The Curious Case of Cruising: Debating gay male identity and visibility via the movies



Publication Details

McKinnon, S. (2014). The Curious Case of Cruising: Debating gay male identity and visibility via the movies. In L. Featherstone, R. Jennings & R. Reynolds (Eds.), Acts of Love and Lust: Sexuality in Australia from 1945-2010 (pp. 77-94). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


In the 1970s, gay and lesbian activists decried popular cinema as an enabler of their oppression, arguing that homosexual movie characters were either hidden from view or shown only in a negative light. Film studios, directors and writers were seen as highly influential teachers, providing cruel lessons to closeted gay and lesbian cinema-goers. Influential activist and film writer Vito Russo argued in 1976, "As the game is being played right now, we must go to the movies hoping that when and if they get around to portraying homosexuals at all, the sexuality of those gay people will be positive, or at least realistic on some level". In writing about movies, many gay and lesbian critics attempted to classify cinematic images as either 'negative' or 'positive', condemning the former and applauding the latter. What may at first have seemed a simple project, however, ultimately proved complex and contentious. In this chapter, I investigate the reception in Sydney of one particular film, the 1980 cop thriller Cruising, and argue that attempts to define this movie as either 'negative' or 'positive' ignited passionate debate within the gay community of that city. Although inspired by images of gay male identity in an American film, these debates were equally concerned with how that identity should be formed, performed and made visible in Australia. In investigating the reception of Cruising , I am drawing, in part, on the reception studies methodologies of Janet Staiger. Staiger argues the purpose of such work is not to interpret texts but rather to "attempt a historical explanation of the event of interpreting a text". I am not, therefore, proposing to revive or further contribute to debates about whether Cruising was 'positive' or 'negative' in its representation of gay life. Instead, I analyse film reviews and other media reports in both the gay and lesbian and the mainstream media, in order to investigate some of the ways in which the film has been read at particular historical moments, and to explore how these readings connected with particular imaginings of gay male identity. The initial aim, as defined by Martin Shingler, is to "relate the events portrayed in the film, and the comments of reviewers, to wider cultural concerns at the time of its initial release". A further aim is to trace how changes in these cultural concerns have impacted on the film's reception across time. Through the use of oral history interviews, I also examine the continued role of the film in memory.

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