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September 8, 2009

From "Tom of Finland" to "Abercrombie and Fitch" -- Or, Did AIDS Radically Restructure Gay Masculinity?
FILED UNDER: "Gay Men's Health & Culture"
TAGS: gay male culturegay mengay men's healthHIV / AIDSmasculinity
By Trevor

I want to propose a rather radical and highly contestable theory about Western gay men's communities. My idea is simple -- let me boil down what I'm going to say here to four main points:

1) AIDS was a cultural phenomenon and collective traumatic injury for gay men in the West;

2) AIDS emboldened the need to develop a political movement structured around an "equal rights" agenda. This agenda is founded on the idea that gays and lesbians were "born that way," and thus deserved sympathy and equality;

3) This political argument conflicted directly with 1970s versions of gay masculinity that were highly stylized, as embodied in Tom of Finland's art;

4) Thus, gay men increasingly turned to "naturalized" versions of masculinity, as embodied in the "Abercrombie and Fitch" catalogue

This is biting off more than I can chew in a blog entry -- but I wanted to get this idea into circulation for people to gnaw on for a bit. Let's begin with the obvious: Hasn't masculinity ALWAYS been a source of value in gay men's communities? The clear answer is yes, but I think this requires further examination. Let's begin with Exhibit A -- the masculinity so heralded in 1970s gay communities -- Tom of Finland (click to enlarge):

[ Image redacted - see here ]

Tom of Finland created a cartoonish version of masculinity. It's blatantly ridiculous, and yet highly erotic. This is what made Tom of Finland's art so fantastic: It was both clearly hilarious in its outrageous spectacle, and at the same time extremely sexy for the way it exacerbated what gay men love about masculinity in men. It makes you both want to laugh and jerk off when you look at it.

Others have argued as I have here, that gay masculinity in the 1970s was more self-consciously performative in the way that I see masculinity being performed today. Today it is deadly serious. Manhunt'ers take their masculinity very seriously, thank you very much, and there's little reflexivity in the way that this gets performed. Sadly, there's no clip of it readily available online, but in the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s, there's a wonderful story from a gay man recounting a story from his bathhouse days of yore. He describes two men a few booths down from his loudly performing a kind of daddy-boy scene. I can't remember the specifics, but the dialogue went something like this:

Daddy: You wanna suck this dick, boy?

Boy: Yes!

Daddy: Yes, what?!?

Boy: Yes, mary!!!!!

He uses this example to argue similarly that masculinity in the 70s was regarded by gay men as highly performative, and full of humor. Today, I don't see that humor infused into the kind of Abercrombie-jock masculinity being circulated. Rather than being exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, it is emulated as if it is "normal," "natural," and the opposite of "performative." We can imagine this by employing the word "butch," which is archaic today because I think it connotes a kind of cartoonish and exaggerated performance of masculinity.

Thus, rather than Tom of Finland, today I see Abercrombie as the symbolic representation of gay masculinity:

abercrombie_ad.jpg

Now I want to be clear: Just because this brand of masculinity presents itself as "natural" does not mean that it is fact any less performative than the Tom of Finland version. Gender -- as I understand it -- is always performative in that we are reflexively socialized into it as a system of meaning-making. Let me take a moment to explain what I mean here:

1) I think it is uncontroversial to say that there are systems of social norms that pre-date our existence as individuals -- that the kinds of options for gender that exist are largely not up to us. I didn't choose to live in an era of Abercrombie and Fitch, for instance, nor could I magically erase that as a culturally central site of masculinity-production by way of will power.

2) Second, I think it is uncontroversial to also say that we are given throughout our lives instruction about what the appropriate uptake of these norms and practices is for us as men. This varies, without a doubt, by culture / class / etc., but the lifelong socialization process (something like indoctrination, but more diffuse) is I think largely a universal experience. This doesn't end when we turn 18 -- indeed, when we come out as gay men we begin to learn a whole different system of gender that operates within gay men's socio-sexual communities.

3) Finally, but while there are social structures that limit our options, of course we are individuals that have the ability to consciously resist, co-opt, or identify with these norms and practices. This is what sociologists call "agency."

So now that I have my theory of gender better explained, let's get back to my main argument: AIDS has deeply impacted the shift I have sketched from "Tom of Finland" to "Abercrombie and Fitch." I think that gay men pre-AIDS were more self-reflexive about issues like masculinity, power, and sex. I think these men were often more aware that the kind of leatherman masculinity so heralded in this time was clearly a performance that one worked hard to achieve.

It is precisely this sense of self-conscious performance that I think left this masculinity vulnerable in the face of the AIDS epidemic. What we saw in the era of AIDS was an effort to politically mobilize by arguing that gay men were born gay -- a naturalized argument for why gays and lesbians should be given equality. I don't think it was a coincidence that this argument rose to fame at the same time as AIDS. We needed heterosexuals to believe that we did not choose our sexual predilections, because if we did then AIDS was our punishment. But if being gay was the result of some biological origin, then perhaps we deserved legal equality and some protection under the law. At least this is how the logic functions. We couldn't help it, so please help fund prevention and treatment for this terrible disease that's killing us in droves.

Because of its self-reflexive performativity, leather "Tom of Finland" masculinity conflicts clearly here with this political agenda. It is full of costumes, exaggerated sexual scripts, and something more like performance art than biological destiny. Thus, gay men needed to turn to versions of masculinity that were "just like" heterosexuals -- that were styled to obscure the effort involved in creating and living them. "Abercrombie and Fitch" proved to be just such an image. Rather than the gruff, exaggerated masculinity stylized by Tom of Finland, this version was "All American" and seemed as natural and sensible as Apple Pie. Instead of collars and harnesses, it fetishized football gear and Aryan features. Indeed, it relied on a symbolic order that was not special to gay men's communities. The "sexy" found in "Abercrombie and Fitch" is just as hot to gay men as it is to heterosexuals.

This is hopefully someone's future dissertation, so please take this blog entry as an attempt to vocalize a series of *extremely* rough ideas. I'm curious to hear if others think this theory is as plausible as I do. Are there holes here that need filling? :)

PERMALINK | Posted at 9:52 AM | Post a Comment (10)

10 Comments

I think it's unfortunate that you've attributed to AIDS something that is clearly a facet of post-AIDS gay normalisation politics. You're comparing the seventies with the late nineties and early noughties, omitting everything that happened in between, and one of the big things that occurred was a shift in the fashionable body type (for gays and straights) from muscular to skinny-anorexic. If anything, gay men were slower to respond to that change, because having a bulkier body was an external signal that you weren't infected with HIV.

Author Profile Page Daniel Reeders User Profile | September 9, 2009 4:30 AM


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