copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

Sartorial signifiers, masculinity, and the global recession in HBO's Hung

By Chris Vanderwees

The title of HBO’s series, Hung, obviously refers to the size of Ray Drecker’s (Thomas Jane) penis. But the word “hung” also has other connotations as it denotes “deflation, death, and twisting in the wind.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] These connotations accurately describe Ray’s character as well:

As one reviewer remarks, “[Ray] is hanging by a thread.”[2] Hung attempts to explore the economic recession that began in late 2007, using Detroit, Michigan as representative of the nation’s financial problems. The show’s commentary on the economic recession and the subprime mortgage crisis is certainly not subtle. One reviewer claims that the show exposes the “fraying of the American dream and the battered resiliency of the middle class.”[3] The “Pilot” episode, for example, concludes with a shot of a homeless man pushing a shopping cart with an U.S. flag fastened to the side through the streets of Detroit. Detroit has become “ground zero of declining Rust Belt America, the symbol of a nation in economic mid-life crisis.”[4] Just as the show uses Detroit as a symbol, Ray also functions symbolically as a “genuine Everyman”[5]—a representative of those Americans suffering from the affects of the recession. Hung parallels elements of Ray’s life with images of the recession’s affect on Detroit’s landscape. The first episode, for example, opens with the U.S. flag flying next to the demolition site of the Tiger Stadium, former home to Detroit’s national baseball and football teams and cuts to various images of dilapidated factories and a crumbling Motor City industrial park as Ray remarks,

“Everything is falling apart and it all starts right here in Detroit, the headwaters of a river of failure.”[6]

Ray refers not only to the recession’s impact on Detroit but also to the regrets he has about his life and current monetary situation: Ray moonlights as a male prostitute with the help of his friend and pimp, Tanya (Jane Adams), in order to survive financially. Throughout the first season Hung dramatizes the loss of the American Dream and the absence of prosperity. In the forth episode, Ray says that when he was younger, he was granted a prestigious baseball scholarship, and later he had a contract with the Atlanta Braves until a ligament injury foiled his hopes of becoming a major league baseball star. In his words,

“I’ve tasted and come close to greatness.”[7]

Ray, however, sees himself as more of a failure than anything close to “great.” He struggles with feeling inadequate as a father, as an athlete, and as a teacher. This aspect of Hung has led many reviewers to draw comparisons between Ray and Harry Angstrom, the former high school basketball star who makes a living as a car salesman in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.[8] Like Angstrom, Ray is in a mid-life crisis, unable to achieve various aspects of the American dream.

While reviewers and scholars address Hung’s relationship to the current economic climate and compare the show to various popular representations of male prostitutes or American mid-life crises, I will discuss how the sartorial aspects of Hung also produce a commentary on working class or blue collar U.S. masculinity and financial instability. Although Hung has now been cancelled after running for three seasons between 28 June 2009 and 4 December 2011, the show serves as a peculiar example of masculinity in crisis after the global economic recession that began in 2007. In this article, I focus on the show’s first season as this season more deliberately attempts to deal with the recession’s aftermath.

Throughout, I refer to Pamela Church Gibson’s identification of two male archetypes in Hollywood films. These oppositional male archetypes, which she distinguishes as “rough” and “smooth,” will be helpful in examining Hung’s sartorial elements. Drawing on Gibson’s observations, I contend that Hung relies uponsartorial signifiers to construct and reinforce a dichotomy between poor working class males as masculine and affluent white-collar males as effeminate. In this TV series, Ray’s clothing allows him to negotiate an identity between blue-collar masculinity and white-collar effeminacy in order to survive financially. I argue this dichotomy between blue-collar and white-collar men effectively (re)masculinizes Ray (and by extension, blue-collar men in general), as he works toward “passing” as a white-collar male in order to regain a certain amount of financial stability. Although Ray dabbles in white-collar dress in order to make money, he retains masculine superiority over other male characters as the show consistently associates his physical endowments with blue-collar aesthetics and masculinity. Over the course of Hung’s first season, Ray’s character becomes a working class, masculine fantasy in a time where many working class people suffer from economic hardships.

