The Matter Of Images Essays On Representations Richard Dyer

Richard Dyer The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. Second edition. Routledge, 2003. 183 pages; $75.00.

The Invisible Visible

Back in the days when music hall was the staple diet of British entertainment, most artists had a tag line, which neatly summed up the nature of their act; there were slogans such as "He Of The Funny Ways", or "Always Applauded". If Richard Dyer ever trod the boards, he could be accurately summed up by the name of one of his previous books, Now You See It, a study of gay-identified, non-commercial films first published in the 1980s. For much of his writing, both there and here, has all the drama of the conjurer pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. It makes the invisible visible; it drags something previously obscure into the full glare of the spotlight. Dyer does this, moreover, with such clarity and vigour that it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he is compulsory reading for anyone interested in gay issues, in the nature and function of stardom, and in the host of knotted questions surrounding what the late Edward Said called the "Other".

The Matter of Images is a collection of essays that investigate the wide range of this otherness. A revised version of a book first published ten years ago, its new material is a logical extension of the reprinted work on gay and lesbian sexualities, and, above all, on race. This area is whiteness itself, a state so central and so apparently unquestioned that, for Dyer, it has an "everything-and-nothing quality", and therefore can be made visible only by a very particular conjuring trick. In the fresh articles on serial killers, the stardom of Lilian Gish, and the structure and images of The Birth of a Nation, he mutates the rabbit, turns it into something alien and strange. In his hands, whiteness is not assumed blandly to be a "dominant ideology", but is seen, rather, as a conglomeration of contradictions and anxieties, held together by little more than obstinate self-delusion and smoke and mirrors.

This is most clearly seen in the two essays featuring Gish. Here, Dyer breaks down Griffith's most famous star into her component parts: he shows how the essence of film itself, the manipulation of light, is used to create a morally exemplary saint, whose reserve, purity and wisdom are embodiments (rather spooky ones, it should be said) of the white ideal. Yet, as the Birth of a[End Page 84]Nation essay reveals, this ideal is not a simple, monolithic white supremacy: it covertly undermines itself by acknowledging the contradictions in its own position. In a bravura piece of writing, he argues that, although Southern whiteness appears to triumph in the big Klu Klux Klan procession at the end of the film, it is Gish's Elsie Stoneman, a Northerner, who has, in effect, rescued southern whiteness from its debilitation and corruption; for the film, both of these have been brought about by southerners consorting with black women, and, hence, creating the dreaded "mulattos" of Griffith's imagination. The general implication is that whiteness is a pathological state, which normalises itself by using especially cunning narrative sleights of hand.

These added chapters are notable for their force, subtlety and human perception, and similar qualities are on view in the previously published material. One of the best pieces is a study of Victim, the pioneering early Sixties "gay" film starring Dirk Bogarde. Here, Dyer offers an acute analysis of the film's attitudes towards homosexuality, and of the self-betrayal that lurks within its seemingly impregnable structure. In its sensitivity to structure, in fact, the book's overall critical approach is a compelling dramatisation of the actual experience of sitting and responding in a cinema (this writer's experience, at any rate). It investigates the sense of being lured into a labyrinth of light, imagery and meaning, where you feel that you are being pursued by something wholly unattainable, yet as close as a handclasp. Only when the film has ended, and you stop and look clearly for the first time at the whole structure, do you realise that all along you have been haunted by the shadow of your own self.

Dyer is an acute guide to this shadow world. In his essay on homosexuality and film noir, to take just one instance, he demonstrates how Clifton Webb's waspish, gay sophisticate in Laura, or the lesbian characters in Sinatra's Tony Rome, are ghostly doubles who haunt the heterosexual male protagonists, either frustrating their attempts to posses the heroine, or disrupting the even arc of their narrative journey. By contrast, gay-generated imagery and types are doubles of gay people themselves, being both an object of erotic pleasure and a more external self-definition:"the image of gay desire is also an image of what the gay person is." (Chapter Four: "Seen to be Believed.") Although Dyer refers to distinct "dominant" and "oppressed" groups at times, the general tendency is to highlight their complex interrelationships, where each party, to a degree, echoes the other.

The Matter of Images achieves this impressive depth and resonance, because it is a collection of relatively short, limited pieces, written originally for a range of scholarly and more general publications. One result of everything being so concentrated is that Dyer has no need to weigh down the writing by endlessly spelling things out, like some academic books; he attacks with the force of a commando, rather than with the lumbering apparatus of the full-scale assault. For this reason, the book packs more punch, and covers more ground, than weightier studies: also, when he is writing for a less specialised audience, like the readers of the old Marxism Today, his prose relaxes and lightens, and it is a deep pleasure to read. The only drawback, for we hacks who fumble with similar material, is that, faced with work of this excellence, a mild depression sets in. The collection is ample proof that Dyer is the king of his particular hill, and anyone else trying the ascent is well advised to give up and seek contentment by pottering about on the beginners' slopes.

