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Customer Review

on October 14, 2012
I was tempted to give this book 3 stars because of the strength of much of its beginning and end, and because those parts might be a useful point of departure for someone else. However, the long march though the midsection of the book and its recycled nature made me think 2 stars was about right. The very beginning of the book sets a rather problematic tone--Halperin recounts the stir caused when he taught a course called "How to Be Gay". I dimly remembered the controversy, but Halperin writes as though his readers would recall all of the details. There seems to be an assumption that the reader knows all the details. There also is a lecturing tone where one is forced to read the same points reiterated in often tedious prose.

The strength of the book is Halperin's effort to locate elements of a gay culture that is largely independent of sexual desire and that has continuity over time, although some of the specific outward manifestations of it may change. He puts this out as a challenge to those who say "gay culture" is dying but really mean that their own generation's cultural references are not being adopted or fully appreciated by the next generation. These are points that make sense to me and are fairly easy to illustrate. Unfortunately, the follow-up to this is an analysis of gay culture where examples that are mostly located in Halperin's generation (people who came of age in the early 70s) and the generation before, often drawn from the films, "Mildred Pierce" and "Mommie Dearest" which have Joan Crawford (as well as camp and melodrama) in common. He later suggests that these two films provided what he thought was an enormous base of material for thinking about gay culture, which simplified the process of presenting his ideas. In the after notes, it becomes apparent that he already had a book chapter that concerned the two films, which makes the use of these films as lazy as it is tedious. When it comes to dealing with younger generations' gay culture, there are mentions of Lady Gaga, the tv series "Desperate Housewives" and "Golden Girls" and not much else. Given that a college professor has ample access to youth culture, particularly in a course about culture, the relative lack of attention to generational change seems puzzling as well as lazy.

Halperin starts out talking about the need to go beyond stereotypes, but the "Mildred Pierce"/Mommie Dearest" material seems to wallow in stereotype and go on and on in crushing detail as he mines these films and the Crawford persona for explanations of gay culture. For me, the effect was a bit like being trapped in a conversation that started out interestingly enough but quickly became a dissertation on arcania from which one could not politely remove oneself. Just when it seemed safe and the conversation had turned to something else, Mildred, Mommie, and Joan were back, in full force. Along the way, Halperin also makes rather arbitrary distinctions about elite culture (backpedaling in the case of Shakespeare) and making claims that heterosexual camp cannot exist. There are interesting points here and there, but Halperin often misses the obvious. He notes the decline of gay interest in musical theater in the "clone era" after Stonewall, but fails to mention the obvious--that musical theater was already in decline before Stonewall and that young gay men often were caught up in their own version of youth culture. He also seems to miss how the post-hippie culture had a fairly strong gay components (consider disco and reedy-voiced singers like Olivia Newton-John). One consequence of many waves of "coming out" has been the inclusion of men whose interests may or may not closely resemble those of men who came out first, particularly those men for whom passing in straight society was at best, difficult. Halperin, instead, gives perhaps too much attention to heteronormative assimilation which he places in a rather simplistic set of contingencies. The argument that gay culture endures despite social change needs a more complex conception of culture than Halperin provides. Assimilation became possible, in part, because gay culture began to crossover without the cover of "code" and the people who came out in later times or generations may have had sensibilities that differed in degree or breadth from those of more pioneering gays.

Ironically, despite Halperin's criticism of assimilation, he drops a few examples of his own apparent denial of gay culture. For example, he claims to have not understood Judy Garland's appeal to gay men as a young man. It would not have been difficult to find people who would provide that information in tedious detail in his generation or even among much younger gay men. Why he has chosen to claim ignorance of such a classic gay icon is one of the things that makes the book sometimes as intriguing as it can be tedious.

Halperin closes the book by returning to his initial theme. Sadly, it becomes evident that he has missed much more promising themes and questions. For example, he neglects the enduring appeal of fantasy forms among gay men, which often have changed over generations and sometimes had much crossover with straight culture (as in the case of gaming among young gay men today). Perhaps the need to exist within a heterosexual milieu, knowing one is different makes many fantasy forms more attractive. Perhaps, it is the solitary nature of these activities. He neglects the disproportionate participation of gays in certain sports and other pursuits, although he does provide some attention to the seeming gay interest in collecting and connoisseurship. The intense dissection of "Mildred Pierce" combined with Halperin`s obvious snobbishness makes one wonder what kitsch or tackiness is hiding in his closet along with his denial of Garland knowledge.

The book will appeal to those who can't get enough cultural meaning from Joan Crawford (and I know those people are totally serious about it), but it will be a long slog for many others ,
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