Before continuing further, I think it is important to examine how Hung constructs Ray as a symbolic figure, a representative of the mid-life, blue-collar plights in the contemporary United States. From this examination I hope it will become clear why the show must produce part of its commentary on the recession through Ray’s clothing and costuming. The writers’ decision to use a high school teacher as the show’s protagonist is a curious one. In the “Pilot” episode, the audience learns that Ray is a teacher – a middle-class, non-manual labourer – but the show quickly attempts to assign his job a low-paying blue-collar status. Ray describes his salary in working class terms:

“You know what a public school teacher makes these days?...More than a waiter, less than a plumber.”[9]

While Ray does receive a salary rather than an hourly wage, Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt write, “[Ray’s] low-paying job makes him, for all practical purposes, working class.”[10] However, according to the Detroit Federation of Teachers 2009-2010 salary schedule, Detroit teachers are paid over a ten-month period anywhere between $39,647 to $73,216 depending on variables of seniority and level of education.[11] Although the definition of the term “middle class” might be murky territory, it seems difficult to consider this salary range one of working class status. Regardless, it seems that Ray’s job is not obviously one of working class status or the audience could do without the justification. Further, why would the show’s writers choose a teacher as their protagonist in the first place? Why not write Ray’s character as an auto-factory worker or a mechanic if the show aims to comment on the recession’s affects on Detroit’s working class economy?

In Education in Popular Culture, Roy Fisher, Ann Harris, and Christine Jarvis discuss a wide variety of movies and films that feature teachers. They find that teachers in popular culture occupy many different class positions in overlapping and inconsistent ways. Here, the authors summarize some potential assumptions about teachers from the perspective of students’ parents in order to illustrate the variety of roles that teachers can play in popular culture:

“Teachers may be perceived by less educated parents as people who have succeeded where they themselves have failed or were not interested. But they may also be seen as representative of a kind of labour that is not ‘real work,’ and certainly not real manly work. By comparison, teachers working in wealthy middle-class areas among well-educated parents are likely to find that many parents earn far more than they do and that pupils expects ‘better’ jobs than teaching. These teachers may still be respected if those parents value education generally. Indeed, some of the parents will themselves be teachers. On the other hand, although associated with education, some parents will recognise that teachers deal with relatively low-level knowledge, suitable for children, and may regard them less as scholars than as a childcare facility that enables the parents to pursue their high-level careers. There are numerous permutations of these perspectives; the point is that the social status of the teacher is ambiguous.”[12]

If the teaching profession in its ambiguity resists such categorizations as “blue-collar” or “white-collar” work, then it becomes clear why Hung’s writers must put so much effort into justifying Ray’s status as working class. The class ambiguity of Ray’s job is significant for a couple of reasons. In Gender and Everyday Life, Mary Holmes notes that the “classical, rational, controlled masculinity” of white-collar workers is usually differentiated from the grotesque form of masculinity associated with working-class men: “[working-class] bodies are often represented as excessive (often obese) – think Homer Simpson.”[13] She also writes that many popular culture representations associate “working class masculinity with nature and a potential for violence, signalled by muscles.”[14]

Although Ray is handsome and athletic, bulging weight-lifter muscles are absent from his physique. And although Ray self-identifies as working class, his teaching job puts him in contact with parents, children, and the general public, removing him from the negative associations of working class labour. Ray’s teaching job renders him a more palatable member of the working class for a wider television audience. This is important as HBO primarily gears its programming toward the “affections of an educated upper-middle class.”[15] Since the recession, many members of the middle-class have a fragile hold on this class position due to job loss or a flattened or falling income. Further, despite whether or not a teacher makes a middle or working class salary, the more important point is that teachers in the United States are constantly defending their worth and their jobs always seem to be in the balance as exemplified by the recent dispute between Governor Scott Walker and teachers unions in Wisconsin. Although Ray self-identifies as working class, it might be more accurate to describe him as a member of the working class who has slipped from his middle-class position. Ray’s unstable teaching position and his fall from the middle-class allows HBO’s middle-class audience to better identify with him and appeals to Americans who have suffered financial or job losses since the recession.

Ray is also white. He is a white basketball coach in Detroit. For that matter, the entire first season of Hung is overwhelmingly white without a single African American character in all ten episodes. This is an appalling omission given racial demographics in Detroit. In America in Black and White, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom write:

“By 1990, Detroit stood out as the most heavily black of America’s major cities, with its three-quarters of a million African American residents accounting for 76 percent of its total population.”[16]

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that percentage has not changed as of 2009. During the Great Migration, many African Americans travelled from Southern farms for Northern factories. Many of these factories were in Detroit. In Social Polarization in Post-Industrial Metropolises, Donald R. Deskins discuss part of the reason African Americans migrated to Detroit:

“A major contributor to the city’s magnetism was Black access to job opportunities in the Detroit-based automobile industry which can be attributed to the United Auto Workers (UAW) and its egalitarian hiring policies. Although most of the jobs accessed were classified as low-skilled, they provided Blacks with stable employment and a higher income relative to that available to Blacks employed in other industries and places.”[17]

Not surprisingly then, African American unemployment in Detroit rose significantly during the recession that began in 2007. For example, Mary M. Chapman of the New York Times reported in December 2008 that nearly 20,000 African American autoworkers had lost jobs. She writes,

“As in most recessions, blacks have been hit harder than other workers. The overall unemployment rate for blacks increased to 11.2 percent in November [2008]….By comparison, the national unemployment last month was 6.7 percent.”[18]

With Detroit’s large African American population and its auto-industry employing many black workers, why not cast an African American male as the Hung’s protagonist? There are a few answers to this question, but the most obvious one is that the writers cannot cast a black actor without the show becoming overtly racist. In The Cultural History of the Penis, David M. Friedman elaborates on black penis size stereotypes that European explorers and scientists produced from the 1500s onwards:

“Despite their different starting points, most racial thinkers based many of their most important conclusions on the same criterion – the African’s penis. It was stared at, feared (and in some cases desired), weighed, interpreted via Scripture, meditated on by zoologists and anthropologists, preserved in specimen jars, and, most of all, calibrated. And, in nearly every instance, its size was deemed proof that the Negro was less a man than a beast.”[19]

As Hung follows the troubles of a teacher with an exceptionally large penis, casting a black actor as Ray Drecker would be overtly racist for obvious reasons. Casting a black actor would also foreground undesirable stereotypes of working class masculine excess and violence as Lewis Ricardo Gordon writes, “a black penis, whatever its size, represents a threat” for white society.[20]

But further, Ray’s whiteness and the show’s whitewashing of Detroit points to racial assumptions about the middle-class American Dream. In many ways, the American Dream is a white ideal. In Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty, Arlene S. Skolnick writes,

“The concepts of home and family constructed by the white middle class in the nineteenth century became the core of what came to be thought of as the American way of life and the American Dream.”[21]

Although many non-white immigrants may arrive in the United States looking for a better way of life or to provide a better life for their children, that way of life continues to be modelled on white middle-class standards of living. In Facing up to the American Dream, Jennifer L. Hochschild writes that becoming American is “in many ways intricately tied up with becoming white, in contradistinction to nonwhites.”[22] Inevitably, the American Dream becomes part of white identity and whites, historically, have felt a sense of entitlement to “the American way of life.” In American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia, Erica Arthur writes that in recent years the sense of white entitlement to the American Dream has eroded:

“The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed powerful challenges to the assumption that white men alone were entitled to pursue the American Dream – and that white masculinity, therefore, could be defined through this sense of entitlement….The exclusive interrelationship between white masculinity and the American Dream eroded, some white men reacted adversely to their loss of entitlement, in many cases attempting to preserve that exclusivity.”[23]

Casting Ray Drecker as a white male allows the show’s writers to avoid overt racist stereotypes that would be entangled with the show’s premise, but Ray’s skin colour also effectively recasts the American Dream as a white male fantasy of prosperity. This fantasy also enables the writers to target a white middle or working class audience that might identify with Ray’s feelings of masculine inadequacy in a time when the American Dream appears as less of a reality than ever. Ray’s symbolic weight as an Everyman whitewashes Detroit and hides the recession’s impact upon non-white working class labourers while appealing to a white middle-class audience.

Ultimately, Hung’s sartorial elements become necessary in order for an audience to recognize and identify with Ray as a working class male fantasy. If Ray’s teaching job places him in an ambiguous class position at the sacrifice of making him more palatable for a wider audience and if his skin colour serves to disassociate him from Detroit’s working class in the auto-industry, one of the only ways to solidify Ray as part of the working-class is to continually justify his blue-collar status through sartorial signifiers.

Obviously, Ray’s blue-collar aesthetic is a performance. Ray’s display of masculinity through clothing can be understood in terms of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, as behaviour that is “structured by repeated acts that seek to approximate the ideal of a substantial ground of identity.”[24] In other words, Ray’s masculinity can be described as “dramaturgical” where it must be “sustained by continual work of presentation management on the actor’s part.”[25] In Bodies That Matter, Butler further elaborates upon the repetition of gender definitions:

“The linguistic categories that are understood to ‘denote’ the materiality of the body are themselves troubled by a referent that is never fully or permanently resolved or contained by any given signified. Indeed, that referent persists only as a kind of absence or loss, that which language does not capture, but, instead, that which impels language repeatedly to attempt that capture, that circumscription – and to fail.”[26]

