Arrival: Big trouble with big China

Arrival is ostensibly a film about communication. At its core, the plot details how Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) deciphers a series of linguistic symbols communicated to her by extra-terrestrial visitors. But what happens when we attempt to decipher the other subtle symbols that the film displays elsewhere? We peel back layers of tensioned diplomatic relationships that expose America’s fragile sense of self as a global superpower. It becomes a celebration of cultural imperialism. And ends with enough cheese to fill a fair few smorgasbords.

You cheeky bastard

The main narrative thread of Arrival revolves around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial vessels across the globe. These spacecraft arrive in Australia, the Black Sea, China, Greenland, Japan, Pakistan, Siberia, Sierra-Leone, Sudan, the UK, Venezuela and, the setting of the film, the US. In the first half of the film, there is a lot of screentime devoted to the development of diplomatic communications between these countries. More specifically, we observe how these diplomatic communications break down, almost immediately from the start of the film. Regrettably, this also the start of some of the major issues within the film.

Russia, naturally, is a big old aggressor who are super keen to use military power almost as soon as their spaceship arrives in Siberia. They’re also the ones who cut contact with all the other countries and thereby lead to a communication blackout early on in the film. Why’s that? I guess because Russians are bad and reprehensible and don’t do multilateral negotiations, or something. In fact, the coded treatment of Russia in Arrival draws on such a laughable ‘evil’ stereotype that it’s almost as if the film-makers have thought “fuck it, everyone knows what these guys are like, let’s give absolutely no depth to their actions.”

Those untrustworthy East Slavs aren’t the only ones who are painted with the most basic palette of primary colours though. While they might not be drawn quite as negatively, the semiotic representation of other countries is equally simplistic. The UK basically pops up to say “you cheeky bastard” in a British accent and then disappears again. What does this mean? Perhaps it reflects an uneven relationship in which the Brits aren’t taken seriously. Or maybe the director wanted to wow his audience with this really original take on British lexicon. Then we’ve got Sudan, a Muslim country where lots of Arabs wearing shemagh either pray or run around lots. I guess it’s some progress that they’re not all strapped-up terrorists shouting “yella”, but this is culturally inaccurate and so one-dimensional. Spare a thought for Sierra-Leone too, who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no scenes in the film, presumably because sub-Saharan Africa isn’t really very important. These blindingly obvious signifiers plague the remaining countries, which you’ll notice soon enough if you watch the film.

Public enemy

While the representation of other countries is full of tired cliches, the depiction of China brings something new, and indeed timely, to the table. Needless to say, it’s still problematic. In Arrival, China is set up as a global superpower, alongside Russia and the US. China isn’t quite as trigger happy as their Eurasian neighbours, but as the film grunts towards a climax, it’s China that threatens world peace. China has surrounded its extra-terrestrial visitors with full military might and is threatening to destroy them, thus risking the chance of alien retaliation and/or a major diplomatic escalation. Essentially, China becomes the biggest aggressor, the one willing to risk everything because they’re sceptical of this newly-arrived other. Ultimately, there’s only one way that the Chinese-initiated disaster can be averted. This is through a nonviolent time-travelling intervention by Dr Banks, during which she is able to wow the Chinese head of state with her supreme cultural knowledge of linguistics.

Reality absolutely doesn’t reflect this. Even within the context of the film, this is a strange one. You see, it’s actually the Americans who first attack the inhabitants of the spacecraft, by placing a bomb inside it. Instead of this becoming a major plot point, these Americans are dismissed as a bunch of embarrassing mavericks. They’re not immediately punished for their actions and just trail off out of the film. In fact, reality does reflect American imperial aggression. We can sit here all day and talk about the civilians of Iraq, Saddam without trial and illusory WMDs. But let’s think about Fidel Castro, who died earlier this weekend. In the eyes of Arrival, the US follows diplomacy to the bitter end, even as its friends and foes resort to violence. The diplomacy that Castro was afforded following the 1959 Cuban Revolution: 634 assassination attempts.

The coming war

So why does Arrival portray China in such unkind, aggressive terms, while the US is given the spot of a peaceful benevolent? Simply put, the film is a form of soft power. Its intention is to act as propaganda for both American citizens and those elsewhere in the Global North. As I watched this film, I was reminded of an essay by John Pilger. In this essay, Pilger argues that a world war has already covertly begun. One of the major sites of this emergent war is the South China Sea. Pilger suggests that the US has destabilised local relations in this area as a means of paving essential military access for its warships. Likewise, he outlines the numerous American allies surrounding China who host American military bases. Pilger will soon release a film on this topic:

Interestingly, the book that Arrival is based on has none of the global communication nonsense that dirties the film. It’s simply not neccessary for a plot that works perfectly well as a smart sci-fi story. So when I see a film in which China is held up as the bad guy, I’m immediately suspicious. And when that film gives me the most unoriginally offensive stereotypes of other nations, I’m somewhat disgusted.

