Lee Edelman, Tom Hanks, and “The Child”

The Child, in [our current] historical epoch […] takes its place on the social stage like every adorable Annie gathering her limitless funds of pluck to “stick out [her] chin! And grin! And say: ‘Tomorrow!/ Tomorrow!/ I love ya/ Tomorrow/ You’re always/ A day/ Away.'” And lo and behold, as viewed through the prism of the tears that it always calls forth, the figure of this Child seems to shimmer with the iridescent promise of Noah’s rainbow, serving […] as the pledge of a covenant that shields us against the persistent threat of apocalypse now — or later. Recall, for example, the end of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), his filmic act of contrition for the homophobia some attributed to The Silence of the Lambs (1991). After Andrew Beckett (a man for all seasons, as portrayed by the saintly Tom Hanks) […] has shuffled off this mortal coil to stand, as we are led to suppose, before a higher law, we find ourselves in, if not at, his wake surveying a room in his family home, now crowded with children and pregnant women whose reassuringly bulging bellies […] displace the bulging basket (unseen) of the HIV-positive gay man (unseen) from whom […] [he] contracted the virus that cost him his life. When we witness, in the film’s final sequence, therefore, the videotaped representation of Andrew playing on the beach as a boy[,] […] the tears that these moving pictures solicit burn with an indignation directed not only against the intolerant world that sought to crush the honorable man this boy would later become, but also against the homosexual world in which boys like this eventually grow up to have crushes on other men. For the cult of the Child permits no shrines to the queerness of boys and girls, since queerness, for contemporary culture at large as for Philadelphia in particular, is understood as bringing children and childhood to an end. Thus, the occasion of a gay man’s death gives the film the excuse to unleash once more the disciplinary image of the “innocent” Child performing its mandatory cultural labor of social reproduction. We encounter this image on every side as the lives, the speech, and the freedoms of adults face constant threat of legal curtailment out of deference to imaginary Children whose futures, as if they were permitted to have them except as they consist in the prospect of passing them on to Children of their own, are construed as endangered by the social disease as which queer sexualities register. Nor should we forget how pervasively AIDS — for which to this day the most effective name associated with the congressional appropriation of funds is that of a child, Ryan White — reinforces an older connection, as old as the antigay reading imposed on the biblical narrative of Sodom’s destruction, between practices of gay sexuality and the undoing of futurity. This, of course, is the connection on which Anita Bryant played so cannily when she campaigned in Florida against gay civil rights under the banner of “Save Our Children,” and it remains the connection on which the national crusade against gay marriage rests its case.

— Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), pp. 18-19

Edelman’s critique of Philadelphia has recently been keeping me awake, staring in the dark, my brain too tired to formulate a thought yet too buzzing and restless to shut itself off. Two weeks ago, I taught an early version of the chapter in which this passage appears in No Future (an article that goes by the same title as the chapter, “The Future Is Kids’ Stuff”).

Why has it been keeping me awake? Perhaps because I’ve always thought there was something unfair at the core of Edelman’s harsh reading, something too aggressive in response to a filmic scene I had thought limited and yet, no doubt, sincere in its attempt to create the conditions under which the death of a gay man — especially from AIDS — might become thinkable and tangible. Perhaps because I was and still am not sure how best to teach Edelman to students who have not been touched by the history of HIV/AIDS.

And then I think of this clip from a recent episode of The Colbert Report. Here’s a shorter version:

Despite the awkward charm of the sketch — in which a concern for the safety of trick-or-treating children disguises a Hollywood icon’s egoistic self-promotion — I couldn’t help but notice the one major role of Hanks’ career that could have no role in this sketch. It struck me that it is easier to imagine a child dressed as a soldier who will die bloodily, as an astronaut who will nearly die in cold space, as a shipwreck survivor who will nearly drown and who may never re-integrate back into society than it is to imagine a child who wants to pay homage to Andrew Beckett from Philadelphia.

Perhaps this would be the best way to teach Edelman, to bring students face-to-face with the cultural limits of what we find laughable, thinkable, and/or sanctionable when the figure of “The Child” is put to symbolic use. One need not launch an accusation of homophobia against The Colbert Report or even against Hanks. One need only learn to feel the impression of that which is — a priori — not given a second thought . . .

Yet the more I think about it, the more aggravating the sketch does become. The point, in a sense, is to celebrate Hanks’ range of memorable roles, and yet the role for which he was first recognized by the Academy is forgotten, elided. Perhaps this is the maddening affect that Edelman attempts to express in the passage above. Despite the potential (sincere) empathy that the final scene of Philadelphia aims to possibilize, the sheer excess of “The Child” that haunts the closing scene makes it difficult to argue against Edelman’s point: who gets to belong to the future? who gets to have a future? Seen again with these questions in mind, it is no wonder that the closing images of Andrew Beckett as a child and the passage from No Future have been keeping me awake.

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