[14 June 2011]
Didn’t you notice it, Bwick? Didn’t you notice a powuhful and obnoxious oduh of mendacity in this woom?
—Elmer Fudd as “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Woof
When high school jock Dave Karofsky (Max Adler) kissed Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) in the Glee episode “Never Been Kissed”, it shocked audiences. After all, Karofsky had tormented openly gay Kurt for the past year and gave every appearance of being the biggest homophobe on campus. Subsequently, Karofsky has struggled with his own homosexuality and remained deeply in the closet. However, he’s not the first character whose sexual orientation caught viewers off-guard.
After being fired, ADA Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Roehm) of Law and Order dropped a bombshell that shocked viewers, when her character was fired. “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” Serena asked? The character of Serena was on the series from 2001 to 2005, meaning there was ample opportunity for her to disclose her orientation, so it seemed unusual to hide such a significant factor in determining Serena’s world view. Aside from taking a stand in opposing the dissolution of gay marriages, the perspective a lesbian would bring to the legal process wasn’t evident.
Other series have masked characters’ orientation, as well. The most noticeable example would be Love, Sidney, which hid—or just failed to mention—the sexual orientation of lead character Sidney Shorr (Tony Randall). In the TV movie that served as the basis for the series, it was made quite clear that the 50-something, single Shorr was gay.
In contrast, there’s the sudden revelation of a character’s orientation, most frequently used for female characters who surprisingly decide they are, at minimum, bisexual, so that the series’ writers can work in a lesbian love story. Pages could be devoted to analyzing the convoluted relationship of Callie, Arizona, and Mark on Grey’s Anatomy.
Over the years, television has featured numerous hidden homosexuals, but they’re not the first LGBT characters to mask their identities. Throughout history, plays have masked the sexual orientation of characters, as well. One of history’s most witty playwrights, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned for homosexual acts; his plays featured many characters who are homosexual in demeanor but conform to social conventions, as Wilde did, marrying and producing two sons while taking male lovers on the side. Wilde wasn’t alone, though, in sneaking LGBT characters into works. In fact, one of America’s greatest playwrights and the world’s most clever rabbit both helped set the precedent that has made it to TV.
Had he lived, Tennessee Williams would have turned 100 this year, a celebratory event for dramatists and Williams aficionados. Naturally, such an occasion calls for endless retrospection, which said dramatists and aficionados have been eager to supply. Of course, what would an analysis of Williams be without the requisite study of the subtle signs of homosexuality in his work? Unfortunately, many of the analyses focus only on the film versions of Williams’ work; while he did write the screenplays for many of his stage works, he knew that a sanitized version would have to be written to pass Hollywood censors and studio execs, not to mention Middle America’s homespun values. A woman who sleeps with her husband’s best friend—well that’s hardly admirable but palatable for dramatic purposes. A husband who sleeps with his best friend—not going to happen, at least not in the ‘50s while the Hays Code prohibited films from even discussing homosexuality.
The stage version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made it clear that jock Brick couldn’t be intimate with his wife, Maggie the Cat, because of his deep love for best friend Skip, and it’s evident that this love was physical as well as emotional. The 1958 film changed the cause of Brick’s disinterest to be his wife’s infidelity with Skip, the betrayal of both wife and best friend enough to drive the former athlete to alcoholism. However, actor Paul Newman honored the original script in his performance, showing a particularly painful pathos in his discussions of Skip, an emotional scarring missing in his reflections over Maggie’s betrayal.
William’s conflicted feelings about his homosexuality are a recurring theme in his work, but it may not have been by choice. In Notebooks, edited and published in 2006 (Yale University Press), he mentions his problems working onA Place in Stone, the working title for Cat, on 3 April 1954:“I wrote sort of messy today on ‘Place of Stone’. The intrusion of the homosexual theme may be fucking it up again”. Yet, intrude it did, not just in Cat, but also in Suddenly, Last Summer and A Streetcar Named Desire.
This last work, in which homosexuality appears only in Blanche’s stories of her suitors, best represents the dichotomy of William’s personality, the conflict between the gentile South and the new, post WWII South. Williams’s biographer Donald Spato observes that the playwright longed to be “the hard-drinking, openly homosexual writer with nothing to hide—and at the same time, a man of his own time, a Southern gentleman from a politer era who would never abandon propriety and privacy”.
This internal struggle is projected into his work, as he pushed social mores by including gay subject matter in his writing, without allowing it to dominate and through veiling its discussion in circuitous language. Perhaps the most telling clue as to how he viewed not only his sexuality but also his characters’ can be found in a brief notebook entry from when he was thirty-two, in 1943: “I have accepted sex as a way of life and found it empty, empty, knuckles on a hollow drum”.
