Someone on twitter this week was talking about how she tried to explain to her Dad the ‘homoerotic subtexts’ in the 1980s Hollywood film, The Lost Boys. But he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see it, and thought it was just a movie about vampires.
This led me to introduce her to the work of Mark MetroDad Simpson. I showed her his pieces on how ‘gay’ Top Gun is, but more to the point how ‘tarty’ and narcissistic. Of course Simpson saw the ‘homoerotic subtexts’ of Top Gun before that clever clogs Tarantino did, and before everyone else decided it is ‘well gay’.
But can the Dads of this world deal with the homoerotics of things they have relied on as being ‘manly’, ‘macho’, ‘safe’? Things like body building, hardcore violent war movies, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? That is the challenge Simpson’s work poses.
Even the young, gay, ‘masculinity expert’ Mark Mccormack finds the idea that Arnie might be homoerotic hard to er, swallow. He says:
‘Born in the 1980s, I grew up during a period where the most macho masculinities were esteemed. From Rambo to Rocky, Die Hard to Lethal Weapon, men were portrayed as all-action heroes whom neither bullets nor armies could vanquish. Professional wrestlers appeared almost understated in their gendered performances compared to the display of masculine bravado found in movies and revered in the wider culture.’
But Simpson shatters the myth of the all-male, all-macho, all-heterosexual action movie hero, in his chapter Big Tits! (Male Impersonators 1994). Can your Dad handle it? Here is an extract bulging with hot homoerotic muscle:
One of the ways boys get interested in other boys is by building up their own bodies. Young men are often much interested in advertisements for bar-bells or similar exercisers which promise big muscles and strong arms and legs. Boys who have inferior physiques are intrigued by the ads which describe how seven-stone weaklings are transformed into muscle men… In some respects this is all well and good. I’m in favour of boys being strong and muscular and healthy. But the trouble is that some get so interested in their own bodies while they are preoccupied with building themselves up that in time they can think of little else. Inevitably, too, they compare their bodies with those of other boys, and they both admire and envy those with better bodies than their own. This admiration can take the form of being sexually aroused by the others, and out of this comes the desire to have sex with the body of another person.
Wardell B Pomoroy, Boys and Sex (London, Pelican 1968) p.59
It is easy to see where (besides projection) Pomeroy’s concern came from. In his day bodybuilding was regarded as something indecent, something rather perverse. It was associated with sleazy Athletic Model Guild and ‘physical culturist’ magazines; a world of irresponsible young drop-outs and hustlers in Venice Beach, living off older ‘patrons’, who described themselves as enthusiastic admirers of the male form and collectors of Greco-Roman sculpture. For a man of Pomeroy’s generation, to draw attention to the male body in anything other than gladiator movies (the license of exoticism, the justification of historical edification) was considered improper, so it is easy to understand how and interest in the male body would be construed as deviant. Unlike ‘proper’ sports, bodybuilding does not displace the interest in the male body into activity; instead it focuses unashamedly on the corpus virile. Pomeroy’s concern that an interest in their own bodies would lead boys to homosexuality is revealing: it shows how in his time the male body was considered so attractive that it had to be denied, even by those who possessed one; boys had to look away from their bodies or else, before you knew it, they would have their hands down their best mate’s trousers.
But that was before Arnold Schwarzenegger. Through films like Pumping Iron, this five times Mr Universe and seven times Mr Olympia popularised bodybuilding and brought it into the mainstream by exorcising some of its unpleasant and unwholesome associations. With his Republican ‘Mr Clean’ image of upright, responsible heterosexuality, Schwarzenegger taught America that it had nothing to fear from bodybuilding, that it would not lead its boys along the path mapped out by Pomeroy. Instead it became apparent that bodybuilding could be an adaptation of masculinity to the radical changes that had occurred in sexual politics and attitudes to the male body in the 1960s and 1970s that left the essentials – heterosexuality and patriotic conservatism – more or less intact. The bodybuilder in the shape of Schwarzenegger, rather than ignore or blindly resist change, mobilised a new narcissistic but fiercely heterosexual masculinity in support of reactionary formations. In effect, the bodybuilder was the fleshy representation of the New Right regressive revolution: in tune with developments in popular culture but deploying them for a right-wing agenda.
Arnie’s murderous antics in films such as Conan the Barbarian (1985), The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987) and Commando (1985), along with those of Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo and Rocky series, portrayed the bodybuilder to young America as a fantastic warrior/patriot, a role that legitimised gazing at his body at the same time as disavowing any suggesting of passivity: the most active Hollywood stance being, of course, that of the killer. And since bodybuilders had the most passivity to disavow they were invariably the most prolific killers, taking the average body count in in the Hollywood war/action film into the realms of a tactical nuclear exchange. The more exaggerated the musculature, the more it had to explain and justify itself in mounds of dead bodies. The psychopathic individualism of the Hollywood bodybuilder-killer neatly fitted into the Reaganite discourse of personal responsibility and individual liberty and the retreat from public space into the most private space of all- the body (one area where the individual was sure to be in control). This was especially attractive to men who had felt challenged by the advances of feminism and the gay movement. The genre of bodybuilder-killer films represented an attempt to restate masculinity in terms of the most hysterically exaggerated ‘masculine’ signification, a signification that would have been regarded as ‘camp’ a decade earlier.
