Today, TIME Magazine published an article suggesting that James Franco is “the 21st century’s first great public intellectual.” Now. I’ve been a Franco apologist for years. Yes, he’s a painfully awful poet–I get it, fellow poets. I get it. But that’s not the point. Franco, who has a BA with honors from UCLA, attended the fiction MFA programs at Brooklyn College & Columbia (where he got his degree), the poetry MFA program at Warren Wilson, the filmmaking MFA at Tisch, & the English Ph.D. program at Yale. (He also got into the CW Ph.D. at Houston, but decided not to go at the last minute.) In other words, he’s not a dumb dude.
But despite what his infamous Freaks & Geeks character, Daniel Desario says, is it really just that Franco likes to learn–that he likes school this much? As a friend of mine pointed out–& a sentiment I wholeheartedly echo–if I ever got millions of dollars, I’d just enroll in Ph.D. programs without having to teach to pay for it simply because I like learning. Is this all there is to Franco, though?
TIME thinks not. Lily Rothman writes that Franco possesses the following qualities, which deem him worthy of the title “public intellectual,” as the public intellectual:
is a generalist
has academic credibility, but if possible, isn’t tied to a university
is a celebrity
examines society rather than merely participating
is motivated by an ideology
As Rothman notes, “Franco is asking the same kinds of questions that [the] headlines do—and he’s answering them. That’s the general, academic, confrontational, ideological work of a public intellectual.” So let’s go with it. Franco is this century’s version of a public intellectual. But I’ve long suspected he’s doing more than that.
The way I see it, “James Franco” the persona is indeed a work of performance art. That work, in & of itself, forces the viewer to consider what all of these things (sexuality, art, academia) mean to contemporary American society. Many of the criticisms I hear about Franco come from my fellow academics and writers. But why are we so mad at The Franco? Is it because he has approximately 229 million advanced degrees? Do we see this show of credential accumulation as one that somehow devalues the academy in the eyes of society &, in so doing, begins to remove it from its place of privilege?
But hey, newsflash—society doesn’t value academia anyway. We’re talking about countless daily cuts to public school arts budgets, censorship of students, pointless firings of faculty only to pad administrators’ pockets (see my current university as a prime example), & banning of books that are key to understanding not only literature, but the world at large. Why do we academics & writers feel the need to so adamantly defend against James Franco in the midst of all of these out-&-out crises? My suspicion is that even when our budgets, our paychecks, our jobs, our curricula are threatened, we still have a sense (deserved or not) that we are something. We cling to those letters–MFA, Ph.D.–like they really mean something. We’ve achieved, is what they tell the world. (Or is it ourselves?)
If someone like Franco–who is, for all intents & purposes, a completely dreadful writer–can swoop in & amass a pile of MFAs & Ph.D.s while publishing objectively shitty poetry, what does that mean for us? As far as I can see, what it means is that The Franco has effectively punctured the heretofore hermetically sealed bubble of the academy. It’s not a utopia anymore, & Franco brings that harsh reality to the forefront. So I have an MFA. I’m still trying to figure out how to get hired as a bartender without any bartending experience. I’m still trying to figure out if there’s a way I can worm my way into some health insurance. Franco refuses to let us romanticize the MFA (or the Ph.D.) because what he’s done is swoop in with his mounds of cash & mounds of privilege & shown us that it’s not really about talent or passion or any other fancy thing we’ve told ourselves (read: our parents) our whole lives.
He’s infringed upon our space. This pretty boy from Hollywood–& Lorrrrrrd, is he pretty–
came into our space & decided he was going to do what he wanted. It wasn’t because of talent. It was because he could, & I suspect, he just wanted to show us that he could. This is not to say that I don’t think James Franco loves academia or writing–I think he does. It’s an exhausting path to take if you’re just trying to make a point. But there’s something so much more complex about Franco’s choice to get 5231 MFAs than most of our choices to get one. Franco has a point to make.
