Inquiries into mainstream culture's representations of otherness are of key relevance for an academic field like literary and cultural studies, whose principal claims are based on the idea that culture has an all-encompassing influence on identity formation, both collective and individual, and that, consequently, our identities and our sense of self do not come from inside ourselves so much as from a pre-existing culture that determines intelligible ways of living, while it disciplines allegedly unintelligible ones. In other words, it is through cultural representations – and thus largely through novels, plays, and movies, etc. - that we learn what it means to be different in a normative culture. And paradoxical as it may sound, when it comes to sexual difference, this learning process was, up until the end of the twentieth century, largely informed by misrepresentation, or even non-representation, as the vigilant influence of censorship and anti-gay legislation banned examples of queer life and queer role models to a space of virtual invisibility: the closet.
While the Lord Chamberlain's Office and the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) monitored Britain's theatres and her film industry closely, the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, meticulously classified a number of violations, including "sex perversion" and other allegedly undesirable contents, deemed inappropriate or even offensive in classical Hollywood cinema. Unsurprisingly, these institutions took ample liberties to rewrite, distort, or even delete material in order to render queer life, or at least positive images of queer life, invisible. As a result, any kind of (positive self-) identification with queer cultural role models was obliterated.
And yet, writing under the influence of censorship and anti-gay legislation allowed many nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers to develop and explore the numerous subtle ways by which "unspeakable" lesbian and gay subtexts could be communicated and placed in a text. Bargaining on the deep gulf between queer knowledge and heteronormative incomprehension (and thus on the truism that 'it takes one to know one'), these artists made use of various genres (Victorian gothic; horror; film noir; seafaring tales; westerns; musicals; boarding school dramas; etc.), various stock characters (the double; the 'handsome sailor'; the 'apparitional' lesbian; the femme fatale; the tomboy; the 'artistic' teenager; etc.), and various modes of performativity (camp; parody; pastiche; intertextuality; etc.) to undermine the regimes of censorship and to render queer characters visible – at least between the lines. In order to analyse the management of (non-) knowledge and compulsory (in-)comprehension that govern the open-secret structures of the closet, we are going to take a closer look at the contexts and the specific formal and function designs of R.L. Stevenson's Victorian gothic novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Herman Melville's seafaring tale Billy Budd, Sailor, Alfred Hitchcock's film noir classic Rebecca (based on the eponymous novel by Daphne du Maurier); David Butler's western musical Calamity Jane (starring Doris Day); and Peter Weir's boarding school film Dead Poets Society. In addition, the documentary film The Celluloid Closet (based on Vito Russo's pioneering study of the same title) will provide as with a historical overview of the representation of homosexuality in the movies. So please read and watch the following
PRIMARY TEXTS (Mandatory Texts)
Stevenson, Robert Louis. 1886. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales. Oxford: OUP, 2008. Print.
Melville, Herman. 1924 . Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales. Oxford: OUP, 2009. Print.
The Celluloid Closet. [dt. Gefangen in der Traumfabrik.] Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. HBO, 1995. Pro Fun Media, 2004.
Rebecca. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson. United Artists, 1940. Alfred Hitchcock Collection. Great Movies, 2015. DVD.
Calamity Jane. [dt. Schwere Colts in Zarter Hand.] Dir. David Butler. Perf. Doris Day and Howard Keel. Warner Bros., 1953. Warner Home Video, 2020. DVD.
Dead Poets Society. [dt. Der Club der toten Dichter.] Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke. Touchstone, 1989. Disney Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD.