The double lives of some male actors in Hollywood reveal that screen masculinity is often a masquerade, more constructed than actual, as the revelation that Rock Hudson had AIDS brought home. The male closet is still packed with skeletons, and as a concept, masculinity remains hard to pin down. Peter Lehman’s previous book, Running Scared, focused on glimpses of the penis in the media—when we see it, when and why we don’t—and he continues to tug away at the firmly clenched fig leaf in this new anthology.
Grouping the observations of American cultural and film critics, Lehman offers us a fascinating menu of how notions of masculinity are fabricated and maintained. Though his prime interest is what he terms “the melodramatic penis,” the territory covered in these essays ranges from the homoerotic element in buddy movies to James Bond’s penis, the career of Warren Beatty, gay performance art, and lynch-mob photography. One essay even attempts to explain the demonizing of male rape in both Hollywood and Arab culture.
In “Crying Over the Melodramatic Penis,” Lehman says the power of the penis is dependent on the collusion between the public and the board of censors in not expecting or allowing us to see it full on. This taboo has shifted recently with such films as The Crying Game, Angels and Insects, and The Governess, which reveal the penis at the story’s climax, adding to the melodrama. Lehman contrasts this trend with comedies in which the small size of the penis is ridiculed, usually by beautiful women or men anxious about their masculinity, and finds this polarized view of the penis lamentable.
Although eschewing formal categories and a unifying theory, the essayists manage to carve out some interesting ideas, some more laden with socio-psychological jargon than others. The gaps are plain: Woody Allen’s wimp-hero doesn’t crop up at all. The book nevertheless underscores how the public silence surrounding representations of the penis protects its invisibility. Dennis Bingham, author of the book Acting Male, is quoted in an essay called “Studs Have Feelings Too,” saying that the male body is often treated like “an object hiding in plain sight,” and this paradox goes to the core of Masculinity. The book suggests ways to unravel very real phobias about maleness that otherwise might be, like the penis in Hollywood, forever hinted at, joked about, dreamed about, phallicized, but 99.9 percent of the time, cut right out of the frame.