The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: Male Impersonators (page 1 of 2)

Funny-Peculiar Men: Laurel & Hardy

Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal Nick Haeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .

(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)

—————-

Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?

Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.

Stan: Well, you do don’t you? 

Ollie: We won’t go into that! 

Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?

Ollie: What?

Stan: You need a baby in your house.

Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?

Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.

Their First Mistake, 1932

SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimen­sion’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’

Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?

Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to con­firm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, includ­ing: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other inti­mate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens). 

Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’ 

But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about dis­cussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.

In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.

This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’

In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great Ameri­can Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,

‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’

Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbid­den desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discom­fort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?

In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.

The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.

Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.

Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them. 

This is the other mean­ing of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.

In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that ac­companied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.

Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’. 

At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.

In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to success­fully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, busi­nessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effective­ness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.

Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.

‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.

The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laugh­able arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bot­tom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.

And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruc­tion to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension. 

In the anally-fixated, scato­logical humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun. 

If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relation­ship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.

So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking inval­idity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s. 

True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.

One American soldier, however, is captured by the Ger­mans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyran­nical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guard­ians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.

The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.

In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bour­geois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offer­ing a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relation­ship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscrip­tion quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.

Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.

This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)

However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tra­dition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping. 

Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.

It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.

In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault sug­gested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:

‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.

Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexu­ality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.

In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed. 

Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.

Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp

Stripping Down the Male Body

Disability charity Scope have been airing a cheeky ad this summer designed to encourage people to donate clothes. It’s a funny tribute to the iconic Levis ‘Laundrette’ ad of 1985 and features a very studly 24-year-old model and personal fitness trainer Jack Eyers in the Nick Kamen role. And boy, does he fill it.

Instead of stripping off to wash his clothes, Eyers denudes himself to donate to the cause. As he gets down to his white boxers we suddenly get a close-up on his hi-tech prosthetic leg, which has remained hidden until now. In terms of the way the ad is shot and structured his prosthesis is basically his penis. It becomes another way of ‘stripping down’ and ‘revealing’ the male body. Of signalling both toughness and vulnerability, passivity and activity, loss and possession at the same time.

Jack Eyers kink

And Eyers isn’t shy about it. His prosthesis is, as he says in an interesting interview with the Telegraph‘s Theo Merz here, something he likes to show off rather than hide because it looks ‘pretty cool’. It also doesn’t necessarily harm his employment prospects in an industry waking up to both the eye-catching potential and, paradoxically, the ‘normalness’ of disability. (You might also want to check out Theo Merz’s expedition to Newcastle in search of the spornosexual here – in which he discovers the man some Telegraph readers would like to pretend doesn’t exist is terrifyingly, ab-tauteningly real.)

Alex Minksy

Even less shy is US Marine vet turned underwear model Alex Minsky, who has been garnering a lot of well-deserved attention for his saucy shoots – and most particularly for the way, with his body art, sculpted muscles, styled facial and head hair, he has totally aestheticised himself, prosthesis and all. He’s also a model who clearly isn’t afraid to become a form of performance art. Splendidly kinky performance art. (Some naked selfies were leaked earlier this year – which only served to, err, enhance his reputation.)

Alex Minsky pressup

Perhaps part of the appeal of the buff, sexualised chap with prosthetic limb(s) is not just the ‘inspirational story’, but also the fantasy of total control over the body – even after something as traumatising as amputation. And of course the hi-tech, fascinating prosthesis that seems to bring ‘bionic’ powers blends with the cyborg nature of spornosexuality itself – a bodily merging with technology, in which the body is ‘machine tooled’ into something more exciting by nutritional and medical science, Technogym decline presses and Nair for Men. (Though for most this merging is done by uploading smartphone selfies to Facebook.)

