Little of what follows is systematic. With time and patience it might be. I wanted to capture the irrationality and excitement of response, what might be akin to an intellectual erection. On re-reading, I find I seem more flaccid than I would have liked. But I am older and the flaccid does have its pleasures. I would term this a preamble, or the apology before undressing.
* * *
I spent much more time thinking about “gay aesthetics” in my early twenties: I lived in metropolitan areas, I went out to clubs, I actively used the old and new social sites of networking (internet ads, chat rooms, public spaces). At the time, though I barely weighed 150#–I think I ranged between 130 and 145—it was easy to believe that my never overly masculine self (thank you primary school classmates for letting me know I did everything “like a girl”) was captured in the phrase, “no fats or fems.” Those who claimed to be attracted to me labored, I felt, under some misapprehension of who or what I was. I did not know enough then to de-link aesthetics from desire, to register their incommensurability when it counted.
To be sure, there are good reasons for how I felt: I was, at least in those early days, in a new country, whose codes seemed utterly foreign; I had joined undergraduate college culture, a space that reinforces, often without question, the dominant assumptions about attractiveness, in part because it is so fraught with anxiety that it cannot invent its own languages and practices of desire; I was in a predominantly white setting, where I could not experience “being ordinary” as part of my desirability (on this there’s much more to write); I was learning a new language of desire, one quite distinct from the previous religious and social identities I had cultivated.
It was not until the end of my college days and, actually, my move from Pittsburgh to Seattle and Portland, that I would begin to explore other modes of desire, other ways of being available that would fracture what I mistakenly assumed to be the mirror of “dominant” gay aesthetics.
I recount this not because I am fond of positing myself as an example; indeed, little of this account may resonate. But because I want to engage in a dialogue about “gay aesthetics” and “gay desire,” to register how complicated I think these terms might be, and to push toward what might be a more interesting discussion.
(Larry, once again, I am engaging with you on my page. But only because I am sure you do not want me to clog up your page with half-baked ruminations that go on for too long.)
Perhaps it might be appropriate to note that while today’s notions of gay aesthetics may derive from 1970s culture, they are not reducible to it. In fact, the complicated line from 70s gay macho through the post-AIDS steroid-enhanced physique suggests a much more uneven genealogy. And, we need only look at the cover of Robert Reid-Pharr’s latest book to understand the sexual allure of Black Nationalist politics. And here I elide the complex ways that working class bodies became icons of a certain masculinity and sexual freedom. It might be appropriate to note that the 70s body was less a product of one community and identity and, rather, a complex unit that borrowed from ideas of race, class, sexuality, and nation, an appropriation and stylization of available cultural types of masculinity, which is not to say it was purely derivative; rather, it was culturally inventive, parodic, even hyperbolic. I am less interested in tracing this genealogy here, than I am in making a simple claim: “gay aesthetics” today are not reducible to bodies inhabited by gay men, if ever they were.
Our available popular languages of desire are shared across sexualities, races, and ages, and, to my mind, sometimes impoverished by that sharing. What is often considered a “gay” issue, “no fats or fems,” resonates across sexual identification. We have, I think, to contend with its ubiquity in a more fruitful way, though our particular allegiances might be to certain communities. (As an aside, we might also think about the way such desires are complicated by the popular: I find the range of male hip-hop bodies to be incredibly interesting in their refusal to conform to one aesthetic. That’s another issue.)
In addition, we need to think about how this particular shorthand, “no fats or fems,” functions, not simply as a kind of disavowal (I cannot desire what I fear I might be), though that has its merits, but, I think, as a kind of tic that registers, at times, our inability to speak about desire. Even a stated preference for the hefty and the feminine is not without its own stammer. It’s no coincidence, I think, that some of the most successful love songs and sex songs retreat into the non-discursive whoops and squeals, moans and groans of sexual feeling, registering the inability of language to register desire or pleasure. Here, we might imagine a personals ad that reads: “eheheheh ahhhhhh, eeep eeep eeep, huzzah!”
How, for instance, can we speak about the intangible: that “hotness” is often deeply situational, many times unexpected, indeed idiosyncratic; that visual pleasure might be divorced from other kinds of pleasures, there being no necessary correlation (hence my frustration with commentators who believe pretty bodies make for good lovers); that, to paraphrase Wilde, anything can become pleasurable if done enough; that the domain of pleasure shares much with expectation and surprise (hence, again, my frustration at the question, “tell me what you like,” which, I think, attempts to codify what might elude codification; how, for instance, rimming might be wonderful with one person and ho-hum with another and disgusting with yet another, which is not to say that disgust has no place in sexual pleasure [Jonathan Dollimore has a great essay on this]).
There is, to desire, a certain “I don’t know what it is” (I’m not pretentious enough to attempt the French) that eludes discourse. It is how we distinguish, for instance, between two people who look the same, act the same, sound the same, but who elicit completely different reactions. (The smart people who study affect have things to say about this).
Although I support introducing a wider range of body types and manners into discussions of gay aesthetics/gay desire, I am wary that, much like some of the weaker strategies on diversity and multiculturalism, inclusion might be taken to as a closing down rather than opening up, that we might take representation as a solution rather than a provocation to further discussion. (This, of course, is the infamous “I grew up watching the Cosby Show so racism doesn’t exist” mentality.) We might think a little more carefully about how to negotiate the politics of inclusion. (Here, I invoke Kobena Mercer’s powerful essay on Mapplethorpe that Larry knows much better than I, since he actually studies Visuality, whereas I look at pretty pictures).
Finally, to return to Larry, would the inclusion of a diverse range of body types in nude studies alter the nature of “the gaze” or the act of gazing? Apart from demanding inclusion, or representation, what would a true and necessary body politics be? Is a politics of the body the same as a politics of desire? Should desire be politicized? Or, rather, can it be? How might we map a more productive relationship between desire and aesthetics? Do “our” (and we must put pressure on that our) “modes of appreciation work in the service of the narrowest, most trite notions of black masculinity?” (I would question the “trite” as well.)
I am reminded, in closing, of a beautiful porn model hired to dance for a charity event at my “club” in Pittsburgh (my version of “the club,” which everyone seems to have). Much admired during the dance, once he was done, no one seemed to want to talk to him, socialize with him, even approach him. And it wasn’t intimidation. He just seemed to disappear. In part, I ask about the line, or shall we say slash, between aesthetics and desire (aesthetics/desire) to approach an explanation for this phenomenon.