Absent Homosexuality: The Mediated Discourses of Masculinity on the Design and Construction of the Sydney Opera House

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Abstract

This paper examines the controversy surrounding the construction of the Sydney Opera House at mid-century, and the role of "absent" homosexuality in shaping the new ideals of the country as a modern nation. Australian popular culture--in this instance, the Opera House--is an example of "feminine" culture being incorporated into what had hitherto been a masculinist Australian civic identity. The public discourse surrounding the opera house reveals clear anxieties regarding gender and sexuality in Australia in the 1950s, and the inherently unstable narratives of gender and sexuality under Australian patriarchy from the 19th century onwards. Henning Bech's notion of "absent homosexuality" is the core theoretical perspective utilized in this analysis of mass-mediated political and public discourses surrounding the design and construction of the Sydney Opera House. This paper suggests that the process of including the culturally-constructed feminine realm of "the arts" into its otherwise masculinist civic identity was closely connected to the nation's desire to project itself as a modern metropolitan society.

Keywords: Sydney Opera House, absent homosexuality, mateship

Introduction

This paper is an examination of a discourse of masculinity in 1950s Australia and the extent to which homosexuality, whether stated or unstated, informed it. The construction and design of the Sydney Opera House is a core focus of my analysis; I read that edifice as a spatial manifestation of what Henning Beth (1997) identified as "absent homosexuality." This paper suggests that the acceptance of Jorn Utzon's design as the winning choice for the Sydney Opera House occurred at a time when Australian society's reading of itself within the modern industrial world was shifting. Central to this shift was the belated inclusion of an aspect of what white Australian society had come to culturally consider as gendered "feminine" into its civic identity and its representation as a modern society. In a different setting, such as in Germany or in Italy, where the interest and involvement of men in opera has historically been associated with masculinity, such an argument may not need to be made. However, this is not so in Australia, where the literature suggests that historically any involvement of men in the arts--and indeed in any intellectual pursuit--has rendered men as both incomplete heterosexual men, and most often as homosexual and therefore worthy of exclusion from the privileges afforded to "men" within those proscribed social definitions. Indeed, there is the suggestion here that a form of explicitly heterosexual hegemonic masculinity evolved in Australia where masculinity has historically been conferred by the presence of men and the absence of women (Dixson 81; Hughes 320; Ward 100). In such a context, a man surrounded by women or associated with anything determined as feminine has potentially been seen as "queer." Overcompensation arguably led to a rigid aesthetic of masculinity in the former convict society in which, as recently as the 1850s, men significantly outnumbered women by as much as twenty to one in some districts. This overcompensation was evident from the nineteenth century onwards through the popularization of the Bush Legend in the popular press and the celebration of its homosocial, but clearly homophobic, institution of "mateship," which itself evolved out of the need for men to depend on one another in the absence of women. (2) The paper suggests that any understanding of how absent homosexuality pervaded the mediated discourses of masculinity on the design and construction of the Sydney Opera House requires an understanding of the key ideologies of masculinity and identity--and the origins of those ideologies--that informed Australian civic identity in the 1950s. The development of a patriarchal society in Australia that evolved out of convictism and the need for men to depend upon each other in the absence of women (Dixson 81; Ward 100) is a central component of this discourse of masculinity. …