A Queer and Pleasant Stranger, Or: “You Can Look At My Butt”
In response to this issue’s emphasis on happiness, I read Kirsten Lepore’s short film, Hi Stranger, as an ambivalent object that inspires both happiness and disgust. I argue that the uncanny figure at its center helps viewers to work through the feelings of vulnerability which arise when encountering queerly pleasant strangers. As such, I suggest that the film allows us to grapple with the insight that we are all, in fact, both pleasant and strange.
Gender; Sexuality; Animation; Happiness; Affect Studies
I don’t watch Girls, but I do remember the conversation about Allison Williams’ sex scene from season four where her character, Marnie, receives analingus. People were miffed and muffing the conversation: suddenly, women enjoying anal play was something the public had to deal with, in public no less! While opinions spanned the spectrum—some people thought Williams performed well, while others thought the scene was poorly choreographed and questioned whether or not “motorboating” a butt even counts as “tossing the salad”—one thing remained clear: people had no idea how to talk about anal sex without feeling embarrassed. And yet the continuous discussion inadvertently revealed a collective interest in anal pleasure, even as that same discussion sought to deny that interest through disgust, disbelief, and a feigned lack of understanding. Perhaps the best example is an episode of the online news show The Young Turks —aptly titled “NBC’s Brian Williams Reacts to Daughter Allison Williams’ ‘Booty Eating’ Scene”—in which the two co-hosts, Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, try to mitigate their discomfort through recourse to the specific term for the sex act, analingus. This turn to established discourse is meant to reinvest the segment with a degree of seriousness. So, too, is the patriarchal need for the media to inquire as to how her father feels about “all this”. In their discussion of how Allison Williams’ famed news anchor father, Brian Williams, responded to the scene, the co-hosts emphasized that he is a “serious news anchor who does hard hitting news, he’s been around forever” (The Young Turks, 2015). More interesting than their need to find legitimacy in the name of the father, however, was his answer: “She’s always been an actress. For us, watching her is the family occupation and everybody has to remember it’s acting; no animals were harmed during the filming, and ideally nobody gets hurt” (Selitti, 2015).
This is a strange statement to make, not least of all for the reminder that we are all just animal-rationals at the end of the day. But stranger than that is Brian Williams’ insistence that “it’s acting,” and perhaps only acting. And yet, the reassurance that it was, perhaps, only acting, is not enough to help Uygur fumble through his justification for why he didn’t want to become an actor (not that anyone asked): “I … don’t want to do things that are scripted out for people … Like … I don’t … if you’re an actor, you have to make out with dudes, right?” (The Young Turks, 2015). That his justification immediately results in a gay panic says more about the people he associates with anal play than his decision not to become an actor. Moreover, his response raises the question: how do we begin to parse the, by now normal, impulse to read the gay man’s body as one that embodies the most taboo of sexual pleasures—especially when the original body in question was a woman’s, not a man’s? How to traverse the distance between one’s self and the Other, whom one reads as capable of enjoying a pleasure deemed pleasurable only in performance? To be more specific, how can we stop vicariously living our pleasure through queer and pleasant strangers?
Part of answering this question has to do with the way we relate to our objects of desire as well as how we are compelled to relate to those objects differently than we might want. Sometimes we are happy about love-objects that others view as the wrong kind of happiness with which to be associated. To find pleasure in having one’s butt “eaten” is, for some, not where they would, or should, expect to find happiness (I can just imagine the melodic jingle: “Where the sun don’t shine, nor happiness will one find”). As Sara Ahmed (2010) suggests in The Promise of Happiness, we look for happiness “where it is expected to be found, even when happiness is reported as missing” (p.7). For Ahmed, happiness in a contemporary sense “becomes a form of being directed or oriented, of following ‘the right way’” (p.9). The result of this expectation is that we are forced to view happiness as a responsibility we have towards others, turning happiness from a state of being into a statement. What Ahmed reads as a phenomenological problem is therefore also a performative problem. How to talk about a state of being when the speech act expected to follow troubles the expectations we have of the one speaking? If I say, “I like it when you lick my butt,” who will I be, both literally and figuratively, turning off?
