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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.

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.

Dan Osborne gif

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 gaze

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-Naked-Sexy-595x416

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.”

Naked Rowers

GandyCoverx1000

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.

I Love You, Jim Carrey

Watching the exhilarating ‘l’amour fou’ movie I Love You Phillip Morris recently I found myself falling in love with Jim Carrey all over again – after several years of taking him for granted.

So much so I forgot he was there all over again. The role of Steven Russell the gay con-man is one he was born to play. It’s a return to the Jim Carrey of The Cable Guy – his best and most overlooked film until now. But a bit more grown up, slightly less scary, and with Ewan McGregor instead of Matthew Broderick as the object of his swirling attentions. I don’t fancy Carrey, and I suspect McGregor probably doesn’t either, but Carrey in full-on comic madman mode is impossible to say no to.

So I thought I’d post this love letter to him orginally published in the Independent on Sunday back in 2002.

Fears of a Clown

He’s the funny guy famous for his deviant comic roles. So what is it about Jim Carrey, asks Mark Simpson, that makes him the perfect embodiment of American psychosis?

(Independent On Sunday 19 May 2002)

Whenever I finally confess to my friends that I’m a Jim Carrey fan I almost always get the same reaction. “Oh, I see,” they say, looking me up and down as if really seeing me for the first time. “Yes, well, I can’t stand him, I’m afraid.” Then they pull a slightly sour expression as if I’d farted and explain: “You see, It’s the…” “…gurning” I say, completing their sentence. “I know. That’s exactly what I like about him.” Clutching for some middle ground they then offer: “I quite liked him in The Truman Show, though”. It’s at this point that I quickly change the subject.

It’s all a case of mistaken identity: they see a vulgar spasming idiot where I see a god of comedy… who is a vulgar, spasming idiot. Hence people who don’t like Jim Carrey will probably like his new movie The Majestic. Like The Truman Show (1998), it is played straight(faced), and very competently. People who like Jim Carrey, however, will pull their lower lip over their forehead in frustration.

Appropriately enough, the film is about mistaken identity. Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood B-movie scriptwriter who is caught up in the Anti-Red paranoia the 1950s and sacked by his studio and blacklisted as a Commie. Of course, Carrey isn’t really a Commie but just “a horny guy” who was trying to get into the pants of a girl at college who happened to be a Commie. But the cold warriors see what they want to see and Carrey is threatened with a subpoena.

So he gets drunk, crashes his car and suffers amnesia, staggering into smalltown America where he is mistaken for someone more interesting again – Luke Trimble, a young Marine who failed to return from the Second World War. The still-grieving town, having lost several sons, has a form of mass hysteria: benign and healing where the McCarthyite variety is malign and divisive, and everyone believes he is Trimble, even Luke’s father and his former girlfriend. Carrey/Appleton, still with no idea who he is, decides that he might as well be who they want him to be.

However, there’s another case of mistaken identity in this movie: Jim Carrey has clearly mistaken himself for Jimmy Stewart. Carrey makes a passable Stewart, but why on earth should someone who is the unnatural love-child of Dionysus and Jerry Lewis want to be Jimmy Stewart? Besides, Stewart isn’t even dead – Tom Hanks, after all, is still with us.

Mr Carrey, who has just turned 40, is ranked number five in Hollywood’s “star power” ratings – which effectively measures whether we see what we want to see when we look at a screen actor. At 98.46 he comes behind Mr Cruise, Mr Hanks and Ms Roberts who all score a “perfect” 100, and Mr Gibson at 98.68. Although he is already one of the most famous and wealthiest men in America (and recently announced this by buying his own $30 million jet), Mr Carrey would very much like to close that 1.54 point gap and be a perfect 100. Hence the Jimmy Stewart preoccupation.

Carrey’s success of course has come largely through his maniacal, edgy, inspired, disturbed/disturbing – and gurning – performances in films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), The Mask (1994), and Liar, Liar (1997). He even almost succeeded in rescuing the rubber codpiece meltdown that was Batman Forever (1995), with his toxically camp interpretation of The Riddler. Alas, Carrey’s ambitions are “bigger” than such roles allow. He wants to be mistaken for that truly freaky thing: a well-rounded, redeemed human-being. Frankly, his green-furred misanthropic Grinch (The Grinch, 2000) was a more sympathetic character than that.

Carrey seems to be a curious, furious tension between a craving for revenge and adoration. From a Canadian blue-collar trailer park family with a sickly, hysterical mother and a manic-depressive father, he tried to please and distract in equal measure. He wrote himself a cheque for $15 million when he was starting out in the 1980s. (In a curiously ambivalent gesture, he placed the cheque in his father’s coffin). Having succeeded, he surpassed fellow Hollywood comedians such as Steve Martin, Mike Myers and William Shatner – like them, he is a Canadian whose job it is to be mistaken for an American.

So it’s perhaps no coincidence that in most of his films he seems to have “identity issues” – darkness, disintegration and exhilarating release is always just a few facial tics away. In The Mask, appropriately enough the film which brought him to the widest public attention, he plays a mild-mannered nerd who discovers a mask which imbues its wearer with the spirit of the Norse god of mischief. In Liar, Liar he’s a lawyer beating himself up to stop himself from telling the truth. In Me Myself and Irene (2000), he plays a mild-mannered nerdy cop who keeps flipping into a deviant Mr Hyde personality

And then there is the The Cable Guy (1996), in which he plays a nerdy cable installer who wants nice Matthew Broderick to be his best buddy and flips over into a compelling psychosis when Matthew disappoints him. Of all Carrey’s movies, The Cable Guy is the one which comes closest to the truth of his screen persona and also perhaps the truth of the best comedy – that it is about desperation and darkness. Carrey is like the Id monster in Forbidden Planet on the rampage and with a lisp. He turns in one of the most original performances ever seen in a movie – and most reckless, given that this was his first $20 million role.

So when the critics pasted it and audiences used to his “alrighty!” slapstick hated it, Carrey and his entourage panicked and scrambled to make sure that his future projects would not expose so much of his dark side: that people would see what they wanted to see, instead of the rage of Caliban in the mirror. Ironically, even a schmaltzy non-comedy film like The Majestic requires the knowledge of the dark, Satanic Carrey to sustain our interest in his everyguy performance. The gurning lies underneath.

Carrey is a man clearly possessed by voices – the trashy voices of American pop culture we all hear inside our heads: Captain Kirk, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Elvis, Lucille Ball. He’s a latter-day “Legion”, the Biblical madman of Gadarene who spoke in a hundred voices, whose evil spirits were exorcised by Christ (and who, evicted, promptly commandeered a herd of swine and drove them squealing over a cliff into the sea). Unfortunately, given his “healing” tendencies in his straight movies, Carrey also sometimes seems to think he’s Christ too. (In his next movie, Bruce Almighty, he is set to play God.)

Actually, Carrey is someone much more important than God: he is America. At least in terms of his contradictions: hysterical/professional, needy/maniacal, narcissistic/high-minded, base/aspirational, idealistic/hypocritical, cynical/sentimental, amnesiac/media-addicted. In The Majestic Carrey’s character recalls a movie plot but still can’t remember who he is: “You mean you can remember movies but not your own life?” says Laurie Holden. “That’s terrible!” Maybe, but it’s not so unusual.

Like The Truman Show, The Majestic ends with Carrey’s character renouncing the inauthenticity of fame for “real life”. Fortunately for us, the real Jim Carrey is never likely to make that choice.

That Lady Gaga backlash is so tired already


The Gaga backlash, which recently found itself a leader in Camille Paglia, was inevitable. It’s also misguided, argues Mark Simpson

(Out Magazine, Sept 24 2010)

My bitch is better than your bitch! And she wore that dress before yours did! My bitch would kick your bitch’s ass!

This is the kind of thing the older generation — my generation — has begun to say ever more loudly about the younger generation’s first bona fide superstar, Lady Gaga. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Grace Jones, and—crossing ourselves and throwing salt over our shoulders—Madonna all did it years before Gaga, and so much better.

The world’s most famous gay Madonna fan, Camille Paglia, was recently given four pages in the U.K.’s The Sunday Times Magazine to say this, “demolishing” Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, as an “asexual, confected copycat who has seduced the Internet generation.” Paglia is a worthy critic indeed, and her mocking epithet “the diva of déjà vu” is bound to stick like chewing gum rubbed in a hated schoolgirl’s hair. But after reading her impassioned assault — which, for all its fascinating history of female Hollywood stars, seemed to boil down to “she’s not Madonna, and I don’t fancy holding her meat purse” — I found myself liking Lady Gaga more rather than less.

Paglia’s essay was further proof of Gaga’s importance. As I like to say to gay friends of a certain age who rail almost daily against Gaga on Facebook, for someone so shallow, so talentless, and so derivative she certainly seems to hold your attention. The passionate hatred Gaga provokes is all part of her remarkable potency. When was the last time pop music mattered? When was the last time you cared? Until Lady Gaga came along, just a couple years ago, pop seemed thoroughly pooped. Some nice tunes and haircuts here and there and some really excellent financial institution ad soundtracks, but really, who thought pop could ever trouble us again as a total art form?

Gaga has single-handedly resurrected pop. Or at least she’s made it seem like it’s alive. Maybe it’s a kind of galvanic motion — those pop promos sometimes look like Helmut Newton zombie flicks — but boy, this is shocking fun. And yes, her persona is something of a pint-size Bride of Frankenstein, assembled out of Photoshopped dead star body parts. But isn’t everyone nowadays?