Ray’s gender performance in terms of clothing operates in a similar fashion. Butler writes, “Every effort to signify encodes and repeats this loss.”[27] Understood through Butler’s theory of gender performativity, I contend that Ray’s masculine performance is troubled by unresolved referents that point at his failure to uphold aspects of various masculine ideals. Ray’s clothing may emphasize his performance as a blue-collar worker, but as Butler’s theory of performativity maintains, these performances are always troubled by unresolved referents. For example, Hung “associates [Ray] with loss and failure.”[28] Ray feels he has failed at various masculine roles: husband, father, and athlete. He says,

“I wanted the house, but I had a tent. I wanted to stay married, but my wife ran off. I wanted to play ball, but I taught history. I wanted to teach, but I was going to lose my job.”[29]

It is no coincidence that Ray voices these failures as he is tearing down walls, fixing the fire damage to his house. Ray has failed at certain blue-collar ideals of masculinity, but is able to repair his house while wearing a blue plaid mackinaw shirt, effectively repeating and (re)signifying his blue-collar masculine performance. When Ray arrives at the local hardware store to buy a beam needed for the structure of his house, he says,

“It felt like a symbolic kind of thing, ordering a beam. One foot in front of the other. A step in the right direction, you know?”[30]

A visit to the hardware store is symbolic for Ray as it (re)signifies his masculine performance. Ray arrives at the store wearing a red, black, and grey plaid mackinaw shirt while conversing with the hardware store clerk:

RAY. [Puts his money down on the counter] That’s just enough for about half of a structural beam, right?
CLERK. What kind of beam do you have in mind exactly?
RAY. [In a frustrated and harsh tone] A house beam! A structural beam to enjoy for many years to come.
CLERK. I guess you mean a ridge beam? Well, one forty three wouldn’t buy you half a ridge beam. In fact, we don’t even sell half beams! What good is a half beam anyway?[31]

The visit to the store is part of symbolizing Ray’s masculinity until the clerk discovers that Ray does not really have any concrete knowledge of carpentry or home repair. The mackinaw shirt indicates Ray’s attempt to perform as a manual labourer, but this performance is obviously undermined by the clerk. Of course, in terms of Butler’s theory of performativity, Ray’s masculinity will always be troubled by unresolved referents and so he must continue to repeat this performance, which partly involves wearing certain types of clothing in order to approximate and uphold an ideal.

Ray’s working class performance is what Pamela Church Gibson would call a “rough” male aesthetic. In “Brad Pitt and George Clooney, The Rough and the Smooth,” Gibson explores the difference between what she calls “rough” and “smooth” masculine aesthetics in Hollywood cinema. Her main discussion focuses on the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, claiming that it is “a seminal text and perfect model of current codes of costuming in contemporary Hollywood.”[32] Using Brad Pitt and George Clooney as examples, Gibson argues that there are two main types of male costuming in films, which she distinguishes as “rough” and “smooth.” Here, she briefly describes the rugged and scantily clad style of the “rough” male:

“The ‘rough’ image, personified by Pitt and currently so fashionable – for the bodies of the Calvin Klein models are now offset by designer stubble and tousled hair – renders the male body available, as opposed to the protection provided by the concealing, sheathing suit. Jeans hug the buttocks, T-shirts reveal the biceps and pectoral muscles, the chest may be bared or visible underneath an unbuttoned shirt, and tousled hair hints at body hair beneath. The ‘rough star’ constantly disrobes – while the suited man, personified by Clooney, is usually kept from view, the hints of physical strength shown through shots of arms, hands and the occasional topless moment, always an integral part of the plot and invariably fleeting. Lastly, of course, the ‘rough’ look suggests not only the man of action but more importantly the blue-collar worker and proletarian roots.”[33]

With his jeans, plaid shirts, tousled hair, and stubble, Ray easily fits the “rough” male style that Gibson identifies. For example, throughout the first episode, Ray often wears jeans, blue golf shirts, and blue button-up shirts with blue-collars, emphasizing a masculine working class aesthetic. Although jeans have more recently come to be worn by many social classes for both work and leisure, Diana Crane writes that they remain associated with “physical labour and ruggedness….[and] the American West.”[34] Ray also wears a variety of long sleeved plaid shirts when he works on his house, tearing down walls and repairing fire damages. Blue and red plaid mackinaw shirts are often associated with the attire of lumberjacks,[35] adding credence to Ray’s working class masculinity. By contrast, Gibson sees George Clooney’s “smooth” male style of dress as the direct opposite of Brad Pitt’s rugged aesthetic:

