In Cold Blood: Gender Roles Between Dick Hickock and Perry Smith

In our society—past and present, gender norms have presented themselves in a moderately strict frame of which personality traits are to be expected from males and females. In past traditional expectations regarding gender, it was the women’s role to be the more passive, more submissive caretaker, often hindering them from becoming involved in social and political situations. For men, the expectation was always to be the one to assert dominance through their masculinity. The more masculine and dominant a man was, the more likely it was that they would be successful. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood presents the significant contrast within a specific gender role through the way that Capote chooses to present Dick Hickock and Perry Smith’s relationship.

Dick and Perry are the two ex-convicts and now murderers of the Clutter Family. The criminal pair have both a complementary and polarized gender relationship. Dick is portrayed as the more masculine person, fitting the socially standard definition of masculinity. He was often seen as “aggressively heterosexual” and well-liked by many women (Stuckey-French, 2015). Throughout the novel, Capote emphasizes Dick’s masculinity, usually from the perspective of Perry admiring Dick. Contrasting from Dick, Perry is portrayed as the more feminine and the more submissive figure. Perry is often following Dick’s lead and can be easily convinced to do anything that Dick decides. It is evident that Dick is aware of Perry’s submissiveness and is often able to get Perry on board when using endearing words such as calling him “sugar”, “honey”, and “baby” (Capote, 1966). The language used between the two could be easily interpreted as more than a friendship relationship.

The 1960s was a time of societal change, but homosexuality was still regarded as a mental illness (Burton, 1987). During this particular time in history, the acceptance of homosexuality was miniscule. The need to fit into society was desired by most people, even if it meant masking part of who you are. Dick’s intense sexual inclinations towards women and young females are mentioned many times throughout the novel. As Capote had mentioned, Dick was seen as aggressively heterosexual, almost as if to intentionally make a point that there was no room for doubt that he could ever be anything else.

Perry plays more of a submissive role in the novel. Capote writes about Perry as a person who easily got his feelings hurt to the point where he noticeably cried a lot. These are traits which are often associated with femininity and weakness. Aside from a few mentions of one-night stands, it does not appear that Perry ever has much interest in sexual relations with anyone. In fact, Perry was disgusted while in Mexico when Dick was having sexual relations with different young woman there. He referred to it as a nuisance (Aliana, 2017). Perry viewed himself as an intelligent, sensitive, and creative person who was just not given the opportunity to develop his talents due to his circumstances growing up. Perry understands the value in an education, but since he never received one, he figured that his only way to gain respect is through his actions as a criminal. This is how he compensates for his masculinity.

Both Dick and Perry use each other’s versions of masculinity to cover up for their own insecurities to make them feel more masculine and more in power. Dick likes to pick out and emphasize the feminine qualities in Perry in order to make up for his own insecurities and make himself feel more dominant. Similarly, Perry is always looking up to Dick, looking for any sort of affirmation that he too is masculine and dominant. Perry often tells Dick fake stories about murders and other crimes which he has been involved with in order to boost his perceived level of masculinity. The irony in the situation is how both men view masculinity as a way to power and dominance. Dick is who readers perceived to be the most masculine, yet he was unable to carry out the Clutter murders, whereas Perry, the more effeminate person, is the one who carried out all the murders. Although it always appears that Perry seems to have a greater attachment to Dick, they both greatly depend on each other. One can’t accomplish much without the other.

Despite the fact that they used each other to boost their own sense of masculinity, Perry was often disgusted by Dick’s way of asserting his masculinity. “He had no respect for people who can’t control themselves sexually,” especially when the lack of control involved what he called “pervertiness”—”bothering kids,” queer stuff, rape. And he thought he made his views obvious to Dick; indeed, hadn’t they almost had a fistfight when quite recently he had prevented Dick from raping a terrified young girl?” (1966).

Masculinity in this novel symbolizes something much larger than just gender. It symbolizes the idea of dominance and power. In our society today, we often hear men being described as “manly” or “macho” oftentimes used as a synonym for strength and power (Genuske, 2015). All classic superheroes are men, and every person who has held the title of President of the United States, has also been male. Society has a bias viewing men as dominant and powerful people, and amongst many men, the battle to be most the masculine and most dominant does exist. Dick did everything in his power to be perceived as masculine most likely because he wanted to be respected. He gained his respect through being feared. Fear oftentimes resolved into respect. Perry who was clearly smaller and more feminine tried to emulate Dick and felt that impressing someone as masculine as Dick was a boost of confidence towards his own masculinity.

Overall, this novel demonstrates the dynamic between Dick and Perry, and how they feed off of each other to boost their masculinity. Had names or explicit gender not been assigned in this book, some people may have thought that Perry was a female based on his personality traits. In Capote’s field notes, he had written down: “In profile, he resembles a plump, rather unpleasant, and exceedingly tough lesbian” (Holleran, 2012). This goes to show that gender is not black-and-white and crimes as severe as murder can be done by anyone—not just the stereotypical “tough-guy” like Dick.

References

Aliana, L. (2017, May 30). Gender and sexuality in Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song”: struggles with masculinity. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.academia.edu/28454750/Gender_and_sexuality_in_Capotes_In_Cold_Blood_and_Mailers_The_Executioners_Song_struggles_with_masculinity

Burton, N. (2015, September 18). When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201509/when-homosexuality-stopped-being-mental-disorder

Capote, T. (1966). In cold blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences. New York, NY: Random House.

Genuske, A., Gray, E., & Vagianos, A. (2015, January 23). This Is What Masculinity Really Means To Men. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/23/what-masculinity-means-to-men_n_6527710.html

Holleran, A. (2012, July 1). Sympathy for the Devil. Retrieved January 22, 2018, from http://www.glreview.org/article/sympathy-for-the-devil/

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