Of course she’s not David Bowie or Madonna. It’s not 1972 or 1984. Instead, we’re a decade into a new, blank, digital century when creativity is curation. The pop past weighs heavily on our shoulders — but Gaga wears it so lightly and sprightly on her tiny frame it’s inspiring. In the flickering, shape-shifting shape of Lady Gaga, tired old postmodernism never looked so frisky. And it turns out to be really good on the dance floor. The 21st century didn’t really get going, or have a decent soundtrack, until Ms. Germanotta came along with her Gagacious beats.

But the older generation’s resentful backlash against Lady Gaga — how dare the kids think they have a proper star to speak for them! — is well and truly underway. Paglia’s piece was well-timed and has already prompted a host of copycat columns around the world complaining about Gaga the tiresome copycat. It had to happen, of course. She is now so huge as to be completely unrivaled in pop cultural terms — the most famous woman on the planet: too big and tasty a target for the press not to chew up.

That mesmerizing meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards — where she picked up eight trophies, including Video of the Year for “Bad Romance” — displayed a spooky kind of prescience. The inevitable lip-smacking Gaga backlash seems almost to be a predetermined part of the Gaga plot. And to those who like to tut and roll their eyes over the meat dress and intone “It’s been done before, dear,” please remind me again which year it was that a female artist, let alone the biggest artist in the world, accepted an MTV award, or any music award, dressed as a rib-eye?

Gaga “wants to have it both ways,” complained Paglia in The Sunday Times, “to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal.” But isn’t that what really great pop — pop as a total art form — tries to do? Put images and concepts into contexts they’re not supposed to inhabit? Like the pop charts? Isn’t that what Madonna at her best was doing? Yes, it’s probably ultimately a doomed project, but if there’s anything that approaches avant-garde for the masses, it’s that meat dress at the MTV awards, or that jaw-dropping video for “Bad Romance,” complete with smoking skeleton and sparking bra.

In the indignant roll call of the artists Gaga has “ripped off,” one who is rarely mentioned is the Australian-born performance artist Leigh Bowery, who died in 1994 of AIDS-related illnesses. Bowery defied gender, and pretty much any category you care to mention, with his stunning, hilarious, and terrifying body-morphing outfits, sometimes fashioned out of his own (ample) flesh. Like Gaga, he had a very keen sense of humor about what it means to be human and set out to sabotage conceptions of “sexiness.” Famously, he once lay on a divan in a shop window in a London art gallery preening himself for a week.

Gaga, however, is reclining in the shop window of the world. Paglia’s accusation that Gaga is “asexual” spectacularly miss the point that Gaga is postsexual. She’s post–the now boringly compulsorily “sexy” world that Madonna helped usher in, bullwhip in hand, which is now as burned-out as that “Bad Romance” skeleton. Gaga isn’t asexual or even particularly androgynous — she’s transexy. She’s deliberately overexposing “sexiness,” making it as transparent as her skin sometimes seems to be. Instead of just rubbing herself up, she’s showing gender and sexuality up by taking them to grotesque extremes. Even if she sometimes looks like Dali doodling his ideal inflatable doll.

But I doubt any of this will persuade those of my generation who have decided to spoil the younger generation’s fun and let them know how ignorant they are. After all, that’s the only kind of fun we oldies have. Even if her detractors’ dreams came true and Lady Gaga was publicly burned at the stake in Central Park, they still wouldn’t be happy. “Oh, look at her!” they’d say, rolling their eyes. “She’s so tired! Joan of Arc did that in 1431. She had much better hips. And she did it in French!”

Copyright Mark Simpson 2010

The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  — because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

The Geeks Inherit the Earth

Mark Simpson goes over to the Dark Side at Comic-Con

(Out magazine, September 2009 – uncut version)

‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,’ confides Batty, the beserker droid played by Rutger Hauer at the climax of the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. ‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate…’.

That’s nothing. I’ve seen over 125,000 nerds in full flight, nostrils flared with the scent of freebies, limited issue action figures and the possibility of glimpsing Gandalf on the other side of a hall the size of the Death Star’s flight deck.

Every fibre of my body is screaming: RUN! RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!! But I can’t move. An inch. I’m completely surrounded. Who would have thought nerds were such pack animals? The San Diego Convention Centre, all 615,701 square feet of it, is full to bursting point with people who have left their dank, toy-stuffed bedrooms to don their favourite costumes, circulate the hundreds of stands and booths,  countless talks, lectures, panels, fill their ‘swag bags’ with promotional pap – and bash them into me.

Comic-Con is a mindbogglingly huge yearly celebration of pop culture that began forty years ago as a simple swap-meet between geeks with boxes of surplus comic books. Today it includes pretty much every genre of pop culture from video games to card games, anime to fantasy novels and is a favourite stomping ground for Hollywood, featuring promotional appearances by big Hollywood names such as Robert Downey Jr, Johnny Depp, James Cameron and Peter Jackson promoting films like Iron Man 2, Avatar, District 9, G.I. Joe,  The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Alice in Wonderland.

Comic-Con has become the Godzilla of pop culture and has swallowed Hollywood whole – though some old-timers worry that Hollywood and Corporate America has swallowed Comic-Con.

The crowd is moving, and taking me with it.  Towards some escalators that loom up ominously ahead like an unexpected waterfall. ‘STEP THIS WAY!  YOU LOOK AWFULLY TIRED! – STEP THIS WAY! – TRY TO SMILE!!’ bawls a middle-aged escalator supervisor lady to the crowd. But I think she means me. At the bottom of the escalators I pass a booth selling ‘Star Trek Cologne’: ‘Tiberius’, ‘Khan’ and ‘Red Shirt – Because tomorrow may never come.’ A young man dressed as a Vulcan asks the seller ‘Why no Spock fragrance? After Zachary Quinto played him in the new movie he’s the hottest of the lot!’. Pause. ‘Or so my girlfriend tells me,’ he adds quickly.

Swept along by the crowd again towards the Lego stand in the middle of the main hall I bump into Michael and Cesar, Comic-Con veterans in their early thirties doing what a lot of people spend a lot of time doing here: waiting in line. I ask if I can hang with them – and escape the crowd – and very kindly they agree. But what are they lining up for? ‘Limited edition toys and books, explains Michael. ‘You line up for a lottery ticket, which then gives you the chance to line up again to buy a toy.’

‘That doesn’t sound much fun’, I say.

‘Hah! But these are limited edition Star Wars toys!’

‘Guys, I’m the sort of person who gets a rush out of throwing things away. The idea of collecting things fills me with dread. Think of the dusting!

‘Oh, we like to hoard!’ says Michael. ‘I’ve got a garage FULL of SW figures! Over 3000! And hundreds of vehicles!’

‘Do you actually play with the toys?’

‘No,’ says Cesar, ‘I don’t take them out of the box. It decreases the re-sale value’. Cesar is trading to help pay for medical school. Michael for his part always unpacks them: ‘I don’t sell them and I like to play with them a bit before I put them into storage.’

Both from San Diego, Michael is gay and works as an administrative nurse, while Cesar is straight, married father of two, and is studying to be a doctor. Michael is very friendly and talks very fast; Cesar, a shy Mexican American chap, is quieter but has twinkly dark eyes that seem to say a lot. His backpack is completely covered with cute Star Wars badges like ‘Star Wars Republic Commando’, ‘Rogue Squadron’, ‘Revenge of the Jedi’.

How did Michael get involved in the nerd lifestyle? ‘My dad was in the military and a strict disciplinarian. We weren’t very close to him. He bought us off with toys, I suppose.’ So George Lucas was your adoptive father? ‘Yes, you could say that. I had the entire collection when I was a kid. Sold them when I was a teenager because I wanted to buy a car. But then I regretted it later and bought them back.’ So when you became a man you put away childish things – and then got them out again? ‘Yeah,’ laughs Michael, ‘Adulthood wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.’ ‘You can say that again,’ says Cesar, who is currently in the process of getting a divorce.

This is probably part of the reason why nerd culture is becoming much more mainstream – if not actually dominant. Nerdism is crossing over and coming out. After all, in a consumerist, single-mom society most boys are being fathered by PlayStation or Nike. ‘Do you like Star Wars?  LOTR?, asked a promotional flyer I was handed as I lined up to enter the Convention Centre. ‘How about Lost?  Harry Potter? Big monsters, talking robots and sexy aliens?’ Well, doesn’t that cover pretty much everyone these days?  Throw in computer games, which are an increasingly important part of Comic-Con (and a bigger industry than Hollywood, even catching up with porn), the nerdish ‘rejects’ of yesteryear are becoming the norm.

Nor is it just a boy thing any more: the arrival at Comic-Con of legions of screaming teen girls for the ‘Twilight’ event prompted some Comic-Con traditionalists to walk around with placards declaring: ‘TWILIGHT RUINED COMIC-CON’.

But what is the deal with the Star Wars figures?  What is so compelling about them for a grown man? ‘They remind me of how I felt watching the film,’ explains Michael.  And what is that feeling? ‘Oh, TOTAL EXCITEMENT!’  Love? ‘Yeah, maybe!’ ‘I think of them like a diary,’ explains Cesar. ‘Or like the way that smells or tastes can remind you of memories.’ Cesar’s family background is very similar to Michael’s. ‘My dad ran a restaurant and worked very long hours. He wasn’t really around. He bought us off with toys.’

It seems toys can buy you love. Cesar and Michael met on the way to the 3rd Star Wars Convention in Indianapolis seven years ago. ‘He was on the same flight as me with his girlfriend,’ recounts Michael. ‘We were stuck on the fucking tarmac for two hours with no air conditioning  MISERABLE. We got to chatting – we were inseparable from that moment on.  In 2008 Cesar stood in my wedding party. He is truly one of my best friends’ says Michael.  Cesar chest swells visibly at this. ‘We go to all the conventions together and are inseparable.’

