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While many writers have taken on the task of reviewing and critiquing the works of Stephen King, very few have utilized Queer Theory to explore the often dark and shadowy pages of this American novelist. Most choose to focus on the more macabre elements of King’s, admittedly, thrilling tales of terror. What many people fail to notice, though, is King’s strong focus on people and their relationships—as the source of horror is often due to the threat of lost relationships and love.
This is seen especially so in one of King’s most famous short stories, “The Body”, found in his collection of short stories entitled, Different Seasons. This work is considered to be autobiographical in nature, reflecting King’s youth as he grew up in Maine in the 1960’s (Korinna). As this tale follows the journey of four adolescent boys, not only are we made privy to this touching coming-of-age tale, but we are also shown the added obstacles of growing up in a heteronormative society plagued by homophobia and forced stereotypes of masculinity.
Through Gordie’s journey in, “The Body”, we see a push against the heteronormative ideology that affects the relationships between adolescent boys, and we come to see the damage and punishment that occurs when relationships are hindered by societal expectations and fear. To delve into the topic fully, the theory behind my argument must be understood as it exists independently. While misconceptions abound, queer theory is not used to analyze works as if the characters were all gay; rather, the focus—similar to that of other humanistic theories—is on the oppression that occurs based on the overarching ideology in any given society.
Just as feminism deals with the oppression of women, queer theory is the voice for any issues regarding gender or sexuality. The main theme (from which the other concepts emerge) is homophobia or, in a more general sense, the fear and ignorance of the unknown-beliefs that breed prejudice which, in turn, causes oppression.
Specific to this argument is the heterosexism inherent in society. Said heterosexism creates a society where it is assumed that everyone falls into the category of “normality”, which enforces the “compulsory character of heterosexuality” (Butler, 101). The use of this oppression is to not allow anyone to fall along the spectrum of sexuality and gender beyond what those in power find acceptable. What is extremely interesting is the very culture of heterosexism has actually (seemingly inadvertently) placed more limits on those who fall within the acceptable rangeas those who are considered “normal” fear being labeled as the “other”. Even the most innocent of homosocial activities (non-sexual activities between members of the same sex) can be referenced to label the participants in said activities as homosexual—a distinction that prevents such activities from occurring. Psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson describe this phenomenon as being born from our “culture of cruelty” (197) and, from a young age, boys are “punished for showing (emotional) vulnerability and pressured to demean feminine qualities as a way of boosting their masculine image” (209).
Specifically, these issues are discussed by Judith Butler in her book, Gender Trouble. The heterosexual matrix (as Butler refers to it) is the state in which we are all living, a state which expects (and requires) its members to be heterosexual. Related to the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, this definition alludes to the pervasive power of the law that assumes each member of the law’s society is found to be normal. However, this control they hope to attain is what provides the distinction at all (102), and it is what allows for the very differences they are hoping to avoid when discussing both gender and sexuality. The heterosexual matrix has done more harm to those who created it, however, than it did to those for which it was intended to oppress. For by creating a system that oppresses differences they made it more difficult for everyone to live as any difference could be quickly punished.
Thus, for fear of being perceived as different, society has become afraid of most forms of expression—a fear that debilitates maturation and growth of all members, especially its children. This inability to show intimacy between close male friends in our society is not a fantasy thought up by disgruntled, middle-aged men trying to point fingers at their current issues. While the recent fights against bullying, traditional gender roles, and LGBT rights have been slowly shifting the tides, for every report of continued abuse, bullying, and hate-speech, we see these harmful traits have passed from one generation to the next as the expectations of masculinity are allowed to continue. There are those who would say that connecting the issues of queer theory to the study of children is inappropriate but as Lesnik-Oberstein points out, “childhood is a construction of identity… definitions of ‘queer theory’ and of childhood’ affect each other specifically in complex ways” (309). This is why the discussion of the two constructs mustn’t be avoided.
