Wednesday 18 June 2014

When Men's Bodies Meet Side-Saddle Trunks

Fashion has boldly gone where no style has explored before. If 2014 will be remembered for anything lighthearted, it will be the side-saddle swimming trunks. Late to the comment party as per, this product - as modelled by self-styled 'Gay Kardashians', Bobby Norris and Harry Derbidge from TOWIE - manages the tricky task of undermining and reinforcing traditional notions of masculinity. That, and it has got people talking. Just how do they stay up?

Capital has fully colonised women's bodies. Potions 'n' lotions, make up, hair removal, and so on, every conceivable facet of the female body has a mass market clustered around it. For men, on the other hand, its invasion by market forces is less pervasive, its commodification not as thorough. This isn't to say the commercialised male body beautiful does not exist. Creams, razors, smellies, hair loss treatments, these are hardly recent innovations. Ideal-typical masculinity is marketed, exploited. It plays football, wears the fashions, commits acts of hyperviolence, and fucks its way through porn flicks. The commodification, however, proceeds differently. Too often, women's bodies are marketed/positioned as passive objects, as foils for men's desires and egos, as - for want of a better phrase - service providers. Mother, whore, sidekick, or saint, the tropes are different but there is an identity of content, an undergirding theme. Not so with men. The man is the agent, not the object of desire. As with anything and everything social, this hegemonic conceit is challengeable and is challenged. The het gendering of desirable bodies carries on regardless, hence why make up, dedicated razors for legs, chests and pubes are, for men, at best niche products. When was the last time you saw something marketed as a 'masculine hygiene product'?

Gay men's bodies problematise this persistent dichotomy. It's interesting. The hegemonic gay body has shifted from the so macho, moustachioed hunk of the Village People/Freddie Mercury archetype to the camp, coiffured, on trend fashionista of, well, TOWIE. That hasn't been the only switch. The gay body of yesteryear was a manly body pump-primed for sex. Recall the AIDS panic of 30 years ago, and the homophobic elision between licentious promiscuity and disease stirred up by sundry bigots. Now, it's almost as if sex has been written out. When Boy George quipped he preferred a cup of tea to a bonk, he unwittingly was a harbinger of the sexless gay guy to come. Of course, gay men have sex and always will. But the gay body for the popular (straight) audience has been desexualised or, to be more accurate, rendered bodies without desire. Mediatised gay bodies don't speak of sex, they speak of campery, frippery and immaculate self-presentation. Less queen, more Queen Mother. Less agent. More object.

The bodies of Bobby and Harry have been positioned by the celebrity press as passive objects - there is little qualitative difference with the copious swimwear shoots of women's bodies crowding the sidebar of shame. And the photos invite us to ogle them, with a special stress on "the package". The side-saddle trunks reveal almost as much as they conceal. Is that a stray pube? Could that be the outline of his johnson? Bobby and Harry have therefore made a contribution to aesthetics of the pubis, a concern that's usually the preserve of women. Their "intervention" has crossed a gendered boundary: the media simply do not look at men in this way. With their smart tatts, designer shades, eyebrows to die for and skimpy underwear, Bobby and Harry have subverted the gendering of taste.

While our TOWIE friends in collaboration with the media have invented a new way of seeing the male body, thereby undermining its agency vis a vis the passive, feminine other; they're strengthening its traditional positioning too. Bobby and Harry clearly look after themselves. No hint of flab, and there is tone and muscle definition. It speaks of self-discipline and working out. As gender-troubling the side-saddle trunks are, what kind of body could carry it off? A gay body, definitely. But not one with double D moobs and a beer baby. To queer masculinity as effectively as Bobby and Harry, you have to take a manly body - one that a great many "conventional" straight blokes wouldn't mind having - and stick it in a fancy jock strap.

There we have it, a disturbance of gender norms that got millions talking. Bobby and Harry are unlikely gender queer heroes. Yet, at the moment of the transgression, as the fabric clings to their loins it reconfirms the hegemonic masculine hard body. It undermines and reasserts. Problematising the body depends on the body. The body depends on problematising the body.

Who knew the side-saddle swimming trunks would expose this much?


Speedy said...

How did you get hold of my holiday snaps?!

Phil said...

I have paparazzi everywhere.