Man The Guns – There’s Nothing So Gay As The Past

Posted: October 7, 2011 in homosexuality, Masculinities, metrosexuality
Tags: , , ,

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’ images

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!

And as Simpson actually has said:

“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!

  1. Morgan says:

    I’m not sure I understand why you describe the image of Beckham as “homoerotic” as opposed to merely erotic. Care to elucidate?

    • This man explains it much better than I could:

      In short, ‘metrosexual’ images of men, who desire to be desired, are very obviously for the benefit of a) themselves (and men’s self-love is homoerotic) and b) everyone else including other men.

      Beckham is known to be very keen on his gay fans for example.

      • Morgan says:

        Ok, I read the Simpson. Not really convinced. I’m a bit wary of describing eroticized portrayals of men with no clear homosexual content as homoerotic, because it can carry some unfortunate implications.

        The idea seems to be that erotic images of women are targeted at straight men…and erotic images of men are targeted at gay men, because of course women can’t be the intended target of eroticism (because women require narrative and emotional context for arousal, as the evolutionary behaviorists are so fond of claiming). The idea that the passive seduction of a model is inherently feminine, regardless of the object’s gender, and that construction as an object is necessarily and exclusively an appeal to male sexuality is pretty heteronormative.

        Actually, if you look at the use of the term homoerotic, it’s used to refer to men the vast majority of the time, frequently in situations that contain no obvious homosexual imagery. A simple illustration of this is a Google image search for “homoerotic”. See how many women you find.

        I don’t see the idea that because these men are aware of their erotic power “self-love” is necessarily implied, nor am I sure that “self-love” is fundamentally homo-erotic…one certainly doesn’t come across discussion of the idea that all the sexualized images of women directed at women are homoerotic very often.

        Also, why is nothing every described as heteroerotic!?!? Ok, now I’m parodying myself.

        So, yeah. I’m sure none of what I mentioned above is your intent, and I don’t mean to drop a linguistic critique on you. Maybe some food for thought.

        As an aside, I want to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. It’s a breath of fresh air amidst a whole lot of crazy.

        • thanks Morgan. If you keep reading you will see what I am getting at more, re: Simpson’s notions of masculinity.

        • Jay Generally says:

          I can definitely see both sides of this fence. If a guy tarting himself up is homoerotic because he loves to love himself and he is, after all, the same sex as himself; then maybe that joke about masturbation being a form of incest was right! But it *is* also a sound argument that if I present myself in a way that would sexually appeal to myself, then I’m bringing the general sexual preferences of my gender into the mix. I think it’s a rare person who looks at Beckham or those shower towers and think “Well, this is going to just put the heterosexual ladies right to sleep,” but I think society has a very rickety bridge built between het-female desires and the het-female-desired. I could go on about that all day, but I’ll try to summarize my opinion as: these images are definitely erotic, these images are easily homoerotic, heteroticism would be a stretch.

          Beckham’s picture is the more innocuous one: “There I was walking along when I see this hot-dude on a pier and I thinks to myself, ‘I think I’ll mosey over and give His Batchness a little hello.’” Yeah, I guess anyone could think that.

          But the shower… See I don’t even think most people would begin to defend that one, but if those *were* women in that image, then the caption “Oh, no! Please don’t tell anyone about our ‘special time’ Mr Equipment Manager. However can we convince you to keep our secret?” would probably seem so mundane most peoples’ eyes would glaze over. If, for the original picture, I posit “Oh thank goodness you’re here, Mistress; it’s not as fun if you don’t watch,” then I think Jane and Joe Average would mostly just know I’m a freak. (Note: even in both of my samples the pictures are still homoerotic, but there are multiple homo-sexed people in the picture so… the best I could come up with was bi-erotic?)

          Male sexuality has been assigned so much aggressive power that it’s very, very frequently a pain in the ass to deal with. Media that present women as liking dudes help, but really I don’t think that was much of a question aside from crazy Romantic notions of innate female mental and physical chastity. Female sexuality has its own ‘vanilla’ form of power, but it tends to stem from both notions of scarcity and being too physically attractive to resist. So, for an image that standard of female sexuality is kill-kill: if the subject isn’t visibly interacting with the viewer to imply said viewer’s hotness then the viewer can’t be female, and since female sexuality’s other supposed value is its rareness we *still* can’t assume the viewer is female.

