If the annals of ‘90s fashion-house lookbooks could be boiled down to a single image, it might resemble something like this photo of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The photo, which resurfaced in 2014 on the Rock’s Instagram feed, tapped an entire generation’s wellspring of nostalgia for fanny packs, fitted turtlenecks, and a conception of masculinity that could accommodate a sturdy pair of mom jeans.
When he reintroduced the photo into the public consciousness, the Rock said that it made him look like a “buff lesbian.” The image has since spawned an action figure, a “Thug Life” tank top, and an illustration sold as an art print, iPhone case, and stationary. Over the past two years, whenever a new related meme or copycat photo has crossed the Rock’s radar, he’s said it again: “buff lesbian.” He’s repeated the joke so many times, it seems as if he’s sticking to some talking points drawn up by a PR professional hired specifically to mitigate the effects of this particular photo on his reputation as a smooth (but not, like, gay smooth) operator.
So of course, when the Rock showed an audience the photo on Sunday night in honor of the MTV Movie Awards’ 25th anniversary, he trotted out the phrase again: “Those were the days of me being a buff lesbian.” And again, when Seth Rogen tried his hand at the look:
What makes the Rock resemble his notion of a buff lesbian in this photo? Is it his neatly plucked eyebrows? His severe-yet-soft puff of curls? His stonewashed jeans hiked up to to the waist? It’s all of those things taken together that, the Rock implies, makes him look like a too-feminine man or a too-masculine woman. On social media, the Rock has sexualized women who imitate the photo, calling them “hot” and “smokin’,” conspicuously foregrounding his manly desires. The Rock says men who duplicate the his outfit are “confident,” “bad ass,” or “looking cool,” while the Rock himself looks like a mere buff lesbian. He’s using a classic middle-school bullying tactic: defending an imagined slight against his own masculinity by insulting a more marginalized group of people (lesbians) and delegitimizing the masculinity of others (butch lesbians).
Of course, the Rock’s not the first celebrity to make lesbians the butt of a fashion joke. Earlier this year, Jennifer Lawrence described her ideal personal style as “slutty power lesbian,” evoking stereotypical images of brusque, career-obsessed women in business suits. But unlike Lawrence, who at least claimed to aspire to the glory of the power lesbian, the Rock hefts the term buff lesbian as a slur for an unfashionable androgyne in ill-fitting clothes, a loser no one would want to emulate.
Lucky for him, the buff lesbian world is an elite club that anyone would be lucky to join, and with whose members anyone would be lucky to cuddle. The guest list runneth over with such pumped-up stunners as CrossFit star Kristan Clever, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, Ashlyn Harris of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, and a healthy proportion of the buffest, best-looking members of any roller derby or rugby roster.
But these women aren’t stuck in the realm of ‘90s fashion, as the Rock suggests. Maybe he’s only speaking to the lesbian looks of yore, which, like contemporaneous trends in straight-people clothing, revolved around high-belted jeans, fanny packs, and dark turtleneck tops. The Rock’s idea of lesbian clothing might have also been shaped by Susan Sontag, who showed an affinity for black turtlenecks through multiple decades of her life, and this wonderfully dated stock photo of two women—lesbians, presumably—clutching one another’s turtleneck-clad lower backs and mom-jean-covered behinds.
Then again, this entire argument might crumble under the disclosure that I, a relatively-in-shape-but-by-no-means-buff queer woman, am the proud owner of a black leather fanny pack nearly identical to the one in the Rock’s photo. My attraction to fanny packs is vaguely sartorial but primarily utilitarian: I don’t like carrying around a purse, and I sometimes wear things that don’t have pockets. When I am wearing pockets, I don’t like the look or feel of a bulging cell phone or chapstick.
Is that a lesbianic argument for wearing a fanny pack? Maybe. What if I told you I’d bought the thing from an Army Navy surplus store? Relatedly: If wearing a fanny pack and comfortable jeans makes someone a lesbian, who’d ever want to be straight? The Rock should leave that question to queer theory scholars and focus his energy on more pressing fashion dilemmas, like why he can’t keep his damned shirt cuffs buttoned.