Even if they are wearing numbered, different-coloured shirts.
Well, can you come up with a better explanation what the rugger-buggery is going on in this slightly creepy latex-laden ad for Lucozade Sport ‘Strictly for the Home Nations Only’?
Pegged to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Twickenham and starring big buff bearded England captain Chris Robshaw and chums, I’ve watched it several times and it still makes no sense to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t follow rugby. Or maybe it’s because I’m not an advertising creative who pretends to follow rugby.
The alternative explanations seem kinda kinky-gimpy. Are we meant to wonder what really went down in the back of that minivan when those norty Wallaby wannabes were cornered in the underground car park? By those strapping England lads wearing muscle-tees and expressionless faces? All that bad acting should definitely carry a Triga warning.
Yes, of course, the ‘straight’ subliminal commercial message here, hedged around with misfiring humour, is that if you drink Lucozade Sport, a sugary ‘recovery drink’, you will look like Robshaw. This is generally the way the supplements industry works – some ads more explicitly than others. But I’m not sure that ‘acceptable’ message isn’t drowned out here by more disturbing/confusing ones. Masculinity as male impersonation – a Mission Impossible. (This, after all, is what team sports fans are doing when they wear a replica shirt.)
I admit I’m biased: the recent fashion for styled-beard-with-styled-hair looks to me like a hairy onesie, a mullet mask. One that I imagine wearers peeling off at the end of the day, breathing a sigh of relief, applying lots of wet wipes to their face and neck – and leaving it to soak in a bucket by the bed.
Mind you, I still totally would ‘wear’ Robshaw.
PS This web ad below from the same campaign is also v confusing – but who cares?
This bombastic ad for Paco Rabanne’s new fragrance for men ‘Invictus’, released this Summer, stars Aussie rugger bugger Nick Youngquest, his muscles, his tatts, his beard, and most of all his obliques. (They’re the diagonal lines above those track pants with the really worn waist elastic – pointing to his, ahem, priceless package.)
The world’s paparazzi bathe him in money-shot white flashes as he strolls through a stadium showing off his oiled, winning body with a rather self-satisfied grin. Not that we hold it against Nick, of course. We wish we could hold it against him.
The whole ad with its Olympian motifs seems to be referencing the ‘Gods of the Stadium’, ‘Gods of Football‘ sporno vibe – which Nick also appeared in a few years back.
Also with his arms in the air, inviting our attentions:
This clip by Irish comedy outfit Dead Cat Bounce called ‘Rugby’ has to be my favourite video of 2011. Even if it strongly suggests that, in Ireland at least, my work here is done and it’s well past time to retire to the touch-lines.
There’s much to admire here: the lightness of touch, the hilarious blend of the accurate and the absurd; the joshing, bantering, boyish affection — both for rugby and manlove. I even like the tune. But I find myself especially mesmerised by the lead singer’s vast, match-winning gob. He could swallow that giant, muddy testicle he’s pretending to lick without it so much as touching the sides.
It seems I’m not the only one who rated this manlove ballad. Originally broadcast on their state TV station RTE, it’s the fifth most popular YouTube clip in Ireland this year. Oh, and you can download the song from iTunes too.
Below the YouTube clip are scores of comments by self-identified straight rugby players and fans, most of whom seem to love it as much as this old homo does:
‘im a rugby player. i play lock.. which makes me the guy who sticks his head between the guys’ thighs. i still think this is fucking hilarious.’
It’s difficult to imagine a similar skit about soccer getting the same good-humoured response. But then, as several rugby fans have pointed out, soccer is for poofs.
Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident… wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser
It then teases us with a couple of ‘shocking’ bullet-pointed facts
Chris Birch loses eight stone and transforms himself from skinhead to ‘preened man’
Gives up job in bank and retrains as a hairdresser
Cutting to the chase:
Mr Birch recalled: ‘I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange but when I came round I immediately felt different.
“I wasn’t interested in women any more. I was definitely gay. I had never been attracted to a man before – I’d never even had any gay friends.
‘But I didn’t care about who I was before, I had to be true to my feelings.’
