Tag Archives: gay culture

Searching for Studio Style in Contemporary Gay Porn

Regular readers of this blog probably know that I have a longstanding interest in gay porn. Obviously, like many gay men, I have a libidinal interest in watching it (a lot of it is quite hot), but as a scholar of film and queer theory, my interest in it is also an intellectual one (it’s fascinating how porn reveals so much about who we are and how we think about and feel desire). And, if I’m being completely honest, my posts about porn have been some of my most popular, so why not continue writing about it?

There are many things that I find endlessly fascinating (and, ahem, stimulating) about porn: the erotic component, the ways in which audiences engage with it (particularly in the era of social media), the star system it employs, its methods of distribution. Most importantly for this particular blog post (and the ones to follow), however, is the question of “style.” Now, it might seem counterintuitive to use a word like “style” with a genre like gay porn. After all, to many people, even academics, porn as an object of study exists somewhat beyond the pale of respectable company. To think about something like style would, I think, be to challenge the codes of taste that still govern how we think about pornography, elevating it to a position that perhaps doesn’t deserve.

I would like to suggest, however, that by focusing on the particular styles of various gay porn studios we can learn a great deal about the types of pleasures that they aim to offer their viewers. Given how central gay porn is to many gay men’s experience of the world, to say nothing of how they learn about sex, it seems to me especially important to understand the ways in which they do so. Like the classic Hollywood studios of old, today’s porn studios are very much in the business of cultivating, and catering to, specific tastes among their various audiences. And, as with classic Hollywood, one can get a strong sense of the way a studio views the world, as well as the ways in which they encourage their consumers to do the same.

In a subsequent series of posts, I plan to spotlight several of the gay porn studios that I most frequently watch. Some potential subjects will be TimTales, Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, GuysInSweatpants, Helix, and RawStrokes (yes, these are all real names of porn studios). Though I have a preference for those “minor” studios that have come up in the last ten years or so to challenge the hegemony of their titanic predecessors, I will, I think, also be focusing on some of the heavy hitters in the industry, if only because they provide such a marked contrast to their newer counterparts.

Each post will focus on the “house style” of a studio. They will focus on issues like cinematography (strange as it seems, most studios can be identified simply by looking at their camerawork), their stars or star types (indeed, the type of model they employ is frequently one major way in which studios differentiate themselves), and the type of sex they focus on (also a significant marker of brand differentiation). Doing so will, I hope, shed some much-needed light on the crucial differences (and similarities) between and among these purveyors of desire.

Queer Classics: “Love, Simon” (2018) and the Epistemology of the (Digital) Closet

Once upon a time, if you were to look for a mainstream gay teen romance, you would have to look outside the Hollywood system to the indies. Even there, you’d be hard pressed to find a film about queer teens. If there is one thing that has been off-bounds for mainstream film, it’s the idea that anyone under the age of 18 has a sex drive, and this is even more true for the scandalous idea that teenagers might know they’re queer when they’re teens.

Fast forward to 2018, and a relatively small-scoped film called Love, Simon appears to have opened that door to representation.

Simon is your average, middle-class teenager in 2018. He lives with his affluent, accepting parents and a sister that he actually likes. He also harbors a secret that he’s gay. When he comes out to a fellow student whom he knows only via e-mail, he inadvertently sets the stage for a scheme by one of his fellow students to blackmail him with the potential releasing of his sexual secret to the entire school. Fortunately, this being Hollywood, things work out in the end, and Simon ends up uniting with his e-mail beau.

No matter how many times I watch a Hollywood romance, I always find myself choking up at the end. Perhaps, in this case, it’s because I wish that was how my own youth had been, or perhaps because I wish that there had been those kinds of films around when I was growing up. So, when I see two young queer people finding emotional fulfillment at the end of a film (with no baggage attached), I can’t help but feel myself moved by it and to see it, in the aggregate, as a good thing. And, if I’m being completely honest, it simply felt good to see a queer teen romance end happily and fulfilled.

Though of course the love story is the most important component of the film, it is also a meditation on the ways in which digital technologies–and the increasingly interconnected world they have made possible–continue to inflect and change the ways that young queer people interact with one another. Indeed, it is one of the structuring conflicts of the film. Simon’s entire way of being in the world of romance is mediated through technology–first the e-mail (sent on his very expensive Mac), then his repeated alerts on his iPhone, and of course the social media platform that unites the entire school. Simon, and his friends and classmates, must continually navigate the fraught territory of social media, with all of its perils and pitfalls.

What really stood out to me as I watched the film, however, was how much it illustrates that Sedgwick’s theory of the closet still holds true. For those not familiar with this concept, it is essentially the idea that the closet maintains a structuring presence in the life of any queer person. No matter how accepted we are in mainstream culture, no matter how much queer rights have been gained, there is always the reality that, as long as we remain wedded to a homo/hetero binary way of looking at sexuality, and as long as the hetero is assumed to be the norm against which the homo is measured, queers will have to go through the confessional act of “coming out.” Every new person we meet, every new social encounter we have, engenders the question “Do I tell them who I really am?”

This epistemology constitutes the entire plot of Love, Simon. Even in 2018, when it is has become so normal for young people to be open about who they are–and indeed to challenge the categories that have been used to make sense of sexual identities for the last 40 years–the old structures have proven surprisingly enduring. If we truly lived in a world that no longer organized itself around the homo/hetero binary, then Simon wouldn’t be rendered susceptible to his classmate’s blackmail (he threatens to expose Simon’s sexuality on the school’s social media platform). Instead, Simon, like queer people throughout the era of the closet, finds his identity split between his private and public selves, with social media as the hinge between these two spheres.

When his mother tells him that he looked like he was holding his breath, she sums up exactly how the closet works and how it feels to be in it, always and every day. The injunction to come out, the very fact that one has to come out in the first place, is the essence of living in the shadow of the closet. It’s important to remember that there are many (many) queer people who struggle with that part of their identity, who have to make a daily decision about whether or not they are going to reveal their true selves to others in their life. In that sense, Love, Simon is the perfect sort of Hollywood fantasy, one which shows the ideal way in which coming out happens.

It’s easy to dismiss Love, Simon as the worst sort of homonormative, teenage-angsty sort of film. The ending leaves us no plot thread unresolved, and as a colleague of mine pointed out, the ferris wheel sequence fits queer romance into a Hollywood model. Yet, I’m not sure I agree. There is a brief but revealing moment when Bram (the e-mail beau) asks, “Are you disappointed it’s me?” It’s unclear what he means when he asks this question, but I suspect that he’s asking if Simon is disappointed that it’s the black Jewish boy rather than the other more “normative” characters that have periodically flitted into Simon’s life. Let’s not forget that it’s still pretty radical to see a queer interracial couple appear in a major Hollywood studio film.

And that, ultimately, is the great cultural good of a film like Love, Simon. Sure, those on the coasts may not find the film as radical as they might like–and some might even find it downright regressive–but for me, I am glad that a film like this exists. And I’m glad that today’s queer kids will, at last, be able to see themselves up their on the big screen.