Homoerotic Photography & Imagery In 21st Century Pop Culture:
From Cult Status To Mainstream International Multimedia Success
by Maurice Davis
Turn on the television, scan through the channels…it may seem that it is prevalent either subtlety or maybe even overtly in the most popular of shows. Got out to the movies…it would seem that the subtext of it is interwoven throughout today’s most popular films. Open up a favorite fashion, sports and fitness, maybe even a favorite music or entertainment related magazine…yes, most might agree that it is there too. Think of the huge billboards of Times Square in New York City or Piccadilly Circus in London, the designer print ads in magazines or on the internet. To even the casual observer, it would appear that homoerotic imagery is simply and unashamedly a part of worldwide pop culture in the twenty-first century. Cultural observers have noted that homoerotic photography and imagery has changed the face of the twenty-first century and perhaps, opened up some narrow minds in the process to what is and what is not considered beautiful, acceptable and artistically valid.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, most experts and theorists have observed a significant shift in mainstream pop culture attitudes in regards to tolerance and overall acceptance of alternative lifestyles. They also relate that as the second decade of the twenty-first century begins, pop culture seems to be at a cross roads; reassessing what is masculine, what is feminine, what is tolerable, what defines a man or woman, what is appropriate and what is not. Some cultural experts and theorists would even go as far to say that homoerotic photography and imagery has played a major role in breaking down some of these once impenetrable social morays. In the 2010 Academic Paper, “In Between: (Re) Negotiating Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality”, co-authors Emily Chivers Yochim, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication Arts, Vika Gardner, PhD, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Darren Lee Miller, Gallery Director / Assistant Professor of Art, (all of Alleghany College) contend that "If contemporary activist-art-makers stand on the shoulders of those who've come before, then they are also stepping forward to create new foundations for social change" (Yochim, Gardner and Miller 2010). The paper goes on to relate:
Their work helps us to see the gaps in our own understanding and challenges our perceptions about gender, sexuality and ethnicity.
Their artwork serves to remind us that things are not as simple as
gay and straight, male and female, us and them. There are many
spaces in between. (Yochim, Gardner and Miller 2010)
In the latter part of the twentieth century, according to many experts, there were a handful of homoerotic photographers and artists like the late Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Webber, the late Herb Ritts and others who challenged the status quo's perceived beliefs that homoerotic photography and imagery was not art. So-called art critics and journalists of the day dismissed it as trite, trashy, pornographic sleaze that was narcissistic, self-indulgent, and should be relegated to the dark closets, hidden crawl spaces and secret shoe boxes underneath the beds of gay men. This view was perhaps, fueled by the homophobic views and stereotyping which pervaded this and earlier times. In a 2006 article Beauty (Re) Discovers The Male Body: Excerpts from "The Male Body, Lesbian Activist, Feminist and Author, Susan Bordo reports, in the chapter Thanks Calvin!, that “(70's Art Critic) John Ashbery, in New York Magazine, dismissed the entire genre of male nude
In her 1999 book, The Male Body, in a chapter entitled Men On Display, Susan Bordo asserts that "With the male body, the trajectory has been different. Fashion has taken the lead, the movies have followed (Bordo 1999).” She goes on to compare that:
Hollywood may have been a chest-fest in the fifties, but it was male clothing designers who went south and violated the really powerful taboos--not just against the explicit depiction of penises and male bottoms but against the admission of all sorts of forbidden
"feminine"qualities in to mainstream conceptions of manliness.
Some pop culture theorists and experts maintain that in the middle to late nineties to the early twenty-first century, there was a definite cultural-societal paradigm shift in artistic circles; within the high profile world fashion and advertising, with Hollywood, of course, reflecting it all. But most sociological experts would also note, this change also seemed to occur in the minds of the general population worldwide regarding what is accepted as masculine, feminine, sexually attractive, socially appealing, etc., causing a complete reassessment of societal, and more importantly, established sexual-gender roles. Most these same sociological experts would also concur that in the past, women had always been considered overly concerned with appearance and body image, being that women were traditionally seen as the peacocks of the human species; always displaying and competing for the attention-affection-protection of the all powerful man. Suddenly, social theorists observed that an interesting phenomenon developed where men's ideas, heterosexual and otherwise, began to change about what was appropriate male behavior as well as paying more attention to grooming and body image. Some would even argue that unspoken internal questions began to be asked. What was a man? What defines masculinity in modern times?
