Category Archives: Gender

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Second Motherhood” (S1, Ep.19)

In today’s installment, we’re going to be talking about yet another suitor of Blanche’s who wants her to marry him, a certain wealthy widower named Richard.

Since Blanche is, unequivocally, the youngest of the four, it makes sense that she would be the one who could most easily slip back into the role of mother should the necessity arise (this is a theme that will emerge several times in the series run). However, she also comes to recognize that she can’t fix all of the problems that have already started to afflict his family, including his divided loyalties between his sprawling business empire and his children.

As always, however, the narrative forecloses on the possibility that Blanche is going to actually marry this man. For all that they actually seem to get along well, and for all that he would provide a measure of financial and domestic stability that she lacks, the series again reminds us that it is the relationship among the women that takes center stage. While Blanche does not say so specifically, it’s clear that she is not willing or able to take on the responsibility of fixing the many domestic problems that Richard has already begun to encounter.

The other narrative thread of the episode follows Dorothy and Rose as they attempt to install a toilet on their own. Of course, this whole sequence is delightfully ridiculous, as the plumber turns out to be quite  misogynist jerk who labours under the impression that women, especially older women, are incapable of doing male domestic labour. Of course, the two of them do, in fact, manage to successfully install it, giving the lie to the idea that two elderly women can’t take control of their own homes.

While this may seem a bit of a banal point, I do think it says something that Dorothy and Rose are able to reclaim this symbolic victory from the men who would dismiss them out of hand simply because of their gender and their age. Given that we now live in a country in which a notorious misogynist like Donald Trump has now been given the reins of power, this message of empowerment and reclamation seems to have taken on an extra layer of significance. This particular story gives us hope that even in the darkest of times there are still moments of representation–the symbolic, if you will–that show us what an alternative world might look like.

To me, the unruly women of The Golden Girls, with their refusal to cave in to the demands of patriarchal culture, are an important corrective to the world we are facing. We can look at them and draw hope from the fact that they managed to express such radical politics even during the backlash era, and we can continue to fight back against the powers arrayed against us.

Next up, we come to one of the most politically pointed episodes of the entire first season when Blanche is confronted with sexual harassment at her adult education course.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Nice and Easy” (S1, Ep. 17)

It’s become something of a recurring theme in these posts that I discuss the importance of family to so many of the storylines in The Golden Girls, and today’s post is no different. In today’s episode, we get to meet Blanche’s (rather obnoxious) niece Lucy, who quickly shows that she has taken her aunt’s example to hear and has begun her own rather unruly exploration of her burgeoning sexuality. She soon reveals, however, that her attempts to mimic her aunt come from a profound sense of insecurity.

There are some really funny bits in this episode, including the revelation that Rose is a huge fan of Miami Vice. I’ve always been partial to those moments in the series when we get references to other shows running at the same time (there are at least two references from Sophia referring to Designing Women). To me, these references reveal the extent to which The Golden Girls was a very self-conscious show, perfectly aware of its own place in the television landscape of its own time. Indeed, it won’t be the last time that the show will make reference to Miami Vice. (By the way, how funny is it that Rose of all of them is the one obsessed with the show?)

The most compelling moment of the episode, however, is when Blanche takes Lucy to task for her behavior and her bouncing from one relationship to another in the space of a few days. Lucy, and I’m sure most of those watching the episode, rightly takes note of the fact that this criticism rings a bit hypocritical coming from Blanche of all people, who is hardly known for her circumspection in matters of the boudoir. Just as importantly, however, Lucy also reveals how uncertain she is about her own sense of self. While her fate remains somewhat uncertain by the end of the episode, we get the feeling that she will grow up to be as self-aware of her own sexuality and its powerful possibilities as her aunt.

What I find most extraordinary about this episode, however, is the way in which Blanche neatly turns Lucy’s criticism on its head. Rather than acting ashamed of her own sexual proclivities, she proudly tells her niece that her decision to bestow her favors on her gentleman callers is a decision that she undertakes of her own volition, not because she needs them to make her feel validated. This is one of the earliest of Blanche’s forthright reclamations of her sexuality from the jaws of patriarchal prudery, and I always cheer a little when I heard her say this. (Stay tuned for my entry on the episode on Valentine’s Day, when Blanche makes an even more empowered speech).