As childhood is a time when identities are formed, the identity construct that is “queer” must be considered in their development. Even if the child identifies as straight and cisgender, their perceptions of these issues affects how they will relate to and treat their peers. In his essay, “Culture”, Stephen Greenblatt discusses how society forms “limits” or “boundaries” to define acceptability (439). Anyone found outside (or perceived to be outside) of these limits is no longer privy to the normal manners or treatment by society, and is thus allowed to be “punished”. This is not punishment by torture, imprisonment, or death; no, the punishment forms utilized are far worse, involving abandonment, ostracization, and a ritual disowning. The fear of these punishments is what ultimately prevents close male friendships from occurring and it is in this state, the subconscious fear of being perceived as different, that we find our four youths in, “The Body”—a state that is true for most adolescent boys growing up in a heteronormative culture such as ours.
The first instance of this uncertainty and fear is seen is in the opening lines. The main character, Gordie, narrates this tale as an adult, looking back at the events of his childhood specifically the summer before Junior High. He begins by delivering the seemingly simple fact, “The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of,” (289). As Sullivan points out, he repeats the exact same words (“The most important things are the hardest things to say”) twice more (390 & 395) throughout our tale. While Gordie continues this sentiment by explaining the power that is lost when words that mean so much in your heart are spoken, there is also an allusion to the male-male intimacy that Gordie realizes he is longing for, but was never allowed to obtain in his youth. In her book, Deep Secrets, psychologist Niobe Way discusses the fact that boys are extremely capable of close, meaningful friendships. She often uses words such as “attuned” and “emotional nuances” (100) to describe the boys’ ability to relate to and provide emotional support for their close friends.
The issue, then, does not lie in the ability for boys to make and maintain close friendships; the issue lies with the threat of expulsion from society—the fear of being punished for being perceived as different. Another interesting stereotype that abounds concerning boys is that they are not supposed to be afraid of anything. The stereotype is grounded in the sentiment that boys are supposed to be “men” before they have had the chance to grow up; however, one of the reasons King is popular is his ability to showcase the “vulnerabilities” inherent in his characters (Magistrale & Poger, 97), vulnerabilities that would normally have to be concealed. Such a moment of fear is when the boys go skinny-dipping in a pond only to discover their bodies covered in leeches. The two secondary characters (Teddy and Vern) respond with shrieking as Gordie tries to remind himself “Not to be a pussy” (393).
This sentiment hearkens back to the work of Kindlon and Thompson and their discussion regarding the issue of a culture that has to demean feminine qualities in men to enhance their own masculinity. As Gordie and Chris help each other clear the leeches off of their bodies—arguably an intimate act in itself—Gordie discovers the largest leech yet “clinging to [his] testicles” (393). This is where we again see fear appear, but in a different way. As Gordie experiences the Freudian fear of castration he reaches out to the one person who can help him, but, with the fear of being perceived as the “other” or being different, Chris turns from his friend in need, saying, “I can’t Gordie. I’m sorry but I can’t. No. Oh. No” (393).
Of course, Gordie is able to pluck the leech away, his own blood bursting from the creature, but the abandonment he experiences by his best friend portrays the limits they felt were necessary to impose to appear “normal” and avoid punishment. While the boys have a close friendship, numerous other boundaries become apparent that have the potential to block healthy emotional growth. The literary critic, Arthur Biddle, describes the finding of Ray Bower’s body as the climax of the boys’ adventure, their final test before the heroes are allowed home (93). Many things happen during this short period that exhibit the true characters of our heroes—truths they seem unwilling to confront. While many critics focus on the confrontation with the older boys, the true power of the scene lies in what happens next. After Chris returns from making sure the older boys had left, the need for their façade of manhood had passed. They both let their guards down and then something happens that surprises both Gordie and Chris.
