Eros and Heroes

Subverting the male gays.

One of yesterday’s headlines asked Slate readers, “If You Like 300, Are You Gay?” Judging from the first page of Matt Feeney’s article, one could fairly wonder why 300 was used to spotlight a piece focused on surf movies. But, the “meat” of the argument—as it were—is indeed dangling on the final page: “Shouldn’t [straight men] be able to [project onto [heroic figures they themselves would like to be]] not just excellence but physical beauty] without being called gay?” According to Feeney, envy of heroic narcissism—the admiring of one’s own reflection in another’s excellence—is unfairly characterized as “homoeroticism.” Judging from responses in the Fray, this assertion is more provocative than it is persuasive.

In describing the mutual attraction between classic hero characters, Feeney writes: “it isn’t homosexual desire. It’s narcissism.” This is a strange dichotomy, given that Narcissus famously drowned himself trying to make-out with his own reflection. As BenK astutely points out, self-love is the apotheosis of the homoerotic: “Homo means ‘same.’ The recognition of self and the love of it would be, in fact, homo-love.”

Recognition of this point hardly ends the discussion, however. To morphicresident, gay vibes in a buddy flick are as unremarkable as acne on a teenager: “When you take an idea [like male bonding] and blow it up on a gigantic screen, you’re always going to end up somewhat over the top.” It may just be an expression of my own gay genes, but I’m sympathetic to badapple’s argument that critics can fail in style even when they’re right in substance. In the view of Systemz, “it seems entirely possible for a work of art to be both homoerotic and, like, totally awesome:

The reaction of Achilles to Patroclus’ death, that otherworldly combination of grief and rage that transforms him into the demigod among men is so profound precisely because the loss is so acute. Who cares if he was gay or not? The important part is his reaction. The ruthless killing machine that Achilles becomes upon hearing of Patroclus’ death has been mirrored in so many action movies. I remember reading the section when Achilles gets his new armor from Hephaestus and thinking This is the “Oh, its ON” Montage. The point of the moment is about the purity of Achilles’ fury, and what it turns him into. That’s the part of it that is awesome.

Establishing categories of critical thought is important, but ultimately an exercise in line drawing. The critics Feeney takes to task argue whether a given film seems gay. In rejecting the contention that male theatergoers constitute “20 million closet cases,” Feeney expresses more concern that its audience not seem gay. For myself—a gay man—his closing question hits me in reverse. Shouldn’t a guy be able to admire a heroic ideal of masculinity and still be called gay?

If attending a summer blockbuster leads to such crises of identity, maybe we’d all be better off waiting for the DVD. The whole mess elicits some  feminine sympathy from eiruduais:

What a predicament for men (gay or heterosexual) to be in–friendship and the male body is either sexualized or a vehicle for egoism. That’s a rather narrow worldview to project on manhood. Not being male myself, I certainly hope that men don’t take this out of the theaters and view friendships and their bodies as solely vehicles for self-interest and sexuality–that would strike me as incredibly myopic and sad.

In critical circles, a powerful barrier to masculine introspection is known as the “male gaze.” Diablevert accomplishes a rare feat, summarizing this concept without burying it under layers of academic jargon:

Traditionally speaking, straight guys gaze at hotness, they don’t worry about looking hot. Both grooming their own bodies for the purpose of another’s aesthetic pleasure/sexual desire and appreciating the physical beauty of another man are coded as gay. To be a proper straight guy you’re not supposed to notice other guys’ hotness nor to effectively be able to beautify yourself. Because the straight guy is always the looker and never the [looked at].

This explanation can seem like a classic case of overanalyzing. Straight men, however, feel a real pressure to “look straight.” Convention doesn’t quit, even when the ladies, the queers and the film critics aren’t around to judge.

The bigotry known as “homophobia” is a crude weapon, raining fire upon the field of masculinity like a howitzer, rather than honing in on specific targets with the precision of a cruise missile. Straight sissies still get stomped, without ever sucking a man’s dick. The butchest of frat-boys joins the most flamboyant of queens in keeping up his appearances. Maintaining sexual identity is a round-the-clock chore.

As MarkEHaag points out in his truly excellent post, queers are seldom better than straights at lessening this pressure. Those of us gays who could scale the ramparts of masculine conformity, will win a Pyrrhic victory if we pull up the ladder behind. It seems such an obvious point, yet MarkEHaag’s words call for endorsement:

Gay men (and straight men, for that matter) won’t be truly liberated from slavish puerility until they get over the fear of what other men think of their manhood. Feeney and the rest of us need to quit cowering in terror at the stupid label, the mere phoneme “gay.”

Whether gay or straight, our society could use a lot more men of heroic stature. I’d agree with Feeney that admiration of role models is a necessary step for making such men of ourselves.  If you must make a choice between appearing masculine and engaging in some unabashed hero-worship, I say flip your onlookers the bird and follow your heart.  GA3:30am PDT

Monday, June 24, 2007

Ordinary sexual activity belongs to the most private and intimate domain of our lives. In American law, it now enjoys a privilege against intrusion only slightly below freedom of conscience and thought. Rape shatters the wall of privacy around sexuality. This crime doesn’t merely penetrate the body of its victims. It has a political dimension, which has existed longer than recorded history. According to Roman tradition, the rape of Lucretia led directly to the foundation of the Republic. In the Bible, the rape of Dinah provoked the slaughter of an entire town. Stories beginning with one man’s lust and one woman’s reluctance can lead to the foundation or destruction of entire cities.

Our age is no different. Rape remains a vexed political question, as shown by discussion of Dahlia Lithwick’s article Gag Order. The controversy in question arises from a ruling by a state judge barring the witness in a criminal trial from using the words “rape” or “sexual assault” to describe her sense of victimization. Lithwick believes this decision goes too far, denuding our language of needed terminology:

Trials exist to ferret out facts, and papering over those ugly facts with pretty—or even ‘neutral’—words doesn’t just do violence to abstractions like language and meaning. When it’s done in a courtroom, the real victim—if I may still use that word—may well be the truth.

Left to my own devices, I would probably quibble that truth is an abstraction in its own right. The sophisticated discussion in the Fray, however, develops and challenges Lithwick’s arguments in many thought-provoking ways.

The case against the ruling is quite strong. As TonyAdragna points out, compelling rape victims to turn verbal pirouettes could impose new traumas upon them. To IMKessel, these restrictions inflict as much psychic violence as ripping out their tongues. Tina Trent reinforces this perspective with her personal account of a post-rape police interview:

This very subject emerged in the first police interview: I was trying (through a badly bruised throat, hours after escaping) to provide the details of the [rape]. At one point, I said something like: “then he made me give him a blow job.” The detective turned off the tape recorder. He told me that I couldn’t use words like “blow job” because the defense attorney would use my language to make me look like a slut. We then haggled a little over the term “suck it,” which, as a direct quote, I felt should be included in the original. After all, wouldn’t the [rapist’s] own language make him look like a slut, too? The police felt that the mere act of accurately reporting the [rapist’s] own words would reflect badly on me. So the tape recorder went back on, and I said something idiotic and grotesquely untrue, like: “then he asked me to perform fellatio on him.” And then, for the first time, I felt dirty. Non-clean, as you would say.

Isonomist worries that not all victims will possess the verbal skills to explain their experience without resorting to simple and direct language. Degsme wonders whether victims with low IQs would be barred from describing the act as “doing nasty things to me down there” on the grounds that “nasty” is potentially inflammatory.

On the other hand, there are many strong counter-arguments supporting the wisdom of this judge’s decision. PubliusToo thinks the ruling’s detractors are exaggerating the need for the word ‘rape’ to accurately and clearly describe the criminal act. Many observe, with KellyS, that the word ‘rape’ offers a legal conclusion rather than a simple description. Eigenvector detects more than a whiff of disingenuousness in the prosecution’s claim that the term isn’t unfairly loaded against the defendant. Sbrak isn’t prepared to lightly dismiss the inherent prejudice carried by the term:

As a society I feel we have more sympathy for murderers than rapists. Hell, Tony Soprano is a hero. As sickened as we might be by someone who can be deemed a “murderer,” we’re often willing to hear him out on the circumstances of the situation. But call someone a rapist, and they don’t stand a chance at being heard out. Maybe it’s our own disgust of this word that causes us not to consider the variables: it’s either rape or it’s not rape. Once the word is said, so many of us turn away. Whatever the reason, this man is on trial, and if his verdict could depend on the use of the word “rape,” than I would say there’s a problem with the evidence.

As often happens on the Fray, much of the debate seems to scrape against half-submerged assumptions. For example, morganb—a supporter of the decision—posits a scenario in which the defendant awakens from a drunken black-out to find a stranger lying next to him, and innocently “tries to wake her with sex.” By contrast, Melvyl—a detractor of the decision—reasonably asks, “what kind of pervert would screw a comatose woman anyway?”

