Images from Mildred Pierce:
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce, Ann Blyth as her scheming daughter Veda, in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce.
Working-class female friendship and the great Eve Arden.
Halperin calls Butterfly McQueen’s character Lottie, Mildred’s maid, the film’s most moral character, but her role is actually quite small.
Veda is an aspiring musician, an aspect of her character de-emphasized in the film.
Images from Mommie Dearest:
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, posing with her adopted daughter Christina (Mara Hobel) in Frank Perry’s 1981 adaptation of Christina Crawford’s scandalous tell-all Mommie Dearest.
Dunaway adds sexual heat to her portrayal of driven, lonely, tenacious Joan.
Intertextual echoes of Mildred Pierce: the real-life Joan battles against her daughter Christina (Diana Scarwid).
Now, it is the mother who slaps the daughter.
Joan demands to be loved, which Halperin’s book strangely thematizes in its discussion of contemporary queer youth’s indifference, or even hostility, to older gays and forms of gay culture.
The daughter’s defiance: “Because I’m not…one of your…fans!”
Joan appeared in her own daughter’s role on the soap opera The Secret Storm, when Christina was out sick.
The classical Hollywood female star in a no woman’s land of new media and youth culture.
reviewed by David Greven
At this point in his career, David Halperin commands attention as one of the leading theorists of gay, lesbian, and queer studies in the United States. Anyone working in these fields will want to consult his latest book How to Be Gay, a vast, sprawling study of the state of gay culture—its history, its permutations over the decades, and its current state of disavowed but enduring relevance not only to gay people but to those interested in “culture” generally. As the final lines of the book remind—warn—us, “what is at stake is not just gay culture. It is culture as a whole” (457). The longstanding fantasy, one that prevailed even in U.S. society at the height of its homophobia in the 1950s and ‘60s, that gays were custodians of culture, high priests in the temple of beauty, refinement, taste, and fashion, finds a strangely urgent rearticulation in Halperin’s book: strange, given his previous stances precisely against such forms of gay sensibility, urgent because of the momentous and alarmist tone of much of this book.
Lots of small pink post-it notes wave out from the pages of my copy of How to Be Gay. The book is most effective as a useful compendium of information about the shifting cultural understandings of gay culture from the postwar era to the present; of images of and phobic reactions to homosexuality from gays and straights alike; and of Halperin’s own evolving stances to gay culture at large. Indeed, the book is primarily an index to these stances as they have shifted, in Halperin’s own description, from his days as an out young gay man in 1970s San Francisco. There he felt alienated from tribal experiences such as screenings of The Women (George Cukor, 1939) at the Castro movie theater that left him feeling “like I had nothing in common with gay men. At least, nothing in common with those gay men” (40). The book then moves to his current role as (uneasy) champion of the same culture he once recoiled from. The young Halperin as the author presents himself was part of a new, post-Stonewall generation of men who were masculine, who had discovered that “it was possible to be gay without being effeminate,” and who defined themselves specifically by “rejecting gay culture itself” and the sad, loud, effeminate old queens associated with it (41). The young Halperin could not understand this older generation, awash in self-pity and bitchiness that stemmed from self-loathing, and who relished such cultural artifacts as The Women, George Cukor’s 1939 MGM film with an all-female cast, and films that starred Joan Crawford (the villainess in The Women) and Bette Davis. Specifically, Halperin found the use that such films and stars had as opportunities for broad, shared, knowing laughter—in other words, for Camp—particularly bewildering. Halperin devotes a considerable amount of time to the analysis of Camp, willing himself into a Camp position to appreciate its idiosyncratic principles all the more acutely.
Herein lies the chief surprise of this book. The Halperin of How to Be Gay has become a standard-bearer for precisely this older form of gay culture, offering pages—and pages—of involved and at times meandering analysis of the meanings and value of Camp and such iconic gay texts as Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), based on the James M. Cain novel. Starring Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning role as the titular character, Mildred Pierce chronicles the rise of a hardworking divorced mother of two who, through sheer relentless work, becomes a powerful businesswoman who runs a chain of restaurants called “Mildred’s.” Despite her obsessive love for her older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), for whom she even goes so far as to marry a dissolute playboy that she does not love, Mildred is forever stung by the serpent’s tooth of her ungrateful child. Indeed, this indelible noir melodrama is the central text of Halperin’s book, along with a film that is in every way its aesthetic inferior but remains an equally crucial gay culture touchstone, Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981).
A biographical portrait of Crawford, based on her adopted daughter Christina Crawford’s salacious tell-all memoir and driven by a fierce, unrelentingly intense performance by Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest reframes and refracts the central mother-daughter relationship of Mildred Pierce as a battle between the real-life Crawford and the daughter with whom she wages unending battle. In Mildred Pierce and Mommie Dearest alike, the question boils down to the alternately bewildered and brutalizing mother’s anguished one to her alternately cold and scheming and abused and spiteful daughter: Why don’t you love me? For Halperin, full weight of this question extends, surprisingly enough, not to straight culture but to gay men of the present who have rejected gay culture—its icons and touchstones, and its formulas for How to Be Gay.
As Halperin recounts at length, the germ for his latest book was the class by the same name that he offered for the 2000-2001 academic year at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which sparked an immediate backlash when the course description was posted online. Angry emails came both his and the university’s way, not only from conservative straights but also gay men incensed by the programmatic nature of the course title and description. Lambasted in the National Review, which reprinted the course description, Halperin went on to teach the course undeterred, noting that Michigan’s ranking shot up the following year. In many ways, this book is a record of what Halperin did to become gay, the texts and thought in which he immersed himself in order to teach the class.
