Sky as Jane


Diva Diaries

Who... me?

The media have, when they have, touted Anti Diva and Ejaculations From the Charm Factory (as usual with Carole and Sky) as "titillating," "controversial," "shocking." And of course tempting grist for the mills of gossip. They always rush right to the "naughty bits," often to find their own names. And, often enough, Carole and Sky have played along. What the hell. It's fun.

But it's also a too easy way to evade what they actually have to say.

The problem with épater les bourgeoisie is that it's so, well... bourgeois. A stance preoccupied with what it claims to reject -- like a suburban punk dissing "dickhead" parents; gay Christians playing Fundamentalists verse for verse ("I'll see your Leviticus -- and raise you David and Jonathan!"); atheists obsessed with God.

Rattle convention's chains however they may, they never break them. They don't want to, really: those fetters are cherished, essential, defining. Without them "the shocking" would fail to shock.

Anyone looking for their 15 minutes of fame must know its means can only be the commercial mass media. And the true role of the mass media in our mass market economy is to render the world safe for consumption, to grind all life into pap. Mere "entertainment." "Shock" simply brings a bit of spice to bland stew, "danger" stirred in to dissolve it, the "controversial" coddled in liberal allowance, "risk" made a spectator sport. All to make everything safe, unthreatening.

But that's the last thing Sky and Carole are. Pioneers of the perverse, agents of erotic freedom -- and of liberation well beyond: that's been their true role. That's not safe. It's a threat to the established order. And that order knows it.

In late 2000 we got Queer as Folk. Or rather the Americans did, Showtime doing a US rip-off of the brilliant British TV series we'd seen in Canada six months before. In the online magazine, January 10, 2001, David Tuller asked why it was "necessary to create an American version of an already terrific work."

General Idea knew, parodying pop culture years before:

"...we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites. We moved in on a history and occupied images, emptying them, reducing them to shells. We filled these shells with glamour, the cream puff innocence of idiots, the naughty silence of shark fins slicing the waters."

All that this time -- if sheared of shark fins. Even though a lead character says right off: "It's all about sex." Tuller writes:

"The critics, for the most part, have obliged ... 'pushes the small screen envelope,' 'another milestone,' 'astonishingly frank,' 'anything but safe,' ... 'breaks every last taboo' ... well, you get the idea.

"The problem with the show is not that it includes a lot of sex. And it's not that it includes a lot of anonymous sex. The problem is that the sex is the show's real focus. Oh, and incidentally, there happen to be some men in the show who are the ones having all that sex -- and, by the way, not having much fun while engaged in it.

"The British show, in contrast, is about a group of men, about their lives -- which do, naturally enough, include a great deal of sex. The difference is subtle but real. As a culture, and often as individuals, Americans have a tendency to take things to extremes. We're maximalists. Contradictions make us uncomfortable. ...

"Our cultural products reflect those attitudes. So everything about the American version is too much. The British guys are attractive in a normal, down to earth way. The Americans look like they've sashayed right off the pages of GQ....

"Stuart [in the UK version] grins when he's fucking; you know he's having a good time. Brian [his American pop-culture shell] looks grim and angry. Stuart has a heart; Brain is soulless. Stuart flirts with an attractive medical worker in the hosptial [he father to a baby just born there]; Brian fucks an attractive medical worker in the room where his friend is lying in a coma.

"Watching Stuart have sex, I want to join in. Watching Brian have sex, I want to scrub myself off with Lysol."

Most Americans know that everything touched by Hollywood turns to dross (if gold for a few). But unlike David Tuller, many fail to grasp that that's about much more than Hollywood. Swamped in a heritage of Puritan extremism, even those who resist are forced to extremes. "Shock" doesn't free them from the muck. It sucks them in deeper -- as, quite often, it is clearly intended to do.

Sky Gilbert grew up American -- and a "very good boy." (As did I.) He still claims "American" but can fret "good boy," worried that "the fat, frizzy haired little A student was still alive inside." Some of his words, less conscious, do give cause for worry.

Speaking of The Dressing Gown he writes: "lots of gay men are closeted, or lie, or have sleazy anonymous sex." Of Drag Queens on Trial: "my goal had been to take people on a frank and honest trip into the lowest depths of gay culture." He does blame closetry, lies, and "anonymous" sex on homophobia; his comment on Drag Queens comes in surprise that audiences, even critics, failed to be shocked.

But "sleazy anonymous sex"? The "lowest depths of gay culture"? He did renounce The Dressing Gown, but those comments are made in the present -- not past -- tense. Does Sky still think anonymous sex is "sleazy"? And what are gay culture's "lowest depths" but where lots of us live, even celebrating our lives there? Sky famously.

Well, maybe he's just being ironic. Yet I sense that something in him, still, is titillated by the "naughty bits." I do wish he'd get over it. Not that I want Sky to stop being a pain in the butt. He's great at it, and we need him to do it. But I hope he might come to do it for better reasons. You can't live your life ever looking over your shoulder to those you hope to find (as letters to the editor famously say) "shocked and appalled." It keeps you from seeing where you might, truly, want to go.

A lot of gay people, for far too long, have lived with a wary eye on our enemies. Or, often more to the point, on nice liberals -- with pathetic bleats for "understanding" and "acceptance." It has made too many of us craven, eager to appease, whining that we're innocuous, safe, no threat. "Normal." Even boring.

Many of us are not. And -- given that our "abnormal" ways of being in the world, often more open and humane than the usual, can in fact be a gift to the world -- none of us should hope to be.


