Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Architecture isn’t just about space, physics, or shelter. It’s about majesty and humbleness, practicality and style, posing and preening—in short, about image creation on the grandest possible scale. For those who question this generalization, a quick foray into the essays and art collected in Stud: Architectures of Masculinity will banish all doubt. Stud’s contributors don’t just deconstruct architecture’s poses: With a repetition apparently as unconscious as it is compulsive, they echo them.
Stud muses on males, forms, and male forms in a mixture of academic essays, documentary photos, and artistic montage. The essays construct towers of hefty academic prose around topics like electric knives, urban streets, and bodybuilding. The photos reflect the reality of shapes in space, and range from abstract images to blueprints.
But this isn’t merely a book about structures and gender anxiety. It is itself a structure—or a collection of structures—riddled with anxieties about gender and everything else. As a result, Stud’s own “architecture” is almost more interesting than the ideas it supports.
The very organization of the collection seems heavy with meaning. If Stud were a house, the first essay, by Steven Cohan, would be its grand entranceway; its last, by D.A. Miller, would be a forgotten upstairs closet. Cohan’s piece directly follows editor Joel Sanders’ introduction, while Miller’s is buried in an unrelated photo series. It’s hard to know if anything was intended by the placement of these pieces, but the differences between them are striking. Cohan sets out with joyless thoroughness to expose the subtexts at work in Pillow Talk, the 1959 Rock Hudson/Doris Day film. Miller brings much less precision, far fewer words, and a good deal more evident pleasure to a meditation on piano bars.
Why is Cohan first—and more importantly, why is Miller last? The answer can’t lie in the authors’ relative importance, for Miller is a marginally bigger name than Cohan. It can only be a stylistic judgment that pushes one into the foyer while relegating the other to the attic.
The key lies with Cohan’s style, which will be familiar to students of cultural studies in general and gender in particular. Call it “academic gumshoe.” The detective must track down slippery gender signals, which are notorious for evading the pointing finger of proof. To counter an established “truth”—in this case, that Pillow Talk is nothing but a fun-loving romp containing no masculine anxiety whatsoever—the critic can only pile up his own stack of signifiers that, taken as a whole, suggest the opposite.
This makes things difficult for the gumshoe. With no clues, how can he make a dramatic summation? Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, he simply bluffs. For instance, there’s really no way for Cohan to “prove” his assertion that there are double meanings hiding in Pillow Talk’s trailer. So he pulls out the jargon, explaining that the trailer covertly acknowledges Hudson’s gayness by “allud[ing] to the carefully cultivated heterosexuality of [his] star persona.” Where is the “evidence” to prove this, and for that matter, what does it mean? In what sense can a film trailer “allude” to anything so abstruse, either accidentally or deliberately?
The fact is, Cohan hasn’t got any evidence. Despite all his fancy language, he’s still just offering an opinion, not the “truth.” The best he—or any critic—can hope to do is nudge the reader into skepticism, and from there to sympathy with his position. “Come on,” he might wheedle. “People knew Rock was gay! Don’t you think that would show up somehow?”
But wheedling is no fun for professors—and it can be downright dangerous when funding’s on the line. Proof is what counts, even when you’re discussing the unprovable. Proof impresses tenure committees, conference organizers, and editors. If you don’t have it—if the very nature of your topic resists it—you follow Cohan’s strategy. After 12 pages and one irrelevant illustration, he triumphantly deploys that oh-so-authoritative phrase, “As I have shown.” Aha! The King of Detectives has solved the case of Rock and Doris. Bring on the next movie.
Then there’s Miller’s little essay. To those more familiar with Cohan-style academic machismo, Miller’s “The Piano Bar” won’t look like much. But to the general reader comfortable with the suggestive promptings common to, say, Granta, it looks great. Miller has plenty of experience in the most complex reaches of contemporary gender theory and its scary papa, poststructuralism. Even so, he deliberately eschews those disciplines’ language in favor of a novelist’s obliqueness. Verbally sketching the piano bar, he describes how one anxious youngster:
sets [his] cigarette stiffly at arm’s length behind him or to his side: by which gesture he burns incense to adult Self-determination, the triumph of his will to smoke—or not—as he pleases….If ‘the habit’ now makes that victory wholly imaginary, he is at any rate free of the asthmatic manifestations that formerly would have greeted the faintest wisp of one of those great clouds amid which, comfortable as a rococo divinity reclining on them, he now sits perched atop his stool.
