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.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review–“Massacres and Matinees”

Reviewing American Horror Story:  Freak Show poses something of a challenge.  What area should one focus on?  The cinematography?  The politics of disability and queerness?  The stunning display of Jessica Lange’s abject femininity and the unsung glory that is Frances Conroy?  Some combination of all of the above?

That’s part of what makes this new season of American Horror Story so compelling.  Part of enjoying this series, I have found, is taking it on the terms that it establishes for us.  And that, it seems, is very hard to do, in no small part because Ryan Murphy’s directorial and authorial persona is so strong and so potent that it threatens to overshadow anything that he produces.  In this case, however, I think it worth dwelling on some of the positive/enjoyable aspects of this week’s episode, “Massacres and Matinees.”

To begin with, this season of AHS shows some remarkable versatility with cinematography, showcasing how camera angles and colour can dramatically (re)shape how we respond to particular environments.  In addition to the numerous canted angles that serve to alienate us and signal to us the distorted and strange world we are being asked to view, I was also struck by the stark and subversive colour arrangement of the tense scene between mother and son pair of Dandy and Gloria Mott.  Only AHS could so compellingly change a seemingly normal upper-class meal into something obscene and subversive.

Jessica Lange continues to channel the haunting and abject spirit of Marlene Dietrich (particularly as she appeared in the noir masterpiece Touch of Evil), and to great effect.  Elsa may be her most deranged yet enigmatic creation yet, and I for one am very excited about seeing in which particular directions this season (which may be Lange’s last) will take her character as she struggles to maintain her control.

As pleasurable as it is to watch Lange’s performance, however, I think that Frances Conroy continues to be the unsung star of this show.  Time and again she has proven that she can successfully weave together the demonic and the angelic into one single performance.  Her portrayal of Gloria, a woman clearly unhealthily obsessed with her son (who is himself a perfect example of the 1950s nightmare of the mama’s boy) manages to twist familial bonds into something disturbingly lurid.  The fact that she seems so oblivious to the sinister appearance of everyone’s favourite killer clown (though one could argue that she is clearly aware of his murderous potential), only heightens the sense of alienation and disturbance that we experience.

But what about the series’ politics of disability and queerness?  This episode seems to mark one of the “thesis moments,” when it becomes clear (at least, as clear as this series ever is), about what it wants its viewers to think.  In this case, the political message comes from the mouth of Jimmy, who defiantly (and somewhat desperately) asserts that all they want to be is treated like everyone else (hence their strident disavowal of the term “freaks”).  Yet this is the one thing that they are strenuously denied, as everyone in the town of Jupiter insists on seeing them as not only different, but deviant and dangerous.  And, as is all too often the case, such prejudice turns to violence.  This seems to me at least to AHS‘s attempt to evoke the desire for being treated just like everyone else even while it disavows that possibility.  Who knows?  Perhaps by the end of this season all of the characters will embrace their difference and create a world all their own.

Ultimately, I found this to be a compelling second installment for the season, setting the stage nicely for the things to come.  Again, AHS is one of those series that needs to be taken on its own terms, as nebulous as those sometimes are.  It stridently and yet subtly tries to unsettle the things about ourselves and our culture that we tend to hold the most dear.  As a queer person who is always seeking out ways to disturb and unsettle normativity, I can’t help but see the series as a good thing, even if it doesn’t always succeed as much as I’d like.

Why Masculinity is a Feminist Issue

If you’re at all familiar with this blog or with me, you no doubt know that I am an avowed feminist.  And a feminist of a very particular sort.  For me, it is absolutely crucial that we address both the epistemological and material ways in which women are continuously disempowered and often outright oppressed in our culture.  Indeed, women, in my mind, are still the primary recipients of the goals of feminism, precisely because they are still the group that faces the most types of oppression.

However, as a feminist I also believe that men have just as much to gain from a feminist critique of patriarchy as women do, and it is for this reason that I ardently believe the study of masculinity should be (as it has recently become) a central component of feminist analyses of patriarchal culture.

