Culture of Queers
London & New York: Routledge, 2002.
£12.99, 243 pages, ISBN 0-415-22376-8 (paperback).
£45.00, 243 pages, ISBN 0-415-22375-X (hardback).
Richard Dyer is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick.
He is notably the author of Stars (1979)praised elsewhere
in Cercles, of Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay
Film (1990), and of the very impressive White (1997).
Apart from a chapter on 1980s and 1990s gay pornography, The Culture
of Queers regroups those of Richard Dyer's essays that deal with
the culture produced by and/or about gay men (or rather, queers) from
the late 1860s (when "homosexuality" was first conceptualized
as such) to the 1969 Stonewall riots. Among these essays, only "Queer
Noir" and "Homosexuality and Heritage" were previously
unpublishedthe others were released between 1977 and 2000, in
such publications as gay magazines or cinema books. As Dyer specifies
himself, some of the early essays might be deemed a trifle dated,
but that does not make them uninteresting in the least.
The introduction and the first three essays of the collection tackle
general issues, such as the pre-Stonewall definition of queer. Dyer
argues that this sexual category "goes along with other personality
traits", such as femininity (or on the contrary excessive manliness)
and snobbism. Dyer's paragraph dealing with the "social superiority"
of the queer personality is incomplete, etymologically speaking; he
connects the term "queen" (i.e. "effeminate" homosexual)
with the literal sense of the word, whereas "queen" originally
comes from "quean", which once designated a servant girl
with little virtue. Today, of course, the association between camp
homosexuals and female rulers is convenient and meaningful, but it
is not legitimate from an etymological point of view.
Obviously, in many essays, Richard Dyer evokes queer stereotypes,
striving as much as possible to underline their complexities. He demonstrates
that stereotypes are both formative and alienating for queers, both
true and untrue. In "Gay Misogyny", in order to show that
stereotypes are not always untrue, Dyer calls them "myths".
One of them is that queers are supposed to adore women (or rather,
as Dyer puts it, to "ADORE women"): "For starters,
every single one of us loves his mother. There is nothing
we like more than dishing with women friends. We worship
Judy, Liza and Kylie. Now as a matter of fact I happen to know queers
who don't get on with their mothers, can't gossip and don't have a
single diva album" . There is another instance of Dyer's
flexible mind on the subject of stereotypes when he points out the
ambiguity of a film like Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994):
Stephan Elliott's film "may be a drag celebration of femininity,
but the real women in the film are a detestable butch, a whining Philadelphia
popping ping-pong balls from her vagina and a token 'good lesbian'"
In "Coming Out as Going In: The Image of the Homosexual as the
Sad Young Man", Dyer shows that one of the main interests of
the sad young man figure is that it challenges the idea according
to which a stereotype is the static image of a given social group:
the young man becomes old, and his sadness and queerness are often
temporary. As for the essay on the actor Charles Hawtrey, it evokes
what can be regarded as the opposite stereotype. In the Carry On films
notably, the Hawtrey persona represents the camp queen who takes unrestrained
pleasure in switching gender roles. At the end of the essay, Dyer
tells a joke that is heard in Carry On Constable (1960): the
characters played by Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey are in drag
and "decide what names to give each other. Williams says he'll
be Agatha, after his grandmother. He's in full drag and Hawtrey looks
at him, and with a lump in his throat, says, 'If grandmama could see
you now, she'd be so proud'" . This liberating line recalls
a line of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot: Daphne (Jack Lemmon)
is a man who passes as a woman and often enjoys the gender-switch.
But when s/he has a date with a man, her/his anxiety resurfaces and
s/he hopes ardently that her/his mother "never finds out".
Revealing that gender-switchingand by extension, queernessis
not a source of pleasure for the queer who exposes himself to his
family or society's contempt, Daphne evokes what Charles Hawtrey or
Kenneth Williams fail to convey in Constable, i.e. the fact
that to be a queer can also be alienating. In some ways, Daphne situates
herself/himself between the sad young man stereotype and the camp
Analyzing stereotypes is a complex task, and Dyer does not always
take enough precautions, especially when he refers to stereotypes
without really questioning them, or even when he sometimes perpetuates
them. For instance, in his interpretation of gay porn films, Dyer
speaks of gay sex in porn as performance, and asserts that therefore,
such films facilitate the general "perception of (gay) sex as
performance" . But instead of defying this perception, he
adopts a resigned position, arguing that society (which is not ready
to naturalize homosexuality) incites gay men to "enact"
sex acts rather than "express" them. Then, there is no longer
resignation, but satisfaction on the part of Dyer, as he adds that
after all, seeing sexuality as performance is appealing, since it
"does not implicate that compelling notion, the self" .
I for one do not find this stereotype appealing. Challenging it would
perhaps be more interesting. Other debatable remarks can occasionally
be found in "The Politics of Gay Culture" (published in
1980), in which Dyer writes ambiguously about stereotypes such as
the supposed artistic sensitivity of queers.
If Dyer's The Culture of Queers prominently features cinema
(see his essays on Film Noir, heritage films, Fassbinder, Rock Hudson,
gay porn, Marcel Carné's L'Air de Paris and other countless
references), it takes up many other aspects of the topic. Dyer even
ventures to give his own definition of Camp, which is engaging but
inevitably restrictive (an article is too short a format to define
this notion). The pages on queers' dressing codes, and on the links
between homosexuality and vampirism contribute to the richness of
Of course, some commentators will say that Dyer's vision is too queer,
that he tracks queer elements in texts in which they are far from
being obvious. Even though such a comment is sometimes legitimate
(after all, this is what queer theorists do), Dyer cannot be labeled
as an extremist queer critic. In "Queer Noir", he even tells
an anecdote which seems to be a way of countering such critics: Dyer
relates how he was "taken aback" by some of his students
who, during a lesson on homosexuality in Film Noir, detected queerness
in characters he had always regarded as above suspicion. Anyway, the
goal of queer criticism is not really to determine if such-and-such
cultural texts are queer or not, but to play a seditious game which
notably consists in subverting the hegemonic heterocentric western
culture, a game in which Dyer has excelled once more with this brilliant
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