Before the accident Mr Birch, of Ystrad Mynach, South Wales, had spent his weekends watching sport and drinking with his mates.
But he said: ‘Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life. I didn’t get on with my friends, I hated sport and found my job boring.
‘I started to take more pride in my appearance, bleached my hair and started working out. I went from a 19-stone skinhead to an 11-stone preened man.
‘People I used to know barely recognised me and with my new look I became even more confident.’
The copy and a supportive quote from a neuroscientist seems to suggest only two explanations: ‘he was gay all along but didn’t know it before the stroke’; or ‘his stroke made him gay and good with colours’.
I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that there are more than two possible explanations here.
Maybe Mr Birch was just fed up with being the big Welsh boyo everyone wanted him to be and when it almost killed him he decided: ‘Sod THAT for a game of soldiers! Life’s too short. I’m gonna be a FLAMER!!’
Maybe Mr Birch simply resolved, albeit unconsciously, to be about Mr Birch from now on, not what his family, friends and fiancée expected of him. Maybe he chose to reject heterosexuality because it made too many demands on him. And what better way to escape its demands in a small Welsh town by waking up from a near death experience as the only gay in the village?
Being a bloke’s bloke isn’t always as much fun as it looks. And being honest, it usually doesn’t look that much fun anyway. You don’t have to be a ‘secret gay’ to find it miserable and oppressive. And more often than not you’ll be punished if you try to escape. Look at what happened to Shane Warne, whose own transformation from beer-bellied Aussie stereotype to flaming metrosexual has been regularly pilloried in the papers, including the one in which this latest sporting transformation story appeared.
Though of course nowadays it’s sometimes possible to be a rugby-playing Welshman and something of a flamer too. Maybe Mr Birch should have taken a leaf out of fellow Welshman Gavin Henson’s bachelor book and continued playing with odd-shaped balls but as a ‘preened’ rugby player. But then again, perhaps he didn’t have the legs for it.
And as for Mr Birch’s new-found interest in chaps. Well, I’m sorry but I don’t think it very surprising when males find other males sexually interesting. Or something that needs to be explained by a stroke. At least not the kind the Daily Mail reports.
There is though yet another possible explanation for all this. That this story is complete twaddle. It did after all appear in the Daily Mail. And the writer is the same one who reported pretty much every important fact about this infamous ‘gay orgy in the bushes’ story incorrectly, apparently pandering to the imagined Daily Mail reader’s worst fantasies.
Also, the stroke that ‘turned him gay’ (instantly, apparently), happened in 2005. Why wait six years to tell the national press? Especially if you told your parents and fiancée when you came round in the hospital.
And I seem to recall that when I first read this story about Mr Birch online yesterday it mentioned that he and his fiancé/girlfriend were ‘taking a break’ before the accident. The piece was ‘updated’ today and this detail is nowhere to be found.
And then we have the banner headline which talks about a ‘freak gym accident’ causing his injuries but the copy talks instead about ‘him attempting a back flip in front of friends on a field when he fell down a grass bank, breaking his neck and suffering the stroke.’ Or the way the ‘before’ picture appears to have been manipulated/squashed to make him look burlier.
But my favourite dodgy passage is this one:
‘He was taken to hospital where his fiancée and family spent days waiting anxiously at his bedside before he delivered the shocking news.’
What? More shocking than breaking his neck, suffering a stroke and nearly dying?
Last night BBC3 aired ‘I Woke Up Gay’, a documentary about Mr Birch. It was an hour long, but apart from some local Welsh colour, some more snaps of Birch pre-stroke when he was straight and very chunky (“Oh! That’s AWFUL!!'” was today’s slimline Birch’s horrified response to them) and more close-ups of Birch’s remarkable hairdo, which looks like a badly ironed dead badger, the doc didn’t really add anything to the Mail’s story. Or really clarify the ‘confusions’. (Birch says he ‘can’t remember’ much of his pre-stroke past.)
It did however leave you feeling that the whole thing wasn’t just cooked up by the Mail, and that Mr Birch seems to believe his own story. Or perhaps needs to believe it. Though it’s still not entirely clear when exactly he decided on it. His family were notable by their absence in the doc – apparently he has become estranged from most of the people he used to know before the stroke.
