Queer people are often asked “When did you know?” as though there was simply one irrevocable event that changed us, a clearly signposted fork leading us off the default path of heteronormativity. The question is fallacious at its core, not just in its presumption of a dominant heterosexual identity compromised, but also in its binary notion of cause and effect, i.e. This happened and you became That. My experience, instead, was one of sporadic but seismic rumblings—sometimes self-aware, mostly subconscious, and others externally applied—of difference throughout childhood that marked me as queer long before any actual sexuality asserted itself during puberty. Todd Haynes evokes such rumblings in Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), originally filmed for ITVS. Haynes, with his breathtaking formal control and bracing intellectual curiosity, would be considered one of the world’s foremost filmmakers regardless, but it is his oeuvre’s unrelenting investigations and interrogations of queer identity that makes him such a vital artist.
In Dottie Gets Spanked, Haynes focuses on the inchoate queerness of young Steven Gale, a “six and three-quarter” year old obsessed with the comedienne Dottie Frank (loosely based on Haynes’ childhood love of Lucille Ball). Steven, with loving parents and an almost satirically archetypal suburban home, seems like a fairly ordinary child—sweet and dutiful, though maybe too meek for a “normal” boy—until the intensity of his heroine-worship initiates a slow but persistent recognition of his difference, a minor but profound transgression that Haynes insinuates as queer. Steven’s love for Dottie is desire, but not a normative/heterosexual one; it is instead an act of emotional transference and identification. To be a queer child is to disrupt norms you are just beginning to understand; to be aware of the burgeoning self-consciousness of your othering. Over the course of Dottie Gets Spanked’s 30 minutes, Steven Gale’s Dottie idolatry increasingly ostracizes him from his family and peers due to the implications of his deviation from a more conventional, and less complicated, expression of desire.
Young children are much more fluid in their expression of gender than is assumed, too young to know or really understand societal norms or essentialist behavior. There is a wild joy in the freedom of their interests, how they range from the expected to the surprising. As a young boy I was passionate about basketball and read anything put in front of me. For a party trick, my uncles would ask me to recite the standings for each NBA Division, as well as each team’s win-loss percentage, which I had gleaned from that morning’s newspaper. I loved stuffed animals and action figures, toy soldiers, my cousins’ Barbie dolls. And I found an affinity for performing in all respects: a frequent student reader of Biblical verse at my Catholic school’s Sunday mass, cast as Joseph in our second grade nativity play, or learning the choreography of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video. She became the subject of most of my obsessive drawings, along with the era’s basketball stars, mainly Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks. I read X-Men comic books and watched every re-run of I Love Lucy with my grandmother.
I was aware that some of these interests were “for boys” and others “for girls,” but it never occurred to me that they were absolute and separate. At a young age, we are simply attracted to what gives us pleasure; it’s later that we learn to feel shame for what we love. Dottie Gets Spanked opens with Steven rapt, drawing pictures of Dottie as he watches her television show. This is normal, to both him and his mother, until a neighbor remarks upon the strangeness of his attention; her own daughter can’t keep still, so much so that her husband spanks the child. “We don’t believe in hitting,” Mrs. Gale demurs quietly, but Steven’s focus has been diverted, piqued by the conversation.
On a school bus the next day, Steven sits behind a trio of girls as they cheerfully discuss The Dottie Show, Haynes evoking both his desire to join in and his frustrating remove in a nearly frantic POV shot that glides to the back of each girl’s head as they speak. The shot has a controlled energy—as if Steven is choking on his own words but desperately wants to contribute and share in the revelry—but his/our experience is ultimately deflating, because of the barriers, both physical and social, between him and them. They are in “girl world,” and a cut to his frustrated face indicates that he knows he cannot enter it.
He does anyway, later on the playground, as the girls talk about Dottie’s original hair color and whether or not she wears a wig on the show, the answer to which Steven obviously knows and shares. They erupt in laughter, as if shocked that he has breached the girl/boy boundary; boys are not supposed to know something like this, let alone use the word “brunette” instead of “brown.” One of the girls will later tell him, “My sister says you’re a feminino!” with a childlike glee that is both cruel and not; it would be accusatory if it wasn’t so casually blunt, full of the gauche, unvarnished honesty that children master because they haven’t yet learned to self-censor or be politic. And so immediately Steven is labeled as “not normal” before he is even conscious of it. But gender norms are so prescribed, and at such an early age, that Steven’s rudimentary identification—coded as fanaticism—with Dottie is transgressive; it is a rejection of informed notions of masculinity that many queer boys intuitively find restrictive.
For some queer boys, the near-total absence of non-conforming, real-world, male role models, along with the assumption of heterosexuality, entails an early adoption of female-centered art and media, which more readily address notions of gender-based power imbalance and dynamics and give voice to perspectives that challenge dominant masculinity. (Along with Janet Jackson, some formative figures of my past include Punky Brewster, Florence Griffith Joyner, Roseanne, Holly Hunter in The Piano, and Kathleen Hanna. With hindsight, I realize now that I sought out a specific kind of female role model for an essence of exceptionalism that was contrary to stereotype. Florence Griffith Joyner had long, beautiful fingernails and ran with grace and power; Kathleen Hanna let out hair-raising screams about social inequity and male brutality over the heaviest guitar noise I’d heard to that point. Corporeally and/or emotionally, these were not dainty women, and because I did not consider myself “one of the boys”—those whom I was around seemed crass, loud, and dirty—they became examples as deconstructors of gender-based restrictions on what seemed possible or acceptable.) What Haynes does brilliantly in Dottie Gets Spanked is convey the creeping awareness of one’s difference, and the suggestion of how it informs Steven’s present perspective and possible future identity. At such a young age, sexuality is not present, but it is not too early to be marginalized for being strange, not normal, queer.
