Well, I know that I said in this week’s Tuesday Tome article that I would wait for a later week to consider the thematic overlap between Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto and Neil Jordan’s movie The Crying Game, but when I noticed that Terry Cavanagh, the developer behind this week’s Mid-week Mission, was also Irish, I just decided to keep the Irish motif going. (This will probably be a short-lived pattern; if only I had saved some of my primary comments about C.S. Lewis for this week’s Friday Phil!)
As I also alleged in the McCabe article, the conflicted relationship in contemporary Irish art between ‘the traditional’ and ‘the modern’ is emblematic of an Ireland struggling to maintain a sense of its heritage while embracing an intellectual skepticism toward that heritage’s violence and anti-modern sensibilities. In particular, just like Breakfast on Pluto, The Crying Game expresses that relationship with the complexities of gender identity standing in for the modern and forms of Irish nationalism standing in for the traditional.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of The Crying Game, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film. I also recommend, although it is not strictly necessary for understanding my case, reading my article on Breakfast on Pluto before diving into this one.
The Crying Game bears considerable resemblance to Breakfast on Pluto, but expresses different ideas in its particulars. First, while, like Breakfast on Pluto, it foregrounds the Troubles in its treatment of individuals’ experiences, The Crying Game focuses all of its attention on events concerning the characters without extending a proportional criticism to peripheral events.
Yet the criticism of the institutions involved is no less pointed, as observed by Leighton Grist in an essay on politicized gender ambiguity in film: “As [the film criticizes] the imperial right, so [it represents] the revolutionary left as rigidly oppressive and intolerant of difference” (19). Again, one sees that any well-defined faction, necessarily embroiled with the national and political concerns of its past and present, is incapable of easily facilitating a progressive attitude, as it must by definition establish guidelines and moral codes in order to express itself.
Second, while, like Breakfast on Pluto, The Crying Game makes use of liminal gender identity to challenge the assumptions of traditional culture, that challenge is focused on both the individual’s self-denial and the imposed restrictions of one’s surroundings, whereas McCabe’s novel dwells almost entirely on the latter. Heather Zwicker writes, in an essay on artistic representations of Northern Irish womanhood, that the revelation of Dil’s genitalia remarks upon both figures involved:
When Dil disrobes she reveals—at least in Fergus’s mind—the essential and inescapable nature of what is given to one at birth: her gender and his nation. Hence Dil’s penis not only spoils her masquerade, for Fergus, but also precipitates a crisis in his own relational subjectivity. If she is not feminine, can he be masculine? Can he be straight? If she cannot successfully transgress gender boundaries, can he ever escape Northern Ireland? (202)
As in Seamus Heaney’s bog poems, here there is a non-traditional object of attraction exposing the inadequacy of established systems. For Fergus, that inability extends into even his own conception of identity: though responding at first with vitriol to a scenario which calls his sense of self into question, he is able to begin to surmount that first reaction by a reevaluation of his individual identity and its boundaries, an action of which the faction he leaves, and its representatives Jude and Maguire, are incapable.
Last, The Crying Game ends on a note of cautious optimism. Fergus’ retelling of the fable earlier presented to him by Jody, subsequent to his self-sacrifice, seems almost apologetic. Though his “nature” seems unconquerable, Fergus has unambiguously acted to defy the traditional mode in enacting romantic gestures toward a person he now recognizes as biologically male, without the traditional, if no less homoerotic, mode of male-male bonding acted between himself and Jody in the first act.
In this way, the film does not paint the situation of pursuing modernity in an Irish context as likely to fail, but instead portrays a move into modernity as one away from forms of traditional identity. Though this may seem an obvious conclusion, it is one which was portrayed as untenable in the other works under study here (by Heaney and McCabe), due to their preoccupation with a valuation of heritage which always left individuals face-to-face with the contradictions and problematic aspects of that heritage.
In these two instances of contemporary Irish art, interaction between the traditional and the modern exposes a troubled Irish psyche during the Troubles. For these artists, nowhere is the disconnect more apparent than in discourses on heritage, land, or gender. In attempting to reconcile the future with the past, problematic sentiments and anti-modern sensibilities mitigate syncretism by injecting violence, atavism, and hypocrisy-by-association.
Ultimately, it is apparent that a true embrace of cosmopolitanism and modernity is potentially only possible if pursued purely, with the past kept out of the present wherever possible. In this way, it is alleged that no faction involved in Ireland’s struggles is anything but unproductively conservative, while it is the individual, whether Pussy Braden or Fergus, who is able to recognize the flaws of the faction and, in personally enacting an unfettered identity, move society in a progressive direction. In the end, heritage may serve best when left as heritage, such that what Yeats called Ireland’s “terrible beauty” may be observed, studied, even revered, but not reenacted.
Grist, Leighton. “‘It’s Only a Piece of Meat:’ Gender Ambiguity, Sexuality, and Politics in The Crying Game and M. Butterfly” Cinema Journal 42.4 (2003): 3-28. International Index to Performing Arts Full Text. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
Zwicker, Heather. “Gendered Troubles: Refiguring ‘Woman’ in Northern Ireland.” Genders 19 (1994): 198-205. GenderWatch. Web.
Identity, National and Gendered: