Character Studies 11: Rated “R” for Revisionism

Distance distorts, and that’s very true in the way people view Starsky and Hutch now as opposed to when it originally aired. The point of this blog is not to point out the various archaisms or the cardboard-and-packing-tape quality of seventies television but to illuminate the emotional heart of the series and give it the respect and admiration it deserves. In order to do so, it’s useful to reflect upon what was happening in society when the show was being made. Among other elements, we can point to the oil crisis, the surge of suburbanization in Los Angeles, the rise (and leveling-off) of feminism, as well as the societal changes brought by the formerly marginalized and now mainstream disco “counterculture” and its effect on the concept of masculinity. One might say the mid-to-late 70s was the peak of American hedonism, engendering a kind of apolitical “anything goes” mentality very different from (but clinging to the ideals of) the socially-aware, utopian-minded 1960s. Starsky and Hutch were meant to embody this new kind of male hero: anti-bureaucratic, independent, progressive, unafraid of emotions. With guns. Big guns.

During its run “Starsky and Hutch” was heavily criticized for its violence. It was the one issue every critic, politician and parent ever talked about. To many, it embodied all that was wrong in a world reeling away fast from the televised suburban conventions of the 60s. Young minds were being corrupted by the weekly gravel-spraying car chases and bloodless fall-down shootings. But times have dramatically changed, and brutality and gore is so commonplace nobody notices it any more. To criticize “Starsky and Hutch” for violence is laughable when anyone can watch artery-spurting dismemberments on CSI.

Violence may be passé – and the bar for acceptability is continually being raised, but sex never is. And here we come to what the show is judged for now, as opposed to then. We seem more uptight than ever about any hint of homosexual content, real or imagined. Take this energetic summation on the opening credit scenes from season two onward, by Paul Cullum in his essay for the online site Museum of Broadcast Television:

 This apparent secret agenda is perhaps best demonstrated in the opening credits themselves. Initially, these merely comprised interchangeable action sequences–Hutch on the prowl, Starsky flashing his badge. But by the second season, the action footage had been collapsed into a few quick images, followed by split-screen for the titles. (he goes on to describe each stacked image in the sequence with some loaded editorializing). The entire sequence takes exactly one minute, with no single image longer than five seconds. And each scene is entirely explained away in context. Yet in the space of 60 seconds, these two gentlemen are depicted in at least four cases of literal or figurative transvestism, four cases of masculine hyperbole (encompassing at least two of the Village People), several prominent homosexual clichés (hairdresser, Carnival bacchanalian), a sendup of one of filmdom’s most famous all-male couples, a wealth of Freudian imagery (including the pointed metaphor of fruit), two full-body embraces, two freeze-frames defining them in both homoerotic deed and dress, and one clearcut instance where the oral stimulation of a man prevails over the visual stimulation of a woman (note: this refers to the blow-on-the-cheek moment at the Jungle Club in “Bounty Hunter”). This would seem to indicate a preoccupation on the part of someone with something. (And this doesn’t even begin to address their dubiously named informant Huggy Bear–a flamboyant and markedly androgynous pimp.)

The tone of all this is uniformly playful, almost a parlor game for those in the know (not unlike Dirty Harry, whose most famous sequence–the bank robbery–is bookended on one side by Clint Eastwood biting into a hot dog, and on the other by a fire hydrant ejaculating over the attendant carnage). Meanwhile, the rather generic storylines consistently play fast and loose with gender.

The menacing “secret agenda” Paul Cullum is so titillated by is, of course, is homosexuality, or the threat of it. This may come as a surprise to a 1970s audience largely oblivious to any sort of gay connotation – case in point: back in the day, my friend’s father, a highly-decorated Navy captain, said the only pop song he could tolerate was the Village People anthem “In the Navy”, because it was a “great tribute to our men in naval service”. Even Huggy doesn’t escape Cullum’s revisitionist disapproval (although androgynous? Surely not?). If such allusions were intentional on the part of writers and producers with an agenda, it would be a sophisticated conspiracy on par with “Capricorn One”. Most likely most of the allusions are just silly fun, a reflection of the heady times, all that cowboy-and-stripper glitz the result of William Blinn’s artistic ambition losing out to the candy-coated jiggle-fest that was much of TV at the time. But what if it isn’t? What if there is a shadow-side to all that blatant chicks-in-bikinis heterosexuality? When is a mustache more than a mustache? Does it even matter?

Apparently it does. I would be far less insulted if critics (and a certain brand of fan) were like those of yesteryear, provoked by the violence, the sight of dead bodies, the masculine pleasure in guns. I am not advocating for ignoring the subtext here, in fact I am encouraging it. Humans are fluid, complicated creatures and in art even more so. But distilling something, anything, to its base elements does a grave disservice to the relationship and the series as a whole. Mr. Cullum’s pseudo-shocked views are symptomatic of a larger issue: the titillation that reveals a deep, unsettling unease with sexuality in a society that has simultaneously lost its sensitivity to human cruelty in all its forms.


4 Responses to “Character Studies 11: Rated “R” for Revisionism”

  1. Kit Sullivan Says:

    You have hit the nail squarely on the head: This show was all about the violence and action when it was current, and any supposed homoerotic suggestions were never noticed or addressed by anyone that i can remember. Of course, i was only fifteen at the time, and all I cared about were fast cars and girls…everything else was to be ignored as “not important”.