In our next installment, we move on to a moment of vulnerability for Dorothy, as well as some of the finest dancing the show ever produced. We also get to meet one of the ’80s most iconic sitcom guest stars (I’ll save her name until the post itself).

See you then!

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Truth Will Out” (S1, Ep. 16)

In today’s entry in “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we once again meet some members of the girls’ family, in this case Rose’s daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Charley. While Rose has spent the years since her husband’s death cultivating his legacy and encouraging her children to see him as a successful businessman, it gradually becomes clear that, in fact, he was a terrible salesman, and that he left her very little in his will.

However, on the way to that revelation, Rose finds that she has to lie to both her daughter and her friends, claiming that it was bad investments on her part that led to the lack of funds. Kirsten, unsurprisingly, condemns her mother’s alleged irresponsibility, proclaiming that she has never been so ashamed of her. Somehow, it becomes acceptable for her to show the utmost disregard for her mother’s feelings, to say nothing of the respect that she should theoretically at least an effort to demonstrate.

It should come as no surprise that Kirsten proves to be quite the ungrateful and indeed disrespectful to her mother when she believes that Rose has squandered the fortune that her father allegedly built. The fraught and often contentious relationship between children and their parents would prove to be an ongoing tension in many episodes of the series (not least between Dorothy and Sophia), but here it takes on an especially cutting edge, and we’re definitely not encouraged to sympathize with Kirsten.

Indeed, it’s only when Rose realizes that the myth she has propagated about Charlie has begun to distort the view that her grandchildren have of their grandfather that she feels that she must at last come clean about the reality of his legacy. It’s rather touching, I think, that Rose was willing to sacrifice her own good image in her daughter’s eyes rather than sully her husband’s conversation. It’s also rather nice that Rose, and Kirsten, finally realize that it is Charlie’s success as a good person that matters, more than the amount of money that he was able to leave his widow and family.

In a fun bit of casting trivia, this is the first of two times that daughter Kirsten appears in the show. She would return in the final season when Rose suffers cardiac arrest, though in the latter she is played by a different actress. If anything, her later incarnation is even more unpleasant, since she blames the other four women for her mother’s health scare. Truly, Kirsten is one of the most unpleasant of the many progeny that appear in the show, and one wonders how someone as sweet and kind as Rose could raise such an unpleasant daughter (I’ll have much more to say on this when we get to Kirsten’s second appearance).

In the next episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family (which happens a great deal in the series, particularly in the first season), when Blanche’s niece Lucy comes for a visit and reveals that she acts a little more like Blanche than is probably good for her.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “In a Bed of Rose’s” (S1, Ep. 15)

In today’s installment of The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Rose strikes up a one-night-stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is actually married. The real kicker, though, is that he dies after their encounter (in her bed!), leaving Rose to deal with the consequences.

Of course, it ultimately becomes apparent that Al is in fact a married man, and that Rose–who has always considered herself the most morally upright of the four women–has become the very thing she had condemned Dorothy for being. She has become the other woman. That being said, she deserves kudos for being willing to meet Al’s wife face-to-face to tell her not only that her husband has been carrying on an affair, but that he also died in her bed. The conversation between the two women, in which Al’s wife reveals that she has long known of his infidelity, is one of the richest and most compelling in the entire first season, as the women commiserate over their shared relationship with a man who was, all things considered, something of a cad.

It’s particularly striking that this episode comes after one in which Dorothy also has to contend with the moral consequences of adultery. Rose, however, has to deal with the other side of that equation, in that she has to do the right thing and actually confront the wife of her paramour. As always, The Golden Girls shows just how complicated, messy, and sometimes unpleasant life can be. Even when we think we’re just having a bit of fun, sometimes our actions have unintended consequences with which we then have to contend.

