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  • “Queer Rednecks”Padgett Powell’s Manly South
  • John Moran (bio)

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Padgett Powell’s recent work recognizes that straight hyper-masculinity, especially that of the southern “redneck” male, is itself “queer” and non-normative—as culturally disruptive as same-sex sexuality. Although the South is often considered the most homophobic U.S. region, in some ways we are the queerest, too. All images by Kenny Cole. “Knot,” 2010.

[End Page 95]

Padgett Powell has a habit of saying provocative things, and one such line that struck me was, “I am gay in every way except the sex.” While an undergraduate at the University of Florida, where Powell teaches creative writing, I thought he was trying to charm people like his colleague David Leavitt and myself (we are both gay, including the sex). Powell’s life and fiction are hyper-masculine and southern, and it is reasonable to argue that they are not considered paragons of gay culture. At the university, he is known for filling stews with the squirrels and raccoons that try to infiltrate his chicken pen. Typical, his first story collection, is built on references to dogfighting, whorehouses, chewing tobacco, trucking pulpwood, “miscegenational pimps,” guys drinking beer while picking loot out of floodwaters, and characters who think all women are “whores.” Powell, heir to the two southern weirdo fiction traditions of Flannery O’Connor and Donald Barthelme (and now christened with the James Tait Black Memorial Prize), demonstrates in his later work how white southern masculinity seems outside the norm, always too effeminate, or else too masculine. By tracking the changes in representations of same-sex sexuality, masculinity, and homophobia between Powell’s early “Rough South” fiction of the 1980s and early 1990s and his twenty-first century fiction, which has a more playful attitude or even disregard of gender expectations, we observe the blurring and equivocation of hyper-masculinity and male femininity, of “macho” and “pansy.” Powell’s recent work recognizes that straight hyper-masculinity, especially that of the southern “redneck” male, is itself “queer” and non-normative—as culturally disruptive as same-sex sexuality. Although the South is often considered the most homophobic U.S. region, in some ways we are the queerest, too.1

“Queer,” here, refers to non-normative and marginalized sex and gender behavior. The work of the queer theorist Jasbir Puar helps to explain how the South may be simultaneously seen as homophobic and perverse. Puar describes homonationalism, or the way that sexual minorities can be folded into America’s imperial project, fostering U.S. sovereignty through the claim of “sexual exceptionalism” (our nation is better than yours because we are friendly to gays). An important part of Puar’s work has been to center sexuality in analysis of the War on Terror. Looking from South Park to Abu Ghraib, Puar argues that the “terrorist body,” or more specifically, Muslim and Sikh bodies, are portrayed as simultaneously perverse and homophobic. Puar analyzes widely circulated images of the Empire State Building anally penetrating Osama bin Laden, and Iraqi prisoners stripped naked and positioned as if they were sodomizing each other at Abu Ghraib, as built on “colonial fantasies of Orientalist sexual excess, perversity, and pedophilia” as well as “animalistic instincts,” and on images of the Muslim other as “sexually lascivious and excessive, yet perversely repressed” and associated with “failed masculinity.” These images are further entrenched through homonationalism [End Page 96] when activists and governments contrast them with what other scholars have called “good queer citizens,” often white and wealthy “upright homosexuals engaged in sanctioned kinship norms.”2

At the same time, scholars have argued that the South is an Other and object of internal orientalism. Literary critic Jennifer Rae Greeson argues that “a concept of the South is essential to national identity” and U.S. exceptionalism. In the master narrative of U.S. exceptionalism, the South—as an imagined community, a site of national fantasy, and an ideological concept—has been associated with “slavery, white supremacy, under-development, poverty, [and] backwardness,” contradicting the republican model of U.S. nationalism through its exploitation (of slaves) and its being exploited itself (as a site of systematic under-development and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 95-122
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-26
Open Access
No
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