Saturday, August 15, 2009

Queering the Image 3: The “Nut” Series

walnut

coconut

Introduction

Pictured above are 2 vintage postcards circa 1910-1914, The “Wall Nut” and The “Coco Nut”, which use puns to generate their (lackluster) humor. Both were published as part of “The Nut Series” by the English firm Raphael Tuck & Sons which had been in business since 1866. By 1900 the company had expanded its market into the United States by opening a New York office on Fifth Avenue. Although both of these cards were printed in England, they could possibly have been designed at the Fifth Avenue branch, then manufactured in England and finally sold in America.

While I am curious about the historical facts of these cards in terms of maker, type and date, it is not my chief concern. As with many images that attract my interest (my desire), I am intrigued how these 2 postcards as fragments of the cultural history of the early twentieth century connote homosexuality/queerness through their denotation of class and how this picturing of difference is understood by me and was potentially understood by the viewers of that time.

The “Wall Nut”

The pun expressed in this postcard is clearly evident and not really that funny. A man sits on a wall that separates him from a body of water located in the background. Thus, he is the “Wall Nut”.

His pose is relaxed and casual with his right hand resting on his right knee. He is sitting on a wall after all. In his left hand he holds a walking stick up to his mouth as he looks off to the right. He is pondering something in the distance that we, the spectator, cannot see. Dressed sharply in a tan suit, cream vest and large, black bowtie, he wears a hat with a broad black band to block the sun. A pinkish red rose adorns the button hole of his jacket. His shoes are festooned with large black bows which repeat the bowtie around his neck. His pale blue/lavender socks show beneath the cuff of his pants. He is dapper, elegant and pensive.

At initial glance, this postcard depicts a man of a certain privileged class as indicated by his attire on a possible seaside sojourn. As slang, a nut is defined as an eccentric or crazy person. The figure is thus separated by the caption from others by this difference. In a specific way, this meaning of nut can be connected to notions of class difference and perhaps to a distinctly English upper class. The upper class because of its position and wealth is seen as prone to sexual perversions like homosexuality that would not be engaged in by normal working people. The upper class is eccentric and different.

Mapped onto this depiction of class are visual clues of the “Wall Nut’s” sexual difference as well through subtle visual clues. The bowed shoes for example not only recall the shoes of the aristocracy before The Great Renunciation (another signifier of his class), but are a feminine touch that suggests homosexuality as gender inversion which was the paradigmatic discourse of same-sex desire in the early twentieth century. Similarly, the rose in the lapel decorates the figure and in the totality of his attire undermines his masculine appearance.

walnut

The facial features further serve to code the “Wall Nut” as feminine or at the least not quite masculine: the softness and smoothness of the face, the suggestion of a manicured eyebrow and the heavy lidded doe-like eyes.

Oddly, the “Wall Nut” has inserted the handle of his walking stick into his mouth and then puffed out his cheeks. (It reminds me of the postcard discussed in my earlier post, Queer Imaging 2, where the queer figure similarly brings his walking stick to his mouth.) What does this mean? Is he looking at some unseen (male) object of desire outside of the frame and imagining a future sexual encounter? Does it suggest fellatio? Or does it more generally imply a sexuality of the mouth rather than the genitals thus, further undercutting the figure’s masculinity and evoking his sexual difference, his gender inversion?

Together signifiers of class and femininity are deployed in this postcard in order to depict the difference of the “Wall Nut.” For me, this deployment generates an image with connotations of sexual difference, of queerness and homosexuality which are expressed at first through a denotation of class.

The “Coco Nut”

coconut

Another postcard in The “Nut” Series, The “Coco Nut” is more cryptic in comparison to the first. What actually is the pun here regarding coconuts? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s meaning is lost to its time and place, but I will try to at least decipher what is going on in the image. At initial glance, it too is about class difference, but that difference is then expanded to connote homosexuality/queerness.

The postcard illustrates another elegantly suited gentleman with the same bowed shoes reminiscent of the eighteenth century. He has the same large, black bowtie and his pale green socks are visible beneath his cuffed trousers. His class status is signified by his attire.

A cigarette is in his mouth. Smoke escapes from his mouth like a swirling ribbon or snake. He holds a smooth ball in his right hand and his left arm is outstretched in a gesture of display. The placement of his feet is evocative of a ballet stance. The entire pose suggests as if he is about to throw the ball underhand at something not seen within the postcard frame.

In the left background there is a couple: a man holding his hat in the air and his female companion who wears a hat with 2 tall feathers and holds a walking stick. Both are in attire similar to the central figure and are cheering him on perhaps in his impending action. All three are part of the same social group.

In the right background there is a seated male figure in shirt sleeves and what appears to be a cap. He sits in a barely outlined structure with flags on the top and in front of him are coconuts on stakes. With his hand to his mouth, he seems to be yelling something at the central figure. Is it encouragement or something derogatory?

The pose and impending action of the refined gentleman suggests at first lawn bowling, but perhaps he is playing a game at a seaside amusement (water can be seen in the left background) in which a ball is used to knock the coconuts off their stakes, thereby winning a prize. Two already knocked off coconuts are located to the right of his feet. In this reading, the shirt sleeved figure in the background must be the hawker of this game calling out to potential participants.

The coding of the “Coco Nut” figure as a member of the upper class is achieved not only again by the word nut and his appearance as in the first postcard, but also by his difference from the game hawker in right background. Against the elegant blue/gray suit of the central figure, the hawker is a man in a cap with rolled shirtsleeves and exposed arms running a seaside amusement. The suited gentleman is distinguished by his elegant pose and gesture compared to the seated shouting amusement man. I would argue that this difference can be mapped onto the binary masculine/feminine as well.

coconut

Again as in the “Wall Nut” postcard, there are subtle feminine traces that undermine the smoking gentleman’s masculinity. There are the bowed shoes. The soft smoothness of the face, the carefully coiffed hair, the manicured eyebrows and the heavy lidded doe-like eyes all suggest homosexuality and queerness as gender inversion. Also, there is the cigarette in the mouth which is reminiscent of the walking stick in the mouth of the “Wall Nut”. The oral has replaced the genital. The feminine overshadows the masculine.

Finally, there are the 2 hairy coconuts located to the right of the dapper gentleman. On one level, they are simply the result of the game’s goal: knocking coconuts off the stakes with the ball. But, is it an exaggeration to suggest a connection between nut, coconut, testis? Or am I just being silly? When was nut(s) first used as a slang term for testicles? When did nut become a slang term for male ejaculation?

Like the “Wall Nut”, but even more clearly in the “Coco Nut”, sexual difference as gender inversion is mapped onto class difference. On its first level of meaning, this postcard illustrates class, but simultaneously implies an undercurrent of homosexuality and queerness.

Conclusion

When looking at images of the past, any attempt to reconstruct their actual meaning is on some level impossible. A viewer is always bound by their own historical and ideological moment of spectatorship. The best one can do, the best I can do is be aware of my own subjectivity as a spectator and attempt to construct a frame of possible meaning for an image, but realizing I will never arrive at its truth.

For me, these 2 postcards denote one thing about class/dress/humor and suggest another possible reading of homosexuality and queerness. Perhaps this connotation arises out of my own sexuality, but I would like to think that a 1914 male viewer of these cards who had same-sex desires would in a sense recognize himself in them and gain a degree of satisfaction in that recognition- a recognition which would in turn serve as a basis for a reverse discourse in which the language of oppression is redeployed by the oppressed to gain freedom, identity and community.

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