David Lancaster

The University of Leeds

For the Montserratian footballer, see Richard Dyer (footballer). For other people with similar names, see Rick Dyer.

Richard Dyer (born 1945) is an English academic currently holding a professorship in the Department of Film Studies at King's College London. Specializing in cinema (particularly Italian cinema), queer theory, and the relationship between entertainment and representations of race, sexuality, and gender, he was previously a faculty member of the Film Studies Department at the University of Warwick for many years and has held a number of visiting professorships in the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany.[1]


Born in Leeds to a lower-middle class Conservative Party supporting family and raised in the suburbs of London during the 1940s and 1950s, Dyer studied French (as well as English, German, and Philosophy) at the University of St Andrew's. He then went on to earn his doctoral degree in English at the University of Birmingham’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. During the 1970s, Dyer authored articles for the Gay Left and then during the 1980s wrote for Marxism Today, the theoretical journal of the "Eurocommunist" or Gramscian-wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain. These writings were mostly cultural criticism rather than class politics based, with titles such as In Defence of Disco (1979) and Diana Ross (1982).

Before coming to King's College London in 2006, he was a Professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick and a visiting professor at the following institutions: University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications in 1985; the Istituto Universitario Orientale in 1987; Stockholm University in 1996, 2006, and 2010; the University of Copenhagen in 2002; New York University in 2003; the University of Bergamo in 2004; Bauhaus-Universitat Weimar in 2009; the University of St. Andrews in 2011. Throughout his career, he has taught courses on race and ethnicity, film, Stardom, Hollywood, Italian cinema, Federico Fellini, and representation.[2] He is also very involved in graduate education, and has supervised dissertations on subjects ranging from the history of gay cinema during the 1970s to experimental animation.[3] Having already published widely on whiteness, film, and lesbian and gay cultures, Dyer recently published journal articles and book chapters on song in Italian cinema and whiteness in the film, Dirty Dancing.[4]

White: Essays on Race and Culture[edit]

Published by Routledge in 1997, White examines the reproduction and preservation of whiteness in visual culture from roughly the 15th century to the late 20th century. From biblical images of the crucifixion to lithographs of Little Eva from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to photographs of the Prince and Princess of Wales during the 1980s, the broad scope of this text allows Dyer to illustrate how whiteness has been and continues to be both invisible and hypervisible, everywhere and nowhere. Whiteness as both invisible and hypervisible occurs, Dyer argues, because whiteness is both registered on the individual body (through phenotype, behavior, language, performances of class and sexuality, etc.) and exists beyond the corporeal.[5] Understanding whiteness as being embodied within yet existing beyond corporeal subjects is accomplished through the lens of Christianity, race (or more specifically, notions of racial difference observed through differently appearing bodies), and imperialism. Central to these three political projects is what Dyer calls "the sexual reproductive economy of race", which signifies the ways in which whiteness is preserved and also threatened by heterosexuality (e.g. the conception of white offspring versus interracial relations that produce mixed race offspring).[6] Hence the importance of images of the heterosexual white couple that will presumably preserve whiteness by conceiving white children.

One of the most compelling parts of his argument is the intra-racial boundary work among whites. Gender and class create a hierarchy among whites, wherein women are read as whiter ("purer") than men and those of a higher class status are whiter than the lower classes.[7] The third chapter, "The Light of the World", is particularly important to this intra-racial boundary work in that it examines the relationship between beauty and whiteness and how white women are visually presented as whiter than their male counterparts through the use of light.[8] Dyer is in conversation with scholars such as David Roediger (author of "The Wages of Whiteness", 1991), Tamsin Wilton (author of "Immortal, Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image", 1995) and Susan Jeffords (author of "Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era", 1994); and is therefore contributing to whiteness studies, film studies, and gender/sexuality studies.

Other notable works[edit]

Stars (1979) was Dyer's first full-length book. In it he develops the idea that viewers' experience of a film is heavily influenced by the perception of its stars. Dyer analyzes critics' writing, magazines, advertising and films to explore the significance of stardom, with particular reference to Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Joan Crawford and John Wayne.[9]

Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (1986) continues Dyer's extensive contribution to star studies. Judy Garland, Paul Robeson, and Marilyn Monroe are the subjects of this text, and yet they are not what Dyer is most interested in. Instead, Dyer looks closely at the ways in which audiences simultaneously construct and consume a particular star's persona, in the process debunking common stereotypes about Garland, Monroe, and Robeson.[10]

In his 2001 The Culture of Queers, Dyer unpacks the oversimplified term "queer", arguing that it is a sexual identity not merely about specific sexual activities, but defines men who are attracted to other men and who possess other non-sexual attributes like being effeminate or hyper-masculine. Analyzing films genres like film noir and queer actors like Rock Hudson, Dyer frames the trajectory of queer identification and culture with two major historical moments: the first use of the term "homosexual" in 1869 and the Stonewall Riots. Although well received within the academic community, some scholars have criticized the absence of lesbianism in Dyer's definitions and delineation of queer cultural history.[11]

A more recent text is his 2011 In the Space of a Song: the Uses of Song in Film. Understanding film songs as utopian, Dyer analyzes film musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star is Born in order to examine the role of song in film through the lens of race, gender, and sexuality.[12]

Throughout his career he has also been commissioned by the British Film Institute to write film analyses, some of which include Seven (1999) and Brief Encounter (1993). Thus Dyer is recognized as both an academic and film critic.

