Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Masculinity as Masquerade and Its Disavowal in Tea and Sympathy

Introduction: A Love Story?

In a letter to the director Vincente Minnelli, Bob Anderson, the playwright of Tea and Sympathy and eventually the screenwriter of the 1956 film version of the play, writes:

I’ve always seen the play as basically a love story…a love story which never would have a happy ending except for the persecution of Tom. That is the irony of the story…Tom is persecuted in a sense for his love of Laura, but the persecution brings about the fulfillment of the love.

In the letter, Anderson also addresses further meanings and issues considered by the play such as the nature of “manliness”, the relationship between the society and the individual who is understood as different, the need to respect differences of such individuals and the obligation of people to help those individuals who are persecuted for their difference.

Yet, for Anderson the central theme of the play and film is its “love story” which seems to be an odd conclusion in regard to the actual events of the story. The film centers on Tom Lee, an eighteen year old boy, attending an all male boarding school. Because Tom does not conform to the social standard of masculinity, he is perceived as a homosexual within the homosocial space of the school. This perception is the reason for his persecution, not his crush on the wife of his headmaster, Laura Reynolds.

The relationship between Tom and Laura is difficult to characterize and not really a love story, Although he clearly has a crush on the older woman, the film seems to signify Laura more strongly as a replacement for Tom’s absent mother. On the other hand, however, Laura herself appears to develop a growing sexual interest in Tom not only because of his resemblance to her dead first husband, but also because of the growing distance between herself and her husband, Bill Reynolds.

The role of Laura as a mother figure is most clearly seen in her handling of the unmasculine character of Tom. Though respecting Tom’s difference Laura attempts continually throughout the film to prove Tom’s masculinity not only to Tom himself, but also to the larger society once it begins to persecute Tom for that difference. She is like a mother who consoles her teased son and simultaneously seeks to have him gain acceptance. Yet, these early attempts fail, finally causing Laura to engage in sex with Tom in order to prove to him his masculinity and heterosexuality as well as confirm it for the audience. Thus, for Anderson to call the film a love story is to in actuality mask and eventually resolve through a heterosexual union the crisis of masculinity depicted within Tea and Sympathy.

Through a Judith Butler Lens

The sexual intercourse between Tom and Laura is the only way for the film to reestablish the proper gender order which has been disrupted within the story. As Judith Butler states:

The institution of a complusory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practice of heterosexual desire. The act of differentiating the two oppositional moments of the binary results in a consolidation of each term, the respective internal coherence of sex, gender and desire.(Gender Trouble, p. 22-23)

By practicing heterosexual desire, Tom and Laura reinscribe gender as a binary system between masculine and feminine. The binary system of gender is challenged from the beginning of the film by the very actions of Tom which do not conform to the masculine term of the opposition. By reasserting the difference between the two terms of the binary system, their sexual union reconstructs the “coherence of sex, gender, desire” for Tom. In other words, his biological sex as male requires and institutes a masculine gender position and a desire which is heterosexual and directed towards women.

Prior to the intimacy with Laura, Tom’s gender position is incoherent in the chain of sex, gender and desire because it was in dissonant opposition to both the first and the third term of the chain. Although the film reauthorizes the coherence and continuity of the chain in its conclusion, it continuously disrupts the second term of the equation by positioning masculinity as a masquerade rather than a logical and natural result of biological sex. Butler states, “Masquerade may be understood as the performative production of a sexual ontology, an appearing that makes itself convincing as a being.”(Gender Trouble, p. 47) The practice of the masquerade (certain acts, gestures and enactments which are culturally proscribed for a certain gender) produce that gendered body (and individual). This body (and individual) does not exist separately from the masquerade which realizes it. As Butler states, “That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological nature apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.”(Gender Trouble, p.136.)

Yet, the function of the masquerade is not to signal its own construction, but to mask that construction and present itself as a natural “being”. In other words, the masquerade helps to foreground the internal coherence and logical sequence of sex, gender and desire. Tea and Sympathy on the other hand signals gender as a construction by disrupting the cohesiveness of this sequence. While positing this disruption at the outset, it seeks to ultimately disavow it by depicting gender as having an ontological status, as being a direct and automatic expression of biological sex. It achieves this desire and disavowal at the conclusion through the union of Tom and Laura which reaffirms the sequence of male, masculinity, heterosexual.

Tom, Laura and Judith Butler in the Garden

The first several scenes of the flashback in Tea and Sympathy concern the burgeoning relationship between Laura and Tom. As Tom sits at his dorm window singing a song about the joys and sorrows of love, he simultaneously gazes at Laura who is working in the garden below. When Tom sees that Laura needs help with her seedlings, he jumps from the window to give her assistance. In the ensuing conversation between them, Tom relates to Laura his knowledge of gardening, his love of flowers and the memories of his own garden he once tended as a child. Laura expresses her lack of skill in reference to gardening despite Tom’s praise for her efforts. However, Tom suggests to Laura to plant some forget-me-nots in order to introduce blue into her garden.

What is the relationship between the actions of Tom within this sequence and his readability within a binary system of gender and sexuality? In her book Gender Trouble, Butler attempts to answer this question by considering gender to be performative. She asserts that gender signs,

acts, gestures and enactments are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.(Gender Trouble, p. 136.)

Thus, instead of seeing these acts as merely expressions of a particular gender, Butler suggest that gender is constituted in these very acts which are always understood to be the result of gender rather than the means of its production. For Butler, these acts produce a masculine or feminine identity which is comprehended within culture as a direct and natural representation of the already existent biological sex of an individual.

The concept of performativity according to Butler not only suggests the notion of gender as a performance, but also, more importantly as it relates to forms of speech which bring about what they name. For example, in the wedding ceremony, the performative, “I pronounce you…” constitutes the relationship that it names and sets that relationship in motion. The initiatory performative, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” begins:

the process by which a certain girling (or boying) is compelled, the term or rather, its symbolic power governs the formation of a corporeally enacted femininity (or masculinity). This is a “girl” (or a “boy”), however, who is compelled to “cite” the norm in order to qualify and remain a viable subject. Femininity (or masculinity) is the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation and punishment…this citation of the gender norms is necessary to qualify as a “one” where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms.(“Critically Queer” pp. 22-23)

Within the early sequence in the garden as well as his failure during the bonfire scene and his impotent encounter with the prostitute, Tom does not successfully cite from the norm of masculinity. His interest in flowers and gardening announces his difference from the masculine standard and performatively constitutes him as something other than a masculine subject.

Tom, Laura and Judith Butler at the Beach

The film underscores this reading in the beach scene in which Laura’s husband Bill responds to a quiz that measures masculinity while horsing around with the boys who live in his house. When asked which object can be described as beautiful, Bill chooses “girls” from the three possible answers of flowers, girls and music. Moreover, when asked to pick the activity which corresponds to the word fun, Bill answers “hunting” from the three choices of reading, hunting and gardening. Bill cites correctly from the masculine norm.

However, Tom would fail such a quiz since prior to this scene he has been associated with all the answers except girls and hunting. Thus, the failure of Tom to quote from the correct gender norm renders him (at least initially) as unintelligible as a “one” with the rigidly ordered gender system of the 1950’s. His deeds interrupt the coherent, linear chain of sex, gender and desire because his actions fracture the second term of the equation. As the film illustrates, he is punished for his lack of success by other men. If he is not a man, then what is he? What is his subject position within the gender system of the 1950’s?

To answer this question, Tea and Sympathy deploys a performative utterance. During the beach scene, Tom is called “sister-boy” for the first time in the film. This designation is prompted by the observations of two of Tom’s classmates. As they traverse some rocks to reclaim a lost football, they observe Tom sitting with three faculty wives including Laura. Spatially, the film separates the faculty wives and Tom from Bill and the other boys by a large ridge of rocks. This spatial division acts to visually enforce a rigid separation of gender as well as to indicate that Tom has placed himself on the wrong side of the division. In placing himself on the feminine side of the beach and performatively producing himself as feminine through the act of sewing, Tom disturbs the binary gender regime. He looks biologically like a male, yet he assumes a feminine gender position. In response to this disturbance, Tom must be labeled “sister-boy” in order to realign the system.

By demonstrating his knowledge of sewing and cooking, Tom once again does not measure up to a the masculine standard as in his earlier interaction with Laura in the garden. Still at this point, before the uttering of “sister-boy”, the actions and interests of Tom are not readable by the other characters. One of the faculty wives responding to Tom’s ability to sew and cook says, “You’ll make some girl a good wife.” Tom cannot be understood as masculine because he does not perform actions that constitute him as such. Instead, he can only be gendered as a woman with the culture of the 1950’s. The inability to read Tom in terms of gender as well as his lack of adherence to specific gender norms serves to problematize the link between biological sex and gender.

Responding to the dissonance within the gender system, Laura first attempts to mitigate the implications of Tom’s sewing ability by stating that her husband Bill learned to sew buttons in the army. In a strange way, her statement attempts to link the act of sewing with the particularly male and masculine culture of the army in order to reconceive Tom as a masculine subject. Moreover, acting like his mother, Laura tells Tom to go and join the other boys on the other side of the rocks in order for him to cite from the masculine standard and thus reinscribe the disrupted gender system.

Yet, Laura’s advice comes too late. When Tom goes to the other side of the rocks, he is ignored by the other boys and subsequently leaves the scene. The two boys who observed him with the faculty wives relate their information to the others and it is at this point that Tom is called “sister-boy”. The performative, “sister-boy”, finally makes sense of Tom as a subject. In its conflation of masculine and feminine, the term designates Tom as a homosexual. During the 1950’s homosexuality was perceived as gender inversion, the soul of a woman in the body of a man. By marking Tom as a homosexual, his actions become intelligible to both the characters in the film and to the audience as well.

More importantly, it serves to reconfirm traditional masculinity by identifying as “other” those men who do not adhere to its precepts. Tom must be realized as different, as a homosexual in order for the masculinity of the other men in the film to remain natural and unproblematic. To accept Tom as a man would undermine the masculinity of the other male characters because it would effectively disrupt the notion of gender as an automatic and logical expression of biological sex.

Although constituting Tom as “sister-boy” reestablishes a binary system of gender, it is important to look again at the interaction of Laura and Tom before the uttering of the term. Within this relationship, Tom is not only ambiguous to the audience in terms of gender, but also to Laura as well who attempts to force and discipline him into quoting from the correct norm of masculinity as she does in the beach scene. Moreover, the sequence of scenes prior to the one on the beach serves to foreground gender as a masquerade which must be subsequently disavowed by the film. The designation of Tom as “sister-boy” is one example of this disavowal, the final and ultimate one being the heterosexual union between Tom and Laura at the conclusion of the film.

Tom is a Fake

When Tom and Laura leave the garden and enter the house to have tea, Laura asks him about the song he was singing at his window. Tom explains the lyrics of the song “The Grief of Love.” The song states, “The joys of love are but a moment long. The grief of love endures forever.” Laura inquires if Tom really knows the grief of love because he sang the song with such expression. Tom replies that he has not actually experienced either the happiness or the sorrow of love. To his answer, Laura responds, “You’re a fake.” What exactly does her response mean?

On the narrative level, Laura responds to the falsity of the rendition of the song which Tom sings at the window. Yet, could one additionally see Laura as responding to the other actions of Tom which do not constitute him as a “real” man, but rather as a fake one because his actions manifest him as such? Butler states, “Gender is a repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”(Gender Trouble, p. 33.) Because he does not quote from the masculine standard, the gestures, acts and enactments of Tom do not combine to create a “real” man who is intelligible to Laura as a masculine subject. In a sense, Tom is unnatural because he does conform to orthodox masculinity in terms of love. He has not yet expressed the proper desire for a biological male, nor the proper gender. At the end of film, the heterosexual union between Laura and Tom reestablishes a “correct” gender system which is at this moment in the film still in doubt. When he has sex with Laura, Tom becomes a “natural” man and is no longer a fake.

The scene in the house further underlines the importance of the third term of the sex/gender/desire equation as being vital to the coherence of the whole equation itself. When Tom says he is taking someone to the dance (thus, implying the right desire and announcing his first correct citation from the masculine norm by Tom in the film), Laura responds enthusiastically, “Well there!” It is as if this act by Tom mitigates or erases his other deeds. This deed confirms his masculinity.

However, Laura’s response is too sudden because instead of escorting a woman of his own age to the dance, Tom is in fact taking Laura as his date. Since she is already coded as a mother-figure for Tom, his citation becomes false. Still, however, this exchange seems to foreshadow the conclusion of the film in which Tom becomes a man by engaging in sex with Laura as well as to underlie the centrality of heterosexuality for the maintenance of a binary gender system.

In describing Tom as a fake, Laura suggests that he is somehow deceptive. According to Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Hearts of Men, deception was a central fear within the ideology of gender and sexuality in the fifties, particularly in regard to homosexuality. In the 1950’s a “real man” was supposed to embody the breadwinner ethic. Society expected a man to marry and economically support his wife and children. To deviate from this prescribed path was to be judged less than a man. Homosexuality was used as a pejorative term to label those men who failed to uphold this ethic. This is not surprising because during this period homosexuality was interpreted as a form of gender inversion. If a man was unwilling to marry and sustain his wife and subsequent children, he was somehow not really a man, but a woman. As Ehrenreich states, “Since a man couldn’t actually become a woman….heterosexual failures and overt homosexuals could only be understood as living in a state of constant deception. And that was perhaps the most despicable thing about them: they looked like men, but they weren’t really men.”(Hearts of Men, p. 26.)

In perceiving homosexual men as deceptive, the fixed and stable relationship between sex, gender and desire was essentially ruptured because a man could look like a “real” man but not actually be one. Homosexuality problematized the idea of gender as a natural and logical expression of biological sex. In the understanding of the 1950’s, Tom is seen as practicing a form of deception. By labeling him “sister-boy” the film acknowledges this deception, ultimately revealing his “fakeness” as well as producing him as something else in order to preserve and sustain the concept of the “real man”.

Tom and the Masculine Masquerade

Still, however, by disrupting the stable connection between gender and sex, Tea and Sympathy acknowledges gender as a masquerade, as a social construction rather than a set of proper characteristics, emotions and actions inherent to either a man or a woman. The actions of Tom reveal the constructedness of the masquerade because it signals it as an “appearing that (sometimes does not make) itself convincing as a being.” This idea is visually presented early in the film by showing Tom in a dress which he has agreed to wear for a female role in an upcoming school play. The dress itself acts to denaturalize gender by suggesting it to be something which is learned, rehearsed and performed like a role within a theatrical production rather than a natural component of the biological sex of an individual. The wearing of the dress is a gesture which constitutes its wearer as a feminine subject. The willingness of Tom to wear the dress breaks apart a notion of gender which is the result of the biological sex of an individual.

While the film exposes the masquerade as the process which constructs gender, it must simultaneously reject this proposal. This rejection is evident in the subsequent actions of Tom and Laura during the scene in which Laura is altering the dress that Tom is to wear in the play. Talking about the upcoming dance, Tom confesses his lack of dancing skills. Laura agrees to teach him to dance and the two begin to practice while Tom is still wearing the dress. But almost immediately the two stop dancing because as Tom says, “We’d better put it off, we’d look kinda silly both of us in skirts.” Tom is wearing the dress and Laura assumes the male position in the dancing embrace.

