Last month there was a bit of brouhaha about a quote Robert Downey Jr. gave to the New York Post about Guy Ritchie’s new Sherlock Holmes film in which he’ll be taking the title role. Speaking of the relationship between Holmes and his famous sidekick Watson (played by Jude Law), he said, “We’re two men who happen to be roommates, wrestle a lot and share a bed. It’s bad-ass.”
The Post was horrified, declaring in a headline, ” ‘Gay’ Sherlock Holmes Could Backfire for Ritchie.” Quoting a former Post movie critic, the page six article declares, “They know that making Holmes and Watson homosexual will take away two-thirds of their box office. Who is going to want to see Downey Jr. and Law make out?”
Putting aside the rampant homophobia in such a statement, the Post seems to have missed Downey Jr.’s point. They probably haven’t been watching very many period films, either. Here’s the truth of the matter that the good people at the New York Post seem to have missed: even without Guy Ritchie at the helm, there are a lot of homosocial shenanigans in your average buddy movie, especially if the movie has a historical setting.
‘Homosocial’ describes settings and relationships in which relations between people of the same gender – sexual or otherwise – play a central part. Think of the housewives gathered in the kitchen in Mad Men, or the camaraderie among the exclusively male characters of Master and Commander. In such settings, (heterosexual) romance seems to take a secondary role and friendships in gender-defined spaces guide the story. These friendships are often as intense and meaningful as the relationships in a more traditional romance.
Though often ignored (or mocked) today, such relationships have historically played an important part in the lives of men and women. A simple historical fact that is often overlooked by the general public is that for much of history, men and women spent a lot of time apart. For most of history and in most societies across the world, men and women had different social roles, different expectations, and different rights.
As one might expect, such gender-segregated relationships and setting appear frequently in historical films, a fact that becomes odder and more, well, quaint as gender and sexuality become more malleable in modern times. Rarely do filmmakers admit to the importance – or the sometimes sexual undertone – of these relationships between men (or between women) as Ritchie, Downey Jr., and Law seem to be, but time and time again, a homosocial ‘society’ stands at the center of historical films. In an attempt to prove that Downey Jr.’s admission about his own historical film is hardly new, here are a few of my favorite examples of such films.