    Today, of course, this show is constantly referred to by it’s subtextual homoerotic content. True, in nearly every episode, there is something that can clearly be considered to be just a bit beyond “straight” if you really try and read something extra into it. But then again, seemingly every album, song or utterance the Beatles made after 1968 apparently had undeniable clues that :”Paul is dead”.
    Try hard enough, and any interpretation can be read into just about everything.
    I saw every episode of this series first-run, and I purchased all four DVD seasons the day they were released. I have owned two “Starsky & Hutch” Torino’s over the years (Full-size cars, not toys…), and I know a great deal about all aspects of this show.
    here is the way I see it. I know these guys, “Starsky and Hutch” personally. I was there with them through every aspect of thier careers and lives for four straight years. Not once did they ever do or say anything at any time that I would consider to be homosexual. Any portrayal of seemingly homosexual affectations was clearly in the line of duty, showing how far they would go to solve a case.
    They are the quintessential character’s we all wish we could be like as we grew up: Tough, yet compassionate. Decisive yet thoughtful. Responsible, yet still playful. Calculated and still somehow enthusiastic.Aggresive yet kind. Attractive, yet not effiminate.
    If only we could all be that way…

    • King David Says:

      Hi Kit. You are spot on here. I was only 13-15 when I had my S&H years, and didn’t get to see the whole canon till 2011 (on DVD). I had no idea about homosexuality, double entendres, subtexts or Freudian imagery. All I saw was two blokes who worked together, were best friends, laid their lives on the line for each other ad infinitum, and drove a fantastic car. (I’ve only got a model.) I loved the way they touched each other without any squeamishness, and looking back at it now I see that many intimate gestures are balanced by a seeming offhandedness, eg: the roll-and-shoot scene in the hotel corridor in “The Velvet Jungle” where Hutch has his back to the wall, Starsky is on the floor between his knees, and Hutch’s left hand is settling Starsky’s shoulder. But, crucially, as Hutch is looking away around the corner at the time, the gestures and postures are contextually acceptable. (There’s a similar one in ‘Murder at Sea’ with Starsky having his back to the wall and Hutch being shunted out of harm’s way.)
      In 1977, when I first saw “The Fix”, the overriding image I fixed in my mind (sorry, no pun intended), was the spaced-out Hutch hunkered over Starsky’s lap, and the vice-like grip Starsky had on him. Those few TV moments where the Torino rockets up the alley still thrill me after a million viewings, because here is the absolute essence (for me) of the Partnership: Starsky to the rescue. I was so relieved on the first viewing to know that Starsky would make it all all right, that Hutch was safe now, and then I was utterly gobsmacked by all the scenes of the two as Hutch suffered and Starsky comforted. Not seen another depiction in the years since which moved me as much. Much as all the really close-contact episodes are great for the level of mateship they display, this one has the best element of ‘rescue’, even compared with ‘Survival’ and ‘The Game’. I continue to hope that in ‘The Game’ Starsky will rocket up and grasp Hutch to his bosom, as it were, and we can feel comforted by the reuniting of the partnership.
      It’s why, in “Sweet Revenge”, I could cry for the lack of physical contact between them, as though the partnership is somehow less. When Starsky is on death’s door in the hospital bed, Hutch wanders around in a daze and sits perched on the chair in such an uncomfortable way, and looks so bereft, yet doesn’t do the one thing that we yearn for – I can’t help shouting at him to touch Starsky, and connect with him and gain some comfort before Starsky dies and that warm body which has protected him for so long grows cold and forever out of reach. If this is a reaction to the criticisms of the day, then it is a crying shame to witness the dissolution of the best evidence of mateship on TV, and I wonder how much was Glaser and Soul’s decision to go down this path. Your best friend is dying…who would not want to see you get what last crumb of connection you can. Grief is sufficient motive to override prudish reserve.

      • Anna Says:

        I disagree. I personally thought the fact that Hutch didn’t touch Starsky at all in Sweet Revenge until the tag was a really powerful and effective choice. As though he was so scared to make the situation “real” by physically touching his partner’s broken body, or so afraid of messing something up or throwing something off balance that he couldn’t bear to pop the bubble of unreality by touching Starsky when he knows (or thinks) his touch cannot help. Like, it feels like it’s *meant* to make the viewers scream at him to touch. And it’s obvious in the scene where Starsky wakes up, that all Hutch really wants to do is grab Starsky in a bear hug and spin *him* around, but he can’t do that when Starsky is full of bullet holes, so Hutch is reduced to grabbing the nurse (even though it’s the nurse he hates) to fulfill his need to physical contact.

        And it makes their scene in the tag, when they are nestled so, so close together in the same bed, all the more powerful.

  2. Dianna Says:

    Unlike the others here, I am only watching the entire series now. My sister and I were hooked on Starsky and Hutch in the first season, but several family crises intervened, and then I went off to college, where (in those days) TV was not readily available. My memory of The Fix is what brought me back to it.

    Watching now I am astonished by the level of physical intimacy between these two men, but I (a straight female) am delighted by it. King David’s words could have come right out of my mouth, except that I haven’t watched all the episodes he references!

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