Another way of asking this question is: how do we respond to a speaker whose speech act renders them (a) stranger to us, perhaps more so than before? We become estranged and hence, strange. This leads to a related question: are those who are not strange to us also not strangers? Are they, dare we suggest, even friends? As Danielle S. Allen (2004) posits, friendship may be the very thing we need to restore as the “central feature” of a democratic society, namely, “its commitment to preserving the allegiance of all citizens, including electoral minorities, despite majority rule” (xix, emphasis in the original). For Allen, friendship becomes not just a romanticisation of the ways in which we relate to one another; rather, it signals the “practice of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration” that recognizes the “shared life” of friends (xxi emphasis in original). There is something productive about the conceptual concerns she raises for our current political moment. If happiness, as Ahmed suggests, is about ensuring one is orientated in the “right” way, and if friendship as a habitus can help us navigate those things that, in other contexts, we might not be able to bear, then how do we explain the useless joy one gets from the hundreds of videos shared on social media? Videos, I should add, that are shared by our “friends”?
Indeed, one of the most discussed ontological problems of the 21st century, it seems, is the way in which social media has changed our modes of being in relation to one another. And far be it from me to offer some kind of normative stance on how one should use such sites; I simply use my own social media accounts as digital repositories of things I’d like to read. Call it my reading bucket list. I also share many photos of my cats. But like most users, I cannot help but see the countless videos, memes, text posts, and so on that get shared “publicly”. And it’s the “public post” that I want to take as an object of analysis in relation to this question of happiness. As Michael Warner (2005) notes, for an image or a text to be understood as public we do not need to “gesture to a statistically measurable series of others” because “[w]e make a necessarily imaginary reference to the public as opposed to other individuals” (161). (Although the public Facebook post does indeed provide a numerical indicator of the times it has been “shared.”) Similarly, Butler (2015) points out that:
Not everyone can appear in a bodily form, and many of those who cannot appear, who are constrained from appearing or who operate through virtual or digital networks, are also part of ‘the people,’ defined precisely by being constrained from making a specific bodily appearance in public space which compels us to reconsider the restrictive ways ‘the public sphere’ has been uncritically posited by those who assume full access and rights of appearance on a designated platform. (8)
The public Facebook post, in other words, is a direct performance of the “fundamental feature of the contemporary public sphere” that Warner identifies as a “double movement of identification and alienation: on one hand, the prophylaxis of general publicity; on the other hand, the always inadequate particularity of individual bodies, experienced both as an invisible desire within a visible body and, in consequence, as a kind of closeted vulnerability” (182 emphasis added). And as implied here, that double movement is itself encoded in the very language of friendship that is the basis for navigating a site like Facebook. A friendship, moreover, that finds happiness in the spectacularisation of the private, or to use Warner’s terms, in the cloaking of one’s desires within the genre of generality.
For whatever reason, stop-motion animator Kirsten Lepore’s short film went viral at the end of March 2017. Unlike the scene from Girls, in Hi Stranger viewers are greeted by an ambiguous figure who, although devoid of clothes, lies on their stomach, blocking any and all visual cues about sex or gender. Rather than seeing the figure in profile, we enter the figure’s world breech. The first time we hear the figure talk is after it has turned its head towards the audience in a flagrant dismissal of the fourth wall: “Hi stranger.” We are hailed and recognized. But also not, for in the evocation of ourselves as strangers and our commitment to such estrangement through our continued viewing of the video, we are swept up into that movement of identification and alienation described by Warner. We become a stranger. But if to be a stranger is to have some kind of distance established between one’s self and the other, where the other is both the self and the not-self, what to do with the cheekiness of the figure in Lepore’s video, who seems to know our most taboo desire: “It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. It’s okay, you can look at my butt.” Both joking and seductive, the problem the animation tackles is revealed to be about estrangement, about the separation from the social precisely because of one’s affective response to the figure — namely, our continued engagement with their butt. More pointedly, such estrangement is indicated by the anonymous figure to be the reoccurrence of “something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (Freud 1919, p.381). That “familiar and old” thing which Lepore’s figure pulls from the depths of the cultural imaginary is our pleasure in the things we tend to leave behind us, bringing to the foreground the hinterland.When we “like” a photo posted by a user in our “friends” network, for example, we are providing an affirmative response to one portion of their body, to the body of content I should