One interesting divide between the camps raises the question of the jury’s proper role in our trial system. Many of the ruling’s supporters are self-identified lawyers (here, here, and here) while many of the nonlawyers evince a strong faith in the competence of juries to reach a fair conclusion (here, here, and here). As a law student myself, I can testify to a widespread suspicion of juries among legal professionals. Apparently, the feeling is mutual. LuxLawyer points out “double jeopardy means that appeal is a one way street—prosecutors generally cannot appeal acquittals, but defendants can of course appeal convictions.” If you’re inclined to think this set-up invites injustice, securing righteous verdicts will often depend upon micromanagement of the jury’s input. If, however, you support the inviolable right of juries to judge the entirety of the case—both the facts under contention and the legitimacy of the law itself—then you must prepare yourself to accept a large number of manifestly unjust verdicts.

Legal scholars call this sacrosanct power of acquittal “jury nullification.” While the legal profession frankly acknowledges the legitimacy of nullification, strict rules prevent attorneys or judges from informing juries that they wield such awesome power. This power can sound like a high-minded populist check against tyrannical laws when it’s brought to bear against legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act. Its virtue is harder to defend when deployed against legislation like the Anti-Lynching Bill. Many Americans are still seething over the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. The routine acquittal of police officers in the face of manifest guilt seems to draw much less popular outrage.

Debates such as this are merely wordplay if we lack answers to a more fundamental question: Can we expect more justice from American law than we can reasonably expect from the American people?

For me, the jury’s still out on that question. If you’ve already reached a verdict, please deliver your convictions to the Jurisprudence FrayGA3:30am PDT

Saturday, June 23, 2007

With the official arrival of summer, the staff here at Fraywatch is finding it hard to keep our focus trained on the heavy topics of recent headlines. In our last several items, we’ve offered hard-hitting coverage of such hot-button issues as Paris Hilton, marijuana, and Angelina Jolie. All this high-minded punditry creates a very real risk of burn-out in lesser lights such as ourselves.

So, while we cool our temples in Pacific coastal waters, we’ll be phoning it in this first weekend of summer. According to the yellow pages, there are only two critical steps to phoning in a column: (1) rip off an idea from one of the Fraysters; and (2) talk about animals. Today’s victim of idea theft is topazz, long-time author of a delightful semiregular game entitled “Overheard on the Fray“—a cute little smorgasbord of out-of-context quotes culled from hither and thither. Today’s theme is, of course, animals:

Monkey see, monkey do: “I once worked with a signing chimp who had a fetish for hats. He would demand that you put one on as soon as you entered his environment and start masturbating while looking at you.”—Ciarda tells a workplace story in the Human Nature Fray.

Nothing compares:“Because apples are red or green with a thin skin and a dense core where the seeds are concentrated and oranges are, well, orange with a thick rind and seeds spread throughout the pulp?”—vnk dares to compare in the Fighting Words Fray.

Ink from the pigpen: “What is hogwash anyway? Do modern factory farms ever bother to wash their hogs?”—bubba_barry wonders aloud in the Press Box Fray.

Dancing the beeline: “I have never kept bees, only been backstage as a musician, and my only sense of dance is that it is a controllable form of vertigo.”—Bratsche confesses to the Poems Fray.

Be very afraid: “Any idiot knows a tiger shark can live in the clouds for weeks if needed for a cold front to make it across from the west coast to Kansas.”—meridiantoo spreads the alarm in the Explainer Fray.

Eye of the beholder: “Living creatures should never be used as ‘art.’ That includes those creepy photos of babies dressed as hedgehogs and bumblebees that my weirdo coworker has all over her office.”—SWR delivers a manifesto to the Medical Examiner Fray.

A rosé by any other name: “My taste buds have elevated the standard wine tasting mantras to an even more intrinsic awareness of the flavor, aroma and body of a good wine: ‘Tastes like chicken.’ “—Sonnaille provides some tasteless criticism in the Drink Fray.

Step one: “Shave your dog and give it a jail-house tattoo in the shape of a Taco Bell logo.”—Instructions from Zeitguy to the Sandbox Fray.

No contest: “The 4th installment in the The Fantasticks franchise, ‘the franchise that never was where they are now,’ pits strength against fiction, love against pain, and lesbians against giant pits of diseased alligators.”—switters the agonist, in the Best of the Fray.

All’s well that ends well: “Eventually , the stable had more cats than horses; but, no one went inappropriately ‘potty’ anymore.”—bubbuh from the barn, in the Explainer Fray.

Truth be told, you should really spend some time this weekend at a barbecue. If that won’t be feasible, pull up a lawn chair and enjoy our virtual alternative. We’ll be serving flame-roasted text all weekend, right here in the Fray (bring your own skewers). GA3:30pm PDT

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tabloid news masquerading as serious journalism—this seems to be the offense committed by Esquire in its recent profile on Angelina Jolie. Ron Rosenbaum’s attack on the all-too-cozy relationship between celebrities and the media finds more than one sympathetic ear in the crowd here and there, but the basic thrust of his argument strikes many as hardly revelatory. From faux expressions of moral outrage against our celebrity worshipping madness to playful speculation that the Esquire piece is nothing more than an entry in the “Marrying Celebrity to Seriousness” Contest, reader sarcasm runs thick as molasses in The Spectator Fray. The Chemist, for his part, finds the object of criticism hard to identify in a “web article about celeb article about an actress in movie about a reporter who was decapitated by planner of 9/11 terrorist attacks while reporter was in country invaded because of 9/11 attacks…”

With her do-gooder résumé and pretension to moral gravitas, Jolie is perhaps not the best case study in celebrity journalism gone amuck, though Eigenvector is unimpressed with her humanitarian credentials. ProudInfidel and Svenkemom ratchet up the polemic a few notches in suggesting that Jolie’s elevation to saint-like status by a compliant media reflects our misplaced priorities as a nation.  

Meanwhile, K.N.A. weighs in with a passionate defense of the author in question, “one of the best, most original, innovative glossy mag writers” out there. topazz inveighs against egomaniacal interviewers who interject themselves into the interview. SlateReader smells a whiff of hypocrisy emanating from a magazine that criticizes celebrity journalism while using the alluring Jolie pic as cover art for its own spread. And as Lid points out, is it not counterproductive for a critic to spill four pages of ink complaining about all the attention Jolie gets?

nomdevdt waxes nostalgic for an era when the press took more of a critical distance between itself and its subjects, in contrast to “the current field of sub-prime writing inundating the magazines and … zero-thought value of common celeb profile writing” as lbclbclbc harshly describes the sorry state of the contemporary media. Present company excluded, of course. AC4:30pm PDT

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Anti-marijuana ads by stoners and for stoners? Bud-blazer Seth Stevenson gives the latest weed-whacking ads an “A” for effectiveness, declaring the newest campaign The Best Anti-Pot Ad Ever. He lauds these ads for steering away from the alarmism of previous spots, and sticking to the more modestly realistic claims that pot can cause aliens to steal your girlfriend or maybe disappoint your dog. Color me dubious that the same primal fears which sell toothpaste and deodorant—getting dumped and making a poor impression—will have any special cachet with the stoner set.

The merits of this argument, however, get lost in the haze of smoke rising from Slate’s basement apartment, The Fray. Legions of readers seem to be lit up over the mere concept of opposing marijuana use. Rather than discouraging stoners, the ads have only incensed them. Buried among the tirades for legalization, there are some rather astonishing testimonials—one poster claims to have risen from his wheelchair and surfed the swells of hurricanes under the curative powers of the magic herb. I’m not saying he didn’t … but his story lends credibility to mnloft’s harrowing tale of a teenage son literally gone psycho under the influence of weed. Doesn’t every stoner know one kid who couldn’t quite hack it?

Amid all the swirling color, some actual discussion of the article and the ads has taken place. First-time Frayster eek223 provides a fairly representative reaction to the ads from a teenage perspective—apparently, low-budget isn’t “hip” with the upcoming generation. bluebird makes a solid point that all such commercials inspire the inevitable adolescent question: “Who’s ‘The Man’ behind the curtain?” (If this point interests you, check out this post from Melvyl.) Based on her personal experience, queentutt figures mass-media might as well be broadcasting from the dark side of the moon, given how poorly it connects with contemporary kids. In a reasonably fair critique of Stevenson’s article, figgyforcurt worries about short-term memory loss among anti-drug advertisers:

This article would’ve been better written if it explored the dilemma of sending mixed messages to kids by drastically changing “brand messaging.” Think about it. One year ago, an anti-marijuana ad tells kids they’re going to get high and kill a toddler, and the next year, an ad tells them they’ll be uninteresting. If I were a teen and I’d seen both sets of ads, I’d dismiss both, because I’d see through the fact that a thinking man on the other end of the ad is trying to tell me why something is bad but can’t figure out why exactly it is bad. This is the “fundamental mistake” this writer made in writing this article, dismissing the fact that those old ads do exist, and have impacted teens. Failing to consider that no matter how effective these ads appear, they must be considered as inconsistent in the larger framework of the anti-marijuana ad context. 

Personally, I’d hope the best way to scare cynical teens straight would involve showing them the perils of earnest drug culture—NORML parties. In the meantime, responsible adults would be welcome in the Ad Report Card Fray. If you don’t show up, someone’s kids will be getting the unchallenged word on drugs from folks like this.—G.A.3:45am PDT