The doggedly rigorous side of Halperin, trained as a classicist, comes through in the book’s exhaustive and lengthy treatments of a variety of subjects related to earlier forms of gay culture, such as Camp and the love of divas like Crawford, Davis, and Judy Garland, who is mentioned in this book on innumerable occasions. (Despite Halperin’s zealous celebration, in his earlier work, of Michel Foucault, the French social historian makes nary an entrance here. What remains “Foucauldian” is Halperin’s hostile attitude towards psychoanalysis, which he dismisses with a simplistic disdain that I find extremely troubling.) With the zeal of a convert, Halperin explores the significance of the older gay male love for such icons and the cultural texts associated with them. He really does his homework, boning up on Camp, old Hollywood melodrama, and the other dimensions of the gay culture he once disavowed but now makes an urgent case for as necessary and crucial to the fate of gay culture and culture generally. For the most part, the writing and the thinking are both lucid and incisive. The book teems with valuable and multi-layered readings, in which the strange jewels of older gay cultural touchstones are held up to a critical light, first this way, then that way.
The book is a roadmap to the kinds of concerns and debates over gay culture that have come to define it: Is Camp a devaluation of the text or a celebration of it? Is Drag misogynistic or an authentic expression of gay male sensibility? (I could not help hearing the DVD menu compendium of Sarah Jessica Parker’s frequent “headline” questions on Sex and the City: “Are we sexual adventurers or are we sluts?” “I had become my own best Frenemy.”). Halperin’s endless reconsiderations of such critical quandaries certainly have their value—as my pink sticky notes testify. One imagines returning to the text again and again; it is a willed work, a willed testament to the exhaustively considered insight.
The emotional core of the book is Halperin’s deep, sustained worry over Gay Kids, Today. That the current crop of gay young men—and let us establish that, in every way imaginable, this book is exclusively targeted to a gay white male demographic of the older gays who will read it and the young gays who won’t, but urgently need to, as Halperin might put it. The latter have neither interest in nor patience for the older forms of gay culture that Halperin explores at great length and that emerge as the defining concern of the book. (“Why don’t you love me?” Indeed.) Halperin explores this culture, to be sure, but not with the flair and flavor that one might expect from a study of such obsessive length. Halperin, for all of his considerable intelligence and finesse, simply does not have a feel for the gay cultural forms upon which he ruminates here so attentively. He is often good on paper—Joan Crawford’s appeal lies in her fusion of “glamor and abjection”—but to my mind he lacks a queer sense. (His hostile dismissal of the gay classic Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005] and his easy categorization of the Bette Davis melodrama Beyond the Forest [King Vidor, 1949] as “sublimely awful” are two examples among many. His opinions cleave to received opinion whether that opinion is academic or popular.)
Halperin lacks the authentic passion for the material that comes from the fan’s instinct for devotion. The convert to gay culture, Halperin overcompensates, as if atoning for a lack of responsiveness to the cult material with intellectual, at times almost egregiously pedantic, heft. Prolix sections of reconsidered opinions and positions constitute the bulk of the book. Bursting with valuable data and with penetrating insights though it is, How to Be Gay is a wildly repetitive and oddly anxious book that demands the reader to enter into its own state of filibustering anxiety. It’s a Mr. Gay Goes to Washington of a book that seems most interesting and poignant when read as a plea to the younger generation of blithely indifferent queers that older gay culture remains relevant.
As much as I am personally devoted to the older iconic texts myself such as Mildred Pierce—which, at the same time, was never the Camp standard that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? became (Robert Aldrich, 1962)—and as much as I revere Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, I am also aware that some profound shifts in not only the predicament of being gay in the United States but also in terms of shared knowledge and affiliations have taken place in my own lifetime. While homophobia continues to bedevil anyone who is includable in the acronym LGBTQI, the strides that gay culture—still very much with us, in complex and variegated forms that defy the descriptions of it as blank, static, and remote given by Halperin—has made in the past decade alone stagger the mind and uplift the heart. While I share Halperin’s frustration with the lack of awareness of older forms of gay culture in the contemporary communities that now form it, I am also aware that gay culture still matters to queer people—it has simply taken different forms. And it is how and why these different forms have come to be central that is the real topic of conversation and analysis.
Contemporary gay/queer culture is far more interested in RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Amazing Race, or in the Food Network and Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart, and highly idiosyncratic and meta-textual genre works such as Mad Men (a deconstructive television text) and the film Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). These titles and media venues and personalities all evince the homogenization of gay culture into the dominant culture—a phenomenon that Halperin rightly laments, but not one that he illuminates. That Reality TV has become so central to gay culture today bespeaks gay culture’s investment in seeing “reality” and “real people,” not narrative forms of reality. This is not to suggest that narrative is entirely irrelevant to gay culture—it is not entirely irrelevant to straight culture, either. But a lack of interest in narrative along with a much greater interest in Reality and Jon Stewart-style ironic (but also soundly liberal) detachment unites both gay and straight culture of the present, when gay culture and straight culture are, of course, understood in strictly white, Protestant, middle-class, urban ways.
The lack of any sustained attention to non-white or non-urban forms of gay life in this book reminds one of how much of establishment queer theory has been limned by white gay men who remain focused on the same demographic. Ultimately, this book might be titled How to Like Older White Gay Men if You Are a Young White Gay Man. That it yet manages to be an engaging and often insightful book despite its limited purview is both a cause for concern and an indication of its weird, unwieldy value.