“Clooney is invariably seen on screen fully clothed; he is the suited hero, the antithesis of the rugged, bare-chested man so ready for action. The suited hero, of course, harks back to an earlier ear in the history of Hollywood. He may indeed possess the ‘pumped-up pecs’ needed to meet today’s exacting standards of male beauty – but his body is in the main outline of his clothes, sheathed rather than stripped. Unlike the body of Pitt, that of Clooney is not presented to us as festishistic spectacle. It is, rather, hinted at – tantalising glimpses may be provided and the contours be clear at moments, but the effect of conventional ‘smart’ menswear – sports jacket and slacks as well as the suit – is to shroud and sheath.”[36]

While Gibson’s “rough” and “smooth” archetypes are useful distinctions, it seems that Hung complicates this dichotomy. For Gibson, “rough” and “smooth” costumes are two different styles of male dress that share the common purpose of sexualizing the male body and reinforcing hyper-masculine personas. Brad Pitt and George Clooney may dress differently, but their costumes serve the same end in marketing their masculinity and sex appeal.

Hung, however, complicates this dichotomy between “rough” and “smooth” as the show constructs and reinforces a dichotomy between blue-collar masculinity and white-collar effeminacy throughout the first season. Hung relies on “rough” blue-collar fashion in order to authenticate Ray’s working class status, but the show does not construct “smooth” male styles of dress as suave, sexy, or masculine in the way Gibson describes. Hung does, however, assign financial value to white-collar clothing. For example, Ray slowly learns that he must upgrade his wardrobe in order to assign value to his sexual services, an upgrade that simultaneously troubles Ray’s masculinity.

One example of this appears near the end of the “Pilot” episode after Ray has put an advertisement in the local newspaper for his sexual services and has secured a date with a woman at a luxury hotel: the Motor City Casino-Hotel in Detroit. He arrives at the door of his client’s room and knocks only to find a note on the floor that says, “Sorry, I’ve changed my mind.”[37] In this scene, Ray wears a light brown jacket over a long sleeved blue-collared shirt. Ray’s beige sports coat appears as an attempt to hide his blue-collar status, signified by the shirt underneath. Looking at Ray through the door’s peephole, the woman is disappointed by his appearance and sends him away. Later, Tanya tells Ray that he has to “sell [himself] better,”[38] market himself better towards affluent women. In order to do this properly, Tanya recommends that Ray wear a suit and tie. When Ray puts on a suit and arrives at Tanya’s so she can inspect him, he explicitly voices discomfort with wearing clothing that exists outside of his blue-collar performance:

RAY. I hate suits!
TANYA. It looks good.
RAY. I don’t wear this shit. I feel like a friggin mortgage broker.[39]

Crane writes,

“the rising cost of the suit and changes toward the expression of social class distinctions have restricted its use to a narrow range of upper-middle-class occupations.”[40]

It makes sense then that Ray would associate the suit with a white-collar worker, a mortgage broker. Crane also writes,

“Being interested in fashion and clothing behaviour tends to be interpreted as effeminate. A man who is considered masculine does not need to care about his appearance, because his masculinity is not considered to be a function of appearance.”[41]

Of course, Ray’s blue-collar work clothes, his blue jeans, the plaid jackets he wears when working on his house are also part of a performance, but Hung associates these clothes with masculinity. David F. Greenberg writes, that often “white-collar work [is] not physically demanding and thus [does] not confer masculinity.”[42] Ray’s objection to wearing the suit lies in his fear of feeling like a mortgage broker, his fear of feeling or appearing effeminate through wearing white-collar clothing.

Hung continually reinforces this dichotomy between white-collar effeminacy and blue-collar masculinity most often through sartorial signifiers. The two main affluent white-collar characters in Hung are Jessica’s new dermatologist husband, Ronnie, and Ray’s attorney neighbour, Koontz. Lehman and Hunt briefly describe Hung’s affluent male characters in terms of their masculine status in the show’s “Pilot” episode:

“[T]he wealthy men in the show…are exceedingly unappealing. The rich guys even look similar. Both are short with a soft appearance and no signs of athletic prowess. Ray on the other hand is a tall ex-jock and classically handsome. Before we see Ronnie, Ray refers to him as an ‘overcompensating little fucker,’ a label confirmed in stereotypical ways the second we see the short man tending meat on his grill at a…backyard party. Everything about [Ronnie] suggests that he is far from well-hung. Ray’s arrogant neighbour, Koontz, lives in a McMansion complete with Grecian statues and acts in an overly aggressive boastful manner, another cliché about men overcompensating for small penises.”[43]

Hung also supports these claims through sartorial signifiers. In the “Pilot” episode, for example, Ronnie and Koontz often wear white-collared shirts under other articles of clothing, signifying their effeminate status as non-manual labourers. Ronnie’s masculine performance of barbequing steaks for his guests is undermined by the long, feminizing apron and large oven mitt that he wears while tending the grill.[44] These sartorial items are more representative of domestic chores than they are of masculinity.