So in Commando, directed by Mark Lester, Schwarzenegger waddling around barely able to walk due to the over-development of his quadriceps (leg muscles),his rumpsteak body smeared with camouflage paint and carefully always on display either through cute cut-off combat jackets or helpfully denuded by high explosives, is presented to us as a ‘crack’ soldier. On top of his muscle drag he dons even more macho accessories; putting on a flak jacket laden with munitions and slinging an armoury of weaponry around his torso until he resembles nothing so much as a walking advertisement for the insecurity of 1980s man. Then we witness him despatching an entire South American army single-handedly with his – inevitably – enormous gun. As the bodies of the South American soldiers pile up, the American bodybuilder-killer proves his racial and sexual superiority over the wop weaklings. All this is done ostensibly to rescue his daughter from an enemy who wears leather pants, a moustache and a tight net vest. Thus the enjoyment of the spectacle fof Schwarzenegger’s sweating muscles is drawn into a heterosexual plotline, one that nicely emphasises the boundless power of the heterosexual male body next to the helplessness of the female, its virtue next to the homosexual, as well as illustrating the fantastic, phallic killing machine’s touching human capacity for ‘tenderness’.
The breathtaking gall, and the astonishing achievement, of films like Commando is that men’s bodybuilding – the obsessive interest of men in men’s bodies – and the appropriation of gay macho drag by heterosexual men became both a reassertion of the masculine body’s ‘natural’ superiority over the female and a disavowal of homosexuality.
The paradoxical heterosexual reassurance/homoerotic enjoyment that the muscular male body offered popular culture had been a mainstay of comic strips for boys since the 1940s. But Spiderman and Superman were closetedbodybuilders: they wore bodysuits that decently covered flesh and masks that disguised their identity; their lives were rigidly divided between body-less bourgeois respectability and muscular super-hero fantasy; they led a ‘double-life’ that no one knew about and were never seen to be at the gym. In the 1980s the bodysuits and the masks were discarded and the bodybuilder was presented naked and shameless, flaunting his private vice to the world.
Hollywood got in on the act with Masters Of The Universe (1987), directed by Edward Pressman, a film version of the He-Man cartoons. Dolph Lungdren in the title role, wearing a posing pouch and leather thongs, battles for control of the universe with the evil Skeletor. Right comely muscular manliness, He-Man, is thus contrasted with wrong repulsive unmuscular unmanliness, Skeletor/skeleton (whose body is never shown). As with Commando et al, the female character, in the form of She-Woman (not a bodybuilder) helps both to heterosexualise the muscle man in the leather thongs and to further exaggerate his manly attributes. And again the baddy is coded as a queer threat to He-Man’s heterosexual virility: ‘I’ll have He-Man kneeling at my feet!’ he vows and plots to steal He-Man’s gigantic sword; when He-Man falls into his clutches he has him flogged with an electric whip. He-Man, the upright hetero bodybuilder, refuses to kneel before this parody of a man (in fact he seems to almost enjoy the whipping) and breaks free for the fight finale, in which he and Skeletor battle over the outsized sword – the key, need it be added, to control the universe. He-Man wins the day and thrusts his sword into the air, shouting, ‘I have the power!’ as white lightning squirts out of its tip. This was kids’ entertainment in the 1980s.
In Britain in the 1990s the adult and childish interest in bodybuilding came together in a TV programme calledGladiators (based on American Gladiators). With names like Hawk, Wolf, Warrior and Saracen, the cartoon mythology of the bodybuilder-as-hero was translated into prime-time TV with real rather than fantasy flesh on display[ii]. And like the bodybuilder films of the 1980s Gladiators was a stage for the male bodybuilder. Unlike its American equivalent the British version’s first season did not employ female gladiators who were obviously muscular; instead feminine glamour was, once again, cast to flatter the phallic power of the male bodybuilder.
By the beginning of the 1980s the ‘out’ bodybuilder was so acceptable as a role model that the killer/warrior disavowal was no longer necessary. Thus Schwarzenegger played a guardian angel role in Terminator II, protecting a mother and her child, in contrast to his original 1984 bad guy role (significantly, the baddy in Terminator II is not a bodybuilder). In less than ten years the bodybuilder had gone from demonic alien threat to self-sacrificing angel. Now he launches ‘Arnold’s fitness for kids’ and merchandises a hero myth to explain his life-long love affair with his own body:
Young Arnold watched helplessly as his best friend in class was beaten up by a thug of 13… ‘At that moment I made up my mind that I, too, would make myself fit. I would work hard to develp a body like our school bully’s – but I would use it very differently.’
The Sun, (7 April 1993)
In keeping with this trend the bodybuilders of Gladiators are promoted to their young fans as upright citizens (the bizarre is used to shore up the mundane again) with an anti-drugs, pro-decency stance. Like the appointment of Schwarzenegger to health spokesman by the Bush administration, this demonstrates the key importance of bodybuilding, once regarded as something distinctly deviant, in socialising young people – young boys – into acceptable paths of development. As Tom Green writes about Venice Beach and gymnasia in his biography Arnold,‘Two decades ago, most of the people who today flock to box offices to buy tickets to a Arnold Schwarzenegger movie wouldn’t have thought those places very savoury.’ Two decades ago these same people would have been shocked if they caught their boy with a magazine with a picture of Arnold in it; now they think nothing of their son’s plastering posters of him on his bedroom walls, reading his Education Of A Bodybuilder religiously, and spending all his pocket money on gym membership and food supplements.
Simpson does Your Dad again here.
You can buy Male Impersonators on Kindle!