Posted by: sataniques | November 2, 2020

The Masculinization of Dorian Gray


Preface:
Tracking the representation of Dorian Gray is an extremely daunting undertaking. Luckily, another student had done some of the heavy lifting in this blog post for the class during 2013. Meg M provides references to Dorian’s many interpretations. I am grateful for the help in the detective work of uncovering the picture, so to speak, of Dorian Gray. I am also going to be talking about femmephobia (the concept of anti-femininity, a rejection of gender expressions that could be related to femininity) in specifically gay, mostly cis, male culture and how it is replicated and reinvented throughout history and in adaptations of Dorian Gray. I am very appreciative of the concept of adaptation, and think they are valid, this is simply a study on a pattern that I have noticed throughout this multiplicity of Dorian Gray. [Content warning for some homophobic language and rhetoric about sex]

[A photo collage of many different masculine, some bearded, and angular interpretations of Dorian Gray from various media, with a quote from the book in the center and question marks placed throughout. I made this monstrosity.]

The Masculinization of Dorian Gray
When I had first become interested in The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was at once taken with his image description in the novel. He is introduced to the reader as “certainly, wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair […] All the candor of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity” (Wilde, 19). He seemed to be a Botticelli-angel, and his softness was often written about throughout the story. Every other line saw Dorian’s bright eyes widening, his beautiful lips parting, or his youthful face lighting up. Lord Henry states that he is a “young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves” (Wilde, 7). He also ends this thought with the statement, “beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins […] your mysterious young friend, whose name you have never told me, but whose picture really fascinates me, never thinks […] he is some brainless, beautiful creature” (Wilde, 7) which brands Dorian as, forgive me, a Victorian himbo1. It is also here that Dorian is described as having, what is societally considered, a “femininity” about him. The correlation between femininity and brainlessness requires attention that this post cannot give.

For this post, I will be exploring The Picture of Dorian Gray through a queer-theory lens2, thus revealing that the relationship Basil Hallward, Dorian Gray and Lord Henry have is an envy-ridden ménage à trois between melodramatic gays of the enlightenment. The scarlet lips, rose-leaf features and crisp golden curls all lead to Dorian: the effeminate homosexual. Which, I might add, is not a negative thing. Wilde’s description of Dorian was a positive representation of a very valid gay visuality that has been increasingly warped over time to fit the homosexual-nouveau, masc4masc style. Dorian has been continually represented instead as a “tall, dark and handsome” type on screen and stage, in comic and novel cover… Google image search will bring a barrage of dapper-Dorians but will return only a handful of angelic, soft featured femboys.

“[T]hey feared that what they had begun to view as Greek effeminacy would be a bad influence on young Roman men. This is also reflected in Cato’s complaint in Polybius’s history, wherein Cato laments that a pretty boy slave could command a higher price than fields” (Rocque, 2020)

I will pull back from Dorian for the moment to contextualize my thesis: There is a masculinity problem in gay male spaces, and I do not mean a lack of it. Gay male masculinity has been a contentious topic since ancient periods in history, notably with the quote above about Cato the Elder. It is important to focus on visuality here: some in Roman society feared the feminization of their culture based on the Greek aesthetic experiences such as philosophy, art and literature, thinking these things could lead to effeminacy of men. It should be stated that Cato the Elder was not concerned with homosexuality itself, but that a “pretty boy slave” could be of more interest to a man than the masculine art of agriculture (pastoralism). Likewise, he did not concern himself with homosexual relations but did concern himself with representations of femininity. Notably, though, Hellenistic visual masculinity was still coveted.

The relationship between Grecian, Roman and Victorian-England visuality is further explored in a passage from London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914 by Matt Cook. He writes, “[b]oth Hellenism and pastoralism promised stability, a counter to degeneracy and a clearer idea of national identity. They heralded other spaces, including Athens, Arcadia and the English greenwood, and used the muscular body as a symbol of health, vitality, personal endeavor and self-restraint. At a time when fears about the city were focused on the degenerate, criminal, prostituted and effeminate body, these versions of corporeal perfection provided an important counter. An athletic physique could signify not only personal vitality, but also national strength and prowess” (Cook, 124). 

[Image of Stuart Townsend as Dorian Gray from the 2003 film League of Extraordinary Gentleman, with clips of Masc4Masc app messages superimposed over him. I created this and used the messages from this article]

Is this not representative of modern day misogynistic masculinity? That one fit bod can be so visually powerful that it strengthens a nation? The further one can get from male effeminacy, the closer one can get to heterosexual assimilation, to be taken seriously in the eyes of the majority power. I believe this is a root of femmephobia.