say, which makes up the user’s “profile.” Significantly, a term such as “profile” suggests a lack of depth; we only ever get to see them from the side. That the screen grab of Allison Williams which circulated as the most “acceptable” in discussions of the infamous butt episode was a profile view is especially significant in this case, for it suggests that we are perhaps still only comfortable with women’s pleasure, and anal pleasure especially, when it is told slant (Figure 1). No wonder we are always compelled to continually interact with other users on social media sites: to do anything but would render one unfriendly. To be slightly more capacious about it, we might say, following Butler (2015), that what is at stake in these digital modes of assembling ourselves in public through our profiles is the insight “that ‘the people’ are not just produced by their vocalized claims, but also by the conditions of possibility of their appearance, and so within the visual field, and by their actions, and so as part of embodied performance” (p.19). But what about when those conditions of possibility are undermined by the dual command to both “tag” and “say nothing”—inverse though it is of the social surveillance command that if we “see something” we should “say something” (Figure 2)? Such a prompt both alienates the one tagged and generalizes by presuming that the response to the shared content will be the same for all interpellated; it is a public (re)action that is by user experience design closeted since it takes place in real time, in the privacy of the space between our eyes and the screen. Given all the ways in which social interaction on Facebook, in this instance, heightens the double bind of being a private citizen in a digital public, what then, does one do with a video like Hi Stranger?
Hi Stranger thus encourages viewers to feel vulnerable through a publicly mediated engagement with a taboo pleasure, without any real-world consequences. The experience is one of “safe” vulnerability. This is important because, as Danielle Allen (2004) emphasises, one of the key components of trust in a democratic polity is the ability to respond to loss—a certain kind of vulnerability—in such a way that allows the conversion of those negative emotions into something beyond “less painful” (p.46). How, in other words, can we take the pain of loss and use it to mobilize conversations between strangers about why such a loss is important to recognize in relation to the rest of the group? As Allen notes, a “[democracy’s] needs forms for responding to loss that make it nonetheless worthwhile or reasonable for citizens who have lost in one particular moment to trust the polity—the government and their fellow citizens—for the future” (p.47). Significantly, Lepore’s short film emphasizes the stare as one way to establish recognition as a position of vulnerability. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2009) suggests, when our stare falls on someone not like ourselves, we “begin an exploratory expedition into ourselves and outward into new worlds …. Staring offers an occasion to rethink the status quo” (p.6). There is thus something productive about staring Garland-Thomson suggests, and which Lepore’s figure challenges the viewer not only to experience, but to do so in that odd realm of the privately digital public.
Furthermore, Hi Stranger takes the invisible desire we culturally have for the butt and transmutes it onto an (uncannily) visible body. We might even go so far as to characterize it as a projection of our desire for the butt. In conversation it was pointed out to me that the only thing viewers can comfortably identify, and hence identify with, is the figure’s butt. So unheimlich is the face that the slightly rosy cheeks of the butt become the object towards which one’s gaze feels most comfortable being directed. This, despite the fact that the figure is continuously asking us to look elsewhere: at the sunset, which they claim “really makes you enjoy being alive,” and, ironically enough, back at one’s self. “Even you,” croons the figure, “I love looking at you. I want to remember all of your shapes,” before promptly sketching the viewer. The figure’s stare lasts just a little longer than is comfortable; more importantly, since the viewer is never shown what is drawn, there is no way to know how or what they see of the viewer. We receive general recognition, but the hyper-particularity of the stare renders us vulnerable in the eyes of this intimate stranger. All that remains between us is butt.
That the experience of watching Hi Stranger is uncanny results both from the blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality as well as from the way in which most people watched the video in the first place. As Freud (1919) famously suggests regarding the uncanny, “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing it symbolizes” (383). Recalling Warner’s comments about the imaginary reference to “the public” in his discussion of mass publicity, there is, in this first instance, a blurring of the line between the spaces in which it is okay to fantasize about non-normative sexual desires. As has been discussed with the two most notable legal cases regarding sexuality, Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas, there remains a spatial concern with where sexual fantasy and sex takes place: in private. And in reality, one is technically viewing Hi Stranger in private, in the space between the user and the device on which one watches it. Except not really, because the internet functions as a kind of public sphere. At no point then is the act of watching the short film either private or public, but rather both.
