Subverting the male gays.

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June 29 2007 6:28 AM

Eros and Heroes

Subverting the male gays.

One of yesterday's headlines asked Slate readers, "If You Like 300, Are You Gay?" Judging from the first page of Matt Feeney's article, one could fairly wonder why 300 was used to spotlight a piece focused on surf movies. But, the "meat" of the argument—as it were—is indeed dangling on the final page: "Shouldn't [straight men] be able to [project onto [heroic figures they themselves would like to be]] not just excellence but physical beauty] without being called gay?" According to Feeney, envy of heroic narcissism—the admiring of one's own reflection in another's excellence—is unfairly characterized as "homoeroticism." Judging from responses in the Fray, this assertion is more provocative than it is persuasive.

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In describing the mutual attraction between classic hero characters, Feeney writes: "it isn't homosexual desire. It's narcissism." This is a strange dichotomy, given that Narcissus famously drowned himself trying to make-out with his own reflection. As BenK astutely points out, self-love is the apotheosis of the homoerotic: "Homo means 'same.' The recognition of self and the love of it would be, in fact, homo-love."

Recognition of this point hardly ends the discussion, however. To morphicresident, gay vibes in a buddy flick are as unremarkable as acne on a teenager: "When you take an idea [like male bonding] and blow it up on a gigantic screen, you're always going to end up somewhat over the top." It may just be an expression of my own gay genes, but I'm sympathetic to badapple's argument that critics can fail in style even when they're right in substance. In the view of Systemz, "it seems entirely possible for a work of art to be both homoerotic and, like, totally awesome:"

The reaction of Achilles to Patroclus' death, that otherworldly combination of grief and rage that transforms him into the demigod among men is so profound precisely because the loss is so acute. Who cares if he was gay or not? The important part is his reaction. The ruthless killing machine that Achilles becomes upon hearing of Patroclus' death has been mirrored in so many action movies. I remember reading the section when Achilles gets his new armor from Hephaestus and thinking This is the "Oh, its ON" Montage. The point of the moment is about the purity of Achilles' fury, and what it turns him into. That's the part of it that is awesome.

Establishing categories of critical thought is important, but ultimately an exercise in line drawing. The critics Feeney takes to task argue whether a given film seems gay. In rejecting the contention that male theatergoers constitute "20 million closet cases," Feeney expresses more concern that its audience not seem gay. For myself—a gay man—his closing question hits me in reverse. Shouldn't a guy be able to admire a heroic ideal of masculinity and still be called gay?

If attending a summer blockbuster leads to such crises of identity, maybe we'd all be better off waiting for the DVD. The whole mess elicits some  feminine sympathy from eiruduais:

What a predicament for men (gay or heterosexual) to be in--friendship and the male body is either sexualized or a vehicle for egoism. That's a rather narrow worldview to project on manhood. Not being male myself, I certainly hope that men don't take this out of the theaters and view friendships and their bodies as solely vehicles for self-interest and sexuality--that would strike me as incredibly myopic and sad.

In critical circles, a powerful barrier to masculine introspection is known as the "male gaze." Diablevert accomplishes a rare feat, summarizing this concept without burying it under layers of academic jargon:

Traditionally speaking, straight guys gaze at hotness, they don't worry about looking hot. Both grooming their own bodies for the purpose of another's aesthetic pleasure/sexual desire and appreciating the physical beauty of another man are coded as gay. To be a proper straight guy you're not supposed to notice other guys' hotness nor to effectively be able to beautify yourself. Because the straight guy is always the looker and never the [looked at].

This explanation can seem like a classic case of overanalyzing. Straight men, however, feel a real pressure to "look straight." Convention doesn't quit, even when the ladies, the queers and the film critics aren't around to judge.