Alex-Minsky-9
alex-minsky-modello-senza-gamba-6

I analysed the ‘Laundrette’ ad in Male Impersonators as a ‘seminal’ moment in the objectification of the male body – its ‘looked-at-ness’. Kamen’s strip in the living rooms of the UK in the mid-1980s (along with several other ads in that campaign, which increasingly sought to substitute the product for the model’s unshowable penis) really did mark a moment at which we woke up to the male body as a fully-fledged object of desire. Everyone in the laundrette, male and female, is having a really good look. And it’s worth mentioning he’s doing his own washing – no ‘little woman’ in his life to do it for him.

Like Top Gun, which was released the following year, ‘Laundrette’ packages this new male narcissism as ‘traditional’ and ‘retro’, when the real 1950s it is notionally located in confined this kind of fare to underground gay mags like AMG – certainly not prime-time TV.

Thirty years on we’re all still having a really good look. So much so that we require much more visual stimulation. Our gaze is more demanding, more penetrating. Back then Kamen’s body was pantingly-described as ‘hunky’, but now his slim, svelte body looks not rather coy in comparison to today’s ripped, pumped, inked and sexed-up spornos, with or without gleaming, well-oiled prosthetic limbs.

Not to mention almost a different species.

Does Magic Mike Have Anything To Stick Himself With?

This animated gif will save you £8 and 109 minutes of disappointment.

Yes, I’ve done my invert duty and been to see Magic Mike. Which, according to The New York Times, gay men are ‘flocking’ to see in numbers not seen since Brokeback Mountain.

Even if they’re not all as jaded as me I think they’re going to be very disappointed. And not because in Magic Mike gay or bisexual men don’t exist, even as a famously generously tipping audience for male stripping – except as a punchline. In one ‘hilarious’ scene Alex Pettyfer’s uptight sister thinks for a hairy moment he might be gay because he’s shaving his legs. Phew! He’s not gay. He’s a male stripper!

No the betrayal is much, much worse than any of that. And judging by how quickly the mostly female audience in my cinema auditorium stopped giggling and having fun it’s not just The Gays who are going to feel betrayed.

Magic Mike just doesn’t deliver the goods. The junk stays in the trunks. It’s a 110 minute prick-tease without any pricks and very little tease. Most unforgivably of all, this male stripper movie – starring Channing Tatum – wants to be taken seriously. It thinks it has a plot.

And the plot is… another fucking Hollywood morality tale. Will Tatum manage to escape the sleazy, druggy, boys-together world of male stripping and Alex Pettyfer’s winsome grin and end up with his judgey, bossy sister, Cody Horn?

Who cares?

Especially since there’s not nearly enough sleaze on display. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored. Oh, yes, I remember now. Watching Brokeback Mountain.

Fatally, this stripper movie has no sense of timing. Not just in the literally pointless strip routines. Magic Mike suffers from perhaps the worst case of premature ejaculation in cinema history. Two minutes into the film you get the money shot – two seconds of Tatum’s smooth bubble-butt in all its firm, bouncy glory heading for his en-suite in digital Panavision. Which is very nice.

But that, as they say, is a wrap.

Except you’ve got another 108 minutes to go. Another 108 minutes in which as far as I can remember you never see Tatum’s ass properly again. In this movie about male stripping and the commodification of the male body. Given that you can see Tatum’s bouncy ass scene for free in a trailer for the movie it’s the con of Captain America all over again – but even more of rip off. The wrong kind of rip off.

It goes without saying that you never even glimpse his cock. Floppy or otherwise. Or even a dangly bollock. It is, after all, Hollywood, and while Tatum may have worked as a male stripper in the past and worked that past to get where he is, he is now a Proper Hollywood Star and Proper Hollywood Stars don’t show you their cocks. Because that would be low class. Especially in a move about male stripping.

And apart from a glimpse of a couple of silhouettes of clearly prosthetic penises you don’t see anyone else’s cock, either, floppy or otherwise. Magic Mike is essentially a movie about cockless male strippers. Male stripping with no stripping. Which could have been interesting in an avant-garde, sadistic sort of way. But of course, it’s really not that sort of movie.

Maybe I underestimate the director Steven Soderbergh. Maybe he decided to ruin his career by deliberately making a crowd-pleasing summer movie that didn’t please anyone.