In the second instance, Lepore’s short film speaks directly to us, the public, giving viewers something they thought they had lost. More than recognition, Hi Stranger grants viewers affirmation. Towards the end of the film, the figure begins to comfort the viewer, stating, “I see you trying to do so many things at once: worrying about a decision you made, or worried that you said the wrong thing to someone. You’re so hard on yourself. You’re wonderful, and worthy of being loved.” Bracketing the irony of being comforted by the very thing which made one uncomfortable in the first place, the figure brings intimacy into one’s here and now by encouraging the viewer to find the joy in simply being. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner (1998) argue, heterosexual culture remains widely understood as culture through its modes of eroding intimacy from public institutions, such as our places of employment or in legislation; instead, intimacy remains linked to personal life. They argue that
Intimate life remains the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood. (553).
Lepore’s clay figure does the exact opposite, reminding viewers that the feelings of discomfort generated by the video are the result of the loss of their full humanity because of the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives in relation to other viewers who have shared the video with them, either directly or indirectly. It’s no wonder then, that in Trump’s America a video like Hi Stranger went viral.
Indeed, Stephen Colbert went so far as to remake Lepore’s video starring Donald Trump, clad in a “Make America Great Again” thong with “Putin” tattooed on his lower back. The video is nearly identical to the first 30 seconds or so of Lepore’s, except that instead of discussing a tree, Trump queries the viewer about the healthcare bill he made: “Isn’t it cool? I thought it was cool …. Stupid Freedom Caucus!” (2017, The Late Show). The video is of course meant to make fun of Trump’s failed attempt to “reform” the American healthcare system. However, it’s the short parody’s conclusion that is the most fruitful for our purposes. As the clip progresses, the camera slowly zooms out (Figure 3) to reveal that Trump has sent his video to someone via text message. The sad face emoji next to Trump’s contact information is meant to tip us off that the video, and hence the man, are definitely not the highlight of the cell phone owner’s day. Rather, he makes the recipient unhappy. As we learn fairly quickly, that person is his wife, Melania Trump (Figure 4). When asked by a Secret Service agent whether or not she will be visiting the White House during the coming weekend, she quickly responds: “Not anymore!”
Melania Trump’s disgust in this video is meant to resonate with the viewers of Colbert’s late-night talk show, who are also presumably disgusted. Colbert’s parody video lacks the non-specificity of Lepore’s original, however. By giving the figure a face and a name, and one that carries such significance in our current historical moment, the potential for all viewers to be alienated by the invisibility of a desire they’d rather not name, and hence the threat of exposure, is radically altered. No more does the queerly pleasurable uncanniness of Lepore’s figure challenge viewers to confront the potential of their desires. Nor can the act of sharing the Hi Stranger parody with one’s network of “friends” create the conditions for public sharing, for sharing with the public one’s identification with and alienation from the object of interest. Rather, Melania’s brief cameo in Colbert’s “Strange Trump” reveals the ever-present danger of sharing (our) queerness: that a response of disgust will render us even (more of a) stranger. Or to put an even finer point on it, that we will be, like Melania, unhappy.
Perhaps we should follow Leo Bersani’s famous argument (1987) and view the popularity of Hi Stranger as providing us with another example for sex’s “inestimable value [as] … anticommunal, antiegalitarian, antinurting, antiloving” (p.215). In this vein, Hi Stranger would thus prove to be anathema to happiness. But perhaps it is precisely the result of feeling powerless under the gaze of Lepore’s uncanny figure that causes viewers to question why something so strange is also so pleasurable. Or in Bersani’s words, perhaps it is the result of thinking the sexual as “moving between a hyperbolic sense of self and a loss of all consciousness of self” that allows viewers to respond in highly ambivalent ways to the short film (p.218). Indeed, what can be more self-shattering than the realization that one is attracted to a mere figure as opposed to being attracted to (or in the Trump parody, disgusted by) someone real?
Americans are, in many ways, at a loss. We have witnessed an election that drew the mask back on the very real and no longer immanent but very present threat of danger: for the undocumented, for the LGBT identified, for people of colour, for women, for those queer and pleasant strangers making the world an interesting and desirable place to live. To some extent, the habits of friendship have served as incredibly potent and important sites for healing and bearing with the fear and stress under which many of us live. It seems to me, though, that Lepore’s Hi Stranger has given us a means for remembering that our bodies are, as Butler (2015) posits, “living sets of relations,” unable to be “fully dissociated from the infrastructural and environmental conditions of [their] living and acting” (p.65). In the twenty-first century, we have an unprecedented ability to respond to those with whom we share a public. Hi Stranger offers us one object with which to work through those feelings of vulnerability, discomfort, pleasure, and happiness stemming from engaging with the bodies of people different from us in public. One moves through a reckoning with the uncanny (“How is this body here?”) to the processing of discomfort with one’s own recognition by the uncanny other, to a final grappling with what it means that the encounter perhaps could be or (dare I hope?) was pleasurable. In Kirsten Lepore’s short video, one discovers the happiness that stems from connecting with both the other and ourselves as queer and pleasant strangers.
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Allen, Danielle S. 2004. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1998. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2: 547-566. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344178.
Bersani, Leo. 1987. “Is The Rectum a Grave?” October 43, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism: 197-222. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3397574 .
Butler, Judith. 1993. 2013. Bodies That Matter: On the discursive limits of ‘sex’. London and New York: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
Chauncey, George. 2004. “‘What Gay Studies Taught the Court’: The Historians’ Amicus Brief in Lawrence v. Texas.” GLQ 10, no. 3: (509-538). https://muse.jhu.edu/article/169783
Colbert, Stephen, dir. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Season 3, episode 326, “Viral Video ‘Hi Stranger’ Gets the Cartoon Donald Trump Treatment.” Aired 31 March 2017, CBS, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBO85ms_ZXU
Freud, Sigmund. 1950. “The Uncanny.” In Collected Papers Volume IV, edited by Ernest Jones, trans. Joan Riviere, 368-407. London: Hogarth Press.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2009. Staring: How We Look. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lepore, Kirsten. Hi Stranger. Video. 2:42. November 2016. http://kirstenlepore.com/Hi-Stranger
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Selitti, Renata. “The Girls Cast and Brian Williams Discuss the Premiere’s Shocking Sex Scene.” Vulture, January 11, 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/01/girls-sex-scene-marnie-butt-rimjob.html
Uygur, Cenk and Ana Kasparian. The Young Turks. Season 7, “NBC’s Brian Williams Reacts to Daughter Allison Williams’ ‘Booty Eating’ Scene.” YouTube, Runtime 00:05:40. Uploaded on 12 January 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESNBk-2BUdA
Warner, Michael. 2005. Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge: Zone Books.
 I use queer in two senses throughout the essay. First, I mean the odd, the strange, the out of line with the normal; in other words, I am trying to speak to its original usage as the identification of that which shocks one by its difference. Second, I also am invoking queerness in relation to sexual orientation and gender identification (i.e. one who identifies either (or both) their sexual desires and gender as queer). In doing so, I take a page from a different Judith Butler text, Bodies That Matter, where she writes that “‘queering’ might signal an inquiry into (a) the formation of homosexualities (a historical inquiry which cannot take the stability of the term for granted, despite political pressures to do so) and (b) the deformative and misappropriative power that the term currently enjoys” (1993, p.175 emphasis in the original).
 Butler makes a similar point in the first chapter of Notes, writing “that identity politics fails to furnish a broader conception of what it means, politically, to live together, across differences, sometimes in modes of unchosen proximity, especially when living together, however difficult it may be, remains an ethical political imperative” (2015, p.27). I would challenge Butler, however, to explain where and when the strategic essentialism of identity-based politics is most deleterious to the “ethical political imperative” of living together. Indeed, what to do with the American “alt-right”, which is also an identity-based movement that operates from a counterpublic position, with few, if any, cross-political alliances?
 See for example George Chauncey’s article “‘What Gay Studies Taught the Court’: The Historians’ Amicus Brief in Lawrence v. Texas” or Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, especially pp. 74-82.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License.
© Copyright 2015 La Trobe University. All rights reserved.