Don’t watch Arrival this weekend. If you’re after a film about the beauty of communication and human existence, watch Paterson instead.

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This is what it sounds like when 90s popstars cry: Celebrity dacryphilia fantasies (part 3)

Well, reader. Two weeks ago we had an introduction to dacryphilia and just last week we had an overview of literary dacryphilia. Are you sick to death of wet puns? Are you tired of lame attempts to shoehorn in references to songs with the word ‘cry’ in them? I certainly am. But it’s okay, the end is nigh! In our third and final installment, we’ll take a look at one of the main ways in which those with compassionate interests access crying material: via films and TV.

Tear-evision

In last week’s post, I mentioned that rather than watching pornography, Angela M was much more aroused by literary representations of crying. While references to literature are perhaps somewhat under-reported among other individuals that I’ve spoken to, you may remember that Angela M also mentioned the films of Pedro Alomodovar. The world of cinema and television is definitely a big discussion point within compassionate dacryphilia. This is summarised quite neatly by Punkchick, another person who I interviewed back in 2013:

I like watching comforting/crying scenes in normal movies/TV shows. In pornographic material I like videos that involve crying for emotional reasons (not BDSM). For example, people who are unsure of themselves sexually or are scared, because it shows an emotional intimacy.

Although Punkchick talks about pornography here, she draws a clear line from comforting to emotional intimacy via tears. Likewise, she makes the point that films and TV are a great source of crying scenes. The question on everyone’s curled-lips then, is which actors do Punkchick’s co-kinksters find particularly arousing? Crying Lovers forum can provide us with some answers.

Tearful Tom

hiddleston

Okay, let’s start with an obvious one. Tom Hiddleston is an attractive man, so once he starts crying, things can only get fitter. For my money, he’s looking best alongside Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive. While the compassionate dacryphilia folk don’t seem to be too into existential vampiric love, they most certainly have seen a number of Tom’s other performances. The Night Manager, Thor and High Rise all get mention. Let’s turn to one forum user’s description of Mr Hiddleston’s recorded performance in the play Coriolanus:

Hiddleston has a pretty amazing extended crying scene at the end of Part 2 that includes tears, an adorable lip quiver, and some light sobbing as well. Here as elsewhere, I think he looks particularly great with tears in his eyes. I also think the fact that this is all happening live onstage really adds to the appeal.

In this example, there’s a clear focus on the physical aspects of crying – we’ve got tears, sobbing and the lip quiver. Indeed, the mention of a lip quiver reminds me of what I’ve previously termed ‘curled-lip dacryphilia’. As such, this user might be better characterised as having a curled-lip interest. It’s also quite interesting how the user refers to the appeal of this performance happening live onstage. Again, since dacryphilia may be a difficult kink to experience in real life, a theatre perfomance provides something that might come as close to the real deal as possible.

Sobbing Snape

snape

Our next actor moves away from the obvious charm of Tom Hiddleston. But let’s be clear – Alan Rickman is a G (as in ‘Gruber‘). This time, another forum user answers a question about the last crying scene that turned them on by describing a scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, featuring none other than Professor Snape:

I love the way the tear on his face was the sole focus of capturing his memory. Then his extreme love for Lily, and, after all that, his breakdown over Lily’s death and his hidden love for Harry. Just perfect. Especially since I have always loved his character and thought from the very beginning that he was just an extremely troubled but sympathetic man.

And there is nothing better than an extremely troubled man who eventually breaks down and reveals his sensitive side. 😉

Here, we get closer to compassionate dacryphilia territory. There’s talk about the tear, but it’s more about the character of the man. Snape is incredibly intense in his love for Harry Potter’s mum – so much that he experienced a breakdown after her death and unconditionally loves her son. This sort of description is reminiscient of the literary characters that Angela M outlines. We have a passionate man who loses control of his emotions as a result of romantic love. For this user, the idea of a troubled man revealing his sensitive side is the ultimate turn on. She can view his tears, but is also given the opportunity to comfort him. However, it’s also worth noting that this user earlier refers to Alan/Snape as “one of the sexiest actors/characters I’ve ever seen”. So physical attraction may also play a role.

Bawling Brian

harvey

This last one is pretty leftfield. East 17 had their heyday way back in the day. And Brian Harvey has experienced a number of issues along the years that have led to him – rather unfairly – being subject to mockery, instead of sex-star status. So naturally, I’m quite intrigued by the following forum user’s comment:

So, I’m not that into Brian Harvey, but used to like East17 when I was a young teenager. So, the other day I was watching some documentaries about them splitting up, and one of them was about the terrible accident that nearly cost him his life. If you go to 34. minute of the clip you can see him going back to the place where it all happened. He talks for a while but you can hear his voice breaking. He stops talking and turns to the other side. He tries very hard to keep his composure and not break down, but a single tear rolls down his cheek. And there’s a glimpse of his crying expression which I find beautiful. For some reason this really got me, although I don’t find him attractive at all. I’m so glad he let us see that.

