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Top Gun Turns Thirty – How Did It Get So Gay?

by Mark Simpson

(Originally published in the Daily Telegraph May 12, 2016)

30-years ago today, the stars of Top Gun were taxiing  the red carpet at the premiere in New York. The film, which features Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for Alpha male supremacy, was abou t to ‘go ballistic’ and smash multiple box office records. In doing so, the Tony Scott piloted blockbuster would make A-listers out of its two preening male stars, and become perhaps the definitive 80s film.

But it has also become a shared joke these days. The subject of Saturday Night Live skits and a host of YouTube parodies.

Though it really doesn’t need much parodying. Or editing. There’s a plot which sees Tom Cruise as ‘Maverick’ and Val Kilmer as ‘Iceman’ wrestling in the air for ‘top’ – with Kelly McGillis trying, vainly, to come between them.

Then there’s those lingering locker-room scenes, in which the sweaty jocks stand around wearing only towels and perfectly gelled hair, apparently waiting for the cheesy porno muzak to start.

And that ‘ambiguous’ dialogue: ‘Giving me a hard-on!’ whispers one flyboy to another, watching videos of dogfights. ‘Don’t tease me!’ replies his buddy. ‘I want butts! Give me butts!’ shouts an angry air traffic control officer. And the final reel consummation between Iceman and Maverick on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, cheered on by the entire crew, after all that playing hard to get: ‘You can be my wingman any time!’ ‘Bullshit, you can be mine!’

And of course, the immortal volleyball scene, in which oiled guys in jean-shorts and shades flex and strut and jump to the sounds of ‘Playing with the Boys’.

All this plus Tom Cruise at his prettiest and poutiest, in leathers and on a motorbike. When not in his underwear.

So it’s difficult to believe it now, but when Top Gun was released in 1986, the vast majority of the people who flocked to see it did not think it ‘gay’. At all. They would likely have dropped their popcorn at the suggestion – and the movie wouldn’t have taken $177M internationally, making it one of the most successful movies of the decade. Instead Top Gun was seen as the story of airborne, aspirational male heterosexual virility. Nice-looking, worked-out male heterosexual virility.

Even nearly a decade on in 1994 when I wrote about the outrageous homoerotics of Top Gun in my book ‘Male Impersonators’, plenty of people still weren’t prepared to have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned. Later the same year the director Quentin Tarantino made a controversial cameo appearance in the movie ‘Sleep With Me’, arguing that Top Gun was about a gay man struggling with his homosexuality.

The journalist Toby Young, a Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write an essay in the Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies. As I recall, his ‘clinching’ argument was that Top Gun couldn’t be a gay movie because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.

And in a queer way, he was right. Top Gun isn’t of course a gay movie. But it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either. Whatever the intentions of its makers, it’s basically ‘bi’ on afterburners. And this seems to be widely accepted now.

So how did attitudes towards Top Gun change so much? How did it’s virile heterosexuality so spectacularly ‘crash and burn’?

Well, partly because everyone is so much more knowing these days, or at least keen to seen to be. And we have tell-tale YouTube to collect all those ‘incriminating’ clips. It’s why we talk about ‘bromance’ now – instead of ‘innocent’ buddy movies. And partly it’s because Top Gun has come to be seen as the quintessential 80s movie – and the 80s are now seen as culturally ‘gay’. Or camp.

For instance, despite his apparently entirely heterosexual personal life, Simon Cowell is seen as screamingly ‘gay’ – culturally. And his whole personal style, the hair, the white t-shirts, the leather jackets, the Ray Bans is Top Gun. (Even his business model is Top Gun – the karaoke, and the struggle to ‘be the best’.)

All that said, the erotic ambiguity of Top Gun – which is what really powers it – is in the spectacular collision between the mostly sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war and buddy movies with the glossy ‘gayness’ and emergent male vanity and individualism of 1980s advertising. It’s somehow both innocent and explicit all at once. A proto-metro war movie.

In 1985, the year before TG was released, a new UK TV ad campaign for tired jeans brand Levis featuring Nick Kamen stripping in a launderette had caused a sensation – sending Levis sales into the stratosphere. Like Top Gun, the ad was set in a mythical 1940s, but with a 1950s soundtrack. Although we’re all familiar with it now, jaded even, back then the male body was just beginning to be sold to the mainstream – very often taking its cues from gay porn, because that was really the only reference point for the sexualized male body.