Artist of provocation: "I don't find myself shocking"

It was Neil Bartlett who first showed me (maybe it helps that he's British) the folly of glancing over our shoulders. And the liberation that can come when we refuse to do it anymore. As I say of him in Promiscuous Affections:
"Neil, I would find, refused to look over his shoulder at all. He would not 'explain' gay life -- even to other gay people. He never claimed to represent anyone but himself -- as one never should: it's condescending and you'll just get shit for doing it all wrong. He didn't care that people might not like what he did, might not 'get it' right away. In time some would."

Neil's works, and his life, have been hugely, promiscuously -- and prolifically -- provocative. He wrote me in February 2000, after reading of himself in my memoir.

"I was dismayed to read that people (and you) found me prickly, difficult, off-putting at first. I was and I am. I've always been Mr Haughty, not Mr Nice. I still put on makeup before an interview, still wear black and a string of pearls, still cruise at the opera and put opera on to fuck to.

"When I was in Paris last year promoting a translation of the first novel I wore a Charvet tie and a moonstone and diamond set of jewellery ... in homage to Wilde (his set was a gift sent to Bosie; Charvet was his favourite shop). A young gay journalist (dressed like everyone else in gay but not too gay tight trousers and expensively ragged hair) told me later that he thought I was going to be a monster, because of the jewellery, but then got a hard-on.

"I never ever want to shock or dismay anybody, because I don't find myself shocking."

We have to live for ourselves, for people we like and care for and love. The censorious prudes, the righteously "respectable" -- pry their stinking claws out of your flesh. Drive their filthy minds from your soul. Tell them to get lost. Go away. Get a life.

Mind you, lots don't have one. They're bored, angry, often jealous. When they find nothing else titillating they'll be back to get you. And your life. If they can't have one -- well dammit, why should you? Be ready.

But still -- tell them you know nobler folk, much more worthy of your attention. People whose works and lives and loves are worth cherishing, celebrating. And if the pinched and mean-spirited don't get it -- media mavens included -- well, tough. It's their loss. Not yours.

Anyway, that's what I've tried to do. Lately, at least. It has taken me too many years to figure it out. I hope Sky Gilbert can. I wish on him not the spectacle of "shock," but endless (and endlessly necessary) acts of true provocation.

Mostly, I wish on Sky an act of murder. A briliant English writer once told of "the Angel in the House," that Late Victorian vision of the Very Good Woman: domestic saint, dedicated servant to husband, children, and the world's "less fortunate"; coddling them. And, in that, confining them.

That writer had known one well: her own mother, martyred to the demands of a tyrannical patriarch when she herself was just 13. But she lived still, vivid in her mind. If that mind were to be truly free -- to find its own life and voice, to imagine, to write -- she knew, as she later wrote: "I had to kill 'the Angel in the House.'" She did. It took her a long time, well into her 40s. But she did it. Had she not, we might never have heard of Virginia Woolf.

Sky should ponder how he, at last, might be rid of his Very Good Boy.




When TV gobs interrogating Anti Diva press Carole Pope to dish the dirt, the gossip and scandal -- to get to the fuck-and-tell -- she doesn't get all high and mighty. She obliges with an easy smile. And a glint in her eye that lets on she knows exactly what she's doing.

That 1984 interview in The Body Politic was titled: "Edna Barker (and Carole Pope) Looking for Carole Pope." Its closing:

"'I'm just me,' Pope insists. 'I've always been just me.' But who is 'me' when you're Carole Pope? I think there are times when even Carole Pope has trouble with that question.

"Witness this interview. At one point she was asked something. She didn't reply immediately; instead she looked around the room, searching for -- well, it looked like she was thinking, 'Now how would Carole Pope answer that question?' And waited until she knew what Carole Pope would say. And then said it, as only Carole Pope can. This is how it looked on the transcript:

"EB: 'How did it feel to open for David Bowie?'

"CP: 'Gee.... I nearly came in my pants.'"

When I'd got all the way through Anti Diva, I was no longer seeking a diva. Petulant, glamorous, very funny too; sure, I'd found all that. I had a good time. But I was no longer looking for Carole Pope. I felt I'd found her: a big ego (and thankfully); a big name (if not big as she deserves). Sure. But more: a big heart. I like Carole Pope. She's big. Truly.

I felt, too, that Carole Pope has at last found Carole Pope. And she likes her. I'm going to give Carole the last word here. In fact, the very last words on the very last page of her own autobiography.

"In my own way I've discovered that fear is a pain in the butt. It's the drunken bore bitching at you in the party of life. Too bad it took me so long to look it in the face. At the moment I feel re-energized and inspired. I'm making music and art for Howard; I tell myself he's up in a Fire Island Heaven looking buff and Dusty drops by and they drink mimosas and gently prod me along.

"Anyway, that's how I cope with that tragedy.

"The day my brother died I heard his voice in my head, telling me to go to the mountaintop. I thought he was being literal, but now I know that he wanted me to live my life the way he couldn't live his."

Sky as Jane Carole Exeunt. Finis.

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Go to Promiscuous Affections / Introduction

Neil Bartlett makes many appearances in Promiscuous Affections. For a shortcut to them see Angels: Twelve episodes, where he appears in Other Angels -- certainly one -- as "Neil of Pornography" (& much beyond).

This page:
January 2001 / Last revised: June 1, 2003
Rick Bébout © 2001-2003 /