Thursday, January 11, 2007

Was Noel Coward a misogynist?

Misogynist - or bitch?

The Boston Globe's Louise Kennedy diagnoses Noel Coward's brain as "charming, but misogynist" in today's review of Design for Living. I seem to recall this is one political issue that reliably rouses Louise, so you have to consider the emotional source of the charge. Still, it's true that Coward has his moments. In Private Lives, for instance, there's the notorious quip that "Some women should be struck regularly, like gongs." And in Design for Living, women receive a few nasty putdowns (particularly, ironically enough, from the mouth of Gilda, his heroine).

But is that kind of queeny bitchery really misogyny? Certainly it squares - superficially - with the straight version of the syndrome (which is why, unfortunately, the lines get laughs). But in a way, isn't Gilda calling women "bitches" in Design for Living a bit like Ludacris using the n-word? After all, Coward wasn't just gay, he was a bottom - and, not to put too fine a point on it, bottoms in the end (as it were) will stoop to anything when faced with the competition!

Sorry, but the love/hate relationship of the queen to the female is far too complex to be reduced to "misogyny." This isn't to say that Coward in bitch mode is a pretty sight - it's simply to point out that we should understand him for what he was. I realize, of course, that Scott Heller isn't about to let Louise Kennedy explain tops and bottoms to the soccer moms who read the Globe - still, it's lazy to pretend some pseudo-feminist critique of "the male" is appropriate to Coward's persona. The man who wrote the heroines of Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter, and (yes) Design for Living certainly had insight into - and even identified with - women, and in particular a certain kind of feminine allure. Perhaps feminism itself has a problem with that allure (and its underside) - but that's not Coward's problem.


  1. You seem to be giving Coward a free pass because he was gay. ANYONE can be a misogynist, including women. (Gay men may also be homophobic) So, while I agree the subject is more complex (and not really the main focus of Kennedy's critique), a man making constant sexist comments (witty or not and gay or not) can still be labeled in such a fashion. (I doubt a battered woman would find Coward's "gong" line funny, no matter how expertly delivered). Times have obviously changed our attitudes towards women, which lends a museum-like quality to Cowards plays (for me, at least).

    Speaking of changing times, I find it more disturbing that you would excuse Coward because he was a "bottom" (a term I thought wasn't used anymore), making him some sort of pseudo female, to whom straight women are "competition". This is such an old, tired stereotype of gay men that, if you were straight, I would blame it on sheer ignorance. Coming from someone who puts their gayness front and center, it's rather infuriating. Propagating the idea that all gay men play heterosexual roles in their relationships (that even straight couples, in this day and age, don't really play anymore, unless they are stuck in some 50s time warp) seems far more damaging and lazy than Kennedy's off hand comment.

  2. Well, look who's back - and hostile as ever! Sure, gay men can be homophobic, I suppose - but such a claim would require considerably more evidence than a handful of bitchy quips. By the standards you're setting, Shakespeare's misogynist (and of course racist and homophobic), as well as Euripides, Brecht, Strindberg, and a host of other writers (LaBute and Mamet come to mind from the present day). Of these, only Strindberg (and maybe Brecht) strike me as perhaps genuinely having a subconscious hatred of women (Mamet, by contrast, is gynophobic - a very different, er, kettle of fish). Yes, Coward at times directs a certain envious pique toward women. Get over it (as well as your naive, and grammatically challenged, claim that his plays have a "museum-like quality").

    But enough with your addled feminism - on to your homophobia! Honey, don't try to tell a gay man about gay parlance. Trust me, people are still "tops" and "bottoms" (that goes for straight men and women, too). Of course a lot of people are both - switch hitters, if you will. As for "propagating" that idea - yeah, guilty as charged. But as for your being "infuriated" by my "old, tired stereotypes", may I suggest you stop reading my blog? You won't be missed.

  3. With much of Coward's oeuvre it's important to remember for whom a particular play waswritten. "Design for Living" might be thought of as a collaboration between the author, who this time resisted writing the best part for himself and his long-time friends, the Lunts. Clearly their personalities--and his-- went into the creation of Gilda (for Lynn Fontanne, who was British), Otto (for Alfred Lunt, who was American), and Leo (who was Noel, of course). There might also be a bit of Coward (in a more masculine mode) in Ernest, who was played originally by Scottish actor/director Campbell Gullan-- an old friend--in his last Broadway appearence. One of the things that titillated the original Broadway audience is that they'd been watching the Lunts play rather erotic love scenes onstage for a decade, and were now being confronted with much more "inappropriate behavior."
    On the other hand, it might be better to refer to Coward as a misanthrope, rather distainful of the crowd, all the while exercising his "talent to amuse."