I Apologize: Jessica Baldanza
by Fan Wu
“I remember our position, side by side, and the quick pulse of our breaths, sometimes steady, sometimes off on their own, like two men racing.” —Dennis Cooper, “Greg Tomeoni,” 1996
What the faggot mourns is not hetero sex; it’s the homo-sociality of the hetero he’ll never inhabit. Peeing on your friends’ backs at the neighbourhood swimming pool; wrestling in the fresh spring mud; snapping gym towels at each other’s peckers. There’s a hole in his faggot heart where the bro should be. The faggot feels the loss of the casualness in his own same-sex encounters: all that could have been innocent between men is dissolved into the narrative progress of desire that marches toward sex. The homosexual is a fallen creature, trapped in uneasy, paranoid signification, plagued with thoughts like: does him doing this mean he wants to do me? Does me doing this mean he thinks I want to do him?
Admittedly this is my own desire’s point of view, my own tender envy for the homosocial. Artist Jessica Baldanza’s I Apologize is a deep plunge into that murky homosocial moment that we might call male vulnerability, which brings the bro dangerously close to the fag. It’s a small, flag-shaped flipbook of sketches that depicts boys from popular reality shows like Dr. Phil, Intervention, and World’s Strictest Parents. These graphite drawings freeze and magnify the boys’ gestures in an affective arc: aggro confrontation, eye-rubbed weeping, reconciliatory embrace. These young men are in crisis mode. We see all that has been bunched up, in the name of masculinity, unclenching. Weeping in particular is the simultaneous apotheosis and breakdown of the homosocial. At the very point where sentimental overflow passes into the so-called feminine, the male bond tests its strength. In heteronormative culture, the tears of boys are nothing less than unicorn fluid, replete with healing properties. They disintegrate patriarchy; they clarify repression; they mend scars made by emotional unavailability. They bespeak our hope that male vulnerability be cleanly integrated into male homosociality, interrupting homosociality’s suppressed emotion and eruptive rage.
The shadow of this interpretation is of course that weeping is just part of patriarchy’s cycle, with emotional release holding no other promise than an eventual return to violence. It’s a boys will be boys fatalism that allows toxic masculinity to reabsorb emotional vulner-ability—because the fireworks displays of shows like Dr. Phil are beholden to spectacle, not actual change. Catharsis here is not revolutionary therapy, but re-entrenchment of machismo’s status quo.
The moment after the bell rang on my last day of high school, my chemistry teacher pulled me aside and came out to me. A few weeks later, on MSN Messenger, he made a list of all the boys in our class he believed to be gay. He backed up his gaydar with empirical justifications: “Brayden must be gay because one day he cried in class.” His fantasy conflated, via the stereotype of the soft fag, vulnerability with homosexuality. My own counter-fantasy was that vulnerability would have nothing to do with sexuality; vulnerability was harder won and hence more rewarding when it erupted from the straight boy, in whom (to my addled teenage brain) the tears had further to go and more emotional blockades to shoot through. But still I understood, in my gut, why he hinged sexuality on this display of excessive, outspilling emotion. Pathos comes from our need to be needed by those who are hurt in a way only we can solve.
As a collection of drawings, I Apologize offers no precise answers to its grand questions, only a smattering of case studies. Baldanza’s use of graphite results in a fuzzed-out realism that evokes the high-school notebook: your pencil as your sole material to daydream elaborately in the margins, to sketch out the crossed lines of boredom and desire, to etch port-manteaued names onto schoolyard brick walls. The boys and their backdrops are simultaneously reduced (because of a loss of fidelity) and elevated (into archetypes), dappled by the hexagonal patterns characteristic of graphite on toothed paper. Like the characters in Dennis Cooper’s novels—which Baldanza directly references with her epigraph, “For Ziggy,” quoted from Cooper’s novel Try, a sensorially extreme novel of intense gay sex and abuse that ends, naturally, in two boys snuggling—these pencil-illustrated boys are at once rough and tender, imprecise but careful. We imagine Baldanza blushing as she sketches her crushes from across the room.
In illustration number four, a sketch of a screen-grab from “Double Trouble: Violent Twins” (2012), the boy on the left dabs his eyes with a tissue while his twin on the right glowers down. Between the two boys is Dr. Phil himself, with that unmistakable moustache, caught mid-blink. Baldanza’s illustrations fix on the boys’ worried faces, their tear-streaked fists wiping their closed eyes or their hands thrown over their faces to obscure their sadness from view. But we also never forget that the unsubtle, sleazy hands of Dr. Phil, sham psychologist of spectacle, have wrung out these tears to get a visceral reaction from viewers.
Yet the tears of boys hinge on authenticity—other.wise they disintegrate into manipulative, performative masculinity. Authenticity is not objective, but an intersubjective effect that produces a strange affect. Authenticity is the transition point where the feeling that I badly need this to be true blurs into the conviction of truth. Mass media are precisely the arena in which authenticity seems out of the question: if your affective response is provoked, it is only with the knowledge—and the weird security—that you’re being manipulated. Baldanza microscopes into the gestures of boys and isolates their purity of expression from such manipulation, but never lets us forget (via drawings of the Dr. Phil insignia) that it is TV that gives us access to these boys’ private feelings, and that it is TV that is in no small part responsible for our fantasies.
The faggot lies back and dreams again of the homo-social. The word feels overly academic, too much composed of Greeky prefix, to name exactly what he wants. What he wants is the homosocial disburdened of both toxic masculinity and hasty sexualization, bound to vulnerability and its potentials for germinating transformation, wherein men enjoy an open range of communicative possibilities that allow us to tease at each other’s boundaries in free acknowledgement of lust, in broad-souled tenderness, in the fullness of trust.