Wow, this video is vintage in so many ways. Who on earth would expect to see that kind of performance on mainstream television today? None of us, I’m sure.
So what do you think is going on here? Are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis making fun of homosexuals? In my opinion, I would say “no”.
(BTW, homophobia in cinema and television is another topic altogether, which I don’t want to address here.)
I’m not positive what year this was, but I am guessing perhaps late 40s or early 50s. In order to understand this clip, I really think we’d have to interpret it through the eyes of people of that time, which of course, we cannot really do (unless you are old enough to have been alive during that period). I surely can’t. However, I can guesstimate what I think is going on here.
It is a safe assumption that both Martin and Lewis were straight, and both knew what a homosexual was, and probably worked with quite a few of them. But did the mainstream audience know what a homosexual was? I’m not so sure. I’ve know the people my parent’s and grandparent’s ages that claim they had no ideas about homosexuality or alternate forms of sexual expression, such as oral sex, when they were younger.
But if that is the case, why was this so funny to the audience? Probably because it was perceived as not normal; simply out of character because it was so unexpected. Men don’t act like that, so it is funny when they do. In a way it has always been funny for a man to act as a woman (and by extension a fem homosexual, as applicable), dress as a woman, or do unmanly things (such as screaming in a high-pitched voice when scared). I get that. I’ve laughed at men dressed as nuns or drag queens in movies, and it does not offend me if it is not meant in a mean-spirited way. (Think Laurel & Hardy, Bugs Bunny, and Bosom Buddies.) But I certainly don’t think that this particular performance was a slight to gays.
This next video shows that this kind of behavior was not uncommon for this comedic duo (and not censored by the producers, either):
But why, in a modern world that is so much more accepting of gay men, has this kind of humor/behavior become verboten? When was the last time anyone has seen these kinds of antics in television or film? If we are so progressive, inclusive, and tolerant of differences in people, then why do producers and actors shy away from male/male displays of affection, even comedic ones?
I cannot be certain of this, of course, but I believe it is quite possibly because prior to the gay liberation movement, general audiences weren’t gay savvy, so antics such as this were not a real threat to men’s personal masculinity or identities as men (and let’s face it, frequently the male perception of a homosexuals is that they are not “real men”), and nothing untoward was implied.
Now take a look at these random, vintage photos I found online:
Would anyone who viewed these photos at the time they were taken have assumed from the get go that these men where homosexual simply because they were expressing affection for one another? Not likely. Sure, some might see it that way, particularly if they were homosexual themselves. And though some of the men in these photos might have been gay, I am convinced that the viewer’s assumption would not have been that these men were romantically or sexually involved. Rather, it would have been seen as just guys doing what guys do. Nobody would have thought twice about it.
But not any more! For the most part, men just don’t act that way in this day and age. Maybe that is not 100% true, but generally speaking, I think it is. Men act as though they must keep an arm’s length between them. Compare these photos to the ones above:
So has an increased awareness and visibility of gay men, and by extension, an increase in homophobia, created in straight men a kind of self-policing behavior meant to constantly reassure others that they are not a fag? In other words, have straight men lost the ability (or will) to express affection for one another out of a fear of being perceived as a homosexual?
If so, why? Are straight men even aware of this kind of self-policing behavior? And whose fault is it, gay men’s or straight men’s? In fact, is it anyone’s fault, and what can be done about it either way? Should anything be done about it?
Can men learn to express affection for one another once again, in an innocent, friendly, and sincere way? If they do, would society at large accept or reject that behavior?
If straight men could learn to be at ease with expressing affection for one another, I strongly feel that it would no only benefit them, but improve the world’s perception of gay men and male camaraderie. It seems to me that rampant homophobia is not only a disservice to gay men, but to straight men as well. It’s time our culture came to accept that non-sexual affection between men should not be frowned upon, and in fact, it should be encouraged.
It's funny how I'm just reading this post and watching the Ohio State - Oregon football game. At the beginning of the game, 8 three hundred pound football players, hand in hand walked to the center of the field for the toss of the coin. I thought as I read this post if you'd see something like that in the 50's or 60's. I don't think so.
My daughter is into choir and drama. She remarked that she found it funny that the boys in choir and drama were called 'gay' while the football players were 'macho.' She remarked: 'Who seems more gay: the boy who hangs out with all the best looking, most talented girls, or the one who spends his time with a bunch of other naked boys in a locker room?'
This is really interesting post, and very well researched. On the one hand, I'd like to write a well reasoned reply conjecturing on the topic. Unfortunately, I don't have time, so instead I'll just post a video that does point out that straight guy bonding can still exist:
The first video I wasn't able to see, but in the second one, it was actually kind of shocking how much man-man kissing was allowed on TV in the '50s! Nowadays men kissing is usually censored from TV, mainly b/c the general public is more grossed out by that than straight or women kissing.
It could be argued that these photos are selective, but even in watching old movies in general, males are more affectionate, and I think they do more song-and-dance too.
I think people were more affectionate in old times, and are in other cultures, but also sometimes taboo subjects are expressed covertly, so that only people with an interest actually notice it.
Hope I'm not too late, but this thread was just such a surprise question. I had to ponder. I think yes indeed, public displays of male bonding are not as common and not as innocent as they used to be.
I agree there are possibly several combinations of reasons, but one that wasn't brought up in the discussion is women's insecurities.
I think since women's lib, men are also free to wander more. This has made "good marriageable men" harder to find. I'm not speaking for myself here, as I'm a happy almost old spinster, and proudly so :)
But I have witnessed plenty of instances where woman trying to keep "a good man" feel threatened and jealous when their man is spending too much time with the ole boys, especially if that "good man" is affectionate with the boys, yet no so (or insufficiently so) affectionate with the wife, or so she'd perceive it...
Women's lib has had plenty of good effects, but one of the downsides has been "contract insecurity" (marriage contract). Back in the "good ole days" the risk of "loosing your husband" was an uncommon occurrence. Now, it's the majority occurrence. So men who don't want "nagging" from his wife, might choose to keep the "affection with ole boys" to a more private sphere.
I'm in no way saying this is a dominant factor in the observation, but I can see it playing at least a small part.
One small note: having people move closer and put their arms around each other is a standard way for a photographer to fit everyone into the frame. It may have no other significance.
Also I note that men touching often has no sexual meaning in other cultures. In many places in the Middle East men will walk holding hands. In Europe the kiss on both cheeks has no sexual significance.
Here in California we have a large Mexican population and they are all quite comfortable with touching—men and women, adults and children, etc. At first it made me feel a bit awkward, but after I got used to it I thought it rather nice. Children and old people get a great deal of physical affection in Mexican culture and as far as I can see, it makes them more pleasant to be around because they feel accepted as part of the group.
I think Americans have tended to oversexualize everything, but the younger generation seems much more comfortable with touching and that's a good thing. People comfortable with their sexuality don't worry someone may think them gay.