Public intellectual life[edit]

Outside of academia, gay critic[13] Dyer has been an active and influential figure in the English Gay Liberation Front and regularly contributes to the journal Gay Left. For example, his article ‘In Defense of Disco’ in Gay Left (1979), was one of the first to take disco seriously as an expression of the new gay consciousness.[14] In his article, Dyer defends the genre of disco from critics that do not support it because of its crossover from the margins to mainstream. While critics say disco traded in its values for profit, Dyer maintains his support for the genre. He argues that just because something is affiliated with capitalism does not mean that it is capitalistic itself. He goes on to say that Disco is more than music; it is a culture, dance style, and language, and that it would take more than a crossover into mainstream to negate its significance. In addition to contributing to this journal, Dyer has also organized the first gay cinema event at the National Film Theatre in 1977.[15] The event was accompanied by the publication of Gays and Film, a collection of essays he edited.

Dyer has also appeared in several television documentaries. In 1991, he appeared in Alma Cogan: The Girl with the Giggle In Her Voice. In 1995 he contributed to the television documentary The Celluloid Closet, a history of depictions of lesbians and gay men in American films, which was first screened in the UK on Channel 4 on 5 September 1996. Five years later when the documentary was released on DVD, unused material was edited together to form a one-hour show entitled Rescued From the Closet.


Selected bibliography[edit]


  • Dyer, Richard; McDonald, Paul (1998) [1979]. Stars (2nd ed.). London: British Film Institute. ISBN 9780851706436. 
  • Dyer, Richard (1986). Heavenly bodies: film stars and society. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780333295410. 
  • Dyer, Richard (1990). Now you see it: studies on lesbian and gay film. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415035569. 
  • Dyer, Richard (2002) [1992]. Only entertainment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415254977. 
  • Dyer, Richard (1993). Brief encounter. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 9780851703626. 
  • Dyer, Richard (1993). The matter of images: essays on representations. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415057196. 
  • Dyer, Richard (1997). White. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415095372. 
  • Dyer, Richard (1999). Seven. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 9780851707235. 
  • Dyer, Richard (2002). The culture of queers. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780203996393. 
  • Dyer, Richard (2007). Pastiche. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415340106. 
  • Dyer, Richard (2010). Nino Rota: music, film, and feeling. New York: Palgrave Macmillan on behalf of the British Film Institute. ISBN 9781844572090. 
  • Dyer, Richard (2012). In the space of a song: the uses of song in film. Abingdon, Oxon New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780203804629. 

Journal articles[edit]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

  1. ^"University of St Andrews-Professor Richard Dyer".  Retrieved 10 September 2013.
  2. ^"King's College London - Professor Richard Dyer". 
  3. ^"Richard Dyer - Research Students and Staff - Research Portal, King's College, London". 
  4. ^"Richard Dyer - Research Outputs - Research Portal, King's College, London". 
  5. ^Dyer, Richard W. White: Essays on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997. page 45
  6. ^Dyer, Richard W. White: Essays on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997. page 121
  7. ^Dyer, Richard W. White: Essays on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997. page 51
  8. ^Dyer, Richard W. White: Essays on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1997. page 122
  9. ^Cosgrove, Stuart. Review of Stars, by Richard Dyer and Genre, by Stephen Neale. Journal of American Studies 15.2(1981),312-313. JSTOR 27554019
  10. ^Hunter, I.Q. Review of Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, by Richard Dyer. Journal of American Studies, 22.2(1988), 285.
  11. ^Finlay, Sarah-Jane. Review of The Culture of Queers, by Richard Dyer. Journal of Gender Studies, 13.1(2004), 77-78.
  12. ^Johnston, Nessa. Review of In the Space of a Song: the Uses of Song in Film. Popular Music 33(2014),182-184. Accessed 1 June 2014. doi: 10.1017/S0261143013000731.
  13. ^"Anglo-American, Gay-Inflected Movies". The Gay & Lesbian Review. 
  14. ^Gay Left 1970s issue.
  15. ^Benedict, David. "London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival Has Fake Cary, Thai Boxer". Bloomberg News, 29 March 2005. Accessed 1 June 2014.
  16. ^"James Robert Brudner '83 Memorial Prize and Lectures - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies". 

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