A more likely explanation however is that Soderbergh was frantically trying not to scare straight male punters. And safely sublimated homoerotic sub-plots aside, he does work overtime in this movie to reassure that the male strippers are all a) straight and b) dudes. But if he was pandering to straight men he failed there too. Straight men search online for pictures of (big) dick as much as they do for pussy. They are going to be at least as disappointed as everyone else. Except maybe lesbians.

What’s going on here is yet another instance of the puritannical American Phalliban at work. Protecting the sanctity and power of the phallus by making sure the cock is never shown in public. After all, no matter how freakish, the cock never lives up to the promise of the phallus. Even if Magic Mike had the balls to show us… balls it would still have been something of an anti-climax. As I put it in Male Impersonators back in 1994 (which, let’s face it, is really the era when Magic Mike is set):

‘The myth of male strip­ping mes­merises pre­cisely because it con­tra­dicts itself with every dis­carded item… No mat­ter how freak­ish his gen­i­tal attrib­utes, no mat­ter how craftily engorged and arranged with rings and elas­tic bands, no mat­ter how fran­ti­cally it is waved and wag­gled, the stripper’s penis, once naked, never lives up to the promise of the phal­lus: the cli­mac­tic finale of the strip is… an anti-climax.’

Femininity is traditionally seen and represented in Hollywood movies as ‘masquerade’. The clothes, the hair, the breasts, the heels, the make-up all stand in for the ‘missing’ phallus. Masculinity meanwhile is meant to just be there. Because men have the phallus. Women appear. Men act. Or so the traditional reasoning went.

But Magic Mike, because it’s a cockless movie about male stripping, is, inadvertently, a good if boring example of masculinity as masquerade. With thongs and leather and cop uniforms and oiled tanned pecs and really bad, unsexy dance routines standing in for the phallus. A kind of male Showgirls, without the camp or the fun. Or the ‘show’. There’s a scene where Tatum is dancing dressed in a thong, a SWAT cap and black webbing ammunition pouches over his torso. It looks like a butch basque.

Perhaps because it can’t show us dick, and because it’s trying to reassure an imagined straight male punter, Magic Mike does though keep ramming down our throats that the men have cocks and women don’t – and is mostly unable to negotiate women’s active, assertive sexuality, something that of course the commodification of cocks so characteristic of today’s culture is based on.

By way of a pep talk Matthew McConaughey, who plays (with real relish) the owner of the male strip club, likes to ask his male dancers: “Who’s got the cock? You do. They don’t.”

Or as Tatum, dressed as a cop in the now famous opening scene of the main trailer says to a nervous sorority girl he’s about to frisk:

Mike: You don’t have anything sharp on you that I can stick myself with, do you?
Kim: No.
Mike: Good. ‘Cause I do!
[rips off pants, women scream]

But does he? After all, we only have his word for it. And anyway, those words are highly unreliable. Don’t his words actually tell a different story to the one the movie is telling us? Don’t they say either:

a) I have a penis large enough to fuck myself with – please allow me to demonstrate

or

b) Stand back ladies and watch me use my night stick on myself!

Sadly, he doesn’t do either, of course. That’s an entirely different and much more watchable movie. One that I suspect we might have been able to see if Channing Tatum hadn’t had the misfortune to become a Hollywood star, and instead of being condemned to theatrical releases on the big screen had graduated from stripping in South Florida clubs to live shows on our PC screens.

magic-mike-1

‘Male Impersonators’ Gets Digitally Dressed Up: now available on Kindle

Tom Cruise is reportedly working on a script for a sequel to Top Gun. In case he’s mislaid his well-thumbed original copy of Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity, the book that outed the flaming queerness of the original movie, he needn’t worry.

Tom can now download it in an instant as a Kindle eBook, in a ‘2011 Director’s Cut Edition’.

AMAZON.COM * AMAZON.CO.UK *AMAZON.DE * AMAZON.FR * AMAZON.ES * AMAZON.IT *AMAZON.CO.JP * AMAZON.COM.BR * AMAZON.CA * AMAZON.IN * AMAZON.COM.AU

In fact, Top Gun and Tom Cruise’s swishingly sexually ambiguous career only make up one of the chapters (and one of the weaker ones at that, it seems to me now). Published in 1994 Male Impersonators examined the way men were represented in popular culture as a whole – movies, ads, mags, music and comedy – filtered through, of course, my trademark ‘bent’. Showing how ‘unmanly’ passions such as homoerotics, male narcissism and masochism were not excluded but rather exploited, albeit semi-secretly, in voyeuristic virility.

Essentially, Male Impersonators is an X-ray of what late-Twentieth Century mediated culture was doing to masculinity. Elbow deep.

Unlike most ‘Director’s Cuts’ I have actually cut instead of adding stuff. Chiefly, I’ve axed the long introduction I didn’t want to write in the first place and that probably no one read anyway.

WARNING: Commissioned by an academic publisher, Male Impersonators, my first book, is often heavily referenced and freighted with theory. This was the last time I wrote that kind of book.

It was also the high summer of my love-affair with Freud. So there’s rather a lot of what Gore Vidal sniffingly dubbed ‘the Jewish dentist’ in this work. My heart still belongs to Siggy and his theory of universal bi-responsiveness, of course. But I’m no longer, as they say, ‘in love’.

Written in 1993, a lot of MI is naturally very dated now. It really was a different century. ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ had just been enacted in the US, while even properly closeted homosexuality was still a dismissal offense in the UK Armed Forces. The age of consent for two civilian males was 21 (lowered haltingly, reluctantly, to 18 in the same year as MI was published). Section 28, the 1980s law introduced by Margaret Thatcher that outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities was still in force, along with all the grim panoply of ‘gross-indecency’ and ‘importuning’ anti-homo legislation of the Nineteenth Century.

The HAART therapy cavalry was yet to arrive and Aids was still perceived as a (gay) death sentence in the West, and had ‘executed’ a number of friends of mine: including one of the dedicatees, Imanol Iriondo (who died just after MI was published).

So it’s only understandable that I should have been a little more preoccupied with ‘homophobia’ back then than I am these days. Particularly the hypocritical way it was often used to keep homoerotics pure. I was a lot gayer then.

That said, some of MI stands up surprisingly well, I think. Often, my feeling as I went through it was: WHY did I write that? Quickly colliding with HOW did I write that? MI was written in the space of three months, when I was still in my 20s. Ah, the energy of youth….

For all its datedness, there is something timeless about the book The ‘male objectification’ it analysed has become so dominant and everyday that even New York Magazine (and then Details) notices it.

And MI did after all give birth to that attention-seeking, damnably pretty creature that was to own the 21st Century: the metrosexual. Though I never use that word in MI. Instead I talk about male narcissism (and masochism). A lot. It wasn’t until I wrote an essay for UK newspaper The Independent in late 1994 to publicise MI that I used the ‘m’ word – which turned out to be its first appearance in print.

I deployed ‘metrosexual’ as journalistic shorthand for the freighted theory of MI. Reading MI you may decide that the shorthand said rather more than the longhand. If Male Impersonators was the theory of metrosexuality, Metrosexy, my recent collection of metro journalism, documents the way metrosexuality went on to conquer the culture over the next decade or so – and also the half-hearted, men-dacious backlash against it in the late Noughties.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself today. Watching the pretty boys hugging and crying on X-Factor and American Idol, or the straight muscle Marys flaunting their depilated pecs and abs on Jersey/Geordie Shore, or the orange rugby players spinning around topless in glittery tight pants on Strictly Come Dancing – or Tom Hardy doing much the same thing in Warrior – it’s as if I’ve died and gone to a hellish kind of heaven.

MALE IMPERSONATORS

Men Performing Masculinity

The book that changed the way the world looks at men.

Why is bodybuilding a form of transsexualism? What do football and anal sex have in common? Why is Top Gun such a flamingly ‘gay’ movie? Why is male vanity such a hot commodity? And why oh why do Marky Mark’s pants keep falling down?