I ask Larry, Michael’s husband, if he feels jealous of Cesar at all? ‘Oh, no!’ laughs Larry. ‘I’m just glad I don’t have to go to these fucking circuses with Michael!’ Larry shares Michael’s love of Star Wars and 80s Brit band Duran Duran, but not Comic-Con: ‘I’m a proper nerd – I don’t do crowds’. Michael married Larry before same-sex marriage was banned again in California in November last year. Larry, an office manager in his early thirties, has an easy-going demeanour and a wry sense of humour.

SW was the entry drug again: Larry attended the first showing when he was just five years old.  Dad was a USMC Vietnam vet working as an alarm installer who wasn’t easy to get close to.  ‘You didn’t know who was going to walk in the door – the coolest dad in the world or the asshole. He had us help him build a 25ft model of the USS Hornet in our garage – with working elevators. And then he tore that apart and we built a full size Apollo capsule. And then an F-14 cockpit – in which all the electrics worked.’

He sounds a bit manic-depressive, I suggest. ‘He wasn’t very happy with his job. Either way, I ended up keeping my distance from him and became more interested in toys.’ Like Michael he sold his SW collection to buy a car when he thought he’d grown up – but later changed his mind and started buying them back. ‘Being an adult, whatever that is these days, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As my father kinda demonstrated.’

Taking a breather outside the convention hall with Michael and Cesar, while a staged fight is going on involving men sweating in the June sun thwacking each other noisily with swords, I ask if Comic-Con a kind of nerd Pride. ‘Yeah, I guess it is in a way,’ agrees Michael. ‘We used to be fearful of those words.  But now we tend to use them of one another. Kind of like gay people with ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. And like gay people we don’t like it so much when others use them.’

‘I think things are also changing so that you can see a few jocks in their muscle Ts coming to this event now, with their girlfriends.’ Before I can ask him where?? Michael points to the sword-thwackers. ‘I mean, I look at a bunch of guys beating the shit out of each other in plastic armour and think it’s crazy, but is it really so different, or more crazy than collecting action figures?’ Geekiness is in the eye of the beholder.

Touched by Michael and Cesar’s friendship and fired up by their enthusiasm I join them in queuing up for a couple of hours outdoors to see the ‘Star Wars Spectacular. Sweating and blinded by the Southern California sun we’re finally herded into a vast darkened, frigid auditorium where, projected onto a vast video screen Anthony Daniels, AKA C-3PO, is on stage sucking George Lucas’ cock. Metaphorically, of course. Even camper in the flesh than in his famously courtesy droid costume, pursing his lips and flapping his hands about, Mr Daniels, is enthusing in a very scripted fashion about the SW Music Tour (basically: you watch clips from Star Wars while a live orchestra plays the soundtrack). ‘The size of it!’ he exclaims. ‘I didn’t fully realise how big it was until I saw the video of it afterwards!’

Daniels turns out to be the highlight of the ‘Spectacular’: he’s followed by various fat, bearded no-neck George Lucas lookalikes from Lucasfilm’s marketing department, droning on about forthcoming SW computer games, introduced by a couple of lamely ad-libbing male and female local TV presenters in Luke and Leia outfits. Hype about hype isn’t always terribly interesting. Even for die-hard fans.

First Michael and then Cesar turn to me half way through and say: ‘This sucks. Let’s go.’ And we do. I really hope it wasn’t my Dark Side presence that brought them down.

***

Adam May is not attending Comic-Con this year. ‘I’ve only been to Comic-Con once,’ he tells me on the line from his home in Atlanta.  ‘I have a panic attack just looking at photos!  It’s sensory overload for me.’ I hear you. ‘I manage to make it to Dragon Con here in Atlanta quite often.  And of course the Star Wars Celebration Events.’ Of course. Adam, 33, a graphic artist who describes himself as ‘Atlanta’s answer to the wrong question’ has the distinction of being the first openly gay Star Wars action figure. Many are called; few are chosen.

referencephotostormysevenspire

Adam’s plastic obsession began the first time he saw Princess Leia. ‘Carrie Fisher with those buns on her head – she really was my first gay experience. Star Wars helped Adam grow up, in a manner of speaking: he had a speech impediment as a child, and by repeating Luke Skywalker’s lines over and over he help himself ‘talk it out’. He also  remembers that when his mother took him to see a child shrink she’d buy him a figure. ‘I was a latch-key kid. An “oops” that my parents didn’t expect. We had an “account” at the little shop down the street, so I could get all of the comics and candy that I wanted. My folks never said a word about it.’

Contrary to my impression of Nerd World as somehow pre-sexual in a post-sexual world, it seems there are such things as superhero sex parties. ‘I’ve been along to a gay one as a voyeur’, confesses Adam.  ‘I’m not really into dressing up – or superheroes. My heroes are in music – like Morrissey and James Maker. The parties are not really out-and-out sex. Lots of frottage, and depending on the costume, there is kissing, licking – and whatever else you can do with your mouth. Some bondage and role-play: the Evil Joker tying up Boy Wonder, that kind of thing.’

Other gays mostly recoil in horror though when they find out Adam’s plastic habit. ‘They typically assume I’m some strange man-child. I joke that the 80s jingle: “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a toys R Us kid!” wasn’t just a jingle. It was an oath!’

‘I know many SW collectors, straight and gay, who refer to their spouses as SW widows. My partner thinks a smattering are cool – he has a pristine Maximus Prime toy – though most are tedious to him. But I’ve reach the point where I don’t care what anyone thinks about my toy fetish. That said, I do try to keep my gay friends away from the Three Storey Toy Box. I have a collection of about 10,000 action figures –  with all of the accoutrements that go with them (space ships, play sets, light-sabres). The stairwell in my house has a wall that is 2 1/2 stories of shelving, acrylic risers and every SW figure that Hasbro made.’

Including the one they made of Adam himself after he won a competition to have a SW action figure based on him.  He chose the name Stormy Sevenspire – an anagram for Steven P. Morrissey. ‘I had hired a make-up artist to paint me up as I wanted to be in action figure likeness. I made sure the hair was just the right kind of quiff.’

Adam knows this kind of thing can make some people dangerously envious, but isn’t sure who is most likely to ‘shank’ him: hardcore Morrissey fans or Star Wars obsessives. Watch your back, dude.

***

‘Please. Again.  No flash photography,’ announces the MC.  ‘This is an amateur contest.  So, if we want to encourage people to dress up in off-balance outfits they can’t see properly out of for us to laugh at for nothing – and I think we do – it’s probably not a good idea to kill them.’

It’s the final night of Comic-Con and I’m attending the famous Masquerade Ball with my new best friends Michael and Cesar, in which those not fortunate enough to have been turned into an action figure by George Lucas have to do it themselves. With papier mache and sticky-backed plastic.

So someone dressed as an AT-ST Walker stalks the stage, followed a little later by someone dressed as Luke Skywalker singing ‘Star Wars Cantina’ to the tune of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’.  But my own personal favourite is She-Woman confronting Skeletor with a full backing troupe and singing Britney Spears’ ‘Womanizer’ at him while wagging her finger in time to the music.

‘Yes, I’m sure he learned something from that,’ comments the MC drily.

Skeletor may not have done, but I certainly did. By way of confession: I had been a little miffed that San Diego airport on my way to Comic-Con: the bearish airport security officer looked me up and down, smiled and asked: ‘Here for Comic-Con?’ But I needn’t have worried. I’m not a nerd. And that’s not just the voice of denial.

Truth is: I’m not nearly man enough to be a nerd.

Adam May’s Star Wars blog

Fight Club: How Gay is MMA?

Mark Simpson attends an epic UFC event and finds himself turned on to the charms of ‘gay porn for straight men’

(Originally appeared in Out magazine, June 2008)

IMAGINE THE SPACE SHUTTLE taking off with a really fat customized exhaust pipe. Or Visigoths sacking Ancient Rome with kicking bass tubes fitted to their 4-by-4s. Or 20,000 supercharged male orgasms. Simultaneously. And you have some idea what it sounds and feels like in Montreal’s famous Bell Centre tonight for Ultimate Fighting Championship 83, as a spunky young carrot redhead in shorts pins an auburn lad on his back with his heels somewhere around his ears.

I think the technical term for this is a “full mount.” Or maybe it’s “ground and pound.”

Never Back DownAs the chiselled and blond bad guy with the low-slung shorts (Cam Gigandet) in the recent mixed martial arts (MMA) exploitation flick Never Back Down says leeringly to the doe-eyed brunet boxer  good guy (Sean Faris) new to MMA, the good news is that in this sport you can choke, kick, punch, pin, and throttle. “The bad news is that it’s gotta end with you looking like a bitch in front of everybody.”

Perhaps it was bad news for him – and for the auburn lad in the ring tonight – but certainly not for the 22,000-strong overwhelmingly young-male audience for the biggest-ever UFC event.

Over 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas, Brit boxer Joe “slapper” Calzaghe is tonight defeating light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins on points. In the long-established world of boxing, there is rumoured to be an ancient and secret tradition called the “perk,” or “perquisite” – by which the losing man may be required later to literally give up what he has lost symbolically. In other words, the fucked gets… really fucked.

