Halperin (History and Theory of Sexuality/Univ. of Michigan; What Do Gay Men Want?, 2010, etc.) attempts to deconstruct various aspects of gay male culture.
In 2000, a catalog description of the author’s undergraduate English course, “How To Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation,” appeared on the National Review website and caused a storm of controversy. The course aimed to “explore gay men’s unique, characteristic relation to mainstream culture.” Likely due to its provocative title, the course drew fire from across the political spectrum. Conservative critics charged that the university was “promoting” a gay “lifestyle,” while others charged that the course was trafficking in and perpetuating gay stereotypes. Halperin wrote this book, he writes, to “make clear the genuineness of the intellectual stakes in [his] inquiry into gay male culture.” To that end, the author narrows his focus, perhaps too drastically, by largely concentrating on a few scenes from the Oscar-winning 1945 Joan Crawford film Mildred Pierce and the bizarre 1981 Crawford film bio Mommie Dearest. Along the way, he makes occasionally interesting, if repetitive, points about the roles that melodrama and the pop-cultural portrayal of women play in gay male culture. But he also embarks on unnecessary digressions, as when he criticizes at length a 4-year-old Time Out New York article that implied that some aspects of gay culture might be on the wane. He also oddly spends several pages analyzing Sonic Youth’s 1990 song and video “Mildred Pierce” and lambasting “hipsterism.” Throughout, Halperin struggles unproductively with many of the questions he raises, while also leaning heavily on academic social-science jargon.
An unsatisfying and scattered analysis.