The Pink Elephant in the Room: Promises, Promises and Masculinity
Hayes may claim not to ‘see sexuality’, but critics of Promises, Promises certainly did – and not only Ramin Setoodeh. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley reported that Hayes’s ‘relationship with Ms. Chenoweth’s Fran feels more like that of a younger brother than a would-be lover and protector’. In a subsequent piece for the Times he described Promises as mostly lacking in ‘sexual energy’, commenting that throughout the play’s first act ‘[Hayes] – despite being cast opposite the appealing Kristin Chenoweth – has given the impression of someone still waiting for a playmate to bring out the devil inside him’. Similarly, in the Toronto Star Richard Ouzounian wrote that ‘Hayes has a winning personality as Baxter, but he’s too sweet. You […] don’t really believe he’s in love with Kubelik. A puppy-dog crush, maybe, but little more’.
Perhaps even more telling is a remark made by the New York Post’s Michael Riedel when the show’s casting was announced – a full two years before Promises opened. ‘Hayes’, worried Riedel, ‘doesn’t seem quite virile enough to play a role originated by Jerry Orbach, one of Broadway’s greatest leading men’. The comparison to Orbach contrasts the masculinity of one actor with another, but let’s be clear that virility is a quality not even remotely associated with Promises’ Chuck Baxter, the lonely bachelor who lets his superiors at work use his apartment for sex. Baxter is, to the contrary, a character whom critics consistently describe as a nebbish and who, in his opening monologue, refers to himself as ‘the kind of person that people don’t notice’. Setoodeh, in other words, was not the only male critic who felt entitled to comment on Hayes’s perceived lack of masculinity.
Black and Barrios, then, might well accuse Setoodeh of having ‘issues with sexuality and femininity’, but so do most of us, straight and gay alike. Indeed, in How to Be Gay, David Halperin charts the rise, in mid-century gay literature, of ‘the straight-acting and -appearing gay man’. In the 1950s, this image or type became the romantic ideal for many gay men, and this ideal ‘was built on systematic contrasts with other, earlier, queerer types [like Vito Russo’s sissies]; in fact, it thrived on explicit put-downs of effeminate or gender-deviant men, from whom the hero or the author recoiled in horror’. The sissy is ridiculed for his femininity on all sides, including by many gay men. One need only look briefly on gay social media to see such shame at work and note the enormous number of males whose profiles include the phrase ‘masc 4 masc’. But this eroticization of masculinity among gay men and its attendant ridicule of femininity contradict the out-and-proud story we’ve all agreed to tell straight people about gay culture. For Setoodeh to say, in a mainstream publication like Newsweek, that Hayes’s perceived femininity interrupted the pleasures of the critic’s evening of musical theatre – desires which are normally disavowed by critics – was a kind of uncloseting all its own. The Straight Jacket affair, in many ways, outed the mainstream gay community’s own biases against men who aren’t quite ‘masc’ enough.
All of this returns us to the operations of desire at work between the critic and the Broadway performer. Setoodeh’s article details, however clumsily, a failed experience at the theatre. The audience is supposed to want to be Chuck Baxter, to be loved by him, to be loved the way he is loved, to sing like him, simply to sing, or some complex combination of these desires. This desiring operation did not work for Setoodeh, and in the case of Promises, Promises we might blame heterosexist masculinity instead of queer sexuality, the closet itself rather than the person in (or out of) it. But what the Straight Jacket affair makes most apparent is that the critic, despite protestations to the contrary, is a desiring sexual subject, affected by what he or she finds attractive, and that the actor is the object of that erotic investment, a figure of fantasy on which each of us projects our desires.