The late Tony Scott, like his older brother Ridley, had learned his craft in the UK ad business – and their father was a career soldier. Hence the glamorous, fetishizing presentation of the young men in the movie, alongside the more traditional homoerotic-homosocial banter that we now find so hilarious. Those infamous locker-room scenes were the Launderette ad all over again – only gayer.

What TG succeeded in doing was making the then new, consumerist, non-traditional male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men with different expectations to their fathers’. Hence the loan to the film-makers by the USN of the USS Enterprise. (Reportedly USN recruiting went through the roof after the film’s release.)

After all, some years earlier the USN had loaned The Village People a destroyer to record the promo of their single ‘In The Navy’. Back then, most people who bought their records didn’t think The Village People were gay either. They just thought them fun archetypes of hetero American machismo.

Objectify Yourself

Mark Simpson on the (self) sexualisation of today’s male body & why straight young men crave gay adulation

(Originally appeared in Out Magazine, February 2015)

Male self-objectification is, as they like to say on social media, a “thing.”

There’s been a rash lately of so-called “gender flip” memes, in which people pretend to be impressed by male hipsters pretending to subvert sexism by ironically adopting the clichéd poses of sexualized women. Although sometimes funny and instructive, especially when it involves licking sledgehammers, the anti-sexism of many of these gender flip memes depends on a (hetero)sexist assumption that men just aren’t meant to be objectified — so it’s hilarious when they are.

Rather than, say, that the men adopting these cheesecake poses usually just aren’t very attractive.

It also relies on jamming your eyes shut in order not to notice how men who aren’t meme-generating hipsters prefer to stake their claim to our attention not on faux feminism but rather on sweat-soaked gym sessions, pricey supplements, plunging necklines, and general shamelessness. And as with sex itself, there’s nothing ironic about it. It’s a very serious, very profitable business.

At the multiplex, Chris Evans keeps blinding us with his all-American oiled bazookas. Channing Tatum and his bun chums keep whipping their pecs and asses out and — who knows? — may even finally deliver the man goods in this year’s sequel, Magic Mike XXL. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy recently wowed the world by proving that even previously pudgy Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation fame) can be a Men’s Health cover girl. And Chris Hemsworth was named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine on account of his long lashes, big guns, and huge hammer.

There’s even an MTV Movie Award for “Best Shirtless Performance,” which in 2014 went to Zac Efron for That Awkward Moment — but only after he stripped again, onstage at the ceremony, without being awkward about it at all.

Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot.

True, Hollywood too often still feels the need to justify big-screen male sluttiness with CGI heroics, a kind of muscular Christianity in spandex — insisting, in effect, that this is virile activity, not gay/girly passivity. And as if to keep that sluttiness further in check, it often limits the nude or topless male scenes to one per 100-minute movie.

Perhaps because it caters more to women, TV is a relatively unbuttoned medium when it comes to the male body. Even TV superheroes such as Stephen Amell’s Arrow are often costume-optional. Maybe because their male characters are already damned, gothic shows like True Blood, Teen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries are positively pulsing with appetizing boy flesh. It’s enough to make anyone grow fangs. And the young, buff men of reality TV — the Jersey Shorettes — are everywhere, wearing very little, and doing even less. Except demanding we look at them.

The “structure” of structured reality TV is usually unveiled male V-shapes. In the U.K., a voluptuously endowed, cheeky, straight(ish) guy in The Only Way Is Essex (the U.K. Jersey Shore equivalent) called Dan Osborne became a national hero in 2014 after wearing glittery Speedos on prime time on another reality show,Splash! — even upstaging his mentor, the perfectly formed Olympic diver Tom Daley.

The 23-year-old Osborne, like a lot of today’s self-objectifying straight men, loves The Gays. Really loves them. Last year he appeared in the U.K. gay magazine Attitude, very generously offering readers his shapely bubble butt across a double-page spread, with the strapline “Sex is fun. Be safe and enjoy it.” He told Attitude, “I’ve had a few bum pinches, and I don’t mind that at all. Maybe it’s because a guy knows how hard it is to train, so they appreciate it more.”