Still, it was a drum that beat incessantly. In Brick, Williams creates an Old South homosexual; despite his drunkenness, he is a man of his word and his love for Skip is deep and true. Conversely, Suddenly, Last Summer‘s Sebastian Venable represents the less discriminating Williams, willing to engage in meaningless sexual escapades for temporary gratification. Blanche’s husband in A Streetcar Named Desire thus serves as the character who best represents the Old and New Southern homosexual, torn between his traditional role as the spouse of a Southern Belle and the contemporary role of a lover of other men. There is undoubted significance in the fact that both these embodiments of the modern, non-discreet gay man are dead before their respective plays begin.
It’s possible that Williams saw his first male-on-male kiss in popular culture before he conceived the early drafts of A Streetcar Named Desire. That is, if he attended a matinee in 1940 and caught the Warner’s Brothers’ cartoon “A Wild Hare”. It was here that Bugs Bunny first kissed Elmer Fudd. Over the next few years, Bugs continually seduced Elmer, as well as other foes. It may seem a stretch to connect the intellectual Williams with a slapstick cartoon character, but both pushed sexual boundaries and allowed viewers to consider sexuality outside of the conventional heteronormative values prevalent under the restrictive Hayes Code.
With Bugs, sexual ambiguity is a weapon, used to disarm opponents; his frequent kissing of same gender characters invariably causes those characters to become disoriented long enough for Bugs to escape or place into action his next plan for revenge. Thus, the same-sex kiss has no intimate purpose. On several occasions, Bugs shows unbridled lust for a female character, but by and large, his world consists of other males. This, of course, is not a consequence of Bug’s own choosing, but one thrust upon him by cartoonist Chuck Jones, but it nonetheless creates an all-male society in which Bugs must provide the feminine yin to the macho yang of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and the Coyote.
This femininity manifests not only in Bug’s kisses, but also in his numerous appearances in drag. Here he becomes seductress, argues Sam Abel in the Journal of Popular Culture (“The Rabbit in Drag: Camp and Gender Construction in the American Animated Cartoon”, Winter 1995), noting that Bugs is “not only pretending to be a woman, but a highly sexualized woman”. Yet this seduction is just one reason for Bugs to do drag; he also uses it to humiliate his opponent, who suddenly finds himself in drag, or to surprise the audience, usually through a sneak peek of Bugs in women’s clothes, for which he feigns modesty.
Abel offers other clues to Bugs’ sexual ambiguity: his language and demeanor. Bugs repeated use of “gay” lingo, such as the often used “Oh, Mary”, implies knowledge of gay culture. When combined with effeminate behavior, this creates a distinctly male character presenting himself as womanly. For example, in both “Hair Raising Hare” (1946) and “Water, Water, Every Hare” (1952), Bugs pretends to be a beautician to foil the aggressiveness of a large orange monster, making such comments as “My stars. If an innnteresting monster can’t have an innnteresting hairdo, then I don’t know what things are coming to.” Although not in drag, Bugs behavior and vocal quality make it clear that he has assumed a female persona.
This is not to suggest that Bugs is gay, simply that he has little respect for sexual roles. “On the one hand,” Abel notes, “he is a thoroughly masculine character, even butch. Yet he can play the entire range of gendered behaviors, without anyone calling his masculinity into question.” Not unlike Tennessee Williams, it seems.
This similarity is an unusual footnote in LGBT history, but the significance is far more note-worthy. During a time period when LGBT characters were rarely seen on stage or screen, or even in public, Bugs and Tennessee pressed sexual issues that allowed LGBT characters to be visible. Because their works were seen by millions of people who had never (knowingly) met a homosexual or cross-dresser, they opened doorways for countless playwrights and screenwriters to take the next step; ripping off the veil of hidden sexuality to openly expose the lives of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans persons. It was a first step in allowing the mass public to understand and accept LGBT persons—and cartoon characters—via media presentation.
So, as you wave your flags and attend your marches this Gay Pride month, raise a cheer for Bugs and Tennessee, while you’re at it. Without them, we might never have learned how conflicted Karofsky is, or that Southerlyn is a lesbian.
Cheers, Queers, to CNN’s Don Lemon, who came out as gay. Lemon’s coming out not only provides another high-profile example of an LGBT person who excels at his/her job, it also gives young gay black men a role model, something young gay black men could use more of. Also, Cheers to Rick Welt, President and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, for coming out, providing a positive role model for gay athletes.
Here’s Mud in Your Eye to the rash of pro athletes and coaches who have been hurling homophobic slurs at whoever has pissed them off. The obligatory and clearly insincere “Gee, I’m sorry” routine has worn thin.