Furthermore, while letting Tom wear the dress the film must then prevent him from actually carrying out the performance. His father, Herb Lee, forbids Tom from playing the part and forces him to resign from the play. The patriarchal sanction indicates that while gender may be thought of in terms of masquerade, it is not a choice or voluntary decision. Rather gender is the “effect of a regulatory regime of gender differences which are divided and hierarchized under constraint.” (“Critically Queer”, p. 21.) Thus, for Tom to wear a dress as well as occupy the position of the female dancing partner and for Laura to assume the male dancing position would in a sense subvert this regime by problematizing the notion of certain roles and traits as being applicable to only certain genders. To continue the dancing lesson would blur the division between genders.

Additionally, their dance if allowed to continue would undermine the concept of a natural gender hierarchy because Laura occupies the male role in the dance. In a sense, the conclusion of the film restages the dance between Laura and Tom. Instead of undermining the gender regime, their sexual union serves to confirm and stabilize that very system by reestablishing a proper division and hierarchy.

Bill Reynolds and the Masculine Masquerade

The exposing of gender as masquerade is further suggested in the film by the character of Bill Reynolds, Laura’s husband. Within the narrative, he is subtly coded as being homosexual, yet he masks this fact by successfully adhering to the norm of masculinity. Although he expresses masculinity, there are clues within the story which imply that Bill is perhaps not a “real” man, but a homosexual.

Throughout the film, Bill resists interaction with his wife in favor of spending time with the boys under his charge or other men. When Laura wants to go to Canada for the summer, Bill informs her that he has already invited some of the boys up to their lodge for the summer. In a later scene, Laura plans dinner for just her and Bill, but instead Bill leaves her alone in order to eat dinner with the dean. In addition, the film indicates that Bill and Laura have only been married for a year. Such a late marriage in the 1950’s would be understood as a divergence from orthodox masculinity and could perhaps code Bill as a homosexual as well.

Moreover, the reaction of Bill to Tom and the tormenting of him by the other boys implies not only a hatred of Tom’s divergence from traditional masculinity, but also perhaps a hatred of those same elements within himself. Indeed, Bill does nothing to prevent the other boys from abusing Tom. During the bonfire scene he appears to be sadistically enjoying the humiliating isolation of Tom from the homosocial pajama ritual. Prior to the scene, Bill admits to Laura that he used to listen to phonograph records and had a secret place to cry when he was a student at Chilton.

Although admitting his similarity to Tom, Bill also states emphatically that he learned how to be a man, implying that Tom must do the same. This statement disturbs the easy and automatic relationship posited by the culture of the fifties between sex and gender. At first the film presents Bill’s masculinity as self-evident and unproblematic, but his admission to Laura indicates that his masculinity is not natural, but is a learned response to social regulations. Yet, by revealing Bill’s masculinity as less than automatic, the film intimates that he is perhaps not a “real” man, but a homosexual. Such a reading seems possible because all the other boys are presented as masculine men. They do not question their masculinity and when it is threatened by Tom, the encapsulate him as “sister-boy” in order to confirm their own gender position.

The stable connection between gender and sex is also fractured during the beach scene in which Bill answers questions for a masculinity test entitled “Are you masculine?” within the newspaper. On some level, the presence of the quiz itself produces this fracture. If gender is a coherent and unconscious expression of biological sex, then why is a quiz needed to measure the masculinity of an individual. Indeed, when the quiz is introduced, Al, Tom’s roommate asks, “What do you mean are you masculine?” To Al the quiz is illogical. If you are a man, then naturally you are masculine.

