourite part of your review was the point that you made about trans identified individuals. You point out that the fixation on gender binaries misrepresents the people who do not view themselves as either men or women- this clearly demonstrates your knowledge of the diversity of the gender spectrum.

    If I were to give any constructive criticism I would suggest maybe addressing any positive points that the film brings up. For instance, perhaps the event that the film follows represented an otherwise muted voice of the LGBTQ community at the time (1972)? However, I did not see the film, so I’m not sure if that point could be made. I completely agree with all of your points and I’d definitely like to see the film after reading your review!

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  2. I can see that you put a lot of thought into your film review! I particularly enjoyed how you carefully analyzed how even LGBTQ individuals such as John can be biased and oppressive. I liked your example about how he refused to refer to his lover by her chosen name and pronouns even after she had a sex change operation. I also think you did a particularly good job at describing the intersectional systems of oppression faced by Wojtowicz.

    However, I do think that some stylistic concerns prevented your blog from being as good as it may have been. I think it was unnecessary to include the meaning of the LGBTQ initialism because (hopefully!!) all of your readers already know what it means. I noticed that every time you described the film, you referenced the filmmakers in parentheses (Berg and Keraudren). I have never seen this done before in film reviews. It may have helped your blog to flow better had you written something along the lines of ‘The Dog, directed by Berg and Keraudren, …’ in your introduction and not persisted with referencing them throughout your entire post. I also noticed that you referenced our textbook multiple times throughout your post in order to define basic terms, but in-text references are typically not needed for common sense information such as describing the meaning of ‘transgender’. I think that these stylistic concerns detracted from the conversational style and flow that a film review should possess.

    This film seems interesting and based on your description of the documentary I am definitely interested in watching it!

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  3. I thought your review definitely articulated the many aspects that it sounds like the film was trying to display. I particularly enjoyed how you made a strong focus on the hegemonic masculinity. There are so many stereotypes in society today that depict gay males as being effeminate and eccentric. I think it is very important that we recognize that this is not always the case. Your examples and the of depth detail of the characters you gave helped me to understand the film and how your opinions tied in to the main concepts that you picked out.

    I think that not only critiquing the film through the eyes of a gender studies student but also looking at how they filmed and what they could have done differently in terms of interviews was an interesting way of showing the film. I too agree with what was said above that it would have been nice to hear some of the positive aspects that the film portrayed. Although there may have been less, I think it would have been good to see both sides of spectrum. However your review definitely makes me think and makes me curious to see the film to be able to understand and appreciate that points made in your blog.

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