Underwear model and wounded Marine vet Minsky embraces the ga(y)ze

Here in the States, pumped underwear model Alex Minsky — the indelibly inked U.S. Marine Corps vet and amputee — is very happy to mercilessly titillate his many appreciative gay fans with naked naughtiness. And even a major film star like James Franco can’t seem to leave them alone, posting all those semi-naked selfies on his Instagram feed.

The way straight young men chase and hustle gay attention today represents a major, millennial shift in attitudes. Part of the reason that men offering themselves as sex objects were frowned upon in the past was that they could be objectified by anyone — including people with penises. They were queered by the penetrating queer gaze.

Now they beg and plead for it. They instinctively know that male objectification is about enjoying and celebrating male passivity, even — and especially — if you’re straight. So getting the gays proves not only your hotness, and coolness, but also your metaphysical versatility. It proves that you are a proper, fully fledged, all-singing, all-dancing sex object.

Blame the metrosexual, who was born two decades ago, outing male vanity and the masculine need to be noticed. In just a generation, the male desire to be desired, or “objectified,” to use that ugly word — which the metrosexual exemplified — has become mainstream: It’s regarded as a right by today’s selfie-admiring young men, regardless of sexual orientation. In a visual world, men want to be wanted too — otherwise, they might disappear. They also need to look a lot at other men in order to better understand how to stand out.

Second-generation metrosexuality is very obviously more body-centered and hardcore — or spornosexual. Young men today want to be wanted, not for their wardrobes, but for their bodies. Bodies they spend a great deal of time, effort, and money fashioning into hot commodities down at the gym, tanning salon, and designer tattoo parlor — and then uploading to the online marketplace of social media for “likes,” “shares,” and cutthroat comparisons with their pals.

It shouldn’t be so surprising. Today’s young men are growing up with a different idea of “normal,” in which European and Australian professional rugby players are happy to strip down and oil up. The highly homoerotic, highly provocative Dieux du Stade calendars of rugby players in the buff became only slightly less homoerotic when adapted by Dolce and Gabbana in their megabucks advertising campaigns starring the Italian World Cup soccer team. David Beckham and then Cristiano Ronaldo offered similar favors for Armani, followed by lithe Spanish tennis ace Rafael Nadal, who is currently filling out the Italian designer packet. And former Australian rugby league player Nick Youngquest is now the body and face — in that order — of Paco Rabanne.

Gays are no longer a despised or marginalized niche — they’re leverage. If you get the gays panting, you eventually get everyone else.

David Gandy, possibly the world’s only male supermodel who isn’t a professional athlete, has a darkly handsome, model-perfect face. But his sensual, athletic, beautiful body is his calling card. So it is entirely apt that he was “made” by Mr. & Mr. D&G, who cast him in their famous 2007 “Light Blue” campaign, in a boat off Capri, wearing scandalously abbreviated D&G swim trunks, glistening in the sun and lying back, hands behind his head, awaiting our attention. He was accompanied by a foxy lady (Marija Vujovic), but he was the unquestioned object of the camera’s gaze.

Seven years on, it’s still his trademark. In a clip for Gandy’s recent Autograph underwear campaign, the camera, in extreme close-up, licks down his naked torso towards his naked, shaved groin — then fades out just in time.

It’s clear to anyone who wants to notice that in the spornosexual 21st century, the male body has been radically redesigned. With the help of some “objectifying” blueprints from Tom of Finland, it is no longer simply an instrumental thing for extracting coal, building ships, making babies, fighting wars, and taking the trash out. Instead it has become a much more sensual, playful thing for giving and especially receiving pleasure.

Or as the young men of the Warwick University rowing team put it in a promotional quote for the 2015 version of their now famous nude charity calendar, dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports and rammed with arty ass shots: “Regardless of gender or sexuality, we are inviting you into that moment with us.”

Morrissey Hasn’t Changed – We Have

Morrissey is always going to disappoint those who want him to be some kind of ‘singing Stephen Fry with a quiff’, argues Mark Simpson

 Originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog

Because the 80s is the decade that actually ended the 20th Century – the 90s was just an after-party clean-up operation – it’s also the decade that never came to an end itself. In fact, the 80s is the decade that just won’t die.