The last part of this comment exemplifies the essence of compassionate dacryphilia. In spite of the lack of attraction, Brian’s single tear really got to the user. For me, this is what compassionate dacryphilia is all about. It’s not always good looks, it’s not necessarily a physical attraction – it’s the raw emotion of a man opening up and allowing others to view that sadness. This is where the compassion lies. Without the expression and openness, those with compassionate interests just can’t engage with the comforting instinct that drives their identities.

The end of the dacrytrilogy

On that note, we end the dacryphilia trilogy. Ever heard of eproctophilia? I’ll let you look it up. In all honesty, it’s a load of hot air, but I may well do a similar run on this fetish sometime next year…

Finding the erotic in Brontë and Dickens: Dacryphilia continued (part 2)

In my last post, I introduced you to dacryphilia, the crying fetish. In my academic research, I’ve speculated that there could be three different interests within dacryphilia: (1) compassionate dacryphilia; (2) Dominant/submissive dacryphilia; and (3) curled-lip dacryphilia. This week, I want to go a bit deeper with all you fetish fetishists. So we’re going to take a closer look at how those with compassionate interests get sexually aroused.

Real life is shit

Some sex researchers think that someone can’t have a fetish unless they’ve engaged in ‘real-life’ sex with it. Depending on what the kink is, this might not involve full on fucking, but these peeps still believe some kind of actual contact is required. I disagree with this. We live in a digital world. In the Global North, we are most definitely cursed with heaps of technology and internet accessibility, which makes it entirely reasonable for someone to enjoy their sex life through a screen. When it comes to fetishes, I find it even more understandable that someone might never have direct contact with their object of desire. Kinks are often marginalised, either through being ridiculed or considered strange. Let’s take the example of vorarephilia, which involves arousal from the idea of being eaten, eating another person, or observing people eating each other. Any thoughts on how you’d go about finding a partner for that?

The same can be said for those with compassionate interests in dacryphilia. How easy do you think it is to explain to a boyfriend that you’re quite aroused when he cries? This was certainly the case for Angela M, who I interviewed back in 2013. When I asked her about how open she was with others about her kink, she told me:

And my lovers, I only had two. They knew about my fetish, the first sent me photos with him in distress or looking as if he was tearing up, just to make fun of me and the other was teasing me as well, unaware of how much profoundly I treated this issue.

So yeah, proper tough. Angela M is one of the most fascinating people I’ve interviewed, to the point that I actually wrote a case study of all the cool shit she told me about dacryphilia. It’s well worth a read if you’re into pretentious hipster musing on how the construction of fetish as intellect may in fact serve to legitimise a stigmatised sexual identity. If that’s not your cup of tea, read on!

#noporno

We’ve already established that it might be difficult to experience compassionate dacryphilia in real-life. This was confirmed by Angela M when she told me “I don’t have any means to satisfy my kink but the videos.” So how exactly does she satisfy her kink? One common assumption is that people who are into crying get on Pornhub and search for crying videos. It’s not quite like that. Partly because the world of free porn is pretty restrictive and focusses more on crying women. More importantly, because the girls with compassionate interests want to see boys crying in more emotionally-charged scenes than the completely inauthentic ones typical of porno shoots. Check what Angela M had to say about her fantasies:

I like it when it happens all of the sudden and the character of my story is not willing to let go, to cry yet, he struggles, he represses, denies what he feels then…there’s this minutiae catharsis, when his eyes get flushed, well up with tears or the man is either shaken by sobs, has a breakdown or other such scenario. Such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights before the death of his beloved Catherine, such as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, the Byronic hero, Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liasions.

Far from low-brow blue videos, Angela M is banging on about literary classics of the 19th and 20th century! And it’s not just literature:

That’s class A of types that I enjoy seeing. There’s also another class of men that are naturally gentle and cry more readily and they’re very candid when it happens, very at ease with their own emotions such as Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman or Pip in Great Expectations, Marco Zuluaga in Almodovar’s Hable con ella

Alongside another classic novel, Angela M’s expanded her repertoire to include theatre and arthouse cinema! There’s plenty of interesting stuff going on in this part of the interview. For example, there’s an apparent distinction being made between alpha and beta masculinities, which Angela M finds equally arousing. Elsewhere, we’ve got this whole idea of arousal via high-brow culture.

