This is the opening shot to each show, the Detroit skyline.

Ray removes his clothing, walking from Detroit's downtown financial district to his house in the suburbs.

Reaching the edge of his dock at the end of the opening credit sequence, Ray jumps into the water.

During the pilot episode, viewers are given multiple shots of the Tiger Stadium being torn to the ground.

Ray approaches the door of his first client in a blue collar.

Ray's client changes her mind, presumably as a result of Ray's manner of dress, which the show makes clear in later episodes.

The conclusion of the first episode features a homeless man pushing a shopping cart, flying the U.S. flag.

Ray wears his long-sleeved blue collar shirt, part of the cheap suit that Lenore convinces him to discard.

Ray sports one of his many plaid shirts while working on his home.

Lenore feels Ray's suit and knows instantly that it is from a discount store.

Again, Ray dresses in plaid while repairing damage to his house.

Ray attempts to purchase "half a ridge beam" from the hardware store. Again, we notice the plaid shirt underneath his coat.

Ray begins to undress for Molly.

When Ray take his pants down, Molly realizes that he is "nothing like [her] husband."

Ronnie, the dermatologist, sports a white collar.

Yael begins having sex with Ray as a trade to keep her husband from filing complaints with the city concerning Ray’s zoning violations.

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:

  • he is a basketball coach and a teacher at a high school where jobs are being cut back;
  • his wife, Jessica (Anne Heche), has left him for Ronnie (Eddie Jemison), a dermatologist;
  • his kids, Damon and Darby (Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee), cannot live with him because his house has burned in a fire;
  • his next door neighbour, Koontz (Loren Lester), has no sympathy for him, filing complaints to the city for his property’s zoning violations; and
  • he has let his insurance payments lapse, which results in Ray having to live in a tent until he can find the funds needed to repair the fire damage to his home.

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.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 55 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.