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"Not Queer Enough: 'Playing the Man: New Approaches to Masculinity'"

Playing the Man: New Approaches to Masculinity, edited by Katherine Biber, Tom Sear and Dave Trudinger; reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield, 6 Oct. 1999

I had problems with Playing the Man from the start. It seemed there were no other gay men about. In the introduction the editors explain how the book resulted from a conference on masculinities organised through the University of Sydney History Department. Surprisingly, for a book with its genesis in one of the world's largest gay cities, there is no introductory discussion of gays or their experiences of playing the man, playing against him, or playing with him. There is, however, a picture of Ian Roberts -- well-known (gay) beefcake Rugby League player -- playing a straight man on page three. The photograph shows him in 'Ocker' drag: thongs, shorts, singlet, terry-towelling hat, holding a stubbie of beer in one hand and making an "Up Yours" gesture with the other. The editors proudly claim the photo as "our resolutely Yobbo rendering of Roberts" (2). But why make the gay man play straight rather than making the straight boys play gay?

The editors acknowledge that "research by indigenous students into indigenous masculinities, remained unaddressed at the conference [and in this book]" (12), but make no mention of research by gay men into gay masculinities, or why such contributions are marginalised in Playing the Man. There are no out gay male contributors to this collaboration. Were gay researchers invited to share their views on masculinity? The claim that "there is a lack of academic rigour in many contemporary approaches to masculinity", with "the present state of these inquiries in Australia [being] inherently uncritical, self-referential, self-important, reactionary and frequently anti-feminist" (12) leads one to ask why no inquiry was made into whether these approaches were homophobic or anti-homophobic.

Gay theories are not consulted from the outset: "Playing the Man was, and remains, a feminist project. We interpreted the popular response to it as an affirmation of the importance of feminism to studies of masculinity, and as an opportunity to remedy the isolation of those students working through masculinities within a feminist context" (12). While so pro-feminist, the theoretical grounding of the project remains too singular: "This collection is infused with the premise that feminism still offers the most compelling frame through which to view men and power" (12). Unfortunately, pro-feminist does not necessarily mean pro-gay. The infusion of anti-misogynist views throughout the essays in Playing the Man is well and good. However, such an undercurrent, without joining an equal tributary of anti-homophobic perspectives on men and power, leaves some men up the creek without a paddle.

Elizabeth Stephens's essay on representations of homophobia in the novels of Jean Genet is the queer and clear exception. Stephens draws on the works of gay male writers (Genet, Edmund White) and gay theorists (Jonathan Dollimore, Leo Bersani, Alan Sinfield) to assess claims that the eponymous straight-acting gay man in Genet's Querelle comprises a homophobic representation of masculinity. She draws an important conclusion about the construction of Western masculinities: "If homosexuality cannot define itself outside of the strictures of heterosexuality, Genet makes clear, neither can heterosexuality ever entirely rid itself of the existence of the homosexuality that threatens it" (74). Stephens's hardly new approach resonates with that of anti-misogynist and anti-homophobic (self-labeled 'queer' rather than 'feminist') theorist, Eve K. Sedgwick. Her Between Men and later works unravel the complex threads between homosexuality and homophobia that bind homosocial male relations. This line of reasoning should have been followed through by other contributors to Playing the Man. Instead, the rest of the collection generally downplays the significance of anti-homophobic theories as a means of fracturing hegemonic constructions of masculinity.

Melinda Mawson's essay is a case in point. In her discussion of the gendering of mass-murderer Martin Bryant in media narratives that followed the Port Arthur massacre, Mawson takes feminist theorising to a strange extreme. She claims that "Bryant is curiously constructed by and through the media as a phallicised child or woman" (153), such that "he is a man in biology, but not necessarily in behaviour" (153), and concludes confusingly that Bryant has been "portrayed ... not only as an 'abnormal' man, but also as not a man at all" (160). Her observations are based on court reports about Bryant's "rosy lips", "wild frizz [of gold hair] to his shoulders", and "slight lisp" (155).

Let me set the record straight. The assessment is correct that Bryant has been constructed as childish and feminine (indeed, 'effeminate'), but he has not been represented as a woman! Rather, the media has coded Bryant in the historical form of the psychotic male homosexual. Press articles testify to this configuration. After establishing Bryant as a practicing heterosexual through interviews with two of his ex-girlfriends, it was revealed in one article that "the final straw for [his ex-girlfriend] Jenetta ... was Bryant's increasingly apparent attraction to other young males" (Mickelburough). After the removal of Bryant to a prison hospital, the press then related that "Bryant, more corpulent [now] ... is segregated once again, though not isolated, from other prisoners ... for making [read homo-] sexual advances" (Montgomery). The front page of The Australian even carried a photograph of Bryant in which the eyes were digitally adjusted to seem more demonic. If Bryant was not a weird-looking, fat, gender-bending, serial-killing, oral-anal homo-monster before the massacre, then the media would have to make him one in hindsight.