  2. redpesto says:

    QRG: 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’.

    People would have started to ‘look for gayness’ as soon as the idea of ‘the homosexual’ emerged as a type – how else could the Labouchere Amendment get passed in the c19th? Sure, the ‘signs’ might not have amounted to much more than ‘Oscar Wilde’, but it’s still earlier than the 1940s.

    PS: Radio 3 is doing a series on the history of homosexuality, presented by Richard Coles. You might still catch part 3 of 4 on iPlayer, with the next part this Sunday.

    • Agreed. Hence my following sentence:

      ‘Literature, film, cartoons, have had references to the ‘homosexual menace’ ever since the ‘homosexual’ became identified and pathologised in the 19th century’.

      Oscar Wilde is a good example.

      I used to like The Communards but Richard Coles is a priest now I am not sure what his piece would be like. I will listen though

  3. redpesto says:


  4. Jay Generally says:

    “Literature, film, cartoons, have had references to the ‘homosexual menace’ ever since the ‘homosexual’ became identified and pathologised in the 19th century”

    The homoeroticism vs. homoeroticizing of the past was one of my fave topics when I was in my teens and early twenties. You know who one of my favorite topics on past homoeroticism is? Bugs Bunny. The first response from my friends when I brought this up was “Oh, you think Bugs Bunny was gay?” forcing me to quickly wave down a conversation steeped with bisexual erasure and the ‘cross dresser = gay’ mentality. Here’s my actual pitch:

    I think Bugs Bunny was a ‘Loki’an trickster there to torment his antagonist with the possibility that they were gay or bisexual themselves, i.e., with homoeroticism. Look at Bugs’ antagonists: Elmer Fudd- milquetoast, weekend warrior, sports hunter out to reclaim his manhood by shooting defenseless animals (Fudd even repeatedly reiterated that he didn’t eat his kills; he was a ‘vegetawian.’); Yosemite Sam- hair-trigger, short of stature, desperado out to compensate for something (surely just that short thing) with guns and aggression; Wile E. Coyote- Snooty, erudite, eloquent super-genius (very different from his mute, desperate, consumerist role as the Road Runner’s villain); Daffy Duck- self-obsessed, self-glorifying, (dare I add it? lisping) narcissist who hated how much more attention Bugs gets than him on stage and screen. (Ah Daffy, being a ‘Loki’an trickster himself in his early roles and often being Bug’s room-mate, best friend, and travel companion he’s very easy to imagine as the zanier aspects of their lifestyle that Bugs himself is little embarrassed of. But dammit we love him anyway.) Bugs may or may not be gay or bi, but I think aspects of his escapades are a (usually deliberate) satire of how homoerotic men can be. He *could* be some kind of mean ‘LOL-Fag!’ joke, but I personally think he’s a call to, well, fag-up. That if you cheerfully lighten up and acknowledge these aspects of yourself, then maybe you wouldn’t be acting like such a jerk right now.

    So think about that the next you see Bug casually lean against something, slip a carrot into his mouth, and ask “What’s up, Doc?”

    • haha brilliant Jay! You have sold it to me.

      I think the Pink Panther has some elements of homo-eroticism/homo anxiety too…

      • Jay Generally says:

        The Pink Panther! 😀 I was the Pink Panther for Halloween when I was 5 and 6. I had the very good fortune to live in Europe (Spain, specifically) for four years of my childhood. Because of the setting I lived in, I interpreted the Pink Panther as what I would consider the proto-typical metro-sexual: the young, fauxhemian, bourgeoisie, European male (i.e., Eurotrash.) I was kind of surprised to see such an archetype spread its way into America in the form of the metrosexual, and to see everyone making such a stink about him. Metrosexuals couldn’t ask for a better mascot. 🙂 I thought Pink was cool then and I think he’s cool now. His free-spirited sexual taunting of Inspector Clouseau is exaclty what I was talking about with Bugs.

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