The “smooth” white-collar style of George Clooney is entirely absent from Hung’s first season. The show does not portray the men who conform to white-collar dress codes as suave or sexy in the way Gibson describes, rather they appear as unattractive and inadequate. For example, both Ronnie and Koontz are also unable to please their wives sexually. Koontz’s wife, Yael, begins having sex with Ray as a trade to keep her husband from filing complaints with the city concerning Ray’s zoning violations. Yael phrases this by saying, “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.”[45] (“The Rita Flower or The Indelible Stench”), insinuating her white-collar husband’s sexual inadequacy. Ray’s ex-wife, Jessica is also unsatisfied by her new husband, Ronnie. Ronnie is unable to “charge her batteries.”[46] Hung feminizes white-collar men, representing them as unable to satisfy their wives due to their inadequate physical endowments. Ultimately then, the show constructs and reinforces a dichotomy between blue-collar men who are “hung” and white-collar men who are not.

The fourth episode of Hung also reinforces this point through matters of clothing. In this episode, Molly, a woman who is wealthy by extension of her white-collar husband, seeks Ray’s sexual services. Tanya arranges a date between Ray and Molly at an expensive hotel. When Ray meets Molly, he is dressed in a black suit and just before they begin to have sex, Molly sits down on the bed and appears frustrated:

RAY. What’s wrong?
MOLLY. My husband Richard…He wants to have sex with me every morning at 6 a.m…That’s the way he wants to start his day…he says if we don’t have sex, he can’t start his work day and he’ll end up cheating on me. But he’s terrible at sex. He has no talent for it. No equipment for it…I’m sorry. I can’t go through with this.
RAY. You mean, you don’t want to do anything?
MOLLY. Every time I think of intercourse, I see his face. I think you should go.[47]

Ray is only able to convince Molly to have sex with him when he removes his suit. While taking off his shirt, Ray says, “It’s my job to make you forget about your husband.”[48] Molly can only forget about her white-collar husband’s inability to please her when Ray removes his white-collar clothing. As Ray pulls down his pants, Molly looks at Ray’s penis and says, “I’ve changed my mind, you’re nothing like my husband, are you?”[49] Ray replies “I doubt we have much in common”[50] and he embraces Molly as they proceed to have sex. This scene fully articulates the dichotomy between white-collar and blue-collar workers and the significance that Hung places on clothing differences. Molly can only see Ray as different from her husband when he removes his white-collar clothing and appears naked. Molly associates Ray’s suit with her husband’s lack of “equipment” as the suit appears to be the only thing that prevents Molly from forgetting her husband in order to embrace Ray. In this way, Hung equates white-collar dress with effeminacy, small penises, and strong financial health, conversely equating blue-collar dress with masculinity, large penises, and poor financial health. Essentially, Hung signifies Ray’s large penis as an attribute of the working class.

At the end of Hung’s first season, Ray and Tanya’s business begins to fail. Clients begin to pay them less and less money for Ray’s sexual services. In the second episode, Tanya arranges a date with one of her business associates, Lenore. Lenore is a personal shopper for the wives of white-collar men and is therefore concerned with fashion and appearances. When Ray arrives at Lenore’s house and she sees Ray in his suit, her comments foreshadow Ray and Tanya’s loss of higher paying customers:

RAY. Hi there.
LENORE. [Looks at Ray] Not bad. Where’d you get that suit, though?
RAY. Uh, somebody bought it for me.
LENORE. Well, let’s see. [She feels the fabric of the suit] JT Warehouse, going-out-of-business sale, 75% off.
RAY. [Shrugs] I’m not sure.
LENORE. I am.[51]

Lenore immediately recognizes Ray’s suit as cheap and reveals Ray’s white-collar performance as inauthentic. Ray’s suit is not valuable and by extension, Ray’s services are devalued. Finally, when Lenore hears that Ray and Tanya’s business is suffering, she offers to become a partner. Lenore helps Ray better market himself towards affluent women, bringing him to a clothing store after hours to try on a designer suit and teach him about fashion:

