Reading JK Rowling’s tweets through the prism of Polish filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name Of
Along with commenting on JK Rowling's 'transphobic tweets', watching Polish gay drama In The Name Of on MUBI India may give one a better perspective.
As if to coincide with PRIDE month, June, a startling irony has been unfolding. You must have heard about JK Rowling’s “transphobic tweets”, a response to a devex.com headline that went “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate”.
Rowling mocked the headline’s use of the word “people”, saying that there was already a word for those who menstruate and that word is “women”. The denouncements, expectedly, came quickly. Many people online pointed out that Rowling had failed to consider transgender men who menstruate, transgender women who don’t menstruate, cis-gender women who no longer menstruate, and other categories of people who would be excluded if her “definition” were to be strictly followed.
I haven’t been following the entire debate, but it’s the irony that interests me: that these statements come from an author who created a beautifully inclusive fictional universe that embraced the “non-normal”, from giants to centaurs to a wise headmaster who was later revealed to be gay. Once again, we are reminded of the contradictions between art and artiste, and the problems of conflating the two. Like in all other cases, there will be those who say: I don’t care about Rowling as a person. My only interest in her is from the books. And there will be others who say: But those books came from HER. If you continue to endorse those books, you are implicitly endorsing HER.
I wanted to talk about Rowling, first, because I’m puzzled by her stance but I can’t say I’m exactly surprised. Human beings can be deeply contradictory, and in some way, I am always prepared for the fact that one of my idols may turn out to have feet of clay. I don’t think this is cynicism. I think it’s just being realistic.
At the other end of the “feet of clay” spectrum, we have Father Adam, the closeted gay protagonist of In the Name Of, Małgorzata Szumowska’s 2013 Polish drama that just dropped on MUBI India. (It won the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film on LGBTQ+ themes at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.) In his case, though, we are firmly on his side. The people who are ultimately disappointed by him are his ultra-conservative parishioners, in some “shit hole” in rural Poland. If they were to emulate Rowling’s tone of tweets, they’d say: “There’s already a word for people who have sex with men, and that’s... women.”
Films about men or women struggling with forbidden desires are not new, and the “conflicted priest drama” is practically a sub-genre by now. But In the Name Of is not one of those typical stories about someone coming to terms with something. It’s not about Act 1 (set up the problem, i.e. Father’s Adam’s secret), Act 2 (create the conflict, when he’s outed), and Act 3 (resolve the situation with his finding love and acceptance). What complicates the drama is that Adam works with young men with behavioral problems. They may be past the age of consent. But there’s still a father/son (if not Father/son) element in their interactions.
At one point, Adam Skypes his sister, who’s in Toronto. He says, “What can I do, that I… that I like these boys?” His sister asks him to stop this “rubbish”. He says, “Fuck… I could have… you know what… I could fuck all of them out.” But really, all he craves is human contact. He asks his sister if she has someone to hug. She replies, “My children.” And the conversation takes a pitiful turn, because that word reminds him of something that’s even more forbidden than his desires, especially given the stories we keep hearing about the Church. “I don’t like children,” he insists. “I’m not a pedophile. I’m a faggot.”
He’s also one of the many gay men who thought running away to the Church would solve everything, especially their self-loathing. In a sermon, he says, “I suddenly felt the presence of my father who died one year before. He was there with me… Suddenly, in one flash, I saw the whole rotting of my soul. I felt the desire to release myself from the prison of my selfish I. In the very centre of each of us, there is a spot. Innocent, free from sin. A spot of Nothingness that belongs only to God. From this spot, he forms our lives. Each of us has it… It makes us all equal.”
But “equal” is the last thing Adam is. In another scene, an unhappily married woman — one of his parishioners — walks into his bedroom, sits on his bed, and takes her top off. Adam sits in a chair opposite her, and she realises it’s not going to happen. She remarks that he probably doesn’t find her attractive. He says it’s not that. “I do. But I’m already taken.” She thinks, of course, that he’s talking about the Church — and we get a darkly funny follow-up scene later, after Adam stumbles on two of his wards having sex. He gets drunk and dances around his living room, holding a portrait of the Pope, who is (or who represents) the only Man that Adam is allowed to “love”: God.
This scene made me think about something I’ve never given much thought to. Nuns are married to God, too — but that’s a “hetero” kind of marriage, woman-to-man. With priests, the marriage is inherently homosexual, even if you consider the fact that this is not exactly a “sexual” union. (Adam is affiliated to the Roman Catholic church.) The “can’t be with you, can’t be without you” aspect is probably exacerbated in a closeted gay man like Adam. When we feel so much for a fictional character, it’s only natural that so many real-life Adams are protesting what Rowling said. It’s not just that a powerful person has basically erased your existence. It’s someone you thought was on your side.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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