Economy in (‘Big Bang’) recession. Tories in power. Cuts on the table. Riots on the streets. Royal weddings on the telly. The Falklands becoming a fighting issue. And my mother complaining about Morrissey: ‘I see that chap you like so much has been in the papers again. Ridiculous man! And he still can’t sing!’

As Madonna might put it, it’s all a bit reductive.

In fact everyone has been enjoying moaning about Morrissey lately – just like the good old days. In case you somehow missed it, at a performance in Argentina last week, his band appeared in t-shirts printed with the charming message ‘WE HATE WILLIAM AND KATE’ (remember 80s protest t-shirts?).

Perhaps worried this might be overlooked back home, the former Smiths front-man also offered this bouquet to his Argentine fans about those bitterly contested, sparsely-populated rocks in the South Atlantic: ‘Everybody knows they belong to you’.

The Times, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun and Mail all dutifully denounced Morrissey’s big mouth. The Guardian for its part ran an earnest discussion between two music critics titled: ‘Is Morrissey a national treasure?’ (The answer seemed to be ‘yes – but a very naughty one.’)

Not bad for a 52-year-old crooner currently without a record contract. But then, just like that other 80s diva keen on hairspray and frilly-collared blouses, we’ll never entirely be rid of him.

The British experience of the 80s is forever dominated by two very difficult personalities. Both from the north, both unafraid to speak their mind, and both possessing a gender all of their own.

And while one was a working-class militant vegetarian anarchist Sandie Shaw fan with a flair for homoerotic imagery, and the other a bossy petit bourgeois social Darwinist and devotee of General Pinochet who famously outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, both of them were radicals on a revenge trip.

But if Margaret Thatcher owned the 80s, Steven Patrick Morrissey stole its youth. Or at least, the youth that didn’t want to be a part of Thatcher’s 80s. The Smiths were not just an‘alternative’ band: they were the alternative that Maggie said didn’t exist.

In fact, The Smiths were reviled by almost everyone at the time – Fleet Street, the BBC (they were effectively banned from daytime Radio 1), the record business (they were signed to a teeny-weeny Indie label), and indeed most of the record buying public (their singles struggled to even get into the top 20).

But they have become the heart of a decade that didn’t have one. They are now the band that everyone liked – two or three decades after the event.

Including, most famously, David Cameron, who used The Smiths and Morrissey as a Tory re-branding and detoxifying tool at least as important as those melting glaciers he went to gawp at. Declaring The Smiths his favourite group not long after gaining the leadership of the ‘Nasty Party’, he was even pictured, if memory serves me right, with a copy of Morrissey’s 2005 album Ringleader of the Tormentors on his desk.

But Morrissey, whatever you may think of him, isn’t a man to be assimilated lightly. Especially by a Chipping Norton Tory.

When, in 2010, his estranged former Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr tweeted that he ‘forbade’ David Cameron from liking the Smiths, animal rights activist Morrissey endorsed him, adding:

‘David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence.’

No-one can be genuinely surprised that someone who called an album The Queen is Dead is fiercely anti-Royalist. No-one can be shocked that the man who sang ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ is no fan of the remnants of the British Empire. And let’s not forget his famous 1984 quip: ‘The sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed’, or the track ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ for his 1988 album Viva Hate.

Unless, that is, they hoped that Morrissey had mellowed with age and become some sort of singing Stephen Fry with a quiff. Morrissey’s views haven’t changed. Morrissey hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t grown up. He’s still an adolescent curmudgeon, an otherworldly prophet from Stretford – he’s just older and thicker around the middle, and with a bit more cash to spend. He did, after all, promise us again and again that he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change.

It’s we, his fans, who have changed. If we’re embarrassed by his antics it may be because we’ve finally become the people we used to hate.

Download Mark Simpson’s acclaimed ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey on Kindle

Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin’s 50s Love Makes Today’s Bromance Look Like Bromide

Mark Simpson pays tribute to Lewis & Martin, ‘the hottest male comedy double-act of all time’

(Originally appeared in Out, May 2009)

Forget hair whorls, genomes, amniotic fluid, older brothers, domineering mothers or disco. I can reveal with absolute, religio-scientific certainty that the cause of my homosexuality was just two words. Jerry. Lewis.

