Saturday, December 5, 2009

AIDS, Masculinity and the Representation of the (Gay) Body

Aids is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure.- Simon Watney

The body is…directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out certain tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.-Michel Foucault

In a recent blog post entitled, The Absent Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AIDS, Homosexuality and Representation, I discussed a black and white photograph by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres called Untitled from 1991. The image depicts an empty bed consisting of 2 pillows, a sheet and rumpled top sheet torres1 For Gonzalez-Torres, me and many others, this image is a depiction of AIDS that at first glance expressed simply and strongly mourning, loss and death. The image is a memorial to those who have died in the AIDS epidemic and indeed the work was a personal memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’ lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.

But, this photograph is more than just an elegy to Ross and the many others who have died. By not actually depicting a body within the work, (it is merely indicated by the depressions in the 2 pillows) I argued that the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was in the words of art historian and critic Douglas Crimp not only an act of mourning, but also militancy. A4 This simple, quiet image challenges, resists, subverts and exposes the paradigmatic representation of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic when homosexuality and AIDS was routinely and viciously conflated within culture. The dominant image of the disease at that time was a homosexual man, alone, gaunt, covered with Kaposi sarcoma lesions, a victim of his own perverted desires. A photograph of Donald Perlman from 1988 by Nicholas Nixon exemplifies this prevailing depiction. In contrast, the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, by refusing to represent the body or bodies with AIDS is a work of cultural activism which engaged and undermined the authoritative AIDS discourse operative at the moment of its production.

Yet, much has changed since the early days of the epidemic and 1991 when the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was created. Changing medical treatments have allowed those with HIV/AIDS to live longer, more healthier lives. Also, a grass roots movement of people with the disease has struggled and to a great degree succeeded in changing the definition and representation of the disease. The previous paradigm of depicting AIDS such as the Nixon photograph is no longer valid. It can no longer function as the dominant imagistic discourse about the disease even though the conflation of homosexuality and AIDS is still actively in operation.

In this regard, how has AIDS and its evolving nature changed the relationship between gay men, masculinity and the (gay) body? Trevor Hoppe in his blog post, From "Tom of Finland" to "Abercrombie and Fitch" -- Or, Did AIDS Radically Restructure Gay Masculinity? argues that AIDS precipitated a change in the relationship of gay men to masculinity. Before the epidemic in the 1970’s, gay masculinity operated on the level of the performative and the masquerade. tom_of_finland_example-thumb-400x288-232 It was self-reflexive and self-conscious. Hoppe cites the work of Tom of Finland in its combination of hyperbole and eroticism as an example of this performative impulse. He writes, “(Tom of Finland) 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.”

With the advent of AIDS, there was a shift in the relationship of gay men to masculinity. In the face of the epidemic, gayness for political reasons needed to be seen as biological in order to foster a new movement for equal rights. As Hoppe writes, “We needed heterosexuals to believe that we did not choose our sexual predilections, because if we did then AIDS was our punishment…(and) if being gay was the result of some biological origin, then perhaps we deserved legal equality and some protection under the law.” Within this new context, the masculine masquerade of the 1970’s could no longer function because it signaled and heralded gender as performance rather than biological.*

*Of course, this notion of gender is/was already predominant within our culture. I , however, do not want to suggest that I believe gender is natural or that there is an orderly chain of sex/gender/desire in which male sex=masculine=heterosexual. Gender is a social construction. It is not prediscursive; it gains and deploys its meaning within culture.

Instead of the exaggeration and masquerade of Tom of Finland, the Abercrombie and Fitch jock model of masculinity became the new gay paradigm of the (gay) body and (gay) gender. This shift emerged in the 1990’s. The masculinity of this model provided gay men with a representation which was already naturalized (through heterosexuality) and eroticized within culture.abercrombie_ad

I agree with Hoppe generally, but I would also add that the rise of the muscular jock body was also a visceral somatic reaction to the paradigmatic depiction of the AIDS body in the early days of the epidemic. To become muscular, cut, buff and hairless was in part a rejection and transformation of that diseased body which was gaunt, marked with lesions and waiting for death. Muscles became a metaphoric armor against the disease. They signified health, strength and vitality while simultaneously projecting the new (gay) masculinity as exemplified by the Abercrombie and Fitch jock.

This new (gay) body can also be seen in the context of the campaign to end the military ban on gays which gained prominence as an issue when President Clinton entered the White House (and still is today). Besides being a call for equality, the focus on the military ban was also an attempt to replace the (homosexual) body of AIDS with a body of strength, action, patriotism and masculinity. The desire to end the military ban must be seen as a need to overcome images of the sick (homosexual) body that had prevailed since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

But this somatic reaction was also perhaps a result of the disease itself. In order to prevent muscle wasting, many HIV+ men take steroids which have transformed their bodies. In a perverse sense, AIDS has created the new (gay) body archetype, the muscle jock. This new corporeal paradigm works in tandem with what Hoppe sees as the current (gay) masculinity precipitated by the epidemic. Muscles are seen to confirm and display the individual’s masculinity within a biological conception of gender. The muscular body becomes metaphorically an hard, erect penis that believes it possesses the Phallus. This understanding is troubling.

So, is the new paradigm of the (gay) body with(out) AIDS/HIV someone like Jack Mackenroth, openly HIV+, a fashion designer, Project Runway contestant, athlete, Gay Games gold medal winner in swimming and AIDS activist?293_mackenroth_jack_111507 I am not here making any assumptions about the personal or medical life of Mackenroth. Nor am I suggesting that Mackenroth is uncritical about his own muscular body and its relationship to masculinity. He is, however, a fairly visible public figure who is open about his HIV status and has photographically displayed his physique to a great degree. On the level of representation rather than lived experience he could be considered emblematic of this (gay) somatic paradigm which has jack_mackenroth_200907_3continued to be authoritative from its emergence in the 1990’s. His physical display (and accomplishments) are a strong rejection of the (homosexual) AIDS body of the early epidemic and a testament of how people with the disease have changed the definition and understanding of AIDS. Although I would note that AIDS and homosexuality are still intrinsically linked within culture.

But is this (gay) body type still the prevailing one in 2009? This past August, the New York Times published an article entitled "It's Hip to Be Round". The article claimed that bellies were now fashionable among the hipsters of Brooklyn and perhaps among gay men as well. Alan Hicklin, the editor of Out, was quoted in the article, stating, “I sort of think the six-pack abs obsession got so prissy it stopped being masculine. It’s not cool to be seen spending so much time fussing around about your body.” Indeed, Lacan said that bodybuilding is the most feminine of arts, but I find the claims of this article to be a bit incredulous as any gay man with(out) “a body” can probably attest to both in the realm of lived experience and images. On the other hand, although paradigms may reign within representation, actual lived experience differs in terms of who we desire and what we find sexy and erotic, but the archetype still exerts its influence to varying degrees.

The muscle body remains preeminent in mainstream gay culture. Perhaps there has been some shift with the advent of the bear and bear culture. Body hair and facial hair appear to be more popular now, but the emergence and distinction of the “muscle bear” seems to be the same paradigm, just a bit hairier and beefier than the Abercrombie and Fitch model. But, no matter, there is still value placed on muscles as a natural expression and confirmation of its wearer’s masculinity.

But what does it mean when mainstream gay culture fetishizes the straight male jock, his body, his clothes, his masculinity? What does it mean when gay men want to adopt this body and its trappings and see this somatic paradigm as a natural and direct expression of their masculine gender? No one seems to ask what it means, what it does, how it constructs and limits our identities as men who desire men, how it bears traces of homophobia and misogyny and how it makes us uncomfortable with the pansies in all of us.

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