I don’t know how much truth there is to the “perk,” though the breathless trash talk of modern-day boxers in the run-up to a fight – “I’m gonna make you my bitch/girlfriend/punk” – certainly doesn’t discredit it. But I’m fairly certain that the “perk” doesn’t exist in the “full-contact” brave new world of mixed martial arts (MMA), an omnivorous blend of boxing, freestyle wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, kick-boxing, karate, jujitsu, and Thai boxing that is rapidly replacing boring old traditional boxing, especially among young men, as the fighting sport. The perk isn’t needed. Because in MMA you get perked in the “ring” in front of everybody. On pay-per-view TV. The “perk” is the whole perking point, man. And UFC, by far the most successful purveyor of MMA fights for the cable TV voyeur, looks remarkably like gay porn for straight men: ultimate fuck-fighting.

ufc83_07_danzig_vs_bocek_001In the octagonal UFC cage set up over the Bell Centre ice hockey rink — octagonal perhaps because it better affords multiple viewing angles than a square boxing ring – Mac Danzig is still on his back; his sweaty, pumped, almost translucently white torso is flushed with the auburn heat that auburn skin produces when it is aroused. His panting, fetching head has been pushed up against the cage by redhead Marc Bocek’s energetic pounding, as if the cage were in fact a headboard. Bocek isn’t making love, however, or at least not the vanilla kind. He’s hammering the living daylights out of Danzig, stoking the crowd into ever-higher waves of frenzy. Although the Octagon is right in front of me, I’m watching all of this on one of the giant screens overhead: MMA is mostly a horizontal sport — one that requires multiple zoom lenses and a big TV to enjoy properly.

Bocek pauses for a moment to grab his partner/adversary by his hips, almost tenderly, and drag him backward while still kneeling between his legs, not wanting to break contact and negotiate that tricky “re-entry.” It isn’t, though, out of consideration for his chum’s cricked neck. He’s worried that Danzig will use the cage to get up off the canvas — and then get him in the “bitch” position. MMA is all about fighting for top. (Or maybe for extremely truculent bottom.)

bocekUnfortunately for Bocek, Danzig succeeds in breaking away anyway, jumps to his feet, and deftly, impersonally, brings up his knee and smashes it against Bocek’s left eyebrow, which provokes another roar of excitement from the crowd and opens up a very nasty laceration that spills hot blood everywhere, streaming into his eye, across his face, down his chin, and splatters across his lily-white chest — and all over his opponent. MMA is definitely not safe sex. The ref pauses the fight to examine Bocek’s eye. If the blood is preventing him from seeing, the fight will be declared in Danzig’s favor.

posterTurning to my beautifully produced glossy fight program, which includes full-page colour images of the topless young fighters arranged opposite one another and their vital statistics, I learn that Danzig is 5 foot 8 and 155 pounds, 28, and a Cleveland native. His feisty opponent, Bocek, from Woodbridge, Canada, is 26, and is also 5 foot 8 and 155 pounds. As someone who has a thing for redheads and short-asses, I’d say they are well matched.

The ref continues the match – and why not? Blood looks good on TV. There are only a few seconds left of the third and final round (UFC fights only go to a maximum three rounds at five minutes each — about the average length of a porn scene). Bocek, despite the turned tables and his pasting and what must be deathly tiredness, is still putting up an astonishing fight. Danzig scores a take-down almost immediately and moves, as they say in MMA, “directly to the mount.” Bocek “gives up his back” to try to save his ruined face from further punishment but is then caught in a “rear-naked choke” by Danzig’s powerful, fatally inviting arms. He “taps out” (submits) at 3 minutes, 48 seconds.

I don’t know about Bocek, but these were some of the longest 3 minutes, 48 seconds of my life. I’m aroused and inspired and exhausted and confused. For my money, Bocek won that fight – morally speaking. Which of course means that he lost very badly. His face is roadkill. He is really fucked. But he displayed that quality you hear people talk about reverently in MMA: heart.

Despite the gore, MMA is generally safer than boxing – there are fewer fatalities and brain-damage is less common. Because the fight is “full-contact,” the head doesn’t take all the violence. When it does, though, it’s pretty gruesome. Yet amid all the mayhem, there is a touching tenderness to MMA. Not because it looks to my twisted, queer eye like very rough sex — but because of that “heart” business. After a bout is over, most fighters hug each other in a pseudo-post-coital embrace that re-enacts the warlike hug earlier, only this time it’s a hug of warm brotherhood.

Another huge, manly Gallic roar. The arena’s giant screen is now tuned to the locker room; a rangy young blond skinhead fighter has peeled his shirt off, revealing a well-oiled fleshly fighting machine. The light behind him and his piercing blue eyes gazing into the camera, not to mention the low position of the locker-room cam, give him the cast of a demigod. It’s Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, the handsome, stylish 26-year-old local Montreal boy who tonight is hoping to seize back his UFC Welterweight belt from Matt “the Terror” Serra, 33, the no-nonsense Long Island master of Brazilian jujitsu who dispossessed him of it last year with what some people said was a lucky punch.

We’ve only been watching the hors d’oeuvre. All this blood has just been so much foreplay.

***

MacDanzigMarkBocek-1

“STOP LOOKING LADIES!” some funny guy in the audience shouts. It’s the weigh-in, a day earlier. Ed “Short Fuse” Herman, another 20-something boy-next-door red-headed fighter, from Vancouver, Wash., is naked on the stage under the spotlight, a towel held up by two lieutenants to shield his “short fuse.” Funnily enough, it’s mostly men rather than ladies doing the looking here in this packed auditorium. Though some are perhaps doing more looking than others: From where I’m seated at the side, I manage to catch a glimpse of Ed’s white butt as he bends over to slip off his briefs (a day later he will fight in shorts cheekily advertising ‘CONDOM DEPOT’ – across his butt).

Several guys have had to take their underpants off – to cheers. I can’t help but wonder whether the UFC officials, for showbiz’s sake, pretend some of these guys are closer to the weight limit than they are.

UFC knows all about showbiz. According to Forbes magazine, its pay-per-view shows have drawn well over 2 million viewers, most of them male and ages 18 to 49. Formidably shrewd, motor-mouthed former boxing promoter Dana White hosts The Ultimate Fighter, UFC’s hit PPV series on Spike (a men-only Big Brother with grappling gloves), which has taken MMA, essentially a semi-organized barroom brawl in the ’90s, cleaned it up, introduced some rules – including no stomping, no spitting, no throat strikes, no punches to the back of the head, and “no groin attacks of any kind” – and made it into a hot, multiangle, high-impact PPV commodity.

Described memorably by John McCain in 1998 as “human cockfighting,” and under threat of a total ban, MMA has become a different, more saleable, less relentlessly violent kind of “cockfighting” in the nurturing hands of the UFC – so much so that McCain himself recently relented: “The sport has grown up.” As a measure of just how grown up, UFC – for which casino owners the Fertitta brothers paid $2 million in 2001 – is today valued at roughly $1 billion. Cultural respectability has arrived too in the form of a recently published $2,500 MMA art book titled Octagon with a foreword by man-loving straight playwright David Mamet, who wrote and directed the MMA-themed movie Redbelt. MMA is also coming to major-network TV: CBS recently announced plans to air four MMA fights (non-UFC) annually — despite the disapproval of CBS chairman Sumner Redstone. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” he said, perhaps missing the way UFC brings loving and fighting spectacularly together.

There is a lot of passionate hero worship in the world of MMA, not so much homoerotic as hero-erotic – or herotic. Straight male fans and fighters themselves will enthuse with shining eyes about “my idol”, in a way that in most other contexts would be considered much too ‘gay’ to keep a straight face.  But perhaps that’s not so surprising, since MMA owes a lot to those notorious warrior homos, the ancient Greeks. Although today’s MMA came to us via Brazilian jujitsu (alas, not conducted in Speedos, as the name may suggest), many consider it the modern version of pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling that was the basis of combat training for Greek soldiers and an original Olympic sport. With lethal purity, pankration had two primary rules: no eye-gouging or biting. Fingers were often snapped off. Sometimes death or unconsciousness was the only form of submission (rather like this year’s Democratic primaries).

MMA’s younger fans are not likely to acknowledge their sport’s homoerotic heritage. For most of these young men, many of them blue-collar and swooningly in love with masculinity, gay means unmanly and passive and emasculated – and therefore major turn-off. MMA is gay porn for straight men because its violence not only justifies the intimate, protracted, eye-popping physicality of the sport but also preserves its virility – the very thing that gets many of its fans hot. These fighters can’t be fags – look how fucking tough they are, dude! It’s a bit like how in gay porn “real” tops never bottom – for the sake of the bottoms watching.

Sometimes the MMA fighter really is homo – like professional MMA fighter Shad Smith, who was recently profiled in The New York Times. From a tough blue-collar background, Smith was desperate to hide his sexuality at first. “I was petrified because I didn’t want anyone to find out,” he told the Times. “And I would try to be the toughest person around. That way no one would suspect. No one would ever say it. No one would think it.” Doubtless there are quite a few Shad Smiths who became very good, very determined, very motivated scrappers because they weren’t escaping to college or opening a hairdressing salon.

Georges St.-PierreThe tough-guy image is something of an illusion – if an entrancing and convincing one. Surprisingly often, fighters turn out to be sensitive, introspective loners – “fags” who aren’t actually fags — such as Mac Danzig, the beefy auburn-haired killer who is in fact a vegan and whose main pastime, when he isn’t turning another lad’s face into tenderloin, is nature photography. That’s also the story of Georges St-Pierre, a bullied slight boy at school who turned to MMA for salvation, who with his tight, wiry body, immaculately groomed presentation and designer clothes looks rather metro. As one observer put it: “He’s the kind of flash Europunk you might think you could wipe the floor with if you came across him in a bar, but you’d be very, very wrong.”