As a kid in the 1970s I watched re-runs of his movies, especially the ones from the early fifties with his on-screen boyfriend Dean Martin, with a level of breathless excitement that nothing came close to – until I discovered actual buggery in the 1980s.

Films like Money From Home where he pins Martin to the bed wearing a pair of polka dot shorts camper than Christmas in West Hollywood (1953), and Sailor Beware (1951), where he is pricked by several burly USN medics wielding ever-bigger needles until he squirts liquid in all directions and faints made me the man I am today.

Earlier this year, after a lifetime of being ignored by a cross-armed Academy Awards that never gave him so much as a nomination when he was making movies, Lewis is finally getting an Oscar. But not for his hilariously cute films with Dean Martin or his solo classics such as The BellboyThe Errand BoyThe Nutty Professor, and The Disorderly Orderly – in which, memorably, he happily hoovers with the appliance plugged in up his own ass – but for his fundraising for Muscular Dystrophy. It’s a charity Oscar – in every sense. Lewis is 82 and has had serious health problems for some time.

The Hollywood gays though were reportedly Not Happy. They had a hoover up their ass about Lewis.  Apparently some tried to block his Oscar because this ill, old man born in 1926 almost used the word ‘faggot’ last year after hosting a twelve hour telethon. In effect, The Gays are running down the street screaming Maaaaaaa!!

Likewise, because he isn’t himself gay, and because his early nerdy, ‘retarded’ sissy persona has been deemed ‘exploitative’, Lewis has been almost completely spurned by gay studies, when really he should have his own department. If nothing else, Lewis Studies would be a damn sight more fun than Queer Studies (as long as they didn’t include the Telethons).

His films should be set texts, but it was his anarchic early 1950s TV shows with Martin when a twenty-something Lewis was at his queerest and giddiest. Their heads so close together in those tiny 50s cathode ray tubes, gazing into each other’s eyes, rubbing noses, occasionally stealing kisses or licking each other’s necks to shrieks of scandalized pleasure from the audience. They were a prime-time study in same-sex love. And were adored for it – literally chased down the street by crowds of screaming young women and not a few men (especially popular with sailors and soldiers, they were the Forces’ sweethearts).

This half-century old double act from the homo-hating 50s is much more alive, much more flirtatious, than today’s supposedly liberal and liberated ‘bromantic’ comedy, which goes  out of its way to purge the possibility of anything physical. Next to Dean and Jerry’s simmering screen-love, bromance just looks like bromide.

Whatever the nature of his off-screen sexuality, Lewis’ comedy partnership with Martin – the most successful of all time, along with most of their best gags – was based around the matter-of-fact, unspoken assumption that they were a couple.

Their very first TV show opens with our boys arriving at a posh ball full of Waspy straight couples being announced: ‘Mr & Mrs Charles Cordney!’, ‘Mr and Mrs Walter Christiandom!’.  And then: ‘Mr Martin and Mr Lewis!’.  The dago and the jew. Setting the tone for their series, Lewis promptly trashes the place with his nervy-nerdy slapstick.

The Martin and Lewis partnership was queer punk rock before even rock and roll had been invented, trashing normality right in the living rooms of 1950s America, courtesy of Colgate. No wonder they’ve been almost forgotten.

They should never have existed.  True, the explicitness of their pairing depended on the official ‘innocence’ of the times, and the nostalgia for buddydom in post-war America, allowing the audience to enjoy the outrageous queerness of what was going on without having to think too much about it. Literally laughing it off.

But official innocence is a mischievous comedian’s gift-horse. A skit depicting (fictionally) how Martin and Lewis – or ‘Ethel’ and ‘Shirley’ as they called one another – met climaxes with them being trapped in the closet together: pushed together mouth to mouth, crotch to crotch, by Martin’s vast, vain collection of padded jackets. In another skit our boys end up sharing a bed with Burt Lancaster playing an escaped homicidal maniac: Jerry: ‘Boy, Dean, these one night stands are moider!’

Moider was exactly what they got away with.  In a skit set in prison, Jerry’s bunk collapses on Martin below. ‘What are you doing?’ asks Martin. ‘I felt loinesome,’ replies Lewis.