Oh so Dick-ensian

But for now, let’s focus on where Angela M finds her sexual inspiration. There’s the films of Pedro Almodovar, which are of course screen media and therefore seem to bear some resemblance to the concept of internet pornography. However, Angela M also cites a number of written texts. Essentially, she is finding the erotic in books that are ostensibly non-erotic. I find this brilliant. First, it shows the power of the human imagination, that an individual is able to follow characterisation throughout a novel to the extent that the character becomes real enough for her to orgasm.

Moreover, it challenges the idea of what the erotic is. While the erotic does refer to anything that is sexually arousing, we probably tend to think of it in normative terms. And this probably means thinking in inherently sexual terms, even if we aren’t considering outright sexual practices. However, in Angela M’s case, her masturbation material was likely never intended to be consumed as erotic. Yet the fact that she is able to consume it in this way displays the strength of interpretation and our ability to make of a cultural artifact what we desire. I really like that.

Next week: East 17 make a comeback!

If this post has been too long and rambling for you, don’t worry! My next post is the third and final installment in this mini-dacryphilia series. And it features Brian Harvey.

What’s warm, salty and gets you wet? An introduction to dacryphilia (part 1)

Longer-term readers will know that I write about sex. On this blog, admittedly, it hasn’t happened so often. There was that post about squeezing coins into a foreskin, but otherwise things have been pretty sparse on the sex front. Naturally, I’m pretty proud of my sex chat. It means that when I’m down the pub in Camberwell, my mate can point at me and shout “tell them about the farting”. It also means that on the frequent occasions that I’m boring a stranger at a party, I can whip out some sex research to spice up the night. Today, I’m getting things back on track. Reader, let’s jump back into the teary world of dacryphilia.

Three dacryphiles walk into a pub…

A few years back, I interviewed eight folks from the US and Europe about dacryphilia for an academic study. Dacryphilia is a fetish that involves sexual arousal from tears and/or crying. What do you think of when you hear the words ‘crying fetish’? A lot of people I speak to instantly have an image of a man forcing a woman to cry, perhaps in a BDSM context, but also possibly in a nonconsensual way. Well guys, it’s not quite that simple! As I read through accounts of crying statistics masturbation sessions, it dawned on me that there were a number of different ways in which people could be aroused by tears. In the end, I identified three different interests within dacryphilia, which I termed: (1) compassionate dacryphilia; (2) Dominant/submissive dacryphilia; and (3) curled-lip dacryphilia.

Compassionate dacryphilia was a pleasant surprise for me, as I hadn’t anticipated this interest in any way. It was also the majority interest in the study. Essentially, compassionate dacryphilia involves women who are aroused by the act or idea of comforting crying men. The ladies I interviewed expressed a sense of pleasure in the rare emotional intimacy displayed by crying men in our cold, hard, 21st century construction of masculinity.

Dominant/submissive dacryphilia is most similar to the common BDSM perception of dacryphilia that I mentioned earlier. Simply enough, it involves a Dominant partner consensually pushing a submissive partner to their limits by dishing out physical and/or emotional pain, until they burst into tears. Interestingly for me (as a man with no BDSM under my belt), the focus of arousal here tended to be on power dynamics, which in this case are expressed through the instigating or experience of tears.

Only one interviewee spoke about curled-lip dacryphilia, but naturally it’s important to represent everyone’s experiences. This interest very specifically revolves around the ways in which someone’s face contorts as they begin to cry. The climax is the outward curling of the lip that immediately precedes the onset of tears. While this may seem like an incredibly niche interest, think about all of the crying images that we are bombarded with every day on the news and in your average BBC drama. It more than makes up for the likely lack of real-life interaction with this side of dacryphilia.

Dry your eyes mate

One of the questions I regularly field around dacryphilia is whether the three different interests should actually be considered separately from the crying fetish. In short, it’s a resounding no. For each of these interests, crying and/or tears are absolutely fundamental to arousal. Those with compassionate interests don’t just want to comfort men – they want to comfort men who have been crying. Likewise, those with Dominant/submissive interests aren’t simply BDSM practitioners – their highest point of pleasure is only reached once pain causes the tears to flow. And again, the individual with an interest in curled lips couldn’t care less if a girl curled her lips at him – there’s something specific and spontaneous about how the face moves during crying that can’t be feigned.

My preference is to view all fetishes as an umbrella of sexual interests that rely on a specific body part, object or person as the key thrust of arousal. And I imagine there’s even more to dacryphilia. I was initially drawn to this fetish by the allure of the elusive ‘miserywank’, which a classic Croydon band of my adolesence share a name with. Alas, there were no autoerotic accounts arising from my interviewee’s own tears, but this is an area of dacryphilia that’s crying out for more attention.

Keep your (wet) eyes peeled for my next post, which will be another dacryphilia special. But if you want to find out more before then, definitely check out the study itself. Otherwise, there’s some great journalism here and here that covers the study pretty well.