I have been looking into the notion of masculinity in relation to gay culture. For this blog post I will be discussing what (Dyer 2002) has written about Charles Hawtrey and Rock Hudson and their contributions to the understanding of masculinity.
For anyone unfamiliar with the actor Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films you only need to look at a short clip of the video above to get a sense of the character he plays. Regardless of the film or character, Hawtrey never changes the personality of who he plays in the Carry On film series. In each one he embodies the gay effeminate man, even whilst playing characters that clearly have wives. This character he consistently plays takes ‘campness’ to the extremes, which in effect makes the audience believe he is undeniably gay, but in choosing to continue to play this stereotype whilst at the same time playing a straight character is used as a comical tool.
“The unambiguous ambiguity of Hawtrey’s sexuality works well in both upping the already obsessive innuendo stakes of the Carry On films and in undermining any vestiges of commitment to masculine values.” – Attitude Magazine May 1994
What this quote suggests is that Hawtrey is making a mockery of the typical expected heterosexual character portrayed in the media. By living up to peoples expectations of a gay man he is quite obviously challenging conventions of the masculine man.
This is perhaps more clearly seen in his performance in ‘Sergeant’, when he plays an in-take of the National services recruits. During the film the army make an attempt to ‘make a man’ out of him, but his character fails as would be expected. This is not for a lack of trying, Hawtrey in fact does the exact opposite and over exaggerates any attempts at masculine behavior. Through doing this he “ends up showing how utterly ridiculous stiff, violent, normal masculinity is.”
Whilst his behavior can be seen as an attempt to point out the ridiculousness of masculine values, he was also seen as hindering the Gay Liberation Movement, by living out the stereotype of the effeminate gay man. By solidifying the association between gay men and women much of the straight laughter at Hawtrey could be seen as oppressive, this suggests that the gay stereotype is something inferior to masculinity.
This is just one way that masculinity has been challenged, but looking at a different gay actor from the same era, Rock Hudson did something completely different. He often played leading roles in romantic comedies during the 1950’s & 1960’s. An extremely popular American actor who fit the ideal image of a masculine man, he was muscular, tall, square jawed, likeable and clean cut. Having lived most of his life secretly gay he died of AIDs in 1985.
The characteristics listed above didn’t fit the image of a gay man, worlds apart from Charles Hawtrey. Unfortunately it isn’t hard to believe then that it was a shock when Hudson revealed his sexuality. He was always thought of as someone men could model themselves off, because of his masculine features and women loved, he just was not someone who fit their expectations of a gay man.
Media coverage of his ‘coming out’ only encouraged the disbelief from society, as newspapers featured headlines such as “Rock Hudson’s Jekyll and Hyde Existence”, “Secret Torment of the Baron of Beefcake” and “Legend that Lived a Lie”. Such comments made by newspapers reinforce the idea that homosexuality is something that has to be announced, especially if you don’t fit the gay male image. A similar example in contemporary society would be the recent ‘outing’ of Tom Daley, which was massive topic of discussion on social networks as well as printed media.
It was less of a shock for people to find out James Dean (an actor from the same period) was gay. In a film ‘Giant’, which featured both Hudson and Dean, the comparison is clearer. Deans approach to his character “suggests someone ill at ease in the world, marginal and insecure”. In contrast Rocks character is described as one of ‘normality’, someone “securely in his place in society”. Rocks image fits the “security of the heterosexuality”, whereas Deans image shows the “insecurity of gays positions in society”.
“Rock, in effect if not in intention, seems to subvert the security with which ideas of masculinity and femininity, normality and heterosexuality, are held.”
Both Charles Hawtrey and Rock Hudson challenge the notion of masculinity, although at either extremes. Whilst Rock embodied the ideal straight man, subverting the usual portrayal of a masculine role model, Hawtrey took ‘campness’ to the extreme. This over exaggeration of the gay stereotype at times make a mockery of masculine traits and show the ridiculousness of them.