I don’t wish to suggest as many have done that Birch is ‘lying’, or was a ‘closet queen’ before the stroke. Or that he’s simply attention-seeking (though he certainly doesn’t seem to mind it). I do think though that he may be deceiving himself – but then, we all do that. To some extent probably most coming out stories are fictional if necessary narratives. What’s interesting is not what his story says not about dubious ‘brain science’ but about how difficult it can still be for some to accept themselves in places like the Valleys as gay, or just not a boozy rugger bugger.
In that kind of situation a stroke might even be a stroke of luck. At least in the sense of giving you a chance to reinvent yourself.
The ‘highlight’ of the doc was when Birch travels up to London to see the Wizard of Oz – or rather, a highly controversial scientist called Quazi Rahman who believes that gay men’s brains are innately different to straight men’s (this in turn is based on dubious assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are increasingly being questioned). The narrator told us that Rahman has tested “hundreds of lesbian, gay and straight volunteers” (no bisexuals, note – and for the purposes of this entire documentary they simply don’t exist) and “can tell if a person was born gay or straight, despite their current lifestyle”.
In other words, Rahman is God.
The narration continues, cheerfully telling us:
“Though controversial, some scientists believe that our genes and hormones may determine sexuality before birth and personality traits too. These traits can be tested and this means that Dr Rahman can work out whether or not a person was truly born gay.”
Truly born gay.
In other words, Rahman is even bigger than God. He’s Jeremy Kyle.
(Note how BBC3 throws in a reluctant ‘controversial’ at the beginning of the first sentence but by the end of the second, knowing most BBC3 viewers have already long forgotten it, seems to be expressing nothing short of a divine revelation.)
So it was touching to see two people who both fervently believe in ‘gay brains’ come together – but unfortunately for Birch, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Rahman talks to Birch about testing him to find out “how gay your brain is” (no, really, that’s actually what he says), but was clearly disappointed with his own results, which showed that half Birch’s responses fell within the ‘normal range’ for a gay man and the other half within the ‘normal range’ of a straight man. Whatever that means.
Birch though is delighted with the results because he sees it as an endorsement of his narrative of the stroke ‘turning his brain gay’. But Rahman seems set against the idea, despite his mixed findings. Perhaps this is because for the gay neuroscientist (who is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’) the whole point of ‘gay brains’ seems to be that you’re born with them, rather than being something you can acquire, even by accident. Like I said, everyone has their own necessary coming out fiction.
Birch’s boyfriend, who accompanied him to the Gay Brain Detector’s lab, seemed to be the only one who had his head screwed on. He was gently sceptical of his partner’s belief that the stroke made him gay, but was patiently sympathetic to the psychology of it. “He’s based his whole life on the stroke making him gay,” he said whilst Birch’s brain was being ‘tested’ for ‘gayness’.
“If he wasn’t, it would almost be like having to start from scratch again.”
I’m not sure I entirely believe the preamble from the overly dudey – if very easy on the eye – presenter and star of this ‘experiment’ in ‘touching dudes softly’. Particularly the bit about ‘nothing makes me uncomfortable!’
But it is interesting to watch the responses of the men he decides to monster with ‘inappropriate’ tenderness – or ‘touching another dude softly’.
I’m also personally interested in why I found it very uncomfortable to watch. Is it because I’m worrying the men will freak out? Or is it just because I’m very uptight about physical tenderness myself? Or is it simply because of the painful self-consciousness of the setup?
I’ve watched drunken straight lads do much ‘worse’ things to one another and not felt in the least bit uncomfortable about it. And nor did they, apparently.
I attended a gay rugby tournament some years ago and was struck by the way that there was on the whole rather less in the way of physical affection and tenderness between men than you’ll find at ‘straight’ rugby matches. I still remember watching a sozzled young chap at the Army & Navy match batting his mate’s gilfriend’s hand away from his chum so HE could hold his hand as they left Twickenham.
In fact, many of the players I spoke to at the gay ruby tournament seemed to be disappointed that the gay rugby teams were missing one vital rugby ritual: post-match homoerotic horseplay.
