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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

Copyright © 1994 - 2018 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.