copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
White gay male identity and Warhol
by Margo Miller
Grundmann, Roy. Andy Warhol’s "Blow Job." Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
Gender and queer studies books are famous for apologizing to the various groups they gloss over or exclude. If a study intends to address sexuality, for example, and ends up being mostly about white gay men, reasons are given for leaving out lesbians, people of color, and sometimes the poor. Roy Grundmann’s recent book, called Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job,” is different. Grundmann is admittedly interested only in white gay men, but not for a lack of evidence about lesbians or because addressing ethnicity along with sexuality seems daunting. Instead, he believes that the specificity of white gay male identity has not yet been adequately thought out.
With this book, Grundmann wants to find ways of understanding identification, desire, and performance that account for the whiteness and maleness of white gay men, as well as their homosexuality. The blow job referred to in the book’s title is Pop artist Andy Warhol’s thirty-six minute black and white film. Grundmann sees this 1964 film as commentary on his topics of interest: subcultural practices, psychosexual processes, the currency of images, and constructions of the Other. His central concern is the relationship of white gay men to the U.S. public sphere during the postwar period. The book engages issues of spectatorship, self-censorship, subcultural visibility and discourses of Othering.
Grundmann uses a promotional photograph (figure 8), for East of Eden (Ray, 1955), as a touchstone throughout Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job.” The author sees this shot as a visual analogy for Blow Job, as well as other Warhol work, and popular culture generally. First, it represents the simulacrum of mythic imagery the film seizes on and re-circulates. In a second sense, when Warhol aestheticizes an image, Grundmann explains, it becomes
“a kind of spiral, its central theme spinning out in a potentially endless series of part myths, particular narratives, and appropriations” (80).
This image also fittingly represents Grundmann’s own scholarship on this spiral of cultural images and the role of white gay men in it. He sees gay identity as a productive cultural force that is itself produced by cultural forms such as the tangled myths around Dean’s image. His analysis appears out of this same spiral and feeds back into its abyss.
Grundmann’s analysis of the work Blow Job does on spectatorship, gender, sexuality, and race is submerged in his larger agenda, but his critiques ought to be highlighted. He argues,
“Blow Job’s reflexivity makes spectators intensely aware that seeing a film means projecting onto and investing into the image a part of one’s own self, which is always a socialized, acculturated self” (19).
The film denaturalizes gender by presenting masculinity as one of the many myths it mobilizes. Its star’s “repetitive motions and irregular twitches suggest the incredibly laborious—if compulsory—character of the assignment called gender” (36). Blow Job foregrounds whiteness as a construct by “literally throwing into relief the codes and tools by which white culture produced its own dark sides” (186). In using icons to allude to illicit sex and gay male practices, the film “subversively rearticulates masculinity” and “homosexualizes a spectrum of masculinities” (107).
Grundmann uses the terms “passing” and “posing” in his close readings of Blow Job and in his historical work on white gay male sexuality. Here, “passing” refers to white gay men’s ability to present themselves as straight white men. “Posing” indicates a set of practices gay men used to identify and eroticize each other, such as in cruising and pornography. The position of white gay men in relation to homophobic public spaces influenced gay styles, signifying practices, sensibility, and communities.
Grundmann tracks “gay performance” as opposed to “the closet” to historicize the tension between visibility and invisibility during the 1950s. He argues,
“Much of the decade’s overall textual production, whether authored by dominant or subaltern forces, required 'reading into' a text for the figuration of homosexuality” (83).
In this way, Blow Job becomes an idiom of passing, posing, and of gay performance generally. While watching the film, the viewer participates in the processes that produced gay male cultural modes in this period.
Grundmann refers to Blow Job’s star (the only figure in the frame) as a “poser” because regardless of whether or not he is actually receiving the blow job the film’s title suggests, the audience is aware of his performance. His image remains ambiguous:
“the moment one becomes invested in a specific reading’s plausibility in terms of the cultural assumptions that one has imported into Blow Job’s image, passing turns to posing.”
The film “passes” in self-censoring the illicit act it takes as its title, but its openness requires the audience to imagine what is or is not happening off screen. Viewers, in doing so, are made aware of the assumptions they make in a way that reproduces social tensions around the visibility and invisibility of homosexuality, around public anxieties about oral and gay sex, and about self-censorship like Hollywood character codes.
In Grundmann’s account, psychoanalytic and popular concepts of “hypochondria” mark a middle ground between invisibility and visibility, passing and posing. In the postwar period, dominant culture understand homosexuality as an unhealthy link between mind and body, manifested in effeminacy, but “hypochondria” also describes tactics white gay men used to communicate with each other. Grundmann explains,
“even though hypochondria was typically mobilized by such dominant texts as Tea and Sympathy to relinquish the concrete phenomenon of homosexuality, it arguably carried at least the potential of becoming a structuring paradigm of gender performance and its fluid relation to sexual identity. The positing of a continuum of manners, behaviors, and habits across the divide between hetero- and homosexuality bore out what gay men had known all along—that body movements, mannerisms, and certain cultural practices and lifestyles can always be read in more than one way” (95).