In a very observant and eruditely written academic paper, “Masculinity, Fashion Consciousness and Homoerotic From A Spatial Angle” (2005), fashion authors and social theorists, Alexander J. Aidan and Frances Ross of the London College Of Fashion @ The University Of The Arts, London declare that:
In doing so, it defines the abstract intersections of extended ambivalent performance spaces in which it relates to the three (modern) typologies of maleness: The New Man, The New Lad (young man) and the Metro-sexual; further positioning that the growing acceptance of homoerotic imagery in an overtly mainstream setting has given birth to the concept of the Zero-Masculine Era. (Aidan and Ross 2005)
Further within the very same paper by Aidan and Ross, the authors quote authors Roper and Tosh, from the 1991 book Manful Assertions: Masculinities In Britain Since 1800 (London-Routledge), who endorse the stance that "Masculinity, like femininity, is a relational construct, incomprehensible apart from the totality of gender relations; and that it is shaped in relation to men's social power (qt’d in Aidan and Ross 2005).” The two go on to elaborate, "In that respect, men accepting fashion (and beauty) as being the norm would mean losing power over women, as they would then be considered the same as women who stereotypically are perceived as being predisposed to excessive interest in their appearance." (Aidan and Ross 2005) Also, in paraphrasing the author’s commentary on the whole metro-sexual phenomenon, the two claim that “today's heterosexual men seek to enhance and maintain their active male roles while also seeking hidden admiration from other men--the dominant ideological power domain." (qt’d in Aidan and Ross 2005)
Though it seems, to many very well-read cultural observers, that great social strides have been made as a direct correlation to the impact of homoerotic photography and imagery, there still seems to be fervent opposition from the
David Leddick's latest photography collective of male nudes entitled The Male Nude: 21st Century Visions, (Universe 2008), Lesbian Activist, Poet and Social Commentator, Margaret Walters eloquently expresses:
For some people, nakedness signifies liberation; a joyful and
un-neurotic sexuality; for others, it stands for licentiousness
which threatens traditional moral standards. Both of these
seemingly contradictory attitudes rest on a common
assumption: That the exposed body is emotionally charged
and potentially subversive. (Walters 2008)
To further illustrate veiled homophobia and opposition to the radical changes in society's overall attitudes towards gender roles and sexuality, which it would seem that homoerotic photography and imagery has had a hand in bringing about, according to Bordo, New York Times critic Gene Thompson once wrote that, "there is something disconcerting about the sight of a man's naked body being presented as a sexual object. He went on to describe the world of homoerotic photography as "closed to most of us, fortunately!" (qtd. in Bardo 2006). Most Madison Avenue advertisers and cultural commentators would agree that what is indeed fortunate, is that Mr. Thompson was way off base in that scathing and short-sighted summary of homoerotic photography. This theory is backed up by the countless articles of cultural archivists as well as pop culture statisticians worldwide. Hollywood insiders would, perhaps, disagree too.
In more recent times, cultural experts have witnessed, with the successes of Hollywood films like openly gay director Gus Van Zandt's powerful biopic MILK, to gay director Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, to original cable television series like HBO's Six Feet Under, Entourage, True Blood, to other cable networks original shows like Starz Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Showtime's The Tudors, that homoerotic imagery and sensibility is referenced throughout, either advertently or inadvertently, supporting not only the new diversity-friendly societal attitudes, but a new almost pan sexual aesthetic. Today, most informed sociologists would concur that it seems that most people have a better understanding that sexuality, or at least what is sexually appealing is more on a spectrum of varying degrees, rather than a myopic polarity as once thought. To some knowledgeable social observers, it seems that most attractive, educated, well-adjusted men and women in modern times are used to attracting a certain amount of attention from both genders, and most do not really mind it. All of these profound shifts in thinking seem to be in direct correlation to the impact of homoerotic photography and imagery in the worldwide multimedia idioms of the early twenty-first century. In Bardo 2006, relating to the Calvin Klein and more risqué Gucci ads, gay theorist Ron Long describes this new aesthetic as:
Lean, taut, sinuous muscles, rather than Schwarzenegger
bulk --points to a "dynamic tension" that the incredible hulks
lack. Stiff, engorged Schwarzenegger bodies are like surrogate
penises; doing nothing but standing there looking massive
with nowhere to go--whereas the athletic muscles of the "new
male aesthetic" seemed designed for movement, for sex. His
body isn't a stand in phallus; rather than he has a penis--the
real thing, not a symbol, and a fairly breathtaking one, clearly
outlined through the soft jersey fabric of the briefs. It seems
likely erect, or perhaps, that's his non-erect size; either way,
there's a substantial presence there which is palpable and very
very male. (qtd. in Bordo 2006)
Homoerotic photographer Bruce Webber, who had been at the vanguard of the rise of homoerotic photography and imagery since the late seventies to the early nineties with the Calvin Klein ads, had another brilliant stoke of creativity in the early 2000's, when the famed photographers services were enlisted by young adult fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, to shoot a series ads which would again change the game and prove controversial as well. Webber shot a series of nude and
Images From Darieu/Delacroixto Robert Mapplethorpe (Columbia/UP 1992), Allen Ellenzweig, who in the book states that "Thomas Eakins' 1885-86 photo and painting, The Swimming Hole is widely known (among artists) as the first true entry for America in homoerotic art." (Ellenzweig 1992) Ellenzweig goes on to point out that Eakins subjects were always "beautiful college age young men (most of which who were his art students) engaged in vigorous nude play out in nature. They have an innocence and clean sexuality about them." (Ellenzweig 1992)
The Abercrombie & Fitch ads became a very successful ad campaign in print as well as via the internet. The ads also received strong backlash from the religious right and child protection groups, claiming that Webber’s images were indecent; the latter group even going as far as accusing Webber of using under aged boys in his photo shoots. Rumors which were later proven to be untrue in court.
In the meantime, photography experts noted that there was a new younger breed of visionary photographic mavericks waiting in the wings to carry the torch forward from the genres’ homoerotic forbearers, but in two distinctly different directions. With all of the strides that had been made up to the late nineties and early twenty-first century, there was still more ground left to be broken. According to the 2004 Dieux Du Stade “Making Of” DVD, directed by highly acclaimed homoerotic artist, fashion and celebrity photograper