Likewise you might expect a fight between Serra and St-Pierre to be billed as good ol’ USA versus Frenchy “fag,” but you’d be wrong. Because GSP – to give St-Pierre his brand name – is generally considered to be an exceptional fighter, genuinely excellent in several disciplines, or maybe because this is such a visual medium, he has begun to look like the David Beckham of UFC, albeit one who actually reads books and is, heaven forfend!, interested in philosophy (that’s the French for you). His photogenic face and body and his workouts have been splashed across countless health and fitness magazines.

His opponent, Matt Serra, may be breezily unpretentious and resemble an unpainted fire hydrant, but he is definitely no idiot: “I think they look at Georges as the Crest poster boy with the sparkle in his teeth, the looks, the physique, the body and the athleticism…the real version of what Van Damme was doing,” he’s said. “And then comes me – the Joe Pesci–style ‘Heyooo!’ But it’s cool, man. I’m down with it. I fit in those shoes real well. I’m just looking forward to having another good fight.”

When he turns up for his weigh-in, a relentless tidal wave of boos greets him. An Italian-American pocket battleship at 5 foot 6, Serra weighs in at 169.5 pounds; he appears indifferent to the roiling sea of hatred around him. The booing doesn’t stop when the host offers him the microphone, and whatever he says is completely drowned out. So he offers the crowd two fingers, meaning “two times” and V for victory – and, perhaps, “fuck you.”

Ecstatic cheers greet his challenger St-Pierre, who’s taller by four inches but in stature by several feet. St.-Pierre fluidly strips down to his tasteful and tastily filled-out black underwear and also weighs in at 169.5 pounds. Offered the mike, he graciously tells the crowd they shouldn’t hate Serra and that “I don’t fight with angerrr – I fight with my ‘eart.” The two men pose for the cameras in a fighting stance and then they hug, GSP kissing Serra’s huge neck.

There was no trash talk in the quieter surroundings of the press conference the day before. The fighters had been polite, respectful, even friendly. “C’mon, I’ve got nothing against the French,” protested Serra when the journalists dug up some “Frenchy” quotes from the past. St.-Pierre, for his part, was touchingly open. “I am nervous and scared to fail but that’s normal,” he admitted. “I ‘ave butterflies. but I ‘ave to make the butterflies fly in formation.”

***

AAAYYYYYYYYAYYYYEAAAAAAA-AAHHAAAARGH!!!

The Bell Centre outdoes itself as Georges St.-Pierre, surrounded by his lieutenants, makes his way to the stage in a natty red jujitsu jacket. Climbing into the Octagon, he peels off his silky, tight black T-shirt, and then his baggy trousers come off, revealing tight black trunks with just a white fleur-de-lis on the side of his firm right buttock. It matches the arty tattoo on the back of his steely calf.

Cheers turn to boos. Matt Serra has arrived in a baggy black T-shirt with big white lettering: BUY GUNS SELL GUNS — GUNSAMERICA.COM. The stats on the big screen make difficult reading for Serra: GSP is taller and younger and has a longer reach. Worse, he is more popular and better-looking and has nicer pants. He’s the favourite in every way.

The bell rings, and they touch gloves. In a flash St.-Pierre has Serra on the canvas. All that frustration, regret, resolve, training — and heart — have exploded. All over Serra. To tire him out, St.-Pierre lets him get up, keeping him within range of his own fists but out of Serra’s. Then he takes him down again. St.-Pierre’s purposeful, ominous shoulders rise up like medieval armour, like Joan of Arc seriously narked.

End of round 1. Serra’s eye is swelling up badly. He looks beaten already.

mma_stpierre1_576

Round 2. Plucky Serra tries a kick.  St.-Pierre catches it and takes Serra down. After Serra stands up again, St.-Pierre lets fly a barrage of punches. Serra is too groggy to parry them. St.-Pierre — part panther, part lethal ballet dancer — comes in for the kill, easily taking his opponent down again. Serra offers his back, and St.-Pierre knees him repeatedly, athletically in the ribs in a manner which somehow manages to be as passionate as it is impersonal.

The ref stops the match, and it’s all over: technical knockout. Canada has won. Montreal has beaten Long Island. The butterflies flew in formation. Terrifying formation. And judging by the noise from the crowd, the entire world and its dad have just climaxed.

A grinning St.-Pierre executes a winning somersault. The crowd chants, “FUCK YOU, SERRA! FUCK YOU, SERRA!” He has been fucked. He was fucked. He is fucked. He is without any doubt whatsoever the fuckee. But he exhibits no resentment. The warriors embrace warmly, another kiss from GSP to that huge, now sweaty neck. Serra holds St.-Pierre’s arm up for the crowd, then hoists him on his shoulder, carrying him for a few staggering steps.

If MMA is gay porn for straight men, then tonight a part of me wonders whether, for all its spilled blood and mashed faces, it isn’t the better kind.

After all, no one could seriously accuse gay porn of having “heart.”

This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’.

Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns

 

Mark Simpson on John Hughes’ pristine legacy

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)

So here’s the pitch:  A Hollywood teen movie in which nothing happens.  All day. In a school library. Introduced by a pretentious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.

Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gallery, to the strains of something especially delicate by The Smiths.

What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your millions in these sure-fire hits??

When the director John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influential’ he has been for today’s generation of movie-makers. But it’s difficult to conceive of almost any of his classic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.

John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great characters, winsome, quirky actors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and angsty complexion still looks to me like the prettiest, loveliest girlfriend I never had (while Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had – at least in my mind’s eye).

Hughes movies had feelings, they had intelligence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cynical – ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?’ – wasn’t afraid to be lyrical: ‘Life moves pretty fast.  You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’

Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films liberally. In fact his work, although celebrated now, often by a forty-something crowd crying over their spilt youth, looks like fragments of a lost America. A much better one than the one we ended up with – with much superior taste in pop music.

Precisely because of their humanity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as startling twenty years on as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bedroom door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puckering up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intoxicating mixture of all-American, unblinking, huckstering confidence and very Anglo, coquettish flamboyance is inconceivable in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dismissed as ‘TOO GAY!’.

The famous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 recording of fey Wayne Newton crooning ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deliriously, adenoidally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the previous Britpop invasion of John Hughes’ own youth) and everyone in Hughes’ hometown of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is nothing less than a dreamy pop cultural epiphany.

It was a false one, however. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sentimental, art-loving, anglophile, androgynous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which apparently, and quite appropriately, was actually a glass fibre fake with a British MG sports car underneath), but to ruthless career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stratosphere by steam catapult the previous year, in 1985 – the  same year as The Breakfast Club were chewing their fingernails and wondering, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.

Despite success with the warm adult comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a better, kinder America than the one that actually happened – one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s comedy cringe, snobbery and sadism – Hughes’ Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recovering from the frightening success of annoying kiddie comedy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the perfect riposte to today’s terminally toxic movie business.

As Ferris in his dressing gown put it, raising a quizzical eyebrow at us: ‘You’re still here??  It’s over!  Go home!

Catterick Garrison Goes Gay

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A decade ago the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the UK military was lifted.  This summer Mark Simpson attended the first gay night on a UK garrison.  For purely professional reasons.  No, really.

(Also published on Out.com)

There isn’t at first glance much that appears terribly gay about Catterick Garrison.

Home to the largest UK Army base in the world, with c. 15,000 men and women based here, Catterick Garrison as the name suggests, owes its existence entirely to the British Army — whose favourite colour is khaki. Located off the A1 just before Scotch Corner in the far north of North Yorkshire, ‘Camp’ as Catterick Garrison is known locally – usually without irony – is mostly a utilitarian collection of barracks blocks, Nissan huts, barbed wire fences, and MoD housing, with a dilapidated main parade boasting a Spar, a couple of laundrettes and several takeaways.

A Tesco Superstore did arrive here a few years ago, but they don’t carry much in the way of their Finest range. Imagine Middlesbrough (about a 50 minute drive away), take away the culture, add lots of bracing fresh air and combat trousers and you’ve got Catterick Garrison. Little wonder it was the setting for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s unrelentingly bleak (and not very funny) 2004 sit-com ‘Catterick’.

But tonight at Louis, a no-frills nightclub nestling amongst the lines of neatly parked khaki green Army trucks, Catterick Garrison is also the setting for the first regular, and probably first ever, gay night on a British Army garrison: ‘It’s Catterick GAYrison!!!’ announces the poster on the wall of the place where local single and not-so-single ladies usually go to meet drunken squaddies (‘It’s a parachute club,’ one soldier told me, ‘’coz you’re guaranteed a jump!’).

But tonight a different kind of meat market is promised: ‘Uniform Optional!’ saucily declares the rubric on the poster, next to a sketch of a muscular young squaddie dancing and grinning with his top off. Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts who first suggested the location for Catterick Camp because of its tranquillity and distance from urban enervations must be spinning in his orderly grave.

‘I didn’t like Camp at all when I first moved here a couple of years ago,’ says Lisa, 32, a sunny-natured out lesbian lass from Blackburn serving in the Army as a medic, drinking Strongbow at the bar. ‘The countryside’s nice, but Camp itself is a bit isolated. And the nearest gay pub is a long, long drive away.’ She loves the idea of a gay night in Catterick. ‘It’s just what we need. Plus this place is just around the corner from me and I can stagger home! Until this came along there was nothing in the way of socialising for lesbian and gay service personnel here.’

When Lisa joined up twelve years ago homosexuality (and bisexuality) was still banned in the UK Forces: ‘they still asked if you’d had any same-sex experiences and I had to lie.’  The ban was formally lifted in 2000 after four former service personnel, drummed out for being gay, won their case against the MoD for discrimination in the European Court of Human Rights ten years ago this autumn.