In her queer essay "Monsters of Perversion: Jeffrey Dahmer and The Silence of the Lambs", Diana Fuss identifies how the spectacular oral-anal figure of the killer homosexual has been constructed in mass media and popular films. An article in the Australian press -- "Licking of Lips Led to Murder in Park" -- fits this profile. By using this headline without parentheses, The Australian attributed the blame for the brutal murder of a gay man (who had licked his lips in public) to his (homo)erotic orality rather than to the ultra-homophobic attitudes and actions of the heterosexual man who murdered him. Like Bryant, this murderer took the performance of hyper-heteromasculinity to its logical ultra-violent end. Mawson, in her feminist reading, does not mention these other media narratives or address how such representations construct "homosexuality" as the very reason for (heterosexual men to commit) murder or for (gay men) being murdered. Her claim that Bryant was represented as a woman may serve hyper-feminist ends, but it does nothing for gay men who have to deal with the repercussions of actual homophobia in the media -- such as that in the Bryant example.

Mawson is not the only contributor to avoid the potential of queer theory. Katherine Biber, in her compelling essay on death and masculinity in Australian cinema, neglects serious assessment of gay films such as Priscilla and The Sum of Us. In this queer cinema -- contrary to their hetero counterparts -- the gay and bisexual lead men live relatively happily ever after. The only illustration of 'intimacy' between men in Playing the Man accompanies Biber's essay. The close-up still from Idiot Box -- subtitled "Mick Watches as Kev Dies" (36) -- depicts one man's face just above another's in what elsewhere could have represented a sex scene. Some comment might have been made here about how such public expressions of closeness between (heterosexual) men (in violent or near-death situations) are valorised in Western mainstream cinema, while love-making scenes between (non-hetero) men have been heavily restricted.

In his interesting article on the gendering of ideal female and male roles amongst Vietnamese Buddhists, Alexander Soucy makes the rather startling claim that in that country, "hegemonic masculinity is not constructed in opposition to homosexuality as it frequently is in Europe and North America" (127). On the contrary, as Soucy himself explains, "although there are homosexuals in Hanoi, most people that I spoke with denied it, saying that there were only homosexuals in the south, often blaming their presence on foreign/Western influence" (127). This itself means that hegemonic masculinity in Northern Vietnam is defined against both local gay and Western capitalist masculinities which merge to form the 'invisible' queer other.

The editors stress that "all of these papers show the kernel of a critique that is a valuable start to a new debate" (12). If this "new debate" is about forging anti-misogynist heterosexual masculinities then it should be encouraged. However, the willingness to engage with indigenous representations of masculinity should extend as readily to gay ones (and what of those men that cross both camps?). This 'new man' must also develop an anti-homophobic politics that will require radical changes to his outlooks about his power and his body. The outright rejection by the female and male editorial team of what seemed an important paper on the "subjectivities" and "sensitivities" of the male foreskin (5) suggests that some gender researchers have silly reservations about putting male bodies under the theoretical microscope. Feminist re-presentations of vulval imagery were an important part of anti-misogynist investigations into the politics of the female body and similar research is needed to interrogate hegemonic representations of male sexual organs. Why no discussion of foreskins in Playing the Man, but several reproductions of pulp novel covers showing sexist images of naked or barely-clad women in the last chapter?

Gay, lesbian, other feminist, and other gender studies (particularly those of masculinities), should all share the common goal to be anti-gynophobic, anti-androphobic, anti-xenophobic, and anti-homophobic, even though negotiating the definitions of these aims may lead to debates as lively as those on the meanings of 'queer'. Imaginary 'opposites' rather than actual 'differences' are mentioned too often in Playing the Man. If the editors had set out in principle to be as anti-homophobic as they had to be anti-misogynist, then perhaps the straight boys would have played gay rather than making the gay man play straight.

Playing the Man: New Approaches to Masculinity. Eds. Katherine Biber, Tom Sear and Dave Trudinger. Annadale, NSW: Pluto, 1999. ISBN: 1-86408-065-8; RRP: A$ 24.95.


Fuss, Diana. "Monsters of Perversion: Jeffrey Dahmer and The Silence of the Lambs." Media Spectacles. Ed. Marjorie Garber et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 181-205.

"Licking of Lips Led to Murder in Park." Weekend Australian 11-12 Feb. 1995: 3.

Mickelburough, Peter. "Ex-Lover Tells of Torment over Possible Motive." Courier-Mail 9 Nov. 1996: 5.

Montgomery, Bruce. "$5000 a Death: Bryant Pays for Massacre." Australian 27 Apr. 1998: 3.

Sedgwick, Eve K. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosociality. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

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