The media’s portrayal of children is a hot topic. Netflix was boycotted when it released a movie called Cuties which featured sexualized imagery of children. It started a debate about where is the line between art and acceptable sexualization of minors? For some, there shouldn’t really be a line so long as it’s considered a fictional story. Others say it doesn’t matter if real children aren’t impacted
This argument has been raging on since Lolita was published and likely before it as well. I, Gloria Grahame had me thinking about the argument again. Where is the line? Some would argue that art transcends the need for a line and that putting limits on expression is censorship (I disagree for the record) while others would say that we need to have strict, unimpeachable guidelines for fiction (I disagree with this as well). Like most things, the answer likely lies somewhere in between.
There’s so much potential with the premise of the novel. It just can’t get past its two major problems. The first, is the sexualization of minors and the second? A fight against wokeness that ends up pushing the boundaries of being anti-diversity.
The Set-up for I, Gloria Grahame
For context, I, Gloria Grahame is a novel by Sky Gilbert that I happened upon while looking at the new book section at the library. I was thrilled when I found the book. A new queer novel described as “a scandalous, humorous novel about taboo desires and repression”. It’s about a gay professor named Denton Moulton who has a rich fantasy life as Gloria Grahame, the old time cinema starlet who got wrapped up in a scandal.
I was so excited to start reading it and then the first two pages were about Gloria Grahame beginning to lust after her 13 year old stepson. It’s surrounded by protestations of no, she shouldn’t, she shouldn’t do this, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gloria stays. She lingers and watches her stepson while he’s sleeping naked, letting him replace her husband in her mind.
I, Gloria Grahame is a book that I abandoned halfway through and then forced myself to slog through in order to feel like I was being fair when I wrote this blog post on it. It’s a novel that focuses on the fantasy that Denton (a male professor) and the lust that he has for one of his students (not that he would act on it, Denton is quick to say)
The Anti-Wokeness Agenda
Denton wants to put on a play. in order to get the funding Denton suffers through a series of interviews that become increasingly ridiculous. The people he’s facing off against are caricatures of different types of minorities. The first person that Denton meets is Genderqueer and he introduces them like this:
The door opened and I immediately stood at attention. A “being” entered. They were obviously what is lately called a “they”. To me, the being appeared to be a man in a dress, as they were quite masculine in their movements and had a full five o’clock shadow, and they were not wearing any feminine makeup.
We move on from interview to interview including one person who seems to shrilly deny any white person the chance to talk or understand two spirits. There is no conversation to be had, no learning, just a slamming of the door in Denton’s face. Maybe these are real people that Gilbert came into contact with when he was having trouble with Buddies in Bad times, but they feel like caricatures. Angry strawman that right wingers use in their propaganda. It’s the same tactics that are used, ironically, to deny gay marriage in other countries. The whole farce that Denton is going through is meant to have the reader going look at the stupid PC police. This is what’s wrong with the world.
White, Cis Men Are the Real Victims Apparently
There’s nothing clever about this. Instead it feels meanspirited, like punching down while at the same time trying to make it seem like Denton (who is white, gay, and cis) is more put upon than the rest. It’s the tyrannical minorities that are stopping regular folks from getting to produce their art.
The final token of good will I had for the book came with the introduction of the introduction of Pierce Kearny who is genderqueer and Cree, but claims to have “some privileged blood, Irish and Scottish, in equal amounts.” Kearny cautions Denton that this is their last interview and asks if Denton has done anything to counteract his privilege. While Denton doesn’t feel privileged, he lies about being black and is immediately given the grant. I wish this had been a big send up of Joseph Boyden, but the joke isn’t Denton (which it should be). Instead the joke seems to try to take aim at diversity in the arts. Kearny even says that there’s no funding for cis, white males available which is just ridiculous.
Let’s Talk About the Pedophilia
Right after that entire farce, Gloria sleeps with her 14 year old stepson. “I am not about to accept blame for actions for which I do not deserve to be punished. So there. This is what happened. I’m not ashamed of it because I did nothing wrong. The boy was not a child. Let them pillory me, let them put me in jail…”
Later, she says that it wasn’t a remotely a bad thing and it was beautiful. Be disgusted if you like. “Those who are disgusted by lover and sex will be a long time regretting a life they never had”.
I gave up on the book shortly after that. I have a limited time on this earth and I’m not going to waste it on this book any more.
Because as much as you want to give creative license, Denton is the one who is imagining Gloria Grahame. So Denton is the one who is fantasizing about this young boy in his imagination. He’s also fantasizing about his student in real life. Thankfully, he’s a professor so we can assume this one is of age.
A Note About the Real Gloria Grahame
Yes, yes. Gloria was rumoured to have slept with her stepson when her was a minor, but there are other ways to handle it. One thing I will give this book is that we’re not meant to identify with Denton or Gloria. We aren’t supposed to aspire to being them. Denton even feels guilty for lying about his heritage in order to get the funding. There’s something I liked about the novel that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s not enough to keep me going.
I tried to give I, Gloria Grahame my best shot, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s even more frustrating because I can see Sky Gilbert’s talent. I was compelled by the novel before it really started forcing in its caricatures.
Art Reflects the Artist
There’s so much that’s distasteful in this novel. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have novels with unlikeable characters. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have controversial novels either, but all this does is expose thinly veiled political thinking. It’s basic and comes across as bitter. Particularly when you realize that Gilbert parted ways with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre due to his feelings on wokeness.
“Buddies is no longer a Gay and Lesbian Theatre, as it was when I was the artistic director,” Gilbert wrote. “Buddies is now a home for people representing a range of intersectional genders and identities. I no longer want my name, my voice, my essays, my ideas, my plays, my novels, my poems, my art — or anything about me — to be associated with Buddies. I’m happy to make space for others.”Buddies in Bad Times co-founder Sky Gilbert severs ties with theatre company
That said, let me defend Gilbert for a moment in saying that he seems to value open conversation. Perhaps these caricatures are nothing more than a brilliant satire that went over my head. But, the idea of people who have these different values as harpy-like social justice warriors is… it’s just been parroted by too many times by people who have no real interest in learning about people who are different from them. Gilbert’s intentions and desire for conversation seem like they’re pure. His 2020 play featured a trans man and Gilbert wanted to leave the bitterness of parting ways with Buddies in Bad Times behind. I can appreciate that.
I just can’t get on board with this book unfortunately. That said, I still plan on checking out other pieces of Gilbert’s work. I’m hoping to better understand the artist behind the art.
Do you have any suggestions or are there things you think I’ve missed? Leave a comment below. Or if you want more posts like this? Sign up today and never miss a post!