A Response to Jennifer Livett’s “Odd Couples and Double Acts, or Strange but not Always Queer: Some Male Pairs and the Modern/Postmodern Subject”

by Monique Rooney

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The opening gambit of Jennifer Livett’s incisive essay “Odd Couples and Double Acts, or Strange but not Always Queer: Some Male Pairs and the Modern/Postmodern Subject”, employs the “how many does it take to change a lightbulb” cliché. Another version of this, “How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? One, and nine to pin the medal on his chest“, suggests that, whether aimed at a minority (Irish, Jewish, feminist etc) or at a blokey white male, the joke is that a rational, utilitarian (often read male) subject may fail to be one. This identity disavows accomplishment and, in particular, display of pride or narcissism (a real man who can change lightbulbs does not need a medal on his chest). Masculinity is, in this case, an abstract concept rather than a particular embodiment, engendered by a rationalist culture which rehearses both a fear of and a fascination with those who fail to fit.

Literary and film theorist Lee Edelman uses the figure of synecdoche to examine divisions and demarcations in relation to literary treatments of racial and sexual minorities. Edelman writes that the “fantasy of masculinity” is one that imagines and projects a unified self: it “defines itself through its capacity to put others on display while resisting the bodily capitation involved in being put on display itself” (Edelman 50-51). Edelman also argues however that figuration and the construction of identity necessarily involves this oscillation (whether avowed or not) between fragmentation and unity, part and whole.

He writes

To enter into language is always, therefore, to be sundered into identity and to be imbued with a need to defend that identity as a bulwark against the negativity, the endless differentiation, of the language (in which) one has become. (Edelman 73)

Singular vision is always partly a fabrication and reproduces the fantasy that it is possible to escape the temporal and spatial constraints which make the subject in the first place.

Livett’s elegant theorisation of the “odd couple” also complicates the construction of singular masculinity and interrogates the possibility of a decontextualised, atemporal subjectivity by reading the male pair across modern and postmodern history as (often violent) readers and writers of one another. I would like, however, to take issue with Livett’s final claim that postmodernism celebrates and enables a multiple and fragmented rather than a unified and controlling identity. I want to focus on another angle of the film with which Livett ends her discussion. Topsy Turvy closes not with a male-male professional couple, Gilbert and Sullivan, but with the conjugal pair, Mr and Mrs Gilbert.

By drawing attention to the asymmetry of Kitty Gilbert’s relationship to her husband, I don’t want to position her as representative of a more authentic heterosexuality and a proper mode of reproduction. Although she is Gilbert’s unacknowledged muse and barren wife, Kitty is not occluded nor is she essentialised. However, she is contrasted to the odd couple of Gilbert and Sullivan who are ambiguously represented via the theme of artificiality. Leigh’s film is interested in operetta as a derivative medium, based on varying degrees of imitation and on a history of theatre and entertainment, and this influences the ambivalent representation of the Gilbert and Sullivan team. This is particularly true of the characterisation of Gilbert, whose eccentricity is such that he indulges in a fantasy of masculine escape, both from Sullivan and his wife, and from the cultural context which has enabled his productivity. Living in a sexless marriage, Kitty Gilbert takes an active, if unappreciated, role in her husband’s productivity and inserts herself into her husband’s exclusive world even though often unwanted.

In her essay on Topsy Turvy, Livett suggests that the excluded woman in the film is representative of the “wholly different reality” which exists “outside [the] theatre world” (Siglo13, 58). I would suggest that Kitty Gilbert articulates the way in which these two worlds are never entirely separate. Kitty is the one who persuades Gilbert to accompany her to an exhibition of live Japanese displays and this exotic human spectacle becomes the basis for The Mikado. At the end of the film and after the success of The Mikado, Gilbert expresses to Kitty his fear of artistic limitation. This sparks Kitty’s rave about her own desire to be an actor, and she tells Gilbert of her ideas for an operetta: on a stage with “dozens of doors and ticking clocks”, a beautiful young woman grows old as the women in the chorus get younger and younger. Gilbert represses this allusion to Kitty’s fast ticking but redundant biological clock as well as her own vivid imagination with the answer: “I shouldn’t imagine Sullivan would much care for that”. Excluded from this double, Kitty is a pawn but also a player in a male fantasy which imagines it can simultaneously rely on and abstract itself from the everyday.

For Livett, Topsy Turvy demonstrates that Mike Leigh is no longer “the 70s director as controlling auteur”. However in a film interview, the very presence of which suggests that the director continues to perform a controlling, authoritative role, Leigh is quizzed about the historical accuracy and racial politics of a scene in the film. In this scene, Gilbert makes three Japanese women teach the (all white) female actors of The Mikado how to walk, a scene which is of course ironic given The Mikado’s genesis in an imported Japanese exhibition. Leigh then expands on this question to take on the larger issue of authorial and directorial invention. It is significant that throughout the interview, Leigh uses the plural pronoun “we” when describing the film’s production processes but in this final answer he uses the singular “I”. Leigh points in his answer to the necessity of an “organic” (read singular and partial) authorial or directorial style:

It depends on what you call being accurate. Certain things I know are fact and with certain others I am taking dramatic liberties. For example, Gilbert certainly brought people from the Japanese exhibition to show his actors how to be Japanese. I have no doubt they came over several days and I personally have little doubt that what happened was entirely functional and straightforward — they just showed the actors a few things, like how to use the fans.

So what happens in the film is plainly an invented piece, a concoction, and rightly so — this film is not a documentary. The idea that Gilbert gets the Japanese to demonstrate something and they have no idea what they’re demonstrating and they don’t do anything because they don’t know what he wants — and then he gets other people to imitate them not doing anything — and that becomes it — it’s fairly preposterous but it makes its own kind of sense, curiously, within the piece.

And incidentally, although we’re not talking about it, that scene is absolutely a function of doing the film in an organic way. If ever there was an example of how I achieve things by the way I work — which I couldn’t possibly achieve in a million years with a million monkeys and a million typewriters, or word processors, in a room — that is it. (http://www.salon.com/ent/col/srag/1999/12/23/leigh/index.html)

Pronouncing a singular identity, Leigh also performs the double as he imitates his own creation. Like Gilbert he is the oppositional and disinterested artist, resisting categorisation but inevitably giving in to a language that is “preposterous” yet makes its own kind of curious sense.


Monique Rooney recently completed her doctorate on “passing” in American fiction and film in the English Department at the University of Sydney.

Read Jennifer Livett’s essay “Odd Couples and Double Acts, or Strange but not Always Queer: Some Male Pairs and the Modern/Postmodern Subject”


Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1994.

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