Why do I believe this?  For one thing, feminists are already equipped with the analytical tools and knowledge to take on the seemingly hegemonic and indestructible cultural construct of masculinity in nuanced and politically radical ways.  It is not enough to simply argue that it is a construct—a masquerade, if you will—although that is certainly an excellent starting point.  One need only look to the work of such scholars as Judith Butler (in both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter), Steven Cohan (whose Masked Men, building on Butler, argues that even the seemingly hegemonic construction of masculinity in the 1950s was riddled with contradictions that constantly pulled apart and undercut the hegemony), and Susan Bordo (whose book The Male Body artfully teases out the way American society has consistently placed demands on the male body that it can never adequately meet and that therefore create unrealistic and unhealthy expectations) to see the value of such an approach to masculinity.  What these various scholars reveal is that those trained in a feminist methodology can bring those tools to bear in important and potentially radical ways upon masculinity, exposing it for a construction and thus rendering it susceptible to both critique and, ultimately, absolute deconstruction (and perhaps abolition?)

Just as importantly, as my students recently pointed out to me in the course I teach on gender and literary texts, it is precisely because the patriarchal construct of masculinity imposes such demands on male subjects that those very same subjects often feel obligated or pushed into their oppression of women (whether consciously or unconsciously).  This is, of course, not the only reason that men oppress women, but I would argue that it is at least one reason, and a very important one.  As feminists, we need to recognize that patriarchy negatively influences both men and women, in often complementary and simultaneously contradictory ways.  With theoretical apparatuses that have been finely forged in the crucible of explicit oppression, feminists are more than prepared to tackle the challenges posed by the hegemonic construction of masculinity.

Likewise, we as feminists (especially those who are educators) need to provide young men with the critical tools they need to examine their own masculinity.  I hear numerous anecdotes about the ways in which today’s young men still remain wedded, whether wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, the privilege that their masculinity affords them.  What’s more, many young women also buy into the myth of masculinity, as well as all of the other unfortunate vectors that intertwine with gender.  Thus, when we as feminists talk about/analyze/interpret masculinity, we must do so through an intersectional method that takes thorough account of the ways in which masculinity is always/already inflected by issues of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality.  For example, masculinity means something very different for an African American male than it does to a white, middle class one, just as it means something different for a gay man (although, as I have noted elsewhere, many gay men are buying into the privileges afforded by a hegemonic view of masculinity, often at the expense of the much-despised “femininity”).  As feminists, we must constantly be aware of our own complicity in these discourses, and we must also constantly work with our students to help them understand not only how these constructions function, but also the particular ways in which they are reproduced throughout our culture.

At the end of the day, however, some questions remain.  As I alluded to earlier, there remains the question of whether we want to abolish masculinity and femininity altogether in favor of a gender pluralverse.  But then, perhaps the solution would be to not make them mandatory patterns of behavior to which one must subscribe in order to gain access to certain nodes of privilege, but instead affectations and behaviors that may have no relation to the gendered and sexed bodies which we inhabit and with which we move through the world (though it is not a problem if one does draw a connection between those two things).

I suppose the issue, for me at least, is one of choice.  I want to believe that masculinity as a set of behaviors is not in and of itself a bad thing; it is the ways in which those behaviors become tied to certain hegemonic privileges and impositions that it becomes especially problematic.  But that is precisely the point that I have been arguing so far.  It is feminists who have the ability, the desire, and the tools to ask these sorts of questions and to be able to work the slow and tortuous way to some sort of answer, all the while remaining acutely conscious of the moral, ethical, and political consequences that all definitive answers inevitably carry with them.  There will not, of course, be an easy answer that will completely efface the contradictions and complexities that are part and parcel of the gender ideology under which we all live (though we all may not support it).  With the tools provided by feminism and particularly by feminist theorizing, we can continue to probe and problematize, to ask questions that no one else is willing or able to ask, in order to slowly push us toward a world in which gender can be opened up to explore its multiplicitous potentials.

What’s Your Position?: The Politics of Top and Bottom in Gay Sex

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex.  Sex is about power.”

