I am grateful to Sociological Images for linking to a lovely collection of old army and navy recruitment posters, full to bursting with phallic weapons and pretty sailor boys. I am less enamoured with their analysis of these ‘homoerotic’ images from the past:
‘While men have always had sex with men and women have always had sex with women, the idea that a person could be of a particular homosexual type (as opposed to someone who did homosexual acts) only emerged in the late 1800s (in Western culture anyway). Even then, it took a very long time for the idea that gay people might be among us to filter through popular culture. Only after an active gay liberation movement made homosexuality more visible did people actually start to look for it in people they knew’
I disagree with this conclusion because a) I am certain that even in the 1940s, or 1960s, when homosexuality was illegal, people ‘actually start(ed) to look for it in people they knew’. Literature, film, cartoons and other forms of popular culture, have had references to the ‘homosexual menace’ ever since the ‘homosexual’ became identified and pathologised in the 19th century. And I disagree with it because b) even now, in Gay Friendly 2011, we constantly and deliberately refuse to see the ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ or even ‘homoerotic’ charge of many images of men. I have not seen one article in Sociological Images examining the way men are presented in our culture, as desirable to themselves and each other. Take this photo of Beckham for example. It is as homoerotic as any of those Navy posters, if not more so. As Mark Simpson might say, Becks and his oiled up body are screaming: WANT ME!
“In a spornographic age it’s no longer enough for the male body to be presented to us by consumerism as merely attractive, or desiring to be desired, as it was in the early days of nakedly narcissistic male metrosexuality. This masculine coquettish-ness, pleasing as it is, no longer offers an intense enough image. Or provokes enough lust. It’s just not very shocking or arousing any more. In fact, it’s just too… normal. To get our attention these days the sporting male body has to promise us nothing less than an immaculately groomed, waxed and pumped gang-bang in the showers.”
Talking of Showers, Sociological Images turns its ‘right on’ attention to this ad from the 1940s for lifebuoy soap and decides the homosexual subtext would not have been identified by its readers back then:
‘From a contemporary U.S. perspective, where most of us have heard homophobic jokes about not dropping the soap in the shower, two men showering together (even or especially in a military context) and using language like “hard” and ”get yourself in a lather” is undeniably a humorous reference to gay men.’I think, however, that this was not at all the intention in 1942, where the possibility of men’s sexual attraction to other men wasn’t so prominent of a cultural trope. It simply wasn’t on people’s minds as it is today.’
Apart from the fact that ‘drop the soap’ jokes are hardly ‘homophobic’ but rather an expression of people’s awareness of the homoerotics of men when they get naked together, I think Soc Images is underestimating both people’s awareness of homosexuality in the past, and their continued repression in the present. Does this image scream ‘Homo gang bang’ to you? It does to me but I don’t see anyone commenting on the blatant homoerotics of sporno except for, yes, Mark Simpson.
And I have to agree with Simpson’s conclusions too, about why we avoid the homo-subtexts in contemporary culture, but insist in identifying them in cultural products from the past, such as in this case the film Top Gun:
‘I suspect it’s more a case of the past being a foreign country — so ‘gayness’ can be safely projected onto something in the past, even if it was once what hundreds of millions of straight young men saw as the very epitome of aspirational heterosexuality.’
I think this is an example of how the term and identity ‘gay’ is a way of sidelining homosexual interest between men into a specific separate identity, and avoiding the homosexuality apparent in masculinity as a whole. But nothing gets past me, Sociological Images. I’m on masculinity’s case!