Furthermore, Rose also has to contend with the fact that Al, like her husband Charlie, died while making love. She clearly has a great deal of emotional guilt that she carries around as a result of Charlie’s death, and she has to accept that sometimes bad things happen, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with her that leads to men happening to die while in her amorous embraces. (There’s also a great joke near the end of the episode, in which she says that her next date also dies, as well as the police investigating the case. Truly one of the funniest moments in the first season).

All in all, this is one of my favourite episodes of the first season, because it truly does allow Rose to finally begin breaking out of her prudish shell and engaging in the same sort of romantic escapades as the other women.  As such, it stands as one of those points where we do see some character development and, frankly, I have always found the later Rose much more appealing and charismatic than her iteration in the first few episodes of the first season.

Rose will also be the focus of our next entry. In the next episode, we’ll discover some deeply-held secrets about Charlie, as Rose has to contend with her desire to protect Charlie’s memory with the demands and judgment of her daughter Kirsten.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Custody Battle” (S1, Ep. 11)

In today’s entry in the marathon, we talk about yet another bit of family feuding, this time between Dorothy and her younger sister Gloria. When Gloria–with all of her money–comes to town, she can’t resist showing off how much she has in comparison to Dorothy’s own rather meager circumstances. The real strain comes, however, when Gloria seemingly convinces Sophia to move back with her to California.

As always, the relationships among and between women remain key to the narrative tension of the episode. Dorothy and Gloria have clearly always struggled with their intertwined feelings of antagonism and affection, each jealous of the what the other has been able to accomplish. The irony, of course, is that each of them, to an extent at least, looks at herself as a failure. Dorothy struggles to break out of the never-ending cycle of being a substitute teacher, while Gloria recognizes that her primary role, that of wife and California socialite, has left her feeling somewhat empty and frustrated. Thus, their mutual antagonism stems as much from their own self-perceived failings critical judging of themselves as it does from any feelings of genuine resentment toward one another.

This episode also brings out the by turns fraught and loving between Dorothy and Sophia. While it is clear that they care for and love one another deeply, there is no denying that the former has begun to chafe under the (s)mothering influence of the latter. She wants to have her own space, but she also wants to have Sophia available when she needs her guidance and emotional support. But then, isn’t that how it always is with our mothers? We love them, but sometimes they drive us mad with their constant attempts to run out lives. In my view, it is exactly this contradictory and tense relationship that makes the mother/child bond one of the strongest that human beings experience.

It’s a neat little fact that Gloria, unlike some other members of the Dorothy/Sophia extended family, doesn’t make another appearance until Season 7 (when she is portrayed by a different actress). Of course, she is mentioned, quite a lot, by Sophia, usually in an unfavorable light to Dorothy. Indeed, the relationship between the two sisters seems much genuinely warmer than it will be in the later episode (in which it is much more straightforwardly antagonistic). It’s actually rather nice to see the ways in which the two sisters have genuine affection for one another, at least in this early episode. Furthermore, Gloria’s acknowledgment that Dorothy is and always has been the more responsible one, again reinforces the idea that their relationship is at once closer, and far more complicated, than it appears on the surface.

Next up, Rose begins a romance with Dr. Newman, the little person with whom she works. This raises all sorts of questions about whether Rose can indeed put aside her reservations about his size and marry him, as well as how we as a society view these physical differences in our everyday life.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Heart Attack” (S1, Ep. 10)

In today’s installment of the Great Golden Girls Marathon, it appears that Sophia may be having a heart attack, and the four women must cope with the fact that one of their number may be staring death in the face.

While this episode does not have the political bite of some of the other episodes of the first season, it does show the dexterity and depth with which the series is able to engage with the deeply personal. It’s one of the first times that we get a deep glimpse into the strong bond that exists between Dorothy and Sophia. It becomes clear, even at this early stage, that they are more than just mother and daughter; they are actually friends. There is an undeniable chemistry between Bea and Estelle, one that shines through in all of their performances together.