My curiosity with masculinizing Dorian Gray started when I came out and was faced with the phrase “masc4masc” as well as “no fats, no femmes, no asians, no trans” on various gay-apps. Being that I am not just one, but all of those adjectives, I became disillusioned and bitter about my place within gay male culture. Gay men seem to be increasingly courting the safety of heterosexual passing privilege. This is not new, however. Again, from London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914, “[w]hilst masculinity and middle class status of the [gay] men in the case studies made them sharers in the heterosexual progressive culture, their newly consolidated inverted identity aligned them with space and a cyclical temporality[…]describe[d] as “woman’s time”” (Cook, 83).

[A photo of Peter Firth as a true-to-novel Dorian Gray in the 1976 film adaptation, standing in front of his portrait and looking into the camera. Taken from here]


So, why is Dorian Gray subjected to this? This led me to academic research on the topic and a growing need to examine the aforementioned roots of femmephobia. I started earlier than Dorian though, with Victor Hugo’s 1845 Les Miserables, and specifically, with the character of Enjolras. Similar to Dorian Gray, Enjolras has suffered masculinization over the years. Author Ellie Valsin has delved into this topic in much the same way, compiling a list of defemmed Enjolras’ throughout history [https://ellie-valsin.tumblr.com/post/127086052116/what-is-the-problem-here]. Enjolras is described in the original text as a man with “long fair lashes, blue eyes, hair flying in the wind, rosy cheeks, pure lips, and exquisite teeth” (Hugo). He is also notably blonde, uninterested in the affections of women, and has a very close “friend”, Grantaire. The physical characteristics between these two, and their subsequent “tall, dark and handsome” representations, are quite intriguing.

It is easier to disguise the homosexuality of a protagonist if they are stripped of their femininity, as is the case with Enjolras and Dorian.

However. The most important part of this blog post is here: Though the masculinized Dorian Gray tends to have dark hair and eyes, that absolutely does not mean that people of color cannot wholly represent a soft, feminine Dorian. The bigger question is: Why are interpretations of Dorian so white? This swarthy, rakish white man is replicated time and time again but there is a glaring lack of POC representation for Dorian. People of color and in particular, black gay men and women have endured involuntary masculinization as well– There are ongoing campaigns to embrace and support black male femininity on and off of the internet, so the lack of any black Dorian is glaring, especially in the face of masculinizing him.

Interestingly, the single greatest representation that I have ever seen of Dorian Gray is Chip Sherman’s portrayal in Book-It theater’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

[A photograph of Chip Sherman as Dorian Gray from Book-It Theater’s 2018 stage production. He is a black man with delicate features, in a pristine white suit, with two other actors standing behind him. Taken from here.]

This beautiful person embodies every part of Dorian’s literary physical description absolutely. His features are soft, youthful and angelic. His hair mirrors the crisp curls and lips are rose-petal realness. Sherman is the most delicate Dorian I have seen since Peter Firth in 1976. While doing research for this post, I had originally collected a series of images from Renaissance paintings depicting angelic subjects of color to discuss my point but was greeted instead with this delightful Dorian!

[A photograph of Chip Sherman as Dorian Gray in Book-It Theater’s 2018 stage production. He is looking off-camera, showing his makeup of blushed cheeks and reddened lips. Taken from here]

Of course, as it always seems to be, the black community and actors of color are doing the heavy lifting for greatness. I have not had the pleasure to see this production, but am enamored with the visuality that is represented in these promotional photos.

Gay culture is forever changing, and as minds begin to hopefully broaden once again in relation to gay male femininity, I hope to see more soft, rosy-cheeked Dorians in the future, with pouting lips and pretty curls. Commanding the attention of the audience because of his youthful femininity, not in spite of it.

1 Himbo- A portmanteau of the words him and bimbo, is a slang term for an attractive but vacuous man.

2 Queer Theory- Textual interpretations which are presented from a queer perspective. 

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York, Signet Classics, 1972.

Cook, Matthew. London and The Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Responses

  1. This was a really excellent read! I was immediately taken in by the collage you provided, as it really effectively displays the dissonance between the true-to-novel description of Dorian Gray and what the most common physical portrayal of him is. Your clear outlining of not only where missteps are taken in his appearance but why is extremely helpful, and finishing off by noting what could be done to improve these portrayals as well as giving an example of a well-executed, appearance-faithful Dorian rounds off the post wonderfully. Thank you for this!! 🙂


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