– something that provides mirth or amusement:
– enjoyment or playfulness
Fun has always been a non- serious act that has enabled people to break out of the monotony and drudgery of their regular schedules and life. The idea begins at this- you have fun to break out of an absolute norm; therefore, fun becomes this pleasurable activity that emancipates you, albeit temporarily from what is seen as regular or commonplace. The idea behind the introduction of the concept is simple – fun, therefore, can be categorized as either mindless debauchery or an expression of yourself. The distinction begins when you try to understand who in the first place is having fun. This paper attempts to understand the broader implications and the argument of what fun is with the background of the gay bar in Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman.
“I am a woman” is a lesbian pulp fiction book set in Manhattan. The majority of the action takes place in an upscale bar, “The Cellar,” which is simultaneously a gay bar in the middle of Greenwich Village. The book follows the life of Laura, Beebo Brinker, and Jack. All of them are fighting a battle with their sexualities in a world that is imposing its definition of heterosexuality onto its patrons. The story begins with Laura escaping to the city from her abusive father and trying to find a job. She had dropped out of college because of a painful romance with a girl that had gone wrong. She was confused and lost and therefore ends up as an inconspicuous secretary for a doctor, a place where her influential and abusive father would never have been able to find her. Laura grapples with several questions, especially those surrounding her sexuality and desires, things she tries to suppress because of taboos around the same. Laura is introduced to Jack on a blind date, which takes place in part at The Cellar, and is immediately introduced to a world where she can truly learn to name and explore her feelings. The book follows the romance of Beebo and Laura, which starts as a violent interaction taking place at The Cellar. What follows is a tumultuous set of events that explore how the homosexuality of Laura, Beebo, and Jack stands in stark contrast with the heterosexual public spaces that are part of the city they are trying to inhabit. Like that, over several glasses of beer and whiskey, Ann Bannon unravels the story of several relationships, all existing on the margins, and how those continue to change and influence the process of identity creation that each character possibly goes through.
The bar is creamy, upper class, and no different from any other bar that was part of Greenwich Village. The only caveat here was this – the bar was a ‘gay bar,’ which meant that the bar itself was this space that allowed homosexuals to create an area where they were safe and could express themselves in ways which were not “normal” otherwise. It is also the place in the book where Laura begins to unravel, both mentally and sexually. She meets Beebo and learns to navigate her way through a space that is so exceedingly open about its hidden secrets and private acts. The idea of ‘gay bar’ seems reasonable, but the existence of the bar itself complicates things- within the narrative and as a more significant political question. What are the implications of having that space in the first place? What does that space exactly do other than serving alcohol? How is that particular space a manifestation of the idea of fun, and how does it affect or change the way identities are formed and expressed?
The bar is a public space — a space accessible to all, space where the only form of explicit entry barrier is the money you have to buy anything inside. The bar is open and public, simultaneously the bar also protects. It is implicitly outlawed and a space of revolution where people who have similar questions towards their own identity seek refuge and answers. The bar is trivial and fun; it is drunk with the patrons engaging in sexual activities that would otherwise get them jailed for its ‘unnaturalness.’ The bar is a space worth exploring as something that allows you to make the idea of fun itself political because, in all of its complicated relations, a bar is first and foremost a place of leisure.
I think there is some merit in exploring Bakhtin’s idea of the “carnivalesque.”Mikhail Bakhtin in his essay Rabelais and the World –
“…one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions…”
He contextualises his argument in reference to the works of Rabelais and the renaissance, however, the concept of the carnival resonates deeply with the idea of fun that has become the hallmark of marking homosexual identity . The bar can be seen as comparable to this idea of a medieval carnival where the normative structures and rules of society are suspended for the time that you spend there. Laura and Jack spend innumerable dinners together; however, it is during one of those very dinners that Laura interacts with her future lover Beebo. The insinuation here is that the automatic assumption of the fact that Laura and Jack could be a heterosexual couple is suspended for the time they are in that space. In fact, this dissonance between the perceptions of the outside and the bar can be evident in several parts of the book. When Laura’s roommate Marcie automatically assumes that Laura and Jack are a heterosexual couple because they have been out on dinners or that Marcie is the person who sets Laura up with a man without even asking her preference. This is the assumed normal that the bar seeks to break into. The bar becomes this place where all assumptions of heterosexuality are suspended, and everything that is outlawed is accepted as the new normal.
Joseph Harry in his essay conducts an ethnography of sorts of gay bars and how they play into the broader social life of especially gays- even if it is just to have access to a community that is solely inhabited by people of ‘their’ kind, or something of that sort which allows them both the separation and inclusion into the heterosexual structures that exist otherwise. The idea is then if we were to begin to work through this argument – how do gay bars then become essential to the basis of how particular homosexual identities function. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner say this in Sex in Public in the context of describing how exactly heterosexual culture manifests itself in and around you-
“First its conventional spaces presuppose a structural differentiation of “personal life” from work, politics and the public sphere.” . This attempts to break down the usual binary of heterosexual and homosexual and pushes to create a new one- of the public and the personal.
The above argument reverts to my earlier point, where the bar becomes this space where all presumptions are suspended for the time being. Heterosexual culture builds its assumptions on the fact that sex is, in fact, a private affair – that the life you have outside of it is somehow disconnected. Sex is only for the bedroom. Fun breaks that barrier. The bar makes space for sex to be public, and not that you can have sex in public, it makes the access of an identity that banks on being being ‘sexually ostracised’ to be made public. The presence of the bar makes the space of homosexuals to be glaringly out in the open – in the center of Greenwich Village in the middle of a city that shuns the idea of the ‘homosexual’. The bar is then not just a space protection of a community of sorts, it is a space of projection of that same community. That is the curious dichotomy that allows Ann Bannon to make the bar, a space where Laura learns to name her desires as being ‘lesbian.’ The bar is where over-intoxicated conversations Laura manages to tell Jack that she likes her roommate Marcie and that she is not part of the heterosexual culture that is bubbling all around her – be it the plethora of straight relationships that exist in her workspace or the highly volatile relationship that Marcie has with her ex-husband. Fun, therefore, becomes political. It becomes this method of identification that will enable you to pass off dangerous ideas under the garb of temporality and individual constraints. The very act and the agency of having fun itself make this idea particularly pervasive. It lets you put the foot in the door and access things that were otherwise supposed to be taboo.
“In the official public, this means making sex private; reintensifying blood as a psychic base for identification; replacing state mandates of social justice with privatized ethics of responsibility, charity, atonement and ‘values’; and enforcing boundaries between moral persons and economic ones” The argument here breaks the idea of fun and dichotomy of the public and personal even further. The regulation of life that comes to effect under a heterosexual schema makes you see the convoluted distinctions that the state has made so that they can continue to protect the status quo. However, the brick and mortar existence of the bar with Beebo as a patron who wears pants and is a lift operator in a building breaks that structure. It creates this dangerous rift where you can not immediately categorise Beebo , but the bar makes her identity both public and safe. This complicated existence allows Laura to live her life as if her ‘lesbianism’ exists only for the people existing inside the bar and in her conversations with Jack
“But this true festive character was indestructible; it had to be tolerated and even legalized outside the official sphere and had to be turned over to the popular sphere of the marketplace.”
Bakhtin makes an important point in that – fun is working pervasively – it gives the agency the marginalized to express themselves, but it also works as a mechanism to dismantle existing structures. It makes it apparent that the ‘norm’ has nothing normal or natural about it. Much like the hierarchies that are suspended during Bakhtin’s carnival, the bar suspends the idea of sex and breaks the normative. It makes the hidden so obviously public that the people who wish to deny it have no way to do so — that the only way they can reconcile with both the ideas at once is to acknowledge that homosexuals are normal and exist. The idea that their sense of normal is and can be punctured by the existence of a single business enterprise is both scary and liberating. The idea that the bar itself makes the people’s identity occupying it both public and pervasive at the same time.
Fun is also a political tool because, more often than naught, fun is liberating. It is empowering because it is that point where a person lets go and letting go has political implications. It has endless consumption of alcohol and conversations that are unmediated. This lack of structure is what makes the idea of fun so awkward to reconcile with because the fabric is the norm. The norm becomes oppressive, and then fun becomes revolutionary.The bar does not merely remain a space for degeneration, and it is also one of regeneration – of a community that cannot express in public but makes its point publicly.
Prerna Vij is currently a third-year undergraduate student of Political Science and English Literature at Ashoka University.