“We looked at each other warmly for a second, and then, maybe embarrassed by what we were seeing, looked down together. A nasty thrill of fear shot through me” (413). For a moment they felt safe, secure, even intimate with each other, but when they realize the emotions they are experiencing they become terrified. Terrified of societies reaction, terrified of what would happen if they had been witnessed in that show of love. In her article, psychologist Judy Chu highlights the fact that both society and research approach the friendships of boys as though they already assume the boys are somehow flawed in their ability to form said friendships, and in doing so they only further appropriate the myth, causing boys to feel the need to portray their solitary state of invulnerability (8). Unfortunately, this example is only the beginning of the isolation that occurs during this solemn scene. After the moment of warmth has passed, Teddy and Vern emerge from the woods, panting from their sprint as they had abandoned their friends to the older boys earlier.
As Chris attempts to assert dominance by lashing out at these two boys, he becomes increasingly angry and distraught. From a simple push to screaming, we see Chris’s emotional state explode (414-415). We can assume this is due to his own issues at home, his desire to show his worth, as well as his own feelings of inadequacy, but this outburst ends with Chris tripping over the dead body and lying prostrate in the mud. “He began to cry and scream…nobody had ever seen Chris Chambers cry,” (415). As Chris portrays his vulnerability we assume that through their journey the boys would have grown closer, but (unfortunately) walls and boundaries are not easily breached and they all respond by leaving their friend to empty his emotions. The discomfort of dealing with another’s emotions is amplified to a state where the show of emotion is considered an embarrassment for Chris. While being left alone can be a remedy for emotional outbursts, we see a fear by the boys’ hasty retreat and abandonment of their friend- a friend obviously in need of someone to hold. The threat of punishment is still too real, which leaves the boys incapable of dealing with a situation that would require emotional intelligence and love towards a friend of the same sex.
While the immediate effects of heteronormative societies could be discussed through the night, the long-term damage cannot be ignored. In fact, one of the powers in “King’s fiction is the completion of the wheel whose turn begins in childhood” as Douglas E. Winter expounds on in his book, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness (107). Throughout the narrative there is a return to our narrator, but the specific long-term effects are seen in his longing for the male intimacy he was never fully able to attain. Gordie laments that he, “never had any friends later on like the ones [he] had when [he] was twelve” (337). Next, almost as if begging others to disagree that they experienced the same (but knowing that most could second his statement), he reaches to his audience by asking a follow-up to his previous statement, “Jesus, did you?” (337). He regrets not staying close to his friends (at this point he has just learned that Chris had died, the other two having been dead for years) and Sullivan points out that while he is married and a popular writer, “he is lonely and alienated, longing for connection with other males” (Sullivan).
While the closeness of friendship is clear, the boundaries within the friendships are made of even finer crystal. The male intimacy was never fully realized because society’s way of dealing with the perceived “threat” of homosexuality was through the “deferral of male intimacy”. While that seemed logical to those trying to preserve normalcy, the lasting effects are apparent in Gordie’s dissatisfaction with his seemingly balanced life. The threat of punishment throughout his lifetime kept Gordie from obtaining the one thing he longed for more than anything, the closeness and intimacy of a same-sex friendship. Unfortunately, this realization came too late for Gordie, as the people who once came close to fulfilling that need are now dead leaving our narrator to reminisce on his friendships of old, holding onto whatever nostalgic tendrils of male-male intimacy remained, however sparse it had been.
King is known for his horrific stories, no one would argue the point, but the reading of his works from other genres portrays his talent as multi-faceted. While he may not have specifically intended on highlighting the themes I have presented, “The Body” provides a perfect example of the negative effects of a heteronormative society on all of its members. While the intent of such an ideology is to oppress individuals who actually identify as being different, it is those who try so hard to prove their normalcy that find themselves limited and oppressed bound by a fear of punishment that no one should have to experience. By being raised in a “culture of cruelty”, Gordie and his friends forcibly deny themselves the intimacy they truly needed at that vulnerable point in their lives. Being the only one left, Gordie realizes the error of that denial and is left to lament that he was unable to say “the most important things” when he had the chance.
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