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Diva Traffic and Male Bonding in Film: Teaching Opera, Learning Gender, Race, and Nation
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Camera Obscura 19.2 (2004) 46-73

Teaching Opera, Learning Gender, Race, and Nation

Charles I. Nero

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Figure 1
Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont, US, 1994)

In the influential Between Men, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points to "male homosocial desire" as the potentially erotic "continuum between homosocial and homosexual" that is the normal structure of all gender relations. Sedgwick's analysis is based in large part on Gayle Rubin's interpretation of Claude Levi-Strauss's study of "the male traffic in women" in kinship systems. In this classical anthropological view, "patriarchal heterosexuality" requires "the use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men" (25-26). Rubin herself notes that this traffic in women is not confined solely to the so-called primitive world, but that it becomes only "more pronounced and commercialized in more 'civilized' societies" through "customs, cliches, and personality traits (among others, the curious custom by which a father gives away the bride)." Following Rubin, one has to observe that the traffic in women operates also at the symbolic level of our cultural imagination. I intend to discuss one such example in this essay. I examine the traffic in women in three films from 1993 and 1994. Men traffic in opera divas in Philadelphia (dir. Jonathan Demme, US, 1993), The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont, US, 1994), and Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, Cuba, 1993). Through "diva traffic" the bonds of friendship and love are created between white men and men of color.

Diva traffic occurs in the following manner: a white male, who appears to have a marginal status in society, but in actuality has an enormous capital of high culture, teaches a man of color about opera. The success of the lesson is twofold. The tutored character is transformed toward a greater humanity and the relationship between the socially different characters is forged. This constitutes a trope that I will call operatic tutelage. The instrument that makes the lesson possible is the recorded voice of female opera singers.

This traffic in divas present in the films I am going to analyze underscores a particular discourse about what constitutes gender, race, and nation. A subtext of these films is that diva traffic redeems whiteness by imagining Eurocentrism as a requirement for membership in the newly racially integrated nations of the Western Hemisphere. In TheShawshank Redemption, Philadelphia, and Fresa y chocolate, the socially subordinated male character's acceptance of a quintessentially European art form like opera demonstrates his capacity for full inclusion into the nation as a modern version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. referred to in a different context as a "European-in-the-making."

A juxtaposition of these three films for analysis is warranted despite the fact that they emerge from two distinct filmmaking traditions and institutions—market-driven Hollywood in the United States and the revolutionary Cuban Institute of the Arts and Film Industry (ICAIC). The two Hollywood films participate in an international economy that cultivates revenue and profits from audiences outside of the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsidies to Cuba as well as the US embargo severely challenged ICAIC's ability to resist market pressures. With funding from Spain and Mexico, Fresa y chocolate became one of the first Cuban films specifically marketed to an international audience. This type of marketing affects the themes, narratives, and other cinematic devices employed in order to gain a broad, international audience. For instance, all three films are calculated to attract heterosexual audiences despite their queer content. The only explicit homosexual acts in The Shawshank Redemption result from forcible rape, so they require disapproval. The gay men in Fresa y chocolateand Philadelphia are chaste, so viewers see neither explicit homosexual activity nor overt displays of affection between gay men.

Another important reason for considering these films together is their queer content. In spite of fairly tepid representations of queerness, these films quite remarkably show the continual formation of a transnational gay male culture. Paul Gilroy's...

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