Lewis’ on-screen queerness may have been just a phase – but what a phase! It was so unruly, so indefinable, so crazy, so ticklish, so exhilarating that gays – and probably most people today – don’t know what to do with it. Or where to put it.  It’s a bit scary, frankly.

But that – in addition to still being piss your pants funny – is precisely what is so great about it. And why I still think classic Lewis is as much fun as sodomy.

 

 

An ‘exploision’ of D&J kisses in this cheeky and charming clip painstakingly compiled by a YouTube fan.

The noise made by the audience when Dean falls on top of Jerry in the bath wouldn’t be heard again until Elvis shook his pelvis.

Jerry joins the Navy, gets some big pricks, and then sprays everywhere.

Jerry, Dean and James Dean – the perfect locker room threesome.

 

Dean and Jerry join the Army as paratroopers. Watch Dean’s eyes during the blanket scene.

I was loinesome!’

A slightly fictionlised account of how our boys met, complete with closet clinch climax.

Never been kissed… Yeah, right.


Special thanks to Elise Moore and Hannah for sharing their pashernate love of Dean & Jerry — and reminding me of mine.

Assume the Position: A Queer Defence of Hazing


Mark Simpson wants to be be soundly smacked with a paddle

(Out magazine, 2006)

When I joined my local rugby team, I was made to do terrible, awful things. Even now, all these years later, I feel distressed and choked up recounting what happened. I had to stand on a chair as a full pint of beer was shoved in my groin, soaking it. I then had to drink a yard of ale (three pints in a yard-long horn-shaped glass) with a bucket in front of me. Later, several of us had to run around the rugby pitch stark naked. In January.

I was traumatized. I may never recover. This wasn’t what I had signed up for! You see, it was a terrible, awful, unforgettable, wounding disappointment.

It was just all so… restrained. I had been hoping that we would be performing some of the other bonding and initiation rites that I’d heard about, such as the one where one naked team-mate bends over and a pint is poured over his ass, down his crack, and over his sack while another sits underneath him with head back and mouth open. Or the soggy biscuit game: a circle jerk over a cream cracker where the last one to come has to eat it. Or perhaps the carrot game, where a root vegetable is shoved up the rookie’s ass and a pink ribbon tied around his erect penis (something to do with the carrot I suppose), which he has to keep on for two weeks, to be checked at each training session.

Frankly, I would have even been happy with the relatively vanilla hazing that all new recruits to a crack U.K. Army regiment have to participate in: According to a straight soldier pal of mine, the “old-timers” rub their asses and genitals over the faces of the new recruits or “crows”, as they’re called.

But, alas at my rugby club all that was on offer was a wet crotch on my jeans and a frost-shrivelled penis. Judging by the excited media reports, things would have been very different if I’d been a college freshman in the United States and joined the football team or one of those kinky fraternities with those Greek names.

At the University of Vermont the “elephant walk” is, or was, rather popular: Pledges drink warm beer and walk naked in a line, holding the genitals of the lucky lad in front of them. At Tiffin University in Ohio the soccer team has been known to strip their freshmen players to their underwear, handcuff them together, scrawl vulgarities on their bodies, and make them lick one another’s nipples. Sometimes the fun isn’t just reserved for members of the team. At a Utah high school two wrestlers stripped a male cheerleader in the school locker room and “attempted to shave his pubic hair” with an electric clipper. Attempted? Does that mean they didn’t succeed? That’s some cheerleader.

truth be told, even in the United States, hazing isn’t what it used to be. This ancient rite is under attack from all sides: the media, feminists, mothers, educational authorities, legislators, police—and also many gays. Hazing is being shamed up and stamped out. The only reason we know about the sordid goings-on in frat houses across the nation is because the authorities were involved, litigation was initiated, criminal charges brought, and the media mobilised. A big stink, in other words. Most respectable people seem to agree hazing is wrong, sexist, and homophobic and must be stopped.

Now, perhaps I’m not terribly respectable, or maybe I enjoy championing lost causes, but I think hazing can be a valuable, venerable masculine institution that is worth defending, particularly by men who are interested in other men. Hazing is the last rite of passage left for boys in a world that doesn’t seem to want boys to grow into men any more, a very physical form of male bonding in a society that wants us to remain as disconnected as possible, an antidote to individualism, which in this atomized day and age tends to just mean alienated consumerism.