Sometimes being straight means that you can get away with much more. Because it’s all ‘a laugh’. Dude.
Mark Simpson on how sport and porn got into bed – while D&G and Mr Armani took pictures….
(Out magazine, May 2006; expanded for The V&A’s ‘Fashion V Sport’ catalogue, June 2008. Also collected in ‘Metrosexy‘)
You might think that it was Italy’s greater ball skills, or stamina, or team spirit that won them the 2006 football World Cup. But you would be wrong.
Clearly, explicitly, thrillingly, what won it for the Italians was not so much their sporting spirit as their sporno spirit. In the run-up to the tournament, some especially fit players from the Italian football team took time off from their training and did something much more useful: they recruited Dolce & Gabbana (or was it the other way around?) to produce a spornographic fashion shoot of them all oiled-up and ready for us. In hindsight, we can see that the world was already grovelling at their feet from that moment on.
Sporno, the post-metrosexual aesthetic that sports and advertising are using to sell us the male body is, well, irresistible. Even for a fine French team – who were, let’s face it, a much plainer bunch. First Portugal devastate England because Ronaldo is better looking than Becks and far swoonier than Rooney, then Italy trounce France because the punters would much rather celebrate with the sweaty Italian stallions in the locker-room. The best men definitely won.
In a spornographic age it’s no longer enough for the male body to be presented to us by consumerism as merely attractive, or desiring to be desired, as it was in the early days of nakedly narcissistic male metrosexuality. This masculine coquettish-ness, pleasing as it is, no longer offers an intense enough image. Or provokes enough lust. It’s just not very shocking or arousing any more. In fact, it’s just too… normal. To get our attention these days the sporting male body has to promise us nothing less than an immaculately groomed, waxed and pumped gang-bang in the showers.
But of course, because this is sporno and not actual pornography, it remains just that: a promise. Advertising and fashion are less interested in making a fetish of the potent male body than its underwear: commodity fetishism is usually the name of the sporno game.
However, the homoprovocative nature of sporno is much less easy to overlook than it was in early metrosexuality, which could pretend when it wanted to that it was ‘straight’ and something entirely for the ladies. Where metrosexual imagery stole slyly from soft gay porn, sporno blatantly references hard gay porn.
Sometimes you might be forgiven for thinking sport is the new gay porn. Sportsmen are now openly acknowledging and flirting with their gay fans, à la David Beckham and fellow footballer and Calvin Klein underwear model Freddie Ljungberg. Both of these officially heterosexual thoroughbreds have posed for spreads in gay magazines (Ljungberg appeared on the cover of Attitude in April 2006, Beckham in 2002), albeit sporting more clothes than they usually wear when appearing on the side of buses.
Beefy England Rugby ace and married father of two Ben Cohen has explicitly marketed a calendar of sexy (PG) pics of himself at gay men, and talks of ‘embracing his gay fans’. Some, like Becks and smoothly-muscled Welsh Rugby ace Gavin Henson have even argued over them (Becks recently admitted that Henson had stolen a lot of his gay fans and he wanted them back because ‘I miss them.’).
Being found desirable by gay men, once a source of ridicule by others and even violent anger from the desired, now seems to mean you are worthy not just of love but also of large amounts of cash. A whole new generation of young bucks, from twinky soccer players such as Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has modelled for Pepe, and Chelsea’s Fabulous Frankie ‘Legs’ Lampard, to rougher prospects such as Joe Cole and A.C. Milan’s Kakà posing for Samsung and Armani jeans respectively, and the naked, pneumatic rugby ‘pros’ of the legendary Dieux du Stade calendars, seems to be actively pursuing Beckham’s and Ljungberg’s male sex-object, more than slightly tarty, status. The sportsman as erotic symbol.
Being equal opportunity flirts, today’s sporno stars want to turn everyone on. Partly because sportsmen, like porn stars, are by definition show-offs, but more particularly because it means more money, more power, more endorsements, more kudos. Sporno exploits the corporate showbiz direction that sport is moving in, as well as the undifferentiated nature of desire in a media-saturated, mirrored-ceiling world – and inflates their career portfolio to gargantuan proportions.
Why is Euro soccer star Beckham a household name in the United States, a country that generally has less interest in soccer than socialism? Why did his recent move to the US to play for a team most Americans had never hear of provoke so much breathless coverage in the US media? Again, it wasn’t down to his soccer skills, but rather his sporno skills. Pictures of him semi-naked in Vanity Fair, or in W magazine, sporting skin-tight trousers that nevertheless seem to be somehow pulling themselves off, or that naked campaign for Motorola, in which the mobile phone dangles tantalizingly between his pert nipples, seem to be more ubiquitous, not to mention more stirring, than images of him actually playing football.
And what could be more American? Sporno stars are pushy young hustlers who are happy to be ogled undressed on Times Square billboards or in Vanity Fair – advertising a willingness to put out, or at least get it out, to get ahead. In campaigns like Ljungberg’s Calvin Klein unforgettable underwear posters of 2006 or Beckham’s globally gawked Armani briefs ads of 2008, their bodies and their bulges, blown up to gigantic proportions, are rammed down our throats by advertising. Most of us don’t appear to be gagging, however.
The male body has been well and truly, not to mention tastily, commodified. After decades of being fetishized by gay men, jocks are now fetishizing themselves. It was probably inevitable. Men are traditionally the more visual of the sexes – and by far the greatest consumers of porn. So why not cut out the middle-women and pornolize yourself? Because of the fantastical masculine potency of sporno millions of boys and men around the world are excitedly buying clothes and underwear worn or endorsed by their hero. And how could a guy, any guy, not have their head turned by a sporno star? Sporno stars have everything a man could want today: youth, vigour, money, fame, looks, equally beautiful bosom buddies, glamorous partners – and the numbers for top photographers and stylists.
The people who essentially invented sport, the Ancient Greeks, certainly thought the male athlete the greatest head-turner. For them, sport was an opportunity to worship and admire the beauty of the youthful male form, which in turn represented the freedom of the human spirit. They thought it natural that men would find the youthful athletic male form inspiring and desirable, and an essential part of the pleasure of sport. Most sports competitions, including the original Olympics, were conducted naked: clothes spoiled the experience, for athlete and spectator. Much of their muscular art was a classical antecedent of today’s sporno.
Admittedly though, many Greeks would probably have been scandalized by the keenness of today’s golden young athletes to pose for images designed to inflame lust – and cash purchases. Plato for one would certainly have been aghast at the neo-classical shamelessness of Dieux du Stade (‘Gods of the Stadium’). The phenomenally successful, luxurious calendars feature the Paris-based Stade Français rugby team and various well-endowed sporting guest stars from around the world re-enacting, you may be forgiven for thinking, the plot of every sports-themed gay porn vid. (Fashion photographers rather than pornographers take the pictures: Dolce & Gabbana favourite Mariano Vivanco was responsible for the particularly striking 2007 images.) Shot in musty locker rooms, the naked, pumped and tweezed ‘gods’, often in full body make-up, clutch strategically placed rugby balls like fat leather erections and gaze longingly into the camera, or into each other’s eyes.
Such brazen behaviour has only enhanced the careers of these rugger buggers. Frédérik Michalak and his hypnotically tattooed and geodesmic butt’s starring role in an early DVD showing the making of the Dieux du Stade calendar, has helped land him modelling contracts for Christian Lacroix, a French condom line endorsement deal, as well as becoming the expensive face of Biotherm Homme and the sporting package for a skimpy underwear line.
No doubt the Greeks would have been shocked even more by the way that women are openly enjoying these homoprovocative images too. In fact, the Dieux du Stade calendars were originally part of a marketing plan to update and widen the appeal of French rugby, particularly for women, and have proved massively popular: the 2007 calendar reportedly sold 200,000 copies. But the sporno-graphic eye of Dieux du Stade is quite deliberately, quite flagrantly un-straight. Partly because some of today’s women are being turned on to the voyeuristic charms of male-on-male action (in an echo perhaps of their boyfriends’ interest in female-on-female action), partly because it gets attention – ‘whatarethoseguysdoing!’, and partly because, as we’ve seen, the adoration of gay men is the key to the successful marketing of the male body. But mostly because this all-male exhibitionism, whomever it’s directed toward, gay, straight or bi, female or male, is so charmingly, submissively keen to please. Especially from guys who live through action and the urge to dominate.
Check out the DDS ‘Making Of the 2004 Calendar’ DVD, or the ‘Making of’ DVD from any year really, and see them obediently adopting the gay porno poses requested of them by the photographer, head placed on buddy’s shoulders, or head at buddy’s waist, hands on his perfectly formed buttocks.
The uninhibitedness of the rugby players, in part a function of the physical intimacy of the game itself, ends up being deliciously suited to the visual uninhibitedness of our times. How things – or rather, thighs – have changed. In the United Kingdom rugby traditionally was the sport of hairy beer monsters with nowhere else to go on a Saturday. But with professionalization, players, particularly the more streamlined backs, have become younger, fitter, and self-consciously sexier and their dance-cards are as full as their biceps. Blond, buffed, green-eyed, square-jawed, England International player Josh Lewsey, has been deployed to interest rugby fans in bulging lycra. A giant, god-like blow-up ‘bronze’ statue of him in his shorts was erected outside Twickenham rugby stadium in 2006 by his sponsor Nike. Rugby fans queuing for their tickets had the distracting pleasure of gazing up between Josh’s towering, flared thighs and at his ‘divine’ abs and pecs bursting out of a skin-tight Nike top.
Meanwhile the England rugby strip itself has been given something of a Queer Eye makeover. Banished forever are their baggy, shapeless beer-towel rugby shirts, replaced by a form-hugging strip that might well have been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Understandably, England’s new sporno kit dazzled the opposition: in 2003, the year the team debuted it, England won the Rugby World Cup for the first time ever. The latest version of it, introduced for the 2007 World Cup, saw them achieve second place despite being written off beforehand by pundits.
No doubt this astonishing turnaround was down to their new strip being being even tighter than before and including a saucy red arrow/swoosh from armpit to the edge of the opposite thigh, reportedly designed to confuse opposing players. Too right – they won’t know whether to tackle them or kiss them. A confusion that seemed to be exploited, albeit unwittingly, by the ‘C’est so Paris’ humorous advertising campaign promoting the 2007 World Cup, which featured snogging scrumming rugby players and the jokey tagline ‘Paris: City of Love’ (the only far-fetched aspect of the campaign was the unattractiveness of the ad’s faux rugby players compared to the ‘real’ Dieux du Stade thing).
In the more moneyed world of football, which has been a much bigger business for much longer, the eye-catching potency of a sporno star seems to have disorientated even the tough no-nonsense guys who manage football clubs – until you look at the bottom line. Despite somewhat inconsistent performances on the pitch, David Beckham is the world’s biggest-earning soccer player and the best known – because of his off-pitch pouting (most recently confirmed by his 2007 £20 million Armani underwear deal). His purchase in 2003 by Spain’s Real Madrid made them the most profitable soccer club in the world – replacing Manchester United: Beckham’s previous club. Beckham is an object of global desire, and his merchandise moves even faster than his hips – his body is worth more on billboards than on the pitch. After making what was billed as the biggest sports deal in history at £128 million, American team LA Galaxy is his new sporno studio, and he their Number One box cover star.
There is, however, another way in which British soccer players are finding themselves and their athletic prowess paraded on the front pages. A slew of kiss-and-tell articles have appeared in the tabloids in recent years about the penchant our young sportsmen have for sharing a young female groupie with several other team mates. Simultaneously. Often videoing the proceedings. Sporting gods in naked, adult video action with other sporting gods. No wonder the tabs and the public got so excited. In recreating the more than slightly homoerotic straight ‘gang-bang’ porn that they, like many other young men today are downloading from the Net, footballers are, wittingly or not, realizing the fantasy underpinning sporno itself.