Hypochondria thus indicated an alternative masculinity that camouflaged and communicated sexual orientation and provided the basis for a gay sensibility.
In engaging the figure of the sad young man (as described by Richard Dyer) and other cultural myths and postwar stereotypes, Blow Job becomes
“both a record of historical masculinities and a trendsetting image. It represents postwar images of masculinity at the moment of their subordination to the multifarious spectrum of significations that constituted the 1960s” (63).
Some of the book’s most insightful arguments are about the category of masculinity as an historical construct. Grundmann identifies cultural overlap between gay men and “playboy” bachelors in the 1950s:
“gay-bashing and homophobia notwithstanding, what gay men had in common with heterosexual bachelors and stags was the freedom to celebrate their socialization as males” (110).
Grundmann notes that gay print media were emerging at the same time as ethnographic interest in homosexuality was accelerating, and
“both dominant heterosexual culture and the gay subculture partook in some of the same tropes, discourses and stereotypes, albeit with very different goals” (89).
He argues that the gay beefcake “resignified heterosexual macho masculinity,” “interjecting gay specificity into dominant culture,” through similar forms but different performance codes. Despite their different treatments of the male body in physique magazines, a comparison to straight porn shows that
“the dynamics of gay male and straight male identification are not as mutually exclusive as are their objects of desire” (110).
A tension persists in this book between Grundmann’s desire to establish the importance of Blow Job and of gay masculinity to postwar U.S. culture and his desire to explore the constraints on Warhol’s art and gay culture. Grundmann, like many who write on Warhol, mistakenly animates the artist and his film—makes it active, ambitious, and demanding. In his account, Warhol’s appropriations are uncharacteristically active.Grundmann takes up Roland Barthes and Robert Stam to show how Blow Job “robs” culture, “snatches” myths, and plunders the post-war visual landscape. In doing so, he overlooks the possibilities for “innocent” appropriations more in line with Warhol’s oeuvre. Grundmann’s analysis at times takes the passivity out of the poser and makes the ambiguity of his performance dependent on the film itself as opposed to its viewers and the social context in which they watch. As Grundmann writes, it is the audience’s uncomfortable experience of “sexuality” as a discursive construct and instrument of self-understanding that makes Blow Job so effective.
Grundmann approach sometimes overwrites what I find most appealing about Warhol: the extreme passivity of his public persona and the demand that his work be written upon by others. It undermines the critical aspects of Warhol’s self-effacement, and the brilliance, I think, of Blow Job.
Despite his skilled riffs on the varied, flexible, unstable, and complicated responses we have when we watch Blow Job, Grundmann ascribes the film’s effects to its aesthetic, instead of its audience’s paralysis in a web of eroticized intertextuality (though he suggests that Warhol may have realized the irony of his film only after watching it himself).
Taken as the norm, white gay men have not been studied with adequate specificity. For Grundmann, this leaves a gaping hole in work done on homosexuality. His book attempts to bridge this gap. In one section, he considers men’s phallic identification with respect to pornography, deconstructing the relationship between the penis and the phallus. The “gay phallus” of “masculine-identified men” is one of the crucial sites for understanding gay identity that queer theory shied away from. Grundmann emphatically avoids the post-structural blurring that characterized queer theory, but in briefly relating work by Jean Baudrillard, reminds us of our complex relationships to “either/or decisions”:
“we manage ourselves in the social also by leaving things open; by remaining vague, irrational, and illogical; by giving two contradictory responses at the same time; by reversing decisions halfway and tentatively” (48).
These methods of indecision were Warhol’s expertise. The desire to sustain these complex relationships remains a priority of queer media studies.
Grundmann’s book contains excellent work on the circulation of images and the production of masculinity in terms of race and sexuality. His close readings are remarkable and the context he gives is outstanding. Grundmann does not simply consider several different historical discussions together; he clarifies the cacophony of U.S. voices on homosexuality during the postwar period without compromising their ambiguity. That said, this is not a book written for queer studies scholars or postwar historians, or for fans of underground film and people working on Warhol. Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job,” is a queer studies book aimed at critical theorists who are—like Grundmann—skeptical of cultural studies. In a sense, it apologizes for the politics of queer history with theory. Grundmann’s goal is
“to infuse politically partisan appropriations of images [such as his reading of Blow Job, but also, clearly, work he implicitly critiques] with new methodological subtlety and strength” (15).
He demands queer scholars make their work deserving of acceptance, attempting to achieve this legitimacy in the overtheorized discussions that dominate his book. In order for queer studies to “survive in the current era of potentially homophobic “post-identity discourses,” Grundmann writes,
“their limitations must be attended to with critical acumen and their virtues must be explored and pushed into new directions” (15).
Thus he concedes the impressive historical contributions of his study, and disavows the political value of Warhol’s passive tactics.