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.
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.