Miller’s not proving anything here—he’s playing. And while such play is delightful to the reader, it doesn’t smack of the authority many academics prize. No wonder he’s bringing up the rear.
In light of the book’s theme, it’s amusing to construct an architectural metaphor for some of the other authors’ Pillow Talk-like projects, although Marcia Ian suggests a more immediately physical comparison with her essay “When Is a Body Not a Body? When It’s a Building.” Ian focuses on the mostly male, mostly working-class bodybuilders at the Apollon, a New York gym. A bodybuilder herself, she doesn’t limit her poses to the realm of sweat and machines. In this essay, she shows off each nugget of obfuscating prose like a perfectly sculpted triceps.
Ian’s Professor Adonis act is fascinating, but no more so than the acid sea of anxieties that it only lightly conceals. She isn’t merely a researcher, after all—she’s also a body “builder” herself and a longtime member of the male-dominated Apollon. Her rather predictable points about bodybuilders’ gender troubles are based almost entirely on her personal experience at the gym, which, it emerges, consist of an unending series of petty humiliations.
As one of the only women at the Apollon, Ian must cope with smirks, frowns, and unwanted flirtation. Even the building itself seems to mock her: The women’s locker rooms and bathrooms are barely usable. No wonder then that she feels “like a primatologist who is grateful that the apes she chooses to live with accept her.” Her descriptions of the “apes”‘ behavior are guaranteed to make female readers feel alternately huffy and smug. “Often [the men] seek my attention in order to tell me how their training is going,” she writes, “especially if they are feeling ‘weak’ and want to be reassured….I guess I have certain responsibilities as resident female.”
The only problem is, Ian doesn’t want to be “resident female.” However much she flexes her academic superiority, belittling the male bodybuilders in passages like the above, she’s clearly galled by her failure to fit in with them.
The real question, of course, is why she wants to be one of the guys. After all, New York has other gyms. Who cares whether the apes accept her? Why would a devotee of Catherine MacKinnon (whom she rather extraneously cites) subject herself nearly every day to the hostility and disdain of a roomful of men? Ian doesn’t address this question, being more interested in others’ psychic defects than in her own. But the answer probably lies somewhere behind a particularly striking anecdote: “One day I went to use the toilet and shut the door behind me,” she recalls. “To my dismay, it locked, and when I was done I couldn’t get out….So, naturally, I punched the door down, ripping the moulding from the wall with it.” Naturally? Ian may not realize it, but this passage says far more about her than it does about the Apollon.
In the wake of Ian’s tortured musculature, George Chauncey’s piece, “Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets,” is like a bare room—clean and functional. There’s a lot to be said for the old-fashioned historicism he employs. Rather than agonizing over what can be proved, Chauncey simply demarcates a field and then covers it. He uses police records, newspaper accounts, and anecdotes to piece together a picture of gay New York in the early part of the century. His conclusions are based squarely on research, not on a facade of theoretical speculation—his structure is sound.
The photos of gay street life that accompany Chauncey’s essay are some of the most striking in the book. Other selections offer a variety of visual treats, from the weirdly suggestive abstraction of artist John Lindell’s “Untitled” to the surprising lusciousness of Robert Gober’s urinals and drains. A sample of Gober’s body-parts wallpaper is used for one of the book’s endpapers, and nothing can beat the covert, titillating frisson produced by the first glimpse of all those penises and butts.
But the photos appearing with the Chauncey essay stand alone in their delicate evocativeness. They come from the National Museum and Archive of Lesbian and Gay History, but of course there’s no “proof” that anyone in them is gay. Men gather in crowds on the beach, walk in pairs in the park, lounge together in the blurry, significant distance. The “truth” shown here is both more ephemeral and truer than anything within the authors’ houses of words.
Of course, the academic’s pose of authority isn’t some universal, unmitigated evil. Diana Fuss and Joel Sanders’ “Berggasse 19: Inside Freud’s Office” is both the best and the most difficult piece in the book. A meaty discussion of the meaning of Freud’s house, the essay relies on extremely precise language that can be maddening for the casual reader to wade through.
But sometimes complex topics simply demand complexity. Fuss and Sanders’ language may be difficult, but it isn’t dogma. Their careful if wordy explorations are firmly based on meticulous observation and research.
Not that “Berggasse 19” offers a model for the “correct” way to write about these topics. Neither do “Privacy” or even “The Piano Bar.” What these essays present are options for understanding—all valid and useful, none definitive. It’s because of them that Stud’s structure stands, albeit a bit lopsidedly. You may not find truth inside this house, but some of the rooms have a view.