In his influential first book Male Impersonators, first published in 1994, Mark Simpson argues for the vital centrality of homoeroticism and narcissism in any understanding of the fraught phenomenon of modern masculinity. A highly penetrating, ticklish but always serious examination of what happens to men when they become ‘objectified’.

From porn to shaving adverts, rock and roll to war movies, drag to lads’ nights out, Male Impersonators offers wit and reader-friendly theory in equal measure in a review of the greatest show on Earth – the performance of masculinity.

On male strippers…‘

‘The myth of male stripping mesmerises precisely because it contradicts itself with every discarded item… No matter how freakish his genital attributes, no matter how craftily engorged and arranged with rings and elastic bands, no matter how frantically it is waved and waggled, the stripper’s penis, once naked, never lives up to the promise of the phallus: the climactic finale of the strip is… an anti-climax.’

On Elvis…

‘The world does not need a ‘gay Elvis’, for the original, with his black leather suit, pomaded pompadour, come-fuck-me eyes and radiant narcissism, was quite queer enough.’

On porn stars…

‘Visually, Jeff Stryker resembles nothing so much as an illustration of the human nervous system in a medical textbook where the size of each region and appendage represented is related to the number of nerve endings. Thus Jeff on-screen is remembered as a huge face, a vast pair of hands (all the better to grab and slap ass with) and grotesquely outsized genitalia.’

Praise For Male Impersonators

‘Simpson pulls the pants off popular culture and wittily winks at the Freudian symbols lurking beneath.’ (FOUR STARS OUT OF FOUR) – The Modern Review

‘This set of high-spirited essays displays more insight into the masculine mystique than has the decade of earnest men’s studies that preceded it. Simpson has an unerring eye for the inner logic and pretences of a wide range of masculine enterprises and symbols. THIS IS QUEER THEORY WITHOUT THE JARGON AND IS A MUST FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN THINGS MALE. GENERAL AND ACADEMIC READERS AT ALL LEVELS ‘– Choices

‘What is happening when men and their sexualities become the focus of the camera’s gaze? Mark Simpson’s brilliant, witty, up-to-the-minute analysis shatters complacencies, old and new.’ – Alan Sinfield, University of Sussex

‘Mark Simpson detects and dissects the myths of machismo and its attendant media circus with refreshing gusto and wit.’  – John Ashbery

‘It’s not only women who don’t have the phallus – men don’t have it either – just the inadequate penis! This book cheered me up with the reminder that when it gets down to it, both sexes are just great pretenders.’ – Lorraine Gamman

‘Like me this book plays with men. Provocative, irreverent, acerbic and witty, it offers one gigantic intellectual orgasm after another.’  – Margi Clarke

‘A brilliantly-positioned array of firecrackers, elephant traps and banana skins designed to trick conventional maleness into showing it’s true hand, or some extremity…. SIMPSON CAPERS LIKE ROBIN GOODFELLOW, STRIPPING OFF THE FIG LEAVES WITH EXUBERANCE.’  – The Observer

‘CLEVER, ENGAGING, INCISIVE.’ – The Guardian

‘EMINENTLY READABLE.’ – My Prime

‘Mark Simpson’s Male Impersonators could do for male sexuality what Camilla Paglia did for women, finding latent homo subtexts to Marky Mark, Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise’s baseball bat.’ – Melody Maker

‘Male Impersonators quickly reveals itself to be different and, arguably more insightful than many previous ‘Masculinity books’. Male Impersonators makes a timely and exemplary addition to cult stud’s ‘Return to Freud’. It has an excellent readability factor compared to many others freighted with dull writing.’  – Perversions

‘A DEFT AND PERSUASIVE DISCUSSION ON THE SUBJECT.’

– Stage and Television Today

‘These smashingly provocative essays by the spunky Brit writer Mark Simpson detonate myths, stereotypes and icons, gay as well as straight. The psycho-social line separating homo and hetero maleness, he fulsomely shows, is much fuzzier than Robert Bly and Pat Buchanan find it to be.’

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