—Oscar Wilde

It has become something of a truism that sex is political.  Whether it be the Republicans attempting to assert control over women’s bodies or those same Republicans attempting to criminalize homosexual acts, the act of sex has become a fraught political weapon in the ongoing war between the parties.  Gay (anal) sex in particular has occupied, and continues to occupy, a particularly vexed place in the American cultural imaginary since, almost invariably, it involves one man submitting his body to the penetration of another.  And, in Western culture, especially those indebted to the Greeks and Romans, anal penetration poses a fundamental disturbance to the alleged inpenetrability of normative masculinity.  Penetration, in the minds of many men, is the ultimate expression of indignity, the ultimate degradation and destruction of their masculine subjectivity (witness the fact that male/male rape or other sexual assault is often used as a means of breaking down male prisoners of war).

As a result, many queer theorists have postulated that passive anality is, whether consciously or subconsciously, a strike at the heart of hegemonic, phallic/impenetrable masculinity.  Indeed, this serves as the basic argument of Leo Bersani in his landmark and highly controversial essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”  While I agree with Bersani and other theorists that passive (and yes, I realize the loadedness of this term) anality is a potentially subversive strike back at the tyranny of hetenormative masculinity, it seems to me that what gets left out of this equation is the “top” partner in this exchange.  What role does gay topping have in this schema?  While it can be argued that the penetrated “bottom” is engaging in a subversive political act by taking another man into himself and surrendering to the mingled pleasure and pain of penetration, can the same be said of the “top”?

At first glance, it might seem that the top in a gay sexual encounter is merely replicating the very phallic masculinity that male homosexuality is supposed to challenge, for it could be argued that the top is merely slipping into the role of the penetrator, i.e. placing himself into the position of the “man” in the encounter.  However, I would argue that something much more complicated and potentially politically subversive is going on here.  It is necessary to remember that, in consensual gay sexual encounters, both parties enter into a (often unspoken by no less potent and binding for all of that) contract.  The bottom knows that he is relinquishing a certain amount of power to his top, and the top, in turn, knows that he has in his hands that kind of power.  There exists, therefore, a very fragile balance of power between the two sexual partners in the moment of coupling that, ultimately, can form an intensely powerful emotional bond between both of them.  It takes the normal trade of power that is inherent in any penetrative sexual act and heightens the stakes and, in so doing, enters into a different circuit of desire than that in which much heteronormative/patriarchal sex circulates.

But, I can hear some of you objecting, don’t people who identify solely as “tops” tend to be those same people who so strenuously disavow femininity in other gay men?  Aren’t those who proclaim themselves “bottoms” (or, the rare subspecies, the “power bottom”) automatically falling into the position of the woman?  To this I would say, no, not necessarily.  There are a number of important things to remember here.  First, just because one person is penetrated and the other is penetrating does not necessarily mean that the one being penetrated has rendered himself feminine (although this is entirely possible, and indeed be a point of identification/community between gay men and women.  I would hasten to add, however, that this a perspective that only some gay bottoms would adopt).  Second, to merely assume that top/bottom map easily onto male/female is to inject a decided note of heteropatriarchy into what is decidedly not a heteronormative sexual arrangement.  That is why, for many gay men (and women), the question:  so who is the husband and who is the wife? is so incredibly insufferable and offensive.  It is attempting to enforce a particular kind of logic on a system in which such a logic has no place.

Thus, there exists within gay sex a subversive political potential on a number of levels, though not all gay men will partake or indulge in these particular perspectives, and some may do it at some points and not at others.  There are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to gay sex, and there are many gay men out there who actually adopt a versatile position, moving fluidly between different positions of power.  Thus, I do not want to suggest that all gay men are automatically subversive.  However, I do want to suggest that gay male sex has the potential to be subversive, whether one adopts the position of the top or the bottom in a particular sexual encounter.  What is more, we as gay men need to not only become aware of this fact, but firmly claim it as our own particular set of practices, rather than letting the opposition compose the narrative for us.

Ultimately, I have to conclude that gay desire and sexual practice, whether they manifests themselves via the top or the bottom position, have within them a subversive political potential.  After all, though we may hate it, we still live in a heteronormative, patriarchal world, where phallic masculinity and hetero-penetrative sex is still the norm.  Gay men, even those who do all that they can to disavow any feminine aspect of themselves, occupy a vexed position in this world (which may go at least part of the way toward explaining why they do everything they can to avoid being known the dreaded “f” word).  Gay male sex, then, may serve as another weapon our continual struggle against the inequality that still remains structurally built into the world in which we live.  And if we can have fun while doing it, that makes it all that much better.