GEND101: Queering Film – Freaky Friday, or, Becoming What You Cannot Love

 

“In the experience of losing another human being whom one has loved, Freud argues, the ego is said to incorporate that other into the very structure of the ego, taking on attributes of the other and ‘sustaining’ the other through magical acts of imitation.” – (Butler 2006 [1990]: 78)

Anna in Tess’s body: I can’t marry Ryan. Eww.

*****

Freaky Friday is interesting insofar as it at once queers age but also re-fixes heterosexuality and appropriate femininity. This 2003 remake of the original 1976 Disney hit stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan (that is, before Lohan went the way of so many child stars before her), as a dysfunctional mother-daughter duo. One tagline for the film, “Every teenager’s nightmare…turning into her mother” sums up the basic plot: One night after a particularly bad fight in a Chinese restaurant and some magic on the part of the restaurant owner, Tess (the mother) and Anna (the daughter) switch bodies. Hilariously this is the day before Tess, a widower, is scheduled to marry her second husband Ryan. Disney’s blatant orientalism aside, the film is unashamed propaganda for the re-solidification of the heterosexual nuclear family. Despite this, it does also inadvertently make a case for queering intergenerational relations.

*****

In her influential 1984 essay Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, queer theorist Gayle Rubin argues that there are some sex acts that are within a “charmed inner circle”, and others which remain on the margins of, or are excluded from, “normality”. For example, while sex at home is considered standard, sex in public is seen as morally corrupt. Rubin includes in her framework the binary of same-generational and cross-generational sex, where sex between people of two different generations is seen as deeply problematic.

As we see in Freaky Friday not only is there cross-generational body-swapping, but this leads to some non-age-normative sexual attractions. At the beginning of the film we see 16-year-old Anna fawning for her 20-year-old crush Jake. But when Anna finds herself in the body of her mother Tess, things get tricky. Jake pursues Anna (i.e. trapped Tess), but is surprised to find her unappealing. Instead, he starts falling for Tess (i.e. trapped Anna), who by all appearances, is a woman in her 50s about to get married. Though this is treated as light comic relief in the film, the theoretical implications are far more subversive. Here we see the age barrier overcome for “love”, where sexual attraction isn’t so much about the age of your body as the quality of your character (as Tess-as-Anna remarks “well, he definitely likes you for your mind!”).

*****

Cross-generational desire aside, in some ways the very scenario of body-swapping lends itself to queerness. When Tess and Anna find themselves inhabiting each other, they feel each other’s bodies. There is the undeniable fact that this swapping of places is not merely of roles, but of flesh. Being in their new bodies crosses a line from touching merely surface (as one would in say, a hug), to inhabiting each other’s depth—they penetrate each other. As another tagline for the film proclaims, “They’ve always been in each other’s faces. Today they’re in each other’s bodies”. Indeed Tess (i.e. Anna) upon finding her new body, remarks to her mother: “We seem to be inside each other”.

But this infiltration is represented as distinctly non-sexual (it is Disney after all). There is no sense of the intimacy that comes with being inside another person, it’s just simply a theme the film does not explore. As such, the queerness, indeed, the homoeroticism of the moment, is foreclosed. Here we are presented with a scenario in which not only a taboo on incest is operating (as in, eww! This can’t be sexual, they’re mother and daughter!), but a taboo on homosexuality more generally is at play (as in, what do you mean penetration? They’re mother and daughter!).

After all, can we imagine the sexual subtext that would have been entirely unavoidable if the mother had swapped bodies with her son? The issue of sexual desire (the boy for example seduced by his breasts on his new body) would have been awkwardly unavoidable. The very fact that this awkwardness does not arise in Freaky Friday testifies to the fact that homosexuality here is the most taboo of all—it is unthinkable.

*****

Queer feminist theorist Judith Butler has some very helpful things to say that help us unpack Freaky Friday. In her seminal work Gender Trouble, Butler employs and extends the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud to theorise how gender identity forms. What this boils down to is Butler claiming that the most important thing for gender formation is a taboo on same-sex desire. Following Freud Butler argues that when something is lost, failing to grieve and acknowledge this loss, you incorporate the lost object into your psyche.

In the case of gender this means that because homosexuality is taboo (in the sense that when you are designated a gender at birth you are assumed straight until proven otherwise), you can’t desire the gender that you’re assigned, so you become that gender. Or, as Butler more specifically puts it, this is a form of gender melancholy: if you’re a girl, your mother cannot be your object of desire, so you become her. This is how one learns to become appropriately gendered: you not only learn to be like your mother, you take the figure of your mother deep into your psyche.

*****

Freaky Friday represents this idea precisely. Indeed, we learn that the body-swapping is absolutely essential for both Anna and Tess for reinforcing appropriate gender. At the beginning of the film we see Anna in a rock band. Dressed grungily and lacking confidence she’s generally struggling to maintain the attention of her crush. Similarly Tess is failing at heterosexuality. She’s about to get married to Ryan, but she’s so busy and dressed in pant suits that she’s forgotten that she needs to dedicate herself to him in a soon-to-be-wifely way. When Tess and Anna quite literally become each other, this helps them to understand where they were going wrong with their own femininity.

Inhabiting the body of Anna, Tess learns that she needs to relax a little. She’s been too uptight for too long, and has become masculinised. When Anna gets access to her mother’s body she immediately takes it out for a makeover—high heels, a dress and a new haircut. Being sexy and appealing is back at the top of the agenda.

Similarly, being in the body of Tess gives Anna insight into how she must orient herself toward heterosexual life. When she first finds herself in the body of her mother, and realises that she might have to go through with the wedding ceremony, Anna-as-Tess reacts in disgust. But by the end of the film she learns that she can go through with it. And though she doesn’t have to (the spell is broken on this final act of loving kindness that is Anna capitulating to her heterosexual prosaic familial fate) it is true that one day Anna will marry someone just like Ryan and start the whole process of reproducing the family all over again.

*****

Like many romantic films, this one ends in a wedding. Here the romance is for an appropriately heterosexual female gender—and by the end of Freaky Friday that is well and truly reaffirmed.

So while the film pushes some boundaries on the question of age (though these are also set “straight” at the end), it cleverly reinforces the normality of the heterosexual nuclear family.

In this way Freaky Friday is less freaky than almost entirely ordinary. Though I suppose “Ordinary Friday” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Image: Freaky Friday

Hannah picHannah is a PhD student at the Australian National University, and recipient of the inaugural ANU Gender Institute scholarship. Her work focuses on the topic of feminine gender expression as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published on The Conversation, in Us Folk Magazine and the Australian Humanities Review. You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter @binarythis

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *