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Ride ‘Em On Down: The Sublime Queerness of Kristen Stewart

An ode to the fuckers. Bleary eyed and half awake I found myself scrolling the nebulous of social media news, while cocooned in the thick rolls of my protective, duvet cover. It was a downcast, autumnal morning - the kind where the clouds are too dense for the sun to shine through. It seemed like a fitting allegory for life. Trump had not long blagged his way to US presidency with policies of racism, homophobia and misogyny. Warnings of a “hard” brexit were plaintively countered by an unelected prime minister promising the “best deal” for an austerity based Britain. 2016 had so far consumed some of the most iconic souls in history- swallowing them whole, in a hungry fit of foreshadowing. It’s not much of a world to want to get out of bed for. Cathartic releases are so desperately craved, if only for a short fix from such a fucked up world; YouTube cat videos have never had higher ratings.

 

Following several, aimless thumb swipes, I stopped, captivated by a James Dean-esque image of one of my all-time favourite, unashamedly elusive, actors. Drenched in a sweltering, crimson hue, she sits confidently in the driver’s seat of a bold, blue Mustang. Wearing sleek sunglasses, she peers cooly into the wing mirror of the car, her parted lips complimenting a chiselled jaw. I shifted up the bed at once, squinting at the article headline:‘Kristen Stewart in Rolling Stones’ New Video for “Ride ‘Em On Down”’. It’s not that I care much about the latest Rolling Stones album release: I have never been able to reconcile their songs with their sexism, and I continue to believe that the Stones’ legendary status is actually testament to the phenomenal talent of their backing vocalists (think soul singer Merry Clayton in the chorus line for ‘Gimme Shelter’). Rather, it is the way in which Stewart’s undoubted coolness completely overshadows the newly released single by a group of perpetually successful, ageing, white men that gets me giddy. The blues cover, saturated with shrill guitar riffs and accented, full-flavoured chord progressions, is of course part of the video’s rock and roll, post-apocalyptic-Americana aesthetic. However, it is Stewart’s enigmatic energy, as well as her interpretation and embodiment of the music, that takes center stage.

The video begins with Stewart exiting a partially gated grocery store, with a paper bag and crate of beer cradled underneath each arm. The late LA sun gleams across her face as she observes the suspiciously silent streets. The introductory, diegetic sound allows only the faint whisper of her breath to be heard against the quietness of the air. There is a cut to a tracking shot, which follows her as she strides toward the parked-up Mustang. It is as if - while donning worn, high-waisted, denim jeans, and a torn, white T-shirt - she claims the deserted landscape for the collective future of a failed, post-millennial generation. The juxtaposition of nostalgia with a newly ‘out’, genderqueer figure like Stewart serves to turn the superficiality of Hollywood - something that Stewart has been subjected to throughout her career - on its head. Flicking her boots at a glaring, low-angled, camera, she takes the driver’s seat and starts the engine. As she wrenches the Mustang into gear, the first riff of the Stones’ newest single jerks into play and the car tears out into the concrete wilderness. Wrapping her hand around the steering wheel, Stewart swerves across the desolate, city landscape, swaying to the trance-like rhythm of the blues, while licking a lollipop. This particular composition of character has the potential to fall into the problematic trope of “good girl gone bad” and other coquettish images painted for patriarchal, masturbatory pleasures. The ethereal exuberance of Stewart’s open queerness, however, counters such perverse and parochial stereotypes. An extreme close-up of her stained, blue tongue around the sweet candy serves as an example here: rather than a hetero-sexist, soft porn gesture, she exudes a fervent “fuck you” to the toxicity of Hollywood stardom. Years following the Twilight franchise (blockbusters that, excluding Catherine Hardwicke’s first installation, only repressed Stewart’s aptitude as an actor), she has established herself, once again, as the captivating, androgynous figure who competently encouraged sexual awakenings of queers* (such as myself) the world over, in films like The Safety of Objects (Rose Troche, 2001) and Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002). Indeed, she seems to have valiantly risen - like a phoenix out of the ashes - from the post-RPatz, slut-shaming epidemic (a sexist, media frenzy that left Robert Pattinson and Rupert Sanders relatively unscathed) that cast an overwhelming shadow over her underrated performance as Snow White, in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).  

 

If the vigorous joyride in the Ride ‘Em On Down music video serves as a metaphorical rebellion against the heterosexual, feminine-esque Bella Swan that had come to be expected of Stewart, then it also conveys a complete rejection of the ways in which her body has been mercilessly policed throughout her years as a young, female actor. The empty, spaghetti-like roads of downtown LA symbolise a space that is now hers: once partially hidden behind her onscreen roles and silenced by an implicitly homophobic and sexist establishment, she is now quite literally out and proud.

 

As the video progresses, we see Stewart throwing her upper body out of the car window while driving: there is no traffic- so she doesn’t care. She is high-spirited and carefree, smiling and laughing as she slices through the wind with her rock and roll, vintage motor. After a cut to a close-up framing an old-school zippo lighter nested between her dark-painted fingers, another cut to a close-up shot that shows her handsome face in profile: the lit cigarette, dangling effortlessly from her lips as she dances carelessly amidst an abandoned gas station. Shunning meticulous choreography, Stewart moves her body to the blues without need of instruction. Sliding herself down a petrol pump pillar, next to a red-painted sign that reads ‘No Smoking’, she acknowledges the camera’s gaze and smirks, with her cigarette still intact. She’s done being told what to do.

 

Back on the road, a burning car is emblazoned by the setting sun. Suddenly, a police siren cuts through the sound of the Stones and she observes the stalking car nervously, as she pulls over. A red-neck-type antagonist slides a finger across the body of the car as he approaches, before rapping the glass with dirt-smeared knuckles. “Where’d ya get the gas?” he asks, leaning into the vehicle. She remains poised and unfettered. Looking straight ahead and without acknowledgment, she replies, “mile back”. The camera follows her arm as she reaches out and grasps a metal crowbar leaning against the passenger seat, “you should probably get outta here,” she says, in a low, cool voice. It is a significant sequence in the music video that further establishes her agency and strength.

In a post-apocalyptic scenario that parallels all too well with the impending Trump administration and its catastrophic and corruptive power, a queer woman is reclaiming her space, as well as defending her right to have that space. This is made clearer still, as she races down the concrete banks of the LA river, in a forceful rage that is reminiscent of Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). She speeds down the expansive, manmade strip as if etching territory out of tyre tracks, from one side of the city to another. Making sharp turns and burning circles across the shallow carpet of water, she growls alongside the Mustang’s purring engine, to the soundtrack of the Stones.  Reinforcing the abstract aesthetic of this reimagined world, she slams on the breaks as a lone zebra crosses her path. It’s a new kind of “zebra crossing” for a reappropriated, queer, landscape that is built on women’s choice and compassion. Stewart has made it clear: she makes her own rules now, and at this point in history, it’s important that we all do.  

 

Watch Ride ‘Em On Down here. 

Words by Laura Nicholson

 

 

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