In the Nineties the idea of a gay night on a UK garrison would have been unthinkable – instead military investigators were known to hang around civilian gay pubs in places like Aldershot and Portsmouth taking photos of those coming in and out. But that was then. Last year the Army joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Campaign, and this Summer Soldier magazine featured an out gay male squaddie on the cover for the first time. Interviewed inside, Trooper James Wharton, 22, of the Royal Household Cavalry claimed that he had had little or no trouble with his sexuality from other soldiers: ‘I came out to the Army before I told my parents, so that say a lot for the Armed Forces.’

Lisa is grateful for the 21st Century equal opps approach of the Army: she lives in married quarters with her civilian girlfriend whom she civilly-partnered last year – with a Guard of Honour: ‘6 out of the 8 were gay’.  Attitudes didn’t change overnight, however. ‘In 2004 I was posted to Germany and when they found out I was a lesbian they moved me away from the other nurses and onto my own corridor. I put my foot down and they finally moved me back, but they didn’t like it. It’s this thing of, “she’ll be looking at me in the showers!”.

Lisa thinks this kind of anxiety is the still a problem for many gay and bi males in the Army. ‘I know quite a few gay squaddies, and most of them aren’t out because they’re worried about being bullied and also the backs-against-the-wall-lads! mentality. It’s definitely different for gay men in the Army, especially in front-line units like the ones based in Catterick. The macho thing kicks in’.

Perhaps that’s why I haven’t been able to find any out gay male squaddies here tonight. Instead about thirty local gays and lesbians and their straight friends, and two charmingly tipsy young off-duty (they’ve left their wigs at home) drag queens from Darlington, Lucy-Licious and Gina Tonic: ‘We came to pull a squaddie,’ says Lucy, aka Josh, ‘everyone loves a soldier don’t they, dear? But when,’ he asks, looking around eagerly, are they turning up?’ Well, quite.

At pub-chucking out time mine and the drag queens’ prayers are answered. Sort of.  A large party of drunken squaddies turn up. But they’re all straight – officially, at least.  Scots Guardsmen celebrating their return from exercise in Canada and determined to continue their evening at the only nightclub in town. They’re not put off by Louis being ‘gay’ tonight.  The burliest, Steve, 32, a married soldier with two kids, has served 12 years and welcomes a gay night in Catterick. ‘It’s about time, if you ask me. Catterick really needs this. It had to happen. This is the modern world, isn’t it? I mean, my wife was living with a woman for four years before she married me’.

Steve thinks that being gay in his regiment isn’t a problem. ‘There are four gay lads in my regiment,’ he explains, ‘and they don’t get any hassle.’ But, I suggest, maybe just four gay squaddies in a 600 strong regiment might suggest that most still don’t feel able to come out? ‘Attitudes have changed a lot, especially with the younger people. But a lot of old school people don’t like it one bit. And my Regiment tends to be very traditional.  We didn’t have any black squaddies until about ten years ago.  Now we have black officers.  I think things will change a lot on the gay front once the older generation retire.’

Chris, a  local gay civvie lad in his early twenties has parents who are both ex-Army.  ‘They’re very old-fashioned in their outlook,’ he says.  ‘They were in the Army when homosexuality was illegal and don’t like me being gay at all.  But they have to put up with it!’  Does he know any gay squaddies?  ‘One or two, but most of the ones I’ve met have been drunken horny straight ones,’ he says, laughing.

Speaking of drunken straight squaddies, one of them is now dancing and twirling with Gina Tonic on the dance floor to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. Steve comes over; grinning he says: ‘Like I said, Mark, attitudes really are changing!’

A little later, the same dancing squaddie walks past and puts his hand on the shoulder of another soldier I’m talking to. It’s a friendly gesture that would mean nothing any other night at Louis (when it’s not entirely unusual for drunken straight squaddies to snog, grope and pretend to hump one another on the dance-floor). But the soldier I’m talking to looks like he’s been electrocuted, whips around and shouts: ‘’Ere! You’ve got the wrong guy mate, I’m straight!” He points emphatically to a wedding ring on his finger. The dancing squaddie then protests, briefly, his own heterosexuality, pointing to a ring on his finger. Bruised egos suitably salved, they shake hands, grinning and slapping each other on the back.

The organiser of Louis gay night, Dave Parker, 36, a Durham lad with what I can only describe as cheeky eyes, is gay himself, and has lived in Catterick Camp for ten years. ‘I just thought it was about time we had a gay night,’ he says.  ‘Plus it will help to change attitudes as well as provide a place for gay Army people and locals to socialise. The feedback I’ve had has all been positive. Though I’ve heard that one or two have been complaining about ‘bloody poofs’ – but’ he laughs, ‘not to my face!’

Some might say that he’s set himself something of a challenge. ‘It’s a shame there were only a few lesbians and no gay male squaddies tonight,’ he admits, ‘but it will take a while for a gay night in Catterick to take off.’ Yes, it probably will. Dave has high hopes for next month though: everyone will be back from leave, and he’s booked a male stripper. ‘From Down South. Wigan, I think it was,’ he says with a wink.

‘Mind,’ he adds, ‘I should have booked one of the local Army PTi’s instead. They’d probably have done it just for some free drinks. They love putting on a show, some of them. And god knows they use the tanning salon enough!’

So there you have it. Catterick Garrison. Gayer than you think.

Gay night at Louis Bar, Kitchener Road, Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.  

The Homosexual is 140 – And Showing His Age

Karl Maria Kertbeny

The father of the metrosexual Mark Simpson on the birth of the  homo- and hetero- sexual era

(Out, September 2009)

As you may have noticed, the out-and-proud modern gay, born amidst protest, shouting and flying bottles outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969, is now forty years old. But you may be less aware that this year is also the 140th birthday of a much more discreet and distinguished (if pathologized and sometimes pitiful) figure that Stonewall is often seen as making obsolete:

The homosexual.

The offspring of Austrian-born Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, the homosexual was delivered to the world in a couple of pamphlets he published anonymously in 1869 arguing against the Prussian anti sodomy law Paragraph 143 – the first appearance in print of the word.

Kertbeny argued that attraction to the same sex was inborn and unchangeable and that besides, the law violated the rights of man: men should be free to do with their bodies as they pleased, so long as others were not harmed. Kertbeny maintained strenuously that he himself was ‘sexually normal’ (and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, save perhaps his strenuousness).

Kertbeny’s ‘homosexual’, itself a disapproved conjugation of Greek and Latin, was part of a larger classificatory system of human sexual behaviour he conceived which included quaint terms such as ‘monosexuals’ (masturbators), and ‘pygists’ (aficionados of anal sex), most of which have not survived. However, another of his quaint categories has persisted and ultimately proved even more popular than the ‘homosexual’: the vast majority of people in the US today would happily and perhaps rather too hastily describe themselves as ‘heterosexual’ – despite the fact that the ‘father’ of heterosexuality, as Jonathan Ned Katz has pointed out in ‘The Invention of Heterosexuality’ (1995), seemed to conceive of heterosexuals as more sex-obsessed than homosexuals and more open to ‘unfettered degeneracy’.

Words like most offspring have a life of their own of course, and in this case one that worked against the coiner’s intentions. Despite Kertbeny’s libertarian if not actually homo-chauvinist sentiments, we might never have heard of the ‘homosexual’ (or indeed the ‘heterosexual’) if the word had not been adopted by Richard von Krafft-Ebing a few years later as a diagnosis for mental illness, setting the medical tone for much of the coming Twentieth Century with its aversion therapies, sex-lie detectors and psychiatric water-boarding.

Kertbeny’s double-edged legacy isn’t just the coining of the word ‘homosexual’, but helping to invent ‘sexuality’ itself: the very modern idea that there are different species of people constituted by their sexual preference alone – ‘heterosexuals’ and ‘homosexuals’ (and ‘bisexuals’ as an exception-to-prove-the-rule afterthought). Kertbeny invented the homosexual because he considered the other available terms, ‘pederast’, ‘sodomite’ and ‘invert’ too judgemental. He also saw no link between homosexuality and effeminacy – which he didn’t mind being judgemental about: he detested it.

As the brilliant sexual historian David Halperin puts it in his book ‘How To Do the History of Male Homosexuality’ (2002), pre-homosexual discourses referred to only one of the sexual partners: the “active” partner in the case of sodomy; the effeminate male or masculine female in the case of inversion. ‘The hallmark of “homosexuality”…’ he writes, ‘is the refusal to distinguish between same-sex sexual partners or to rank them by treating one of them as more (or less) homosexual than the other.’

The concept of the ‘homosexual’, medicalized or not, ultimately made possible the rise of the out-and-proud gay man, regardless of his own ‘role’ in bed or gender style, and also a gay community of equals. But it also tended to make all sex between men, however fleeting, however drunken, however positioned, ‘homo’ – along with all the participants, regardless of their sexual preference.

With the paradoxical result that there’s probably now rather less erotic contact – or in fact any physical contact at all – between males than there was when the homosexual was born, 140 years ago. The homosexual, in effect, monopolised same-sex erotics and intimacy.

Which is, frankly, a bit greedy.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Homoerotic Horseplay – Not Gay Just Guy

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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.)

 

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

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This month’s Outfeatures a column by yours truly, called ‘In Defense of Jerry Lewis‘, explaining how my childhood love for early Lewis made me the man I am today — and why his anarchic comedy partnership with Dean Martin in the ‘repressed’ 1950s was a kind of queer punk rock before even rock and roll had been invented:

‘Their heads were 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 neck to shrieks of scandalized pleasure from the audience. They were a prime-time study in same-sex love. And they were adored for it — literally chased down the street by crowds of screaming women and not a few men…’.      (‘In Defense of Jerry Lewis’)

Though these clips below probably explain it all rather better.