RAY. I’ve already got a suit.
LENORE. Yeah. That’s a crap suit, Ray. [Holds up the designer suit] Try this on…Go ahead…[Ray puts on the designer suit] Hey, Ray how much do you think these shoes are worth? [Holds up a pair of stilettos]
RAY. I don’t know.
LENORE. Seventy-nine, ninety-nine. How about these? [Holds up a different pair of shoes]
RAY. No idea.
LENORE. One thousand two hundred and fifty dollars. Do you know why? Branding. These shoes are Christian Louboutin. [Holding up the designer shoes] These shoes are shit. [Referring to the cheaper pair] Women buy Louboutin because they are buying quality, but more importantly, they are buying what the Louboutin represent: the best.
RAY. Sounds to me like they’re getting a bad deal.
LENORE. They don’t care. That’s the crucial thing you need to remember. Paying more doesn’t bother them; it gives them piece of mind. If they wear something of value, that means that they intern have value. You shouldn’t be lowering your price in this economy; you should be raising it.[52]

This scene marks the first time Ray puts on a plain white-collared shirt throughout the series. As Ray tries on this suit, he sheds his working class performance and performs as a white-collar male instead. Ray must wear the designer suit to assign value to his sexual services in order to maintain and increase his fees. So long as Ray wears “the best” designer suit, his clients will more highly value his services. Regardless of the new suit’s value, Ray voices his frustration with his new attire as he says,

“So, there I was at a fancy hotel bar, wearing a suit that I hated even more than the last one.”[53]

Presumably, Ray hates wearing the suit even more than his original black suit because it makes him feel like more of a “mortgage broker.” In other words, the suit makes him feel more effeminate due to its designer qualities along with the white-collared shirt underneath that signals white-collar effeminacy within Hung’s constructions of gender. Although Ray’s new suit attributes value to his sexual services, Hung continues to represent white-collar clothing as less than masculine. Ray is privileged over the white-collar men in the show, as he is able to mediate between white-collar clothing that assigns value to his services, surviving the economic downturn, while also dressing in blue-collar clothing to repeat and (re)signify a masculine performance.

Finally, the introduction to Hung that precedes each episode is significant to a discussion of Ray’s masculine blue-collar status. Ray walks from Detroit’s financial district past various city landmarks, wearing a suit. He strips articles of clothing from his body, throwing his tie and belt on the ground, his suit jacket in a public garbage can. Eventually, Ray arrives at his fire-damaged house in the country, down to his boxers. He takes off his boxers at the end of his dock and jumps in the lake. Ray is able to strip each piece of white-collar clothing from his body to reveal his blue-collar masculinity. His nakedness and the show’s title draw attention to his large penis, which the show always associates with blue-collar masculinity. Ray’s nakedness naturalizes his “rough” blue-collar status, whereas his “smooth” white-collar aesthetic is degraded, left on the ground and in the garbage. Ray effectively becomes a “naturally” masculine blue-collar ideal in a time of economic instability. The show communicates that if the working class cannot attain wealth through hard work, at least this they can maintain a masculine status over white-collar workers who might remain relatively stable despite the financial downturn (exemplified by the wealthy but effeminate doctors and lawyers in the show). Ray’s final words at the end of the season affirm this ideal:

“I used to have a family, I used to have a wife, kids, a house, a job. And now? Well, now I have my dick – a dick and a dream – if that’s not the American way, what is?”[54]

Ray sits in a chair wearing a Detroit Red Wings sweatshirt and jogging pants, athletic clothing. His clothes signify the paradox of gender performance, simultaneously pointing to his masculine status as a coach and his failure as a pro-athlete. Ray’s words confirm that although he may not have the white-collar affluence to support his wife and kids or to rebuild his house, he is able to maintain his blue-collar masculinity through a “dick and a dream.” Ultimately, Ray becomes a blue-collar fantasy through his ability to commodify his penis. This fantasy functions in two main ways. First, it is a revenge fantasy as Ray is able to figuratively fuck white-collar men by literally fucking their wives. But this fantasy also functions to reconstruct the need for blue-collar men in a financial climate where many men are rendered unemployed and feel useless. In her Atlantic Monthly article, “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosen summarizes the recession’s affect on male notions of identity:

“[W]hat if the economics of the new era are better suited to women? Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you. It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance….[F]or the first time in history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who no hold the majority of jobs. The working class, which has long define our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions….The post-industrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today – social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus – are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”[55]

Hung points to the fear that men will lose their ability to distinguish themselves from women through male dominated labour. Ray’s ability to assign financial value to his penis, his masculinity and maleness through clothing, selling his blue-collar male qualities to white-collar women dramatizes the fantasy that women will always need blue-collar men for sexual satisfaction. Hung’s first season indicates that while a designer suit might assign value to the person wearing it, blue-collar performativity is more valuable in terms of legitimizing one’s male identity to others than any amount of white-collar financial wealth.