While a rather understated episode, it has its moments of genuine pathos, such as when Dorothy recognizes that she may well lose her mother. As someone who has a very deep and powerful relationship with my own Mom (and my Grandma), this scene always affects me. Embedded within this very personal trial is also a reflection on the way in which we must always contend with the fact that those we love, especially in a generation older than hours, are that much closer to the end of their lives. As such, it is a powerful reminder to make the most of the time that we are given.

This is also the first time that we learn that Rose’s husband Charlie died while they were in the middle of making love. This has always struck me as one of the more heartbreaking aspects of Rose’s character, and it remains a key part of her character development throughout the first season (and indeed throughout the series as a whole). More than any of the other characters, Rose seems to have the hardest time moving beyond the memory of Charlie, a testament to the extraordinary love that they clearly bore for one another.

Of course, everything is neatly resolved in the end with the revelation that the “heart attack” was in fact a gall bladder attack brought on by overeating. However, this doesn’t entirely efface the fact that death is an ever-present fact for these four women, especially Sophia. While The Golden Girls is certainly one of the finest-written comedies to ever grace television, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that, as one gets older, death becomes an increasingly prominent part of daily life. And that, I think, has always been one of its greatest strengths.

Next up, we get reacquainted with Dorothy’s infamous ex-husband Stan, and the beginning of a series-long arc in which the two briefly rekindle their failed relationship. Stay tuned!

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Engagement/The Pilot”

Well, here we go. After a great deal of deliberation, I’ve decided to start this mammoth undertaking. I am going to write a short (400-500 word) review of each and every episode of The Golden Girls. I have no idea how long it’s going to take (I’m still working on a similar project for The Lord of the Rings), but I consider it an act of fan devotion. Since I may never get to publish a monograph on the series (that pesky Dissertation is still in progress, as well as my creative projects), this series of blog posts seemed more manageable. And who knows, maybe it will turn into a book? Stranger things have happened.

Anyway, the episode. The series rather begins in the middle, with debutante Blanche becoming engaged to her most recent boyfriend Harry. Acerbic yet witty Dorothy is happy for her, while somewhat dim, prudish Rose begins by feeling worried about where they will live after Blanche gets married, and gradually comes to distrust her fiancee. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s mother makes an appearance, her retirement home having burned down. As it turns out, Harry (the fiancee) is a bigamist, and the women recognize that their relationships with one another are far more meaningful, and lasting, than any they might have with men.

I’ve always thought that this episode in particular is one of the most perfectly executed pilots. Right from the outset we get a strong sense of the relationships among the women, as well as their key characteristics. The comic timing is spot on, with both Sophia and Dorothy really hitting all of the right notes.  At this stage, Rose’s character hasn’t quite gelled into coherence yet (though it will by the end of the season and certainly by the beginning of S2), and Blanche is still slightly rough around the edges. All in all, though, the pilot does what any good pilot should do, which is help us understand these characters and what makes them tick.

And then of course there is Coco, the gay cook who never reappears. I’ve always thought he was one of the great “what might have beens” in the history of television comedy. Would his continued inclusion have spoiled the pitch-perfect dynamic that the four women established with one another, or would he have been an invaluable addition, a nice complement to Bea Arthur/Dorothy’s acid wit? It’s hard to say, and he remains one of the most compelling enigmas of the series.

I’ll close this review by mentioning that this episode is the first of several that would feature the deferred engagement. As my good friend Bridget and I have frequently noted, this not only enhances our impression that it is the friendships among the women that matter most, but also opens up many fascinating avenues for viewers to enjoy and exploit the implicit queerness of such relationships. (Don’t worry. I’ll talk much more about that very queerness in subsequent entries).

Next up, we meet Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan, as well as her daughter Kate.

Why Do Gay Men Love Abs?

If you’ve ever spent a minute on the popular gay hookup app Grindr, you know it’s no secret that gay men love abs.  Scores of shirtless pics jockey for position any time you open the app, each one trying to outdo the others in terms of the amount of abdominal definition on offer. And a casual perusal of any gay porn studio will show a similar fixation, with both studios and stars jockeying to outdo one another with their conspicuous display of their abdominal fortitude.

Gay men, clearly, love abs, and they love men who have them. They are, in fact, one of the hottest commodities in the dating and hookup scenes.  The question is, though, why?

I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, and while I’m always a little cautious about generalizations about gay men, I also think that there are some deeply-rooted reasons why we seem to have a particular penchant (I might even so far as to say an obsession) with both procuring abs and sleeping with/dating a guy who also has them.  At least part of the desire, I suggest, has to do with the area of the body in question.  The stomach, as we all know, is the focal point for questions about health and wellness, not only in terms of fat (it’s the part of the body that often shows it the most, certainly in men), but also in terms of actual food consumption.

Just as importantly, however, to have a stomach that is soft rather than hard speaks to one’s inability to control one’s appetite, and the ability to control one’s bodily appetites has long been associated with the masculine, as opposed to the feminine, which is characterized, as much as by anything else, by an inability to bring those desires under control, to regulate them and channel them appropriately.  To be anything other than ripped and defined, then, is to become unmasculine, to become perhaps the most dreaded thing in contemporary gay male culture:  the feminine. To be soft and feminine is to take a headlong tumble into the world of the gay abject, subject to the ridicule and cruel dismissal of hook-up culture (which is not, as a rule, known for its compassion).

There’s no question that gay men have long had a vexed and often contradictory relationship with masculinity.  It is at once the thing that we desire and the thing that we want to be. There is no object more desired in the world of gay dating than the hot, muscled, masculine top. One need only look at the many hook-up profiles proclaiming something along the lines of “no fats, no femmes” to get a sense of how vitriolic and jaded gay hook-ups (and, if we’re being honest, gay dating) can be in the world of Grindr and other similar apps.

This isn’t to say that any of this always operates on a conscious level (though it does certainly do so at times).  While many gay men make no secret of the their abhorrence for the feminine, many more, I think, have probably so internalized the demands of our culture at large that it becomes almost second nature to disavow any traces of the feminine or the soft.  To be either is to abrogate any claim to be an object of desire (David Halperin has an excellent discussion of this issue in his book How to Be Gay) and, perhaps just as importantly, to slip into those pernicious stereotypes of flaming queens and limp-wristed fruits that were used by mainstream culture to pathologize gay men for much of the 20th Century.

Having a hard, chiseled body, then, becomes a way of proving oneself to the wider world, a means of proving that you have escaped from the chains of those old stereotypes and reached into a new day, when gay men can have all of the attributes (and privileges) of their straight brethren. And to top it all of, by having that body you also become the commodity that everyone is after, and that brings with it its own particular form of power.

The most frightening thing about this whole situation is that even I, with my critical apparatus honed by years in an English graduate program and immersion in queer and feminist theory, still fall prey to the perniciousness of this body ideology.  I constantly scrutinize my own belly, desperately seeking that first set of signs that my abs have finally begun to develop.  It’s not enough, I’ve found, simply to be thin (though a thin and lithe body has its own attractions). You have to be able to show that you’ve put in the time and the effort (and the discipline) to make your body truly splendid and powerful.

In order to truly become the object and the subject of desire that I want to be, my body should (so my indoctrinated self tells me), fall into the molds prescribed by the culture of which I am a part. It really is a daily struggle to start loving my body for what it is, even while wanting to make it better. And it is also a struggle to make better mean healthier, rather than simply look better. Yes, it is nice to have that outward show of having accomplished a fitness goal, but not at the price of losing one’s sense of intrinsic self-worth.

Of course, this isn’t to say that working out and watching what you eat isn’t good. They absolutely are, and we should do both more. It’s just that we should also be aware of the cultural baggage that always accrues around the body, and we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enamoured of a particular body type that we begin to exclude and pathologize those who don’t fall into those very restrictive modes and models. If we can begin to think outside of that scope, I firmly believe that we will all be the happier for it. Now that’s a goal I can get behind.

Gay Assimilation and the Burden of Being Queerly Different

Recently, during a meeting of a queer studies reading group, I engaged in a spirited debate with a colleague about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation.  He was not convinced that assimilation poses the dangers that many queer scholars such as Jack Halberstam and David Halperin have argued that it does.  Another colleague, one whom I know to be tremendously affirming of queer lifestyles, worried that it was unfair to expect her queer friends to continue to shoulder the burden of being different, wondering if it would perhaps be easier if, indeed, they were allowed to assimilate peacefully into the mainstream fabric of American culture.

While I respect these points of view and can even understand where they come from, I want to argue against them, and vociferously so.  In my view, the mainstream of American queers has not only resulted in a perilous amnesia about the queer past, but also a vehement disavowal of everything that once made queer life so vibrant, messy, and exciting.  As the great Michel Foucault reminded us so long ago, repression tends to beget the very instances and behaviours it seeks to repress.  Thus, it is almost as if, now that the tools of repression have begun to lose their edge and queer life has become for many much less overtly perilous, there is no longer an implied imperative to live queer life as if it may end in the next moment.  Without repression, it would seem, there is no longer an imperative to live and resist queerly.

The other danger that I believe exists in the very marrow of assimilation is the denial of the acceptability of any difference, even among those who ostensibly share one’s sexual orientation.  The same-sex marriage movement continues to organize its rhetorics around an implied “other,” the sexual deviant, the non-monogamous and sexually promiscuous homosexual that must be disavowed in order for same-sex marriage to gain much-needed credibility and acceptability among the straight, white, middle-class citizens who continue to be the arbiters of public cultural and political taste.  When queer people, especially queer couples, proudly announce that they are just like everyone else, what they really mean is that they are buying into the system of monogamy and all of the trappings that go with it, while simultaneously disavowing the acceptability of those who do not.  Even queers, it seems, create their own hierarchies of acceptability.

Of course, perhaps the most pernicious effect of assimilation is the ways in which it manages to convince its adherents to buy so completely into the logic of neo-liberalism and late capitalism.  If only, the logic goes, gay people can become consumers and participants in patriarchal capitalism–settle down, raise children, work hard, buy goods and services–then they will be fully accepted into the fabric of American society and all will be well.  Of course, the things that make American society so deeply divided, rampant and systemic racial and economic inequality among them, remain crucially un-examined and de-emphasized, precisely because those are nodes of crisis where the logics of of neo-liberalism that undergird assimilation are most clearly laid bare and made susceptible to critique.

All of this is not to argue that queer life was somehow better under the former repressive regime.  Certainly, there have been many gains that we should not give up, especially the ones that make queer life infinitely safer than it was even when I was growing up a decade and a half ago.  Even I, cranky radical queer that I am, would not give away the hard-earned legal gains that have made steps toward seeing queer people become equal citizens under the law (though the questionable status of the law itself is worthy of its own blog post).  However, I do want to argue that we should not so easily give up the practices of queer life–resistance to normativity, sexual, economic, racial, and gendered–that so many queers throughout the last century have developed.  Being accounted as “just the same” as everyone else is, in the end, just another form of oppression, however affirming it may appear.  Rather than seeing difference and resistance as a burden that only some have to bear, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity in which we can all share.

“Broke Straight Boys”: The Intersection of Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Amateur Gay Porn

It’s no surprise that many gay men (and much gay male pornography) is obsessed with straight men.  There are many reasons, both historic and cultural, for this long-standing erotic attraction for, as David Halperin has eloquently argued in his book How to Be Gay, part of what constitutes contemporary gay male identity and sexual desire is precisely an erotic attraction for the masculine, and in our culture nothing represents masculinity better than the machismo-enshrouded figure of the straight man.  Love or hate him, he remains a haunting presence in the American cultural and social imaginary, infusing even the gay community with a sometimes-noxious and toxic infatuation with masculinity and a concomitant rejection of the feminine.

This emerges quite clearly in the world of so-called amateur gay pornography, of the sort produced by such much-vaunted and celebrated studios as Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, as well as some of the lesser luminaries such as Broke Straight Boys.  What makes the latter studio so compelling is the way in which it manages to encapsulate and draw upon so many different strands of gay erotic desire (including the rough trade figure that has long been a staple of gay pornography and erotica of various kinds) as part of its brand identity.  What emerges from this gay pornography studio is a compelling, and slightly disturbing voyeurism of the vexed figure of the straight male willing (and able) to do anything for the right amount of money.

Of course, the website’s agenda is spelled out in its very title, which draws explicit attention to the indigent status of its stars.  This attention to the financial vulnerability of its performers–many of whom are both explicitly and implicitly coded as traditionally masculine–seems to undermine the very stability of the masculine attributes that it otherwise fetishizes.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, and I would argue that it is precisely the confluence of gender, class, and sexual desire that comprises the visual and fantasy pleasure to be gained from this particular website.  Though its models are not as uniformly muscular or gay-clone-esque as those of some of the higher end studios (such as the aforementioned Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher), that actually works to make BSB’s models both more “realistic” and, perhaps surprisingly, more desirable.  To paraphrase a clutch of comments on various message boards, most of the models look like actual boys that you might pick up at your local gay bar.

Due perhaps in no small part to its own branding efforts–and in spite of its own claims to being the web’s #1 gay porn site–Broke Straight Boys has gained something of a reputation for producing and featuring pornography that, to paraphrase commentators at the WayBig Blog, looks like it came out of a trailer park.  The comment threads attached to the website’s updates frequently contain derogatory remarks about the studio and the quality of its products, and yet, it has clearly managed to gain a substantial enough following to warrant the forthcoming TV series that purports to offer a reality-TV perspective on the internal workings of the studio and its stable of stars.  I would argue that this can at least partially be explained by the particular niche that BSB seeks to fill, one that is studiously underserved by both Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and other more self-consciously high-level studios.

This niche is one in which Broke Straight Boys provides the pleasure of the attainable and the everyday, while also drawing upon those things that gay pornography has always attempted to provide for its ever-diversifying consumers.  In an era in which what constitutes gay culture and gay identity is, like many other categories of social identity, increasingly fractured and in flux, BSB also highlights how unstable even gay desire can be.  What’s more, it also illuminates the ways in which studio branding in the gay porn industry can have a significant and potent effect on the types of erotic pleasures being mobilized by these purveyors of visual erotica.  Not all gay pornography, it would seem, is made equal.

At the same time, however, there is a darker side of this branding identity that needs to be acknowledged.  While there is something seemingly perpetually appealing about the straight-to-gay transformation (commonly referred to as gay for pay within the industry), it also caters to a slumming mentality among gay male audiences that is worthy of sustained attention and critique.  What the comments sections on discussion boards call attention to (among many other things) is the unfortunate appeal to a masculinity made vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic privation.  While this may be appealing as fantasy (and we can fervently hope that it is, though the unfortunate statistics regarding porn stars, economic instability, and suicide paint a different picture), we should also be aware of the disturbing contours and drives that undergird those fantasies.  Is it really so appealing to see financially strapped straight men paid to perform sex acts?  How is this any different than the economic exploitation that occurs when women are engaged in pornographic exploitation?

What emerges from this website, therefore, is an uncomfortable reminder of the contradictions and strains that continue to operate at the heart of gay male pornography and gay male sexual desire more generally.  In order to gain a more complete understanding of the complexities involved in the pleasures offered up by different pornography studios, we need to also understand the intertwining of class, gender, and sex that constitute those pleasures.  While many such entertainments attempt to make us forget what goes into their production, BSB is often forthright, actually making a point of mentioning the amount of money being offered.  In addition to seeing this as part of the fantasy scenario being constructed by the studio, as audiences and spectators we should also use this as a valuable opportunity to think about our own complacency in the exploitation of male sexual labour, as well as the consequences such exploitation has for an understanding of gay male culture’s contradictory relationship with hegemonic masculinity.