They also show how compared to Martin and Lewis, today’s much vaunted ‘bromance’ comedies are more akin to bromide. Lesbian bed death without the honeymoon. Instead of going out of their way to purge their stage romance of any hint of passion or anything physical in the way that annoyingly self-conscious, college-educated 21st Century buddy comedies do (the word ‘bromance’ itself suggests that any hint of erotics would be akin to incest), Martin and Lewis’ blue-collar, mid-century love-affair constantly injects it. Flags it up. And slaps your face with it. Theirs is literally a much more ticklish affair. And a shitload funnier for it.

What’s more, it looks very convincing.

(Oh, and yes, it may be that I still feel fond of Jerry Lewis because his telethons never made it to the UK….)

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

‘It’s physical attraction.’


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 gets some big pricks in the Navy and then sprays everywhere.


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

‘I was loinesome.’



Spot a (very tiny-looking) James Dean giving a boxer a rub-down while scoping the competition.


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


Never been kissed… Yeah, right.



Special thanks to the Canadian playwright Elise Moore and Hannah for re-kindling my unhealthy Lewisian love-affair, offering insightful observation – and sending me some really great YouTube Martin & Lewis love.


The Gay Case Against Gay Marriage and Gay Bigotry

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By Mark Simpson (Guardian CIF, 30 April 2009)

Who would have guessed the dainty opinions of a Miss America candidate would have been taken so seriously by gays and liberals?

Miss California, a practising Christian, was last week denounced by Miss America judge Perez Hilton on his blog as ‘a dumb bitch’ and unworthy of the Miss America crown because she gave the ‘wrong’ answer to his chippy question about gay marriage. Like most Americans – including the current Democratic President of the United States – she believes that marriage is ‘between a man and a woman’. Boo! Hiss! Rip her to shreds!

It wasn’t just the famously bitchy gay gossip-monger Hilton casting stones, however. For honestly and somewhat courageously answering his question Miss California was roundly condemned as a ‘bigot’ by hosts of gay and liberal bloggers, and was even denounced by the directors of the Miss California pageant who declared themselves ‘saddened’ by her views and that they had no place in the ‘Miss California family’, whatever that is. Most now agree with Hilton’s gloating claim that her answer cost her the crown.

Candidate Obama expressed the exact same view during the Presidential Election: “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. You know, God’s in the mix.” Instead of being scorned as a bigot and a dumb bitch, Obama was handed the Mr America crown by liberals and probably most gay voters. But I suppose that being President of the United States is a rather less important title than Miss America.

Branding Christians and traditionalists ‘bigots’ for being Christians and traditionalists and thus none too keen to fundamentally revise the definition of marriage is a highly unattractive exercise in liberal self-righteousness that makes Miss America look quite sophisticated. Not to mention sounding a lot like pots and kettles rattling. It’s faintly absurd to have to even say this, but it isn’t bigoted to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s just being conventional. And after all, marriage itself is convention and tradition tied up in a big red bow and covered in confetti and sprinkled with Holy Water. Which is exactly why lesbians and gays should have nothing to do with it.

Today’s out and proud same-sex relationships are very unconventional and a very new kind of phenomenon. And so are in fact many of today’s cross-sex relationships in a brave new world of gender parity. Marriage on the other hand is an antiquated, failing institution based on inequality and traditional roles. Much like Miss America.

Marriage is, whether you like it or not, also based on religious sentiment: ‘God’s in the mix.’ Especially in a very religious country like America. And I have a hunch, based on millennia of violent opposition to sex that doesn’t produce more Christians, that God is not going to sanctify ‘sodomy’ any time soon.

New ways of living and loving require new institutions. Or in the words of the famously unmarried Galilee carpenter and fisher of men: put new wine into new wineskins. And keep the flippin’ Pharisees out of it. Or else you’ll end up with a tacky mess.

It needs to be said out loud that full civil unions with the same legal rights and privileges of marriage at both the State and Federal level, supported by President Obama and many Republicans and even some right-wing evangelicals – and the large majority of American voters – are not only much more politically achievable in the US than gay marriage, they are also a better fit for most same sex relationships. What’s more they represent an entirely dignified way of side-stepping this endless, unsightly domestic between liberal and conservative, secular and religious, metropolitan and rural America.

But instead, gay marriage zealots, many of whom admit that they themselves don’t wish to get married, insist on characterising civil unions as ‘second class’, ‘social apartheid’ or ‘riding at the back of the bus’. I’d like to think it was merely a ploy to make fully-recognised civil unions more achievable, but many really seem to believe their own shrill propaganda. Worse, they’ve made even more of a fetish of the word ‘marriage’ than the religious right they rail against.

In the UK, where nationally recognised same-sex civil unions with the same legal status as marriage – called civil partnerships – were introduced in 2004 there is little or no appetite now for gay marriage. In my experience few lesbians or gays feel they are ‘riding at the back of the bus’. Maybe because in many ways they’re actually riding at the front. It’s probably only a matter of time before gay civil partnerships in the UK are made available to all, as they are in France – where the vast majority of applications are now made by cross-sex couples disenchanted with traditional marriage.

What’s more, fully-recognised, open-to-all civil unions are a fully-fledged secular institution that helps to shore up a fragile secular society. And make no mistake, it is secularism on which most of the – historically very, very recent – freedoms enjoyed by lesbians and gays are based, along with those of women.

But so far the gay marriage crusade in the US doesn’t seem very interested in any of this or lessons it might learn from the experience of other countries. Instead it seems too busy proving itself holier-than-thou. And less sophisticated than Miss America contestants.

The Obama Model

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Mark Simpson on fashion’s new love-affair with black males (Arena Hommes Plus, Spring 2009)

Shortly after Obama’s election last year, Israeli-American designer Elie Tahari made a prediction: ‘I think the fashion industry will have a ball with him.’ So far, this is one fashion prediction that has been on the money. Since Obama’s glitzy inauguration this January, the men’s fashion world, too often associated with a ‘Whites Only’ catwalk, hasn’t stopped dancing with the first non-white in the White House.

At the menswear shows in Milan this January a waving, smiling young Barack Obama look-a-likey led the final walk-out for Lanvin, complete with Inaugural Address overcoat, leather gloves and USA tie-pin. Givenchy meanwhile included several male models of colour for their show, and their new poster campaign features a Obama-esqe young man in an open, white silky shirt with sleeves rolled up for business, full lips parted as if caught mid-speech.

givenchy-men-2-1Oscar Garnica, agent at Request Models in New York says that he and his contacts in the business have seen a more consistent use of black models recently. ‘Since the Black issue of Vogue, and the Obamas took the White House, that inspiration is running through a lot of the collections,’ he says. ‘Having more images of people of colour around has probably made designers more comfortable about adding colour to their aesthetic.’ But he is cautious about the long term impact: ‘Now that we are seeing four-five models of color on the runway, will the designers continue booking these numbers? Well, that remains to be seen.’

Whatever else Obama’s Presidency might signify, the fashion world seems to have decreed that, for this season at least, the black male is power, hope, leadership – in a word: style.

Ironically, part of the reason that Obama’s booking by the American electorate has helped non-white models get bookings with the fashion industry is because as Tahari has pointed out, ‘he looks like a male model… he’s built so well.’ Obama has the height, the looks, the teeth – the ‘suntanned’ skin as Italian Premier Berlusconi infamously put it – and the instinctive understanding of where the camera is and what angle best suits him. He is patently photogenic – and his photogeneticity has helped to make this young, inexperienced man Presidential. To some degree, he got the job because he gave good face. Even his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention last Summer was delivered at the end of a catwalk.

So no wonder the fashion world wants to appropriate some of that. Michelle might be First Lady, and Obama might have exclaimed to the world ‘How beautiful is my wife?’ on inauguration night, but pretty as she is, she probably made the cover of Vogue because of her husband’s looks.

As a result of his religiously regular gym sessions on the Stairmaster, Obama is not the same shape as most US male politicians – or in fact, most US males. He really is ‘un-American’ – he can wear fashionable clothes. Even though he usually chooses to wear those Teflon-coated Hart, Schaffner, Marx & Hillman suits from Chicago, his have a narrow cut that advertises the fact that he has a body, buns and even angles. Gone are the flapping flannels of traditional US male politicians. (Even his political message was self-consciously stylish: those famous campaign slogans ‘HOPE’ and ‘CHANGE!’ were printed in Gotham font – originally developed for the men’s style magazine GQ.)

Most remarkably of all, he gets away with it. In a white US male politician such self-care and stylishness would probably be ridiculed. John Edwards you may remember got into terrible trouble for combing his hair and being pretty.

The fickle fashion world will of course tire of its clinch with Obama. But perhaps something will endure: perhaps the men’s fashion business will be less inclined than in the past to think of blackness as something ‘street’ and thus ‘sportswear’.

As Oscar Garnica at Request Models puts it: ‘Despite images of suave black men like Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington, there has always been a narrow definition of what black is allowed to be. My best hope is that Obama’s rise to the highest office in the land will shine a spotlight on the fact that there is more to the black male image than just the stereotypes.’

Copyright Mark Simpson 2009

Morrissey’s Seven Inch Plastic Strap-On

 

There’s a naked man standing laughing in your dreams.
You know who it is, but you don’t like what it means.

A number of people have forwarded Morrissey’s pubes to me. (For which, many thanks.)

I thought I could get away with not discussing the Moz minge, but this Red Hot Chili Peppers pastiche, nostalgic vinyl taking the place of stuffed socks, which appears on the inside sleeve of Morrissey’s new single ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ has generated a lot of commentary, some amused, some not, and some, such as Paul Flynn in the Guardian, citing it as ‘the latest sign of artistic decline’.

But all of it suggesting Morrissey’s curlies cannot be ignored.