Things reached their logical, if slightly Footballers Wives conclusion – their spornographic money shot – in 2006 when lurid stories were ‘splashed’ across the tabloids about a ‘secretly shot film’ allegedly showing several globally famous (but unnamed) English soccer stars engaging in a ‘gay sex orgy’, in which expensive limited edition mobile phones were supposedly used as ‘sex toys’. Regardless of the fact or feverish fantasy of this story, no one seemed to be able to get enough of it. Except perhaps the footballers themselves – who were not only not making any money out of this particular sporno spin-off, but also faced the threat of losing earning potential as a result of the scandal (British libel laws however quickly came to the rescue providing at least one player with a large, undisclosed sum). The response of many fans on the terrace in the form of vicious anti-gay taunts and the continued absence of any openly gay professional footballers, suggest that casual homophobia is as rampant in the culture as sporno itself – which is more than slightly ironic.
A generation of men may be entranced by images of glamorous, sporting males who so clearly, achingly, desire to be desired by all and sundry, but it seems the explicitly homoerotic implications of that still give quite a few of them the willies, especially in the highly-strung world of football. Though this is perhaps merely a time-lag issue: attitudes take longer to change than underwear.
Sporno stars themselves, moving in their celebrity circles, probably don’t care two hoots whether a fellow player likes bedroom partners with the same-shaped tackle, and may even be as pansexual as their advertising and fashion tastes portrays them, but they worry very much about what their fans will think. After all, this is show business, darling, and you can’t afford to alienate your audience – or, paradoxically, those homoerotic spornographic endorsement deals. While the statements of gay-friendly soccer stars such as Beckham and Ljungberg (and Cohen and Henson in rugby) have been sincere, thus far, actual homosex, or even bisex, rather than the faux variety proffered by advertising appears to still be beyond the pale. Sporno stars may pose gay but until now all of them have had to be officially totally heterosexual – as do all pro footballers and, with one or two exceptions, all rugby players.
Perhaps this is also the reason today’s soccer stars, who appear, way ‘gayer’ than their predecessors – according to The Sun, Manchester United’s locker rooms have recently had to be modified to make room for players’ ‘manbags’, because ‘they use more cosmetics than their wives’ – no longer kiss one another passionately after a goal is scored as they did just a few years ago. They have to maintain the impression, like many gay porn stars, that they’re only gay for pay.
As for the paymasters themselves, the fashion brands, while they certainly wish to continue changing mainstream masculine attitudes towards clothes and the male body, it could be argued that a certain amount of homophobia works to their benefit here: making sporno advertising more arresting, more powerful – and also helping to displace any homoerotic feelings/anxiety they provoke into commodity fetishism: buying the product instead of trying the fantasy it’s wrapped in. ‘Of course I don’t want the athlete’s desirable looks/face/body/packet’, the hetero male viewer/voyeur of sporno perhaps says to themselves – ‘I want his pants’.
Nevertheless, these are interesting if somewhat conflicted times. We shouldn’t underestimate how far we’ve come and how dramatically traditional male past-times such as football and rugby have changed in the last decade as a result of their collision with the worlds of fashion, celebrity and consumerism. Sporting male heroes have enthusiastically taken up shockingly exhibitionistic sex-object poses in the global media that once were anathema for most men because they were seen as ‘girly’, ‘slutty’ or ‘homo’. Or, what was much the same emasculating taboo in the male mind: passive.
Sports starts have become sporno stars – playing enthusiastic power bottoms to the public’s imagination. Stripping off, lying back, and thinking of England… lusting over them.
Unsurprisingly, this flagrant passivity represents a taboo too far for some. As one outraged middle-aged male (and, it probably needs to be said, somewhat plump and plain) BBC sports presenter thundered recently in a popular British tabloid about Beck’s Armani lunch-box ad: ‘You’ve got money, status, respect and fame – then someone says: “Armani want you to do a picture wearing tight white pants with your legs as wide open as the hole in England’s defence.” Why would you say yes?’
Actually, in a spornographic age, the question should rather be: Why on Earth would you say no?
