Side Eye is an occasional Outward column in which we’ll look askance at questionable behavior from fellow members of the queer community. Seen something in LGBTQ-land that deserves a shady squint? Alert email@example.com with “Side Eye” (or just “oh, gurl, did you see”) in the subject line.
In today’s column, we look askance at a vexing, Hollywood-based cluster of man-on-man kissing—an activity we normally applaud, but in this case must submit to a firm inspection.
Bryan Lowder: Andrew, before we get to the weirdness that is this mini-trend of straight actor men kissing each other, we should probably explain to our readers why we are addressing straight people under the Side Eye banner, which was invented for intra-queer analytical shade. Simply put, they are acting like gay people! And since they seem to want to dip their well-appointed toes into our world, I am willing to treat them with the bracing honesty that I would a sister queer.
So, what do we make of all this? It started with a fluffy-headed person called Andrew Garfield kissing Ryan “puppy eyes” Reynolds at the Golden Globes. (The latter man had just lost a category to Ryan Gosling.) That event actually struck me as fairly harmless—I am not at all against men kissing to express friendship or affection. Though it was caught on film, the lip-lock seemed light-hearted and the moment, being at a table and not on stage, private enough. Where I get irritated is later, when Garfield appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show and re-enacted the kiss with the host amid giggly assurances that neither man had a problem with kissing dudes. And then on top of that, the same week we had Bryan Cranston kissing James Corden on the latter’s late-night show with the same goofy “cooties!” energy. Why is this happening? Are we all in middle school again? Will the nut-tapping game be next? I have Thoughts about the why, but I’m curious to hear what your reaction is first.
Andrew Kahn: My visceral reaction is unmitigated annoyance. When I think about it more with my brain, I start to feel a little better. But first the annoyance: I feel a sort of territoriality. For much of the last century—though not all of it—it has been physically dangerous for gay people to show affection, even just to hold hands, in public. For three pairs of straight male celebrities to ape gay intimacy on TV feels like a totally oblivious and disrespectful flaunting of privilege. They have nothing to lose, and perhaps a little to gain, by locking lips and feigning doe eyes. They get to show their audience how fun and uninhibited they are without paying any of the price of being gay in public. I had an extremely close straight friend who used to pull similar stunts, and it would really bother me.
Now I will let my brain speak. For much of the last century—though not all of it—the most culturally prominent depictions of same-sex intimacy happened under the guise of burlesque. Think Some Like It Hot, which disobeyed and actually brought down the Hays Code. Go back further: Think about cross-dressing and accidental same-sex intimacy in Shakespeare and the many tomes of queer theory that have been written about them. This kind of burlesque reflects cultural repression of homosexuality in an obvious way, but also, at its best, suggests that our sexual categories are themselves artificial. If you free yourself, for a second, from your own sexual self-classification, be it gay or straight or anything else, you might discover something interesting.
But I still feel viscerally annoyed that Andrew Garfield, who publicly identifies as straight, gets to do a thing that a star who publicly identifies as gay would not be able to do without real drama and blowback.
Lowder: I think you’ve summarized the ... structural? ... problem at play here really well—this is cute and funny and titillating because WE ALL KNOW that Garfield doesn’t want to take Reynolds back to his place and have anal sex with him. It’s just pretend. If any of these actors were really gay, as you point out, we’d have a very different, and likely hostile, media reaction—because gay men are supposed to keep their paws off the straight boys, you know? While the history queen in me smiles at your recuperative reading of all this as a challenge to the doxa, I fear I can’t really go there with you in this case. This just feels surprisingly retrograde, in a Hangover franchise sort of way, and I don’t get why any of these talented folks are partaking in it. If I had to engage my brain to search for a reason, I guess you could mark it as a particularly gross manifestation of the trendy “bromance” thing. But I’m also wondering if there’s not a touch of something here related to Trump, specifically the all-out assault his candidacy leveraged against “PC culture.” As we’ve seen, both the left and the right are clamoring to blame Black Lives Matter, trans bathroom access, and minorities-asking-for-things-in-general for the country’s ills and Hillary’s loss. Could this little spectacle be a strange, contorted way of showing that Hollywood bros are still cool with a gay joke?
Kahn: That’s interesting, but if that’s the motivation for this behavior I think it’s deeply unconscious. I really don’t see anything malicious or, uh, collaborationist about it. I suspect that these stunts are considerably more upsetting to Mike Pence than they are to you or me. I think they are, if anything, misdirected attempts at showing solidarity. I know for a fact that that’s how the close straight friend I mentioned above envisioned his own same-sex capers.
But yeah, there’s definitely a bromance factor. And I don’t think bromance is altogether bad or retrogressive! Insofar as bromance encourages straight men to rebel against the traditional strictures of masculinity, good for bromance. It is good for the gestures of kissing and hugging and “I love you,” which are deep and polysemic gestures, to be available to as wide a swath of people as possible. I say “I love you” to my straight male friends and they say it to me and some of them even say it to each other. The same friend I keep problematizing was straight, said “I love you” to his male friends, and greatly expanded the capacity of his entire friend group, including me, to convey affection to the people we cherish. These fluidities are all very new and would not have happened, perhaps, without a team effort by both bromance and more subversive queer activism.
We should note, too, that we’ve mostly been talking about boys. The expectations for women around public displays of same-sex intimacy are quite different. Straight guys, it has been said, love seeing ladies get it on. (And gay women, it has been said by The Kids Are All Right, love seeing gay men get it on.) The bounds for female sexual experimentation are wider and differently shaped, no?
Lowder: I admire your generosity! And you’re right, this would be a different discussion if we were talking about women, who have their own vexed history with displays of same-sex affection. But let’s leave that for another day. As I say, I definitely support masculinity becoming less fragile—and much of that has to do with physical touch and displays of emotion. I think you’re almost certainly right that none of this is (consciously) malicious and that all of these folks would call themselves allies to the LGBTQ community. (Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series is keeping the diva tradition alive, for Mariah’s sake.) But framing and reception also matter. Among queers and other allies, perhaps these smooches play as bumbling solidarity, but I fear to the rest of America, they are still “ew gross LMAO” gay jokes. And anyway, if straight actors want to support us, they should just say that. They don’t need to swap spit to make the point—especially when that probably causes more confusion than enlightenment.
Kahn: Agreed. If, however, Andrew Garfield and Ryan Reynolds want to play the nut-tapping game on camera at next year’s Golden Globes, I will have no objections.