He wants to take our (sometimes subconscious) elitism down a peg with his performance of “James Franco MFA MFA MFA MFA Ph.D. Ph.D.” Are we really mad about Franco? Or we mad that Franco’s the one getting the attention, not us? Am I mad that Graywolf is publishing Franco’s horrible poems & not my own good ones? (Requisite writerly narcissism: check.) Why do so many academics & writers just feel that internal “squickiness” when someone mentions James Franco, even if they don’t actively loathe him? There’s that pang of something–we just can’t put our collective finger on it. My suspicion is that this pang is that of defensiveness: our MFA, our Ph.D., our poetry, our art, our realm. We slave over years of coursework, suffer through years of student loans, send our poems & chapbooks & manuscripts out for God-knows-how-long before they get picked up (if they ever do). We suffer for this, Goddammit, & James Franco makes it look easy. And since Franco is the figurehead, the one getting the attention, society thereby assumes that this path is easy-peasy.
But where does Franco as the representative public intellectual fit in here? Rothman writes that:
James Franco has ideas—ideas that others have suggested are an extension of queer theory, which rejects binaries in sexuality and other areas of life […] As he told the New York Daily News last spring, he sees art as raw material for more art. James Franco twists existing works into new ones: poems into short films, soap operas into contemporary art. He goes beyond queer theory to create mash-up theory. It asks: What is art? What is celebrity? How do I fit into these worlds? How do we create judgments about what entertainment we consume? And why are you just consuming when you could be creating?
It’s all whys & hows & whats. Franco interrogates–& even when he doesn’t actively interrogate, he forces us to interrogate. He wants us to think about why we value poetry–& good poetry, at that. He wants us to think about the role of the academic in society. He wants us to consider the ways in which we value education, both in relation to & apart from elitism. When we get defensive, it forces us to consider what we loathe about Franco. Is it his (perceived) cockiness & elitism? Then let’s not be cocky & elitist. Is it his privilege? Then let’s talk about privilege. Let’s acknowledge our own–whether that be via connections or money or education or opportunities. Is it his dreadful poetry? Then let’s look at why it’s unsuccessful–is it his lack of creative metaphors? Is it his overly-colloquial diction? Is it his sometimes-cliche approach to his subject matter? Then Goddammit, let’s use new metaphors & think about language as language & thoroughly consider our speakers’ stances. But rather than have these conversations or put in this work, people want to bash Franco. These conversations are what Franco wants to propel, though.
Beyond his participation in the artistic & academic worlds (& often more interestingly–to me, anyway), he himself is an exercise in fire-starting. In a recent interview with Attitude magazine, Franco says, “One of the things that’s very much part of my public image is the question of my sexuality. […] It’s not something that bothers me in the slightest. It hasn’t gone away and I get asked about it from all sides. It’s partly my doing and partly not my doing.” He is cognizant of the way he blurs the lines between “gay” & “straight” both in his life & in his films. At Sundance this year, for instance, he promoted three (yes, three) sex-themed films (covering porn, homosexuality, kink–you name it). Franco’s interest in the public’s interest in sex is fascinating to me.
He’s crossing the line, re-crossing it, & then crossing it in a different way. He is an attractive, masculine, successful male who is not obsessed with looking unequivocally heterosexual (unlike countless men–both celebrities & friends–I could name). His stance of, “Who cares if you think I’m gay–why would that matter?” is one that positions itself in a post-binary world. Franco wants to make us think about why it matters if he–or anyone else–is gay or straight or anything else. Like in his academic & artistic work, “James Franco” the performance piece is an exercise in hybridity–the kind articulated by postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha & Gayatri Spivak. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture explains “the liminality of hybridity as a paradigm of colonial anxiety.” For Bhabha, et al, hybridity is a form of resistance to the kind of cultural imperialism the roots itself in essentialism.
Franco plants himself here. He looks at these binaries (particularly “gay” versus “straight”) & goes, “Wait, but why?” His conscious attempts to blur them, to become someone who refuses to fit into socially constructed binaries, is encouraging. He sees the hierarchical structures inherent in sexuality, art, celebrity, & academia, & does what he can to force us to interrogate them. Is it narcissistic to take this sort of a quest upon oneself? Is this just because, as someone on Facebook lamented today, “[Franco’s] parents told him he was a pretty, pretty princess & could do anything?” Is Franco a victim of “Special Snowflake Syndrome” or is he secretly a genius? Probably both, but maybe we’re mad that he’s acting like a “special snowflake” because we all think we‘re the special snowflakes–we’re the ones writing really original poetry & doing really meaningful work. But what if we got over ourselves for two seconds & considered that maybe–just maybe–Franco has a point?