Yes, I realize that hazing can be dangerous. It can turn into abuse and bullying or outright sadism, as in those widely reported instances of boys being sodomized with mop handles and pine-cones. Boys, like men, can be plain dumb and dangerous and occasionally fatal. Jocks can be obnoxious, arrogant little shits, especially to male cheerleaders. But my point would be that this is all we ever hear about. Hazing has been tarred with one self-righteous puritanical brush.

Scandalized media reports and a proliferation of anti hazing Web sites such as BadJocks.com and StopHazing.org have helped to decisively turn public opinion against hazing (though in some cases with an admixture of voyeurism for the very thing that they are campaigning against). Hazing is now the subject of a full-fledged moral panic about “our children”. This September sees the First National Conference on High School Hazing—and you can be sure they’re not teaching delegates how to conduct a successful elephant walk. Most states now have anti-hazing laws, and most universities have draconian anti-hazing policies.

Here’s the University of Vermont’s all-embracing definition of what hazing is and thus what is verboten:

“any act, whether physical, mental, emotional, or psychological, which subjects another person, voluntarily or involuntarily, to anything that may abuse, mistreat, degrade, humiliate, harass, or intimidate him/her, or which may in any fashion compromise his/her inherent dignity as a person”.

Which sounds to me like a recipe for a very dull Saturday night indeed.

Don’t we all want our “inherent dignity as a person” to be compromised sometimes – especially at university? And why on earth would you join a fraternity, or an ice-hockey team, or in fact any all-male group if you were so concerned about your inherent dignity as a person? Wouldn’t it be wiser just to stay at home knitting? Hazing is used by these groups for precisely that purpose: to put off those who aren’t really serious about putting the group or the team above their own damn preciousness or good sense.

Note how hazing is defined as “voluntarily or involuntarily”: Consent is irrelevant to the powers that be in their zeal to stamp out hazing (just as it used to be with homosexuality). They know best. Nor is it merely extreme cases such as sodomizing with pinecones that the anti-hazing zealots are against but “any act, whether physical, mental, emotional, or psychological” that might be kind of naughty, kind of dirty, kind of fun. In itself a rather convincing argument for hazing, at least for young people. Mom and the cops and the college dean don’t like it? Great! Bring on the handcuffs, warm beer, and Jell-O!

Which brings me onto the aspect of hazing that, as you may possibly have guessed, I have a fond fascination for, and is a central part of my desire to defend the practice—and probably why my defense will probably succeed in finally killing it off: the homoerotic dimension, the “gayness” of what these mostly straight guys like to do to one another and their private parts.

Granted, a lot of hazing, especially with the crackdown going on today, has little or nothing to do with homo-erotics. It may be just Jackass-style craziness involving oncoming traffic, gallons of water, and jumping out of trees. Mind, hazing does, like me, keep returning to men’s butts and penises and testicles (anyone for “tea-bagging”?) even when it tries not to. Obviously, I think this is entirely understandable and requires no explanation whatsoever, let alone pathologizing it and criminalizing it. But clearly plenty of people think otherwise.

So why is hazing so homo? Perhaps because all-male groups, according to Freud, are bound together by barely sublimated homoerotic feelings. It’s what inspires them to such heart-warming loyalty, such passionate self-sacrifice and heroic endeavour—Eros can wrestle the instinct for self-preservation to the ground. The hazing rituals with their simulated homo sex could be seen as a symbolic group fuck that gets the “sex” over with yet turns all the members of the team or fraternity into a band of lovers. Of course, I would prefer that they followed the exemplar of the Theban Band, or the Spartans of ancient Greece, the warrior-lovers who didn’t stop at simulated homo sex (and were widely regarded as invincible). But you can’t have everything.

There are also putatively Darwinian explanations for the homo-erotics of male groups. In our prehistoric past the bonding of hunters and warriors was vital to the survival of the tribe. Those tribes that survived and thrived and passed on their genes were those in which men were willing to sacrifice breeding opportunities and comforts of life with the chicks back at camp for weeks and months of intimacy with men and a willingness to serve and take orders. Prehistoric man, in other words, was a bit of a leather queen. This is probably the reason why hyper-masculinity is sometimes difficult to separate from homosexuality, especially during Hell Week.

