Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Art and Visual Culture


Sprengler, Christine

2nd Supervisor

Bruhm, Steven



This research considers the contribution of visual culture to queer masculinity among white American men during a profound reorientation both in popular understandings and the practical conditions of eroticism between men. From about 1915 to 1955 a pragmatic libidinal economy centered on the theatrical effeminacy of “fairies” was displaced by one founded on the presumption of strongly delineated and relatively fixed hetero- and homo-sexual identities. Although medical discourses about queerness had been developing since the middle of the Nineteenth Century in Europe, what Americans of the opening decades of the twentieth century knew about queerness they learned unsystematically from hearsay, the observation of local people and practices, and visual culture.

Photography and film built on existing representational conventions, such as those developed in painting, illustration, theatre and nightlife, but the voyeuristic position of the spectators of films and photographs provided a special liberty to look at men, fetishistically or critically, and imagine recreating their gestures in the medium of one’s own body. Gesture is understood here as the aestheticization of self-presence by means of the movement or disposition of the body and its props. Gestures articulate a selfhood that enjoys a conditional freedom in its relation to the social world while being subject to the structures of meaning it inherits and the operation of discipline.

Through fine-grained analyses of queer gags in Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick comedy and nude figure studies by George Platt Lynes, this research argues that visual culture provided an apprenticeship in and theory of queer masculinity as a set of gestures. This study supplements the scholarly literature on Charlie Chaplin by foregrounding aspects of his star text that key audiences to recognize the masculinity of his signature Tramp as queer and cataloguing his use of dance, drag, and accident to provide a figure for homoeroticism in slapstick. It also significantly extends the existing critical literature on the photography of George Platt Lynes by considering camp, surrealism, and glamour as aspects of a decades-long engagement with the phenomenal texture of life as a middle-class queer American man.