A column of mine on Out.com, ‘Men At Play in Afgrabistan’, gallantly defends the freedom of the derided (and now dismissed) security guards at the US embassy to get naked with one another and eat potato chips from each other’s butts in their spare time – even if they’re out of shape. I also point out how everyday and ‘normal’ homoerotics is for many if not most men – but we don’t want to see it, and when we can’t ignore it because it’s thrust in our face by digital cameras and the Interweb we pathologize or criminalize it:
…the furor is another reminder that we live in a culture where female bi-curiousness is routinely regarded as natural and almost universal while male bi-curiousness is seen as non-existent – or else it is just “sexually confused” (i.e. they’re really gay, but laughably repressed), or it is “deviant hazing” conducted by “sexual predators” that needs to be eradicated.
In reality, to anyone who opens their eyes on a Saturday night on either side of the Atlantic, there’s scads of evidence that plenty of “normal” young men who aren’t particularly “sexually confused” — especially the most, er, physical types – have a healthy appetite for highly homoerotic behavior after a keg or two. It’s what beer seems to have been invented for. In the Middle Ages they thought the cause of sodomy was drunkenness – they weren’t wrong. By contrast, I’ve hardly ever seen such homoerotic horseplay amongst straight women, even despite the invention of alcopops (though admittedly I perhaps wasn’t looking as closely.)
Some people have a more violently negative response to the everyday evidence of male homoerotics, literally trying to stamp it out. In the UK a straight female Canadian martial arts expert attacked and knocked out a couple of drunken British soldiers at a disco for kissing and ‘pretending to be gay’, screaming ‘THIS SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED IN THE BRITISH ARMY!!’.
Living in a garrison town I’ve seen plenty of similarly steamy behaviour from drunken squaddies in pubs and on dance-floors, snogging and humping and groping one another, so I can understand her frustration – I’ve wanted to get physical too, but not in quite the same way she did.
Sometimes the response is more genteel, but just as vehement. During the last Rugby World Cup a couple of years ago I was invited on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four to talk about homoerotics and rugby. I thought it a bit odd that Woman’s Hour wanted to cover this subject, but the producer enthused: ‘The presenter Jane is really keen to talk about it’. It turned out that neither the presenter, a former female sports journalist, or her guest, another female sports journalist, wanted to talk about it at all.
Both of them refused point blank to countenance the possibility that a game that involves men with large thighs wrestling in the mud over odd-shaped balls, or taking communal baths, or kinky nude drinking games that would shock the guards at the American Embassy in Afghanistan, could be in any way homoerotic. Only a homo would say such a thing.
‘Of course you would say that Mark,’ she said at one point, ‘because you’re gay.’
I paused. Several things occurred to me to say to that. I could have said that droves of gay men were probably rushing at that very moment to dissociate themselves from what I was saying (they usually do). Or I could have said, ‘Well, of course you would say that Jane, as an uptight middle class woman’.
Instead I said, ‘It seems that some people have a problem with the word “homoerotic”. They think that it means something ‘for gays’. Perhaps some people would be happier with the word “male bonding”.’
‘Yes!’ they chorused, ‘it’s male bonding!’
‘But,’ I continued, ‘it’s male bonding with an erotic component so we’re back where we came in.’
They didn’t like that.
Just a few weeks earlier this doc had gone out on national UK TV, in which a team of northern rugby players were shown getting drunk and naked with one another, snogging, licking each other’s nipples – and playing with their captain’s ‘donkey dick’. Of course, I couldn’t even mention it, because on radio – especially Radio Four – you’re not allowed to acknowledge that TV exists.
Again, being radio, and posh radio at that, just before we went on air a nice voice whispered in my headphone. ‘Remember Mark, this is a family show so please try not to be too rude!.’ This did hamper my case somewhat, as rugby homoerotics are meant to be rude. Though it didn’t stop me from leaving something unsavoury hanging in the air: ‘The soggy biscuit game, for example, isn’t entirely a myth….’.
‘I think we’d better move on,’ said Jane rather quickly. Apparently the BBC switchboard was jammed with retired lady callers demanding to know what the soggy biscuit game was.
(This feature of mine from a couple of years back, ‘Assume the position’, offers a more in-depth investigation of the culture’s crackdown on hazing and male horseplay in general.)