The test stipulates that answers to its questions be decided without thinking. The replies must be natural and spontaneous rather than a rehearsed delivery of the culturally expected answers which would serve to confirm the masculinity of the respondent. The masculinity quiz could be related to the concept of deception posited by Ehrenreich. Some men looked like men, but were not really men and this test could uncover that deception. Thus, the boy who asks Bill the test questions admonishes him for delaying his answers. To delay in one’s answer is to cast doubt on one’s masculinity. A procrastination implies that one does not naturally and automatically know that for men beauty means girls and fun means hunting, therefore implicating the respondent as not a “real” man. In this regard, the boys suggest administering the quiz to Tom, but they all agree that such an action would be a waste of time. Seeing Tom sewing with the faculty wives is enough proof of Tom’s gender deception.

Bill is the only character who submits to the test. Although responding to the first two questions, he refuses to continue with the quiz. Why does Bill refuse to continue? Could one see his refusal as being motivated by fear of being discovered by the quiz? Bill discards the quiz in favor of feats of manly strength such as wrestling. Thus, the problematic quiz is replaced by an expression of masculinity grounded in the physical nature of the male body. The link between gender and biological sex is questioned at this moment, but disavowed by both Bill and the narrative in favor of a physical activity that instead secures the male body as inherently masculine.

Tom’s Body

This point is underscored by the positioning of the body of Tom as somehow physically different from the other boys. Although his tennis skill is acknowledged, his opponent in the big match doubts the way in which Tom expresses that skill. The implication is that Tom does not hit the ball like a man. Even Tom’s body cannot be understood as male within a certain point of the film because to have a real male body is to express its inherent masculinity through that body as the other boys do on the beach.

The body of Tom does not declare his masculinity. Indeed, Tom’s father wants him to get a crew cut so that he will “look” like the other boys. Even, Ellie, the town prostitute remarks that Tom’s hands look like those of a girl and not a boy. Once constituted as different from the other boys by the performative “sister-boy”, Tom must be completely feminized not only in his actions, but also in his physical self because in the dominant culture gender is an expression of biological sex.

Yet, while seemingly relying on the body to confirm gender, the film undermines this relationship as well. The day after the bonfire, Al goes to the school music room in order to tell Tom that he cannot room with him in the following school year. Al attempts to help Tom by teaching him how to walk like a man. As at the beach, gender is seen as a physical expression of the body. Men and women walk differently because their bodies are biologically distinct. First, Al instructs Tom to walk across the room so that he can indicate how the walk of his roommate is incorrect. Al explains the walk of Tom as plodding. Unsure of Al’s meaning, Tom asks him to recreate the walk in order for Tom to observe his manner of walking. Al responds, “I can’t do it.” By saying that he cannot walk like Tom, is Al afraid of how he will be perceived as unmasculine or does the film through his statement yet again link gender to the somatic?

Al then demonstrates his walk for Tom and not surprisingly Tom is unable to replicate the action. The separation of gender and biological sex implied by the film is reversed within the music room scene. Yet, while this scene employs biological sex to confirm and establish gender, the previous scene implies that physical expressions and their connection to a particular gender is purely arbitrary. In the previous scene, Al and Laura discuss his plans to leave the house and the predicament of Tom. Laura asks Al how he would like it, if rumors were spread about him which would serve to question his physical demeanor. As Al listens to Laura, he is standing with his hands on his hips. Then suddenly he changes his stance as if his prior position could somehow be judged unmasculine. This action disturbs the link between the body and gender and thus the subsequent scene in the music room tries to reassert this connection.


At the beginning of the film prior to the flashback, Tom is shown walking to his old dormitory house. In comparison to the walk in the music room, there is a notable difference. After having sex with Laura, Tom walks with greater purpose and intent at his ten year reunion. This difference in conjunction with the close-up of Tom’s wedding ring as he looks at his old room, serves to confirm that the chain of sex/gender/desire has been reestablished after its disruption. The heterosexual union between Laura and Tom fosters this reordering of the chain. Thus, while Tea and Sympathy problematizes the sequence of sex/gender/desire it only does so in order to reassert the primacy of heterosexuality as well as masculinity and the gender system which is required and regulated by it. The prospect of homosexuality within the film and its viability as a subject position within culture is denied and erased in favor of compulsory heterosexuality.

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