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Professor explores Star Trek sexuality and Hollywood masculinity in new books

For English Professor David Greven, Star Trek is not just a hobby, and movies aren't just a pastime.

"Cinema literacy is so important, because through it you can get a much better understanding of the conflicts that define American identity, and the ways in which gender, sexuality and race are central to the development of that identity," Greven said.

A film, television and pop culture expert, Greven has long used cinema in the classroom, teaching courses like, "The Films of Alfred Hitchcock," which examines themes of sexuality, suspense, violence and obsession in Hitchcock films, and "Hollywood After the Sixties," a critical examination of innovative 1970s directors.

Now, in two new books out this fall, Greven is digging deep into Hollywood's portrayal of gender and sexuality to analyze its meaning within the greater context of American culture.

In "Manhood in Hollywood: From Bush to Bush" (University of Texas Press, December 2009), Greven describes a profound shift in the portrayal of masculinity beginning during the early years of George H.W. Bush's presidency and continuing through the presidency of his son, George W. Bush.

"In the 1980s, Hollywood had a very 'hard bodied' version of masculinity that was almost cartoon-like, as we see in films like 'Rambo' and 'Terminator,'" Greven said. "In the 1990s, we begin to see a struggle between narcissistic and masochistic styles of masculinity - it really becomes a struggle between this idea of male pride and male suffering." Using examples from popular movies like "Fight Club," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Brokeback Mountain," Greven discusses the way in which masculinity itself becomes the focus of the attention.

"During this period, the gay rights movement is exploding. Gay culture is becoming more prominent, and the movement is becoming more successful. Hollywood has had to account for this shift in culture," Greven said. "Gay characters become visible for the first time in Hollywood films, and this has a big impact on how masculinity is generally represented in film."

Greven also studies gender and sexuality on the small screen, and takes aim at the popular notion that the Star Trek franchise shies away from gay culture in a second book, "Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek" (McFarland, September 2009).

"Star Trek is infamous for never having gay characters," Greven said. "In this book, I argue somewhat against the grain that through allegory, Star Trek speaks to the experience of gay people."

Greven points out that story lines and recurring themes in Star Trek - from the original 1960s series to the most recent franchise film - are evocative of gay experience, both of homophobia and of the ways that gays must make sense of their identities within dominant straight culture.

"You consistently see stories in which the members of the crew encounter people who are very different from themselves," Greven said. "There are reoccurring themes of loneliness and disconnect, the unmarried status of the captain and the passionate friendships that develop - all of these speak to the experience of queer individuals."

Greven says he wasn't a "Trekkie" growing up but began watching reruns of the show while he was a college student. And it was only after enjoying the show that he began to study it intensely.

"I always watch everything I study for pleasure first," Greven said. "In fact, it is because I have such a strong emotional reaction to a movie or a show that I am motivated to study it and write about it."

And while films have always garnered the attention of academics, Greven says television was largely unstudied until the 1970s.

"In many ways, TV is like a 19th-century novel with serial installments," he said. "It is a special world, narratively speaking, that demands to be studied."

-Amy Martin

October 14, 2009