Alas, many gays see hazing as necessarily homophobic and appear to buy into the simplistic feminist analysis of power and domination. In an online article Cyd Zeigler Jr. of Outsports.com recognizes that hazing is often deeply homoerotic (and lists some of the same scandals I have), but sees it as essentially homophobic: “Whether it’s sodomizing them or making them wear women’s panties, the notion of forcing younger players to submit to team veterans comes right out of the handbook of anti-gay stereotypes.” Clinching the matter, homoerotic hazing apparently “emasculates the victim”.

Leaving aside that the out-and-proud gay world isn’t exactly free of power, domination, and humiliation, or for that matter anti-gay stereotypes, this assertion about the emasculation of the victim doesn’t always hold true. While I have some sympathy with this approach, in its attachment to victim-hood it seems to be rather more rigidly homophobic than hazing is.

The curious paradox of hazing is that while it may well regard “fagginess” and “softness” as undesirable, it actually makes the homoerotic central to membership of the group. Besides, rather than emasculating the new members of group, the veterans wish to ‘masculinize’ them, and they use homoerotics to that end. Hazing itself is not an act of hostility but of affection: tough love. While hazing can be homoerotic and homophobic, this is not—and it’s difficult for us self-centered homos to realize this—its point.

The famous Sambia tribe of New Guinea (famous because anthropologists won’t leave them alone) don’t simulate homosexuality in their own hazing rituals: they practice it. Adolescent boys are taken from their mothers by the older youths and required to repeatedly give oral sex to them—they are told that the semen will masculinize them. In today’s universities, of course, the semen is replaced by warm Budweiser and protein shakes. From a Sambian point of view, the dominance of the anti-hazing lobby today would probably represent an insufferable victory of the protected domestic world of Mom, who deep down doesn’t want her cherished baby boy to ever be exposed to anything extreme or distasteful or dangerous or… male.

But then, it sometimes seems that our contemporary culture has less and less use for, or appreciation of, masculinity that isn’t merely decorative or good at DIY. Paradoxically, as the toleration and visibility of newfangled gays and gayness in our culture has risen, intolerance of oldfangled homoerotic masculine rituals has also increased. Very often, society’s preoccupation with hazing is, like mine, a preoccupation with its “gayness.” But in reverse.

When a private video of drunken off-duty U.K. Royal Marines running around naked together in some godforsaken place was sold to the tabloids in 2005, it caused an outcry. Officially, it was because one of the Marines was shown being kicked in the head by a drunken officer, and this was evidence of bullying. But as the repeated printing of the naked pictures showed, it was mostly about the fact that they were fit young marines, naked together, being gay.

The (extremely hot) victim, 23-year-old Ray Simmons, came forward to say he didn’t hold the officer (who was now the subject of a military police investigation) responsible, and it was just a bit of fun that got out of hand. However, the host of reader letters that the stories prompted showed the real preoccupation was not the bullying but the gayness. A typically hissy example from one male reader:

“I am utterly disgusted by the behavior of our so-called Marines…. This kind of thing would be better suited to a gay 18–30 holiday on a remote island somewhere. Our enemies across the globe must be laughing at us.”

So society apparently still expects Marines to go and kill and be killed anywhere in the world at the drop of a daisy-cutter to defend our enervated suburban—and voyeuristic—lifestyle, but ridicules and condemns them for doing what men have to do and have always done to bond and let off steam. Fortunately, the Marines aren’t taking any notice: “People think a load of men getting naked together is a bit gay,” said Simmons, “but we don’t care what others think. It’s just Marine humor.”

Well said that man. Don’t let the square civvies—or the envious homos like me—try to shame you into being as joyless, lonely, and bereft of real camaraderie and human contact as the rest of us. It’s a sign of our isolated times that most people today could never say the words “we don’t care what people think” because:

(a) they don’t belong to a group, or in fact to anything except a supermarket loyalty scheme; and

(b) they care about what people will think rather more than they do about their buddies.

The homoerotics of hazing are not, in fact, necessarily homophobic or gay. They’re just guy.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m all in favor of guys.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.