1. Nancy Franklin, “This Gun for Hire: The Secret Life of an American Schoolteacher,” The New Yorker. 6 July 2009: 88. [return to text]

2. Alessandra Stanley, “Gifted and Talented in a Grown-Up Way,” The New York Times. (New York, NY), Jun. 26, 2009.

3. Reed Johnson, “Hung Speaks to People Disillusioned with the American Dream,” Los Angeles Times. (Los Angeles, CA), Jun. 28, 2009.

4. Ibid.

5. Mary McNamara, “Review: Hung on HBO,” Los Angeles Times. (Los Angeles, CA), Jun. 26 2009.

6. “Pilot,” Hung, DVD, HBO, Directed by Alexander Payne (2009; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010).

7. “The Pickle Jar,” Hung, DVD, HBO, Directed by David Petrarca (2009; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010).

7. Johnson; Stanley.

8. “Pilot,” Ibid.

10. Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt, “Hanging by a Thread,” FlowTV, <http://flowtv.org/2009/07/hanging-by-a-threadpeter-lehmanthe-university-of-arizona-susan-huntsanta-monica-college/>

11. Detroit Federation of Teachers, “2009-10 Salary Schedule – 10 Months (39 weeks),” Detroit Federation of Teachers. AFTMichigan.org, 2010. <http://mi.aft.org/dft231/index.cfm?action=article&articleID=bf8c4433-d22b-4a75-8f66-80fccd4efdde>

12. Roy Fisher, Ann Harris, and Christine Jarvis, Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners (New York: Routledge, 2008), 45-46.

13. Mary Holmes, Gender and Everyday Life (New York: Routledge, 2009), 90.

14. Ibid.

15. Christopher Anderson, “Overview: Producing an Aristocracy of Culture in American Television,” The Essential HBO Reader (Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2008), 34.

16. Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail M. Thernstrom, American in Black and White: One Nation,
Indivisible (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 248.

17. Donald R. Deskins, “Economic Restructuring, Job Opportunities and Black Social Dislocation in Detroit,” Social Polarization in Post-Industrial Metropolises, Ed. John Vianney O’Loughlin and Jurgen Friedrichs (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), 259.

18. Mary M Chapman, “Black Workers Hurt by Detroit’s Ills,” New York Times. (New York, NY), Dec. 29 2008.

19. David M. Friedman, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of The Penis (New York: The Free Press, 2001), (106-107).

20. Lewis Ricardo Gordon, Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism in a Neocolonial Age (Lanham: Rownman & Littlefield, 1997) 83.

21. Arlene S. Skolnick, Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 23.

22. Jennifer L. Hochschild, Facing up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995). 243.

23. Erica Arthur, “American Dream,” American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia, Ed. Bret E. Carroll (New York: The Moschovitis Group, 2003), 26-27.

24. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990), 192.

25. Kenneth Clatterbaugh, “What is Problematic about Masculinities?” Feminism and Masculinities. Ed. Peter F. Murphy (New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 207.

26. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 67.

27. Ibid, 70.

28. Lehman and Hunt, Ibid.

29. “A Dick and a Dream or Fight the Honey,” Hung, DVD, HBO, Directed by Dan Attias (2009; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010).

30. “The Pickle Jar,” Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Pamela Church Gibson, “Brad Pitt and George Clooney, the Rough and the Smooth: Male Costuming in Contemporary Hollywood,” Fashioning Film Stars, Ed. Rachel Moseley. (London: British Film Institute, 2005), 63.

33. Ibid, 69.

34. Diane Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 176.

35. Agnes M. Larson, The White Pine Industry in Minnesota. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 195.

36. Gibson, 66.

37. “Pilot,” Ibid.

38. Ibid.

39. “Great Sausage or Can I Call You Dick?” Hung, DVD, HBO, Directed by Craig Zisk (2009; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010).

40. Crane, 174.

41. Ibid, 179.

42. David F. Greenberg, “Transformations of Homosexuality-Based Classifications” The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy, Ed. Roger N. Lancaster et. al. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 188.

43. Lehman and Hunt, “Hanging by a Thread.”

44. “Pilot,” Ibid.

45. “The Rita Flower or The Indelible Stench.” Hung, DVD, HBO, Directed by Jim McKay (2009; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010).

46. “A Dick and a Dream or Fight the Honey,” Ibid.

47. “The Pickle Jar,” Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. “Great Sausage or Can I Call You Dick?” Ibid.

52. “This is America or Fifty Bucks,” Hung, DVD, HBO, Directed by Seith Mann (2009; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010).

53. “A Dick and a Dream or Fight the Honey,” Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Hann Rosen, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic. July/Aug. 2010. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/8135/>

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