As the film progresses, Haynes begins intertwining the narrative into a larger exploration of desire marked as forbidden, and therefore necessarily hidden. Because of Steven’s age, desire is primitive. For Steven, the sublimation of desire manifests onto a symbol, the only outward expression available to him (Haynes would later expand deliriously on this idea in Velvet Goldmine, though because that film’s protagonist is older, hormones and lust play a much larger role). The desire becomes complicated, however, when he wins a trip to the set of The Dottie Show and witnesses a rehearsal wherein Dottie’s husband comically spanks her in the living room like a disobedient child. As the scene begins, Steven’s response is confused and fearful; from his mother’s earlier conversation, he knows this is a bad thing, something one does and should not want. But then Dottie changes from dehumanized character to woman in control, essentially directing her own spanking when she notices something wrong with the scene, strides to the camera and inspects the frame, instructs the couch to be raised, and reassumes her position. Steven sits forward intently, noticing how she has taken ownership and power over an action commonly associated with humiliation, as if taking notes on how to behave in the future.
Still, Steven is aware of the experiential gulf between a grown woman’s agency and his own pre-pubescent impotence. He draws a picture, in more vibrant color than his previous ones, of Dottie being spanked, but is ashamed when his father—disapproving of his odd, feminine obsession—catches him in the act. The film reaches its climax in a remarkable black-and-white dream sequence where Steven, accused of a crime by a hectoring mob, is to be punished with a spanking from a hypermasculine strongman, who then morphs into a disguised Dottie. Clearly, this is laced with metaphor. It is in the dream’s spanking sequence—intercut with shots of an almost ecstatic, emboldened, full-color Steven thrashing his right arm in a downward motion to mirror his spanker, as if author and origin of his own tumult—where Haynes articulates most clearly the complex perspective of young queer consciousness through his aesthetic mastery. As it is for Steven, this sequence for the audience is confounding, uncomfortable, perverse, thrilling. It is a remarkable confluence of content and form, theme and execution; one of the greatest instances of visual and sonic montage in a career that does not lack for them.
When Steven awakes from the dream, it is an awakening of consciousness itself. Desire has become inextricable from shame, at least for now, at least in this world. And his ensuing response rings poignant to the experiences of many queer people: we become attuned to how others perceive us, and we learn how to calibrate ourselves for minimal exposure, in order to hide. I would adopt the mannerisms of the boys around me and learn the language they used to denigrate anything feminine. I hurled insults at softer boys, hoping this would deflect any similar accusations against me. I choked on my emotions, at least until I was alone in my bedroom and could wail along to PJ Harvey. I kissed Simone even though I knew I’d rather be kissing Jason. I still find it difficult to hold another man’s hand in public.
At the end, Steven takes the drawing of Dottie being spanked and sneaks outside in the winter night to bury his icon, cognizant that his strange love has been weaponized against him, turned him into a mark, or prey; mocked for a difference that he finally grasps as incomprehensible to the outside world. But he also takes care to wrap her in foil beforehand—protecting her, as if knowing he will need this part of himself later. In the garden, he carefully sprinkles soil over this entombed treasure, and pats it gently before leaving. The location is significant; for Haynes, this buried desire is merely a seed, and both it and Steven will eventually grow, expressing themselves in ways that could only be hinted at earlier. I can imagine an older Steven being asked the same question that is posed to so many of us. I’ve never been able to answer that question; I don’t know when I knew because it seems to me to have occurred in fits and starts. It’s not one big moment but dozens of seemingly small ones. Everyone else will wonder when and how it happened, but only Steven will know when and how it began.
A plethora of LGBT films, from 1996’s Beautiful Thing to the recent Being 17, have centered around the teenage coming-out process, which is understandable considering the dramatic potential of such stories, with their volatility and usual sense of closet-busting triumph and more explicit engagement with sexuality. But Haynes—whose cinematic expressions of queerness has ranged from the Genet-inspired eroticism of Poison’s “Homo” segment to Velvet Goldmine’s glitter extravaganza to the repression in Far From Heaven and, finally, the gorgeous romance of Carol—is far too slippery a filmmaker for something so cut-and-dry. What is radical and unique about Dottie Gets Spanked is Haynes’ examination of a nascent queer identity, incipient and unformed though it may be, in children. Though filmed in 1993, Dottie Gets Spanked still feels true and fresh, detailing a queer perspective on childhood in a way that has rarely (if ever) been depicted with such insight. If Haynes’ oeuvre can be seen as a career-long investigation on the myriad ways to be queer, Dottie Gets Spanked is singular in its articulation of the nebulous but potent birthing of queer consciousness.