It’s funny how Morrissey manages to repeatedly surprise people with his consistent, insistent coquettishness. Only last year, legions were scandalized when that picture taken in the early 90s of His Mozness’ naked hairy arse with ‘YOUR ARSE AN’ ALL’ scrawled across it in Magic Marker  (with the apostrophe in ‘AN’ ALL’ aimed at Moz’s fundament) appeared in a booklet for his Greatest Hits collection: ‘So gross! This must mean he’s, like, totally gay!’

morrissey-cheeky

But Morrissey, odd, reclusive creature that he is, has never exactly been a shrinking violet. His work has always had a naughty, ‘cheeky’, exhibitionist side. As he sang back in the day on the Meat is Murder track ‘Nowhere Fast’: ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen – every sensible child will know what this means’. His first single featured a close-up of naked male gay porn star’s bubble-butt. His first album had a shot of the torso of a naked male hustler on it. (Like all the artwork during his Smiths period, it was all selected and directed and probably even pasted up by him.)

handinthe-smiths-cover

After The Smiths split, he became his own cover star and was to be found hugging his topless solo self on his 1997 ‘Best Of’ collection.

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And while he may have once scorned her shamelessness, Moz’s outrageous ‘November Spawned a Monster’ promo in 1990 out-Madonna-ed Madonna, featuring him writhing in the desert in a skimpy see-through mesh blouse that somehow keeps slipping off – perhaps because he appears to be being bummed by an odd-shaped boulder.

On-stage he pole-dances around his songs often ending on his back with his legs in the air, obligingly lifted towards the auditorium, while yodelling. Even today, it’s still an absolute and legal requirement of all tickets sales that Moz strips off his sweat-soaked shirt at least once every show and throw it into the crowd, who instantly rend it to tiny fragrant shreds, which they then appear to eat.

If Morrissey doesn’t get his tits out for the lads and lasses you’re entitled to a full refund, I believe. It’s always been a flagrantly, probably pathologically sexual thing between Moz and his fans. Though as he’s got older and thicker around the midriff the pole-dancing, does get a bit more, er, awkward.

Oh, and the naked Moz showing us his shaved armpit shot by Eamonn McCabe (which seems to be an update of the famous Narcissus statue by Cellini) used on the jacket of Saint Morrissey – partly to undermine the title  – originally appeared on the cover of the NME in 1988 and on a big, fold-out, blue-tac-to-your-sweaty-teen-boy-bedroom-wall poster inside.

Today’s naked Moz looks very different. Which is only natural since he’s now nearly 50 – though of course ageing naturally is the height of unnaturalness these days. But the boyish exhibitionism is largely unchanged. Yes, he has the body of a middle-aged male celebrity who scandalously refuses to hire a personal fitness trainer (even if one or two of the chaps in his employ look as if they’d rather be on a ten mile run).

But he’s also showing us that inside the body of a pub landlord from County Mayo is still a skinny lonely boy from Stretford, nakedly demanding our love. With a seven inch pop single where his manhood should be. That’s how people don’t grow up.

If you look closely – and clearly I have – this jokey pic isn’t really very funny. Like ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, it’s sadly, proudly defiant. It’s Morrissey’s family portrait. This is what his love-life looks like. It’s all here: Pop music. His band-mates. His fans (we’re looking at him again – he’s that naked man laughing and crying in our dreams).

And, centre of shot, perhaps his most enduring relationship of all: the one he has with his hair.

Both ends.

Boy George and George Michael – queer cellmates?

boygeorge2

Mark Simpson ponders the trouble the two Georges, Boy and Michael, have been getting in lately in this month’s Out:

What is it about middle-aged queer British pop stars from the ’80s? Why can’t they settle down, keep their noses clean, their peckers zippered, and their faces out of the papers? More precisely, what is it about middle-aged queer British pop stars from the ’80s named George?

George Alan O’Dowd, slightly better known as Boy George, former Culture Club front/frock man, starts 2009 being “banged up” — as we call prison sentences in the U.K. — for attacking and imprisoning a Norwegian male escort he’d invited to his home.

Read the article in full here.

Marry Me, Ms P – But Civilly

A little late -my brain turns to plum pudding during the festering season – I’d like to flag up a section on gay marriage from the stand-up intellectual Camille Paglia’s December column on Salon.com. Mostly of course because it mentions me in a flattering fashion. (If you find mutual love-fests a little queasy, you may want to look away now….)

Maybe because we’re both incurable Freudians dogmatically wedded to his concept of universal bisexual responsiveness, I consider Paglia a genuinely free thinker. Something all-too rare on the left these days. She is also a powerful, sometimes literally incandescent writer with a mischievous, kinky-booted provocative sense of humour. Sexual Personae indeed. Above all, or perhaps below all, she has big, brass, Italianate balls. I’m in awe of them.

And so, whether they know it or not, are Salon readers – that’s why they line up in their hundreds every month to rail against ‘that crazy bitch’ and, the ultimate insult, apparently, ‘narcissist’ on the letters page and demand she be sacked and paraded in chains through the streets of San Francisco otherwise they’ll tear up their Salon party membership card. Again.

In her column Camille makes the case for civil unions over gay marriage rather better than I do. In fact, my own view was very probably influenced by my eager reading of her barnstorming works back in the early 90s (they certainly helped inspire the dissident collection ‘Anti-Gay’). As she writes in Salon:

My position has always been (as in “No Law in the Arena” in my 1994 book, “Vamps & Tramps”) that government should get out of the marriage business. Marriage is a religious concept that should be defined and administered only by churches. The government, a secular entity, must institute and guarantee civil unions, open to both straight and gay couples and conferring full legal rights and benefits. Liberal heterosexuals who profess support for gay rights should be urged to publicly shun marriage and join gays in the civil union movement.

In their displeasure at the California vote, gay activists have fomented animosity among African-Americans who voted for Proposition 8 and who reject any equivalence between racism and homophobia. Do gays really want to split the Democratic coalition? I completely agree with a hard-hitting piece by the British gay activist Mark Simpson (which was forwarded to me by Glenn Belverio), “Let’s Be Civil: Marriage Isn’t the End of the Rainbow.” Simpson, who has been called “a skinhead Oscar Wilde,” is famous among other things for a riveting 2002 Salon article that put the term “metrosexual” into world circulation. I appreciate Simpson’s candor about how marriage is a very poor fit with the actual open lifestyle of so many gay men, which is far more radical. Marriage may be desirable for some gay men and women, but at what cost? Activists should have focused instead on removing all impediments to equality in civil unions — such as the unjust denial of Social Security benefits to the surviving partner in gay relationships.

(I’m not sure I’m much of a ‘gay activist’, but ‘rivetting’ sounds entirely accurate to me.)

While fully-equivalent civil unions are much more politically achievable in the US than gay marriage, they are being misrepresented as ‘second class’, ‘social apartheid’ or ‘riding at the back of the bus’ by gay marriage zealots who seem obsessed with appropriating, or perhaps expropriating, the experience of the black civil rights movement and presenting homosexuals as ‘the new blacks’. In the UK, where nationally recognised same-sex civil unions with the same legal status as marriage, called civil partnerships, were introduced a few years ago there is little or no appetite for gay marriage. Very few lesbians or gays feel they are ‘riding at the back of the bus’. Maybe because in many ways they’re actually sitting at the front.

Modern same-sex relationships are a new kind of institution. And so are many if not most of today’s cross-sex relationships. Marriage is an antiquated, failing institution based on inequality, traditional roles and religious sentiment. That’s why it’s seen most as being between ‘a man and a woman’. This isn’t bigotry – it’s tradition. Which is what marriage is. In the words of the Galilee carpenter and fisher of men: put new wine into new wineskins. And keep the fucking Pharisees out of it. Or else you’ll end up with a tacky mess.

What’s more, fully-recognised, fully-equal – and fully open to all – civil unions, would help to shore up our fragile secular society. And make no mistake, it is secularism on which most of the (very recent) freedoms enjoyed by lesbians and gays are based, as well as those of women in general, and also metrosexual man.

Which reminds me: I disagree with Paglia’s continued kicking of Hillary Clinton in the same column – perhaps there’s only room for one ‘ball-breaking’ 60s feminist in American public life – but she more than makes up for this with her plucky defence of spunky Sarah Palin against scolding, univocal liberal snobbery that continues to lash against her and the red-state, rural America that she represents. To do that anywhere in the liberal press would be quite something, but to do it on Salon, which during the election became a kind of spiteful schoolgirlish diary of hatred towards the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate is well-nigh heroic. (Did anyone, anywhere write anything about Joe Biden? Even when he frequently put his ‘expert’ foot in his ‘experienced’ bureaucratic mouth?).

On this occasion, Paglia took umbrage with NYT columnist Dick Cavett’s piece ‘The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla’:

Cavett’s piece on Sarah Palin was insufferably supercilious. With dripping disdain, he sniffed at her “frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences.” He called her “the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High,” “one who seems to have no first language.” I will pass over Cavett’s sniggering dismissal of “soccer moms” as lightweights who should stay far, far away from government.

I was so outraged when I read Cavett’s column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons. How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude?

I love the image of La Paglia taking to the air ‘like a Valkyrie’ and ‘dropping in’ on Cavett in his Montauk retreat. It would be a comically uneven match. Despite an illustrious CV, Cavett’s prose reads as if one of Palin’s bagged, wall-mounted mooseheads had started talking.

I suspect we will wait some time for Cavett’s column defending American English from President Uh-bama’s phony-folksy way of talking when interviewed. Because of course Harvard educated Obama is being condescending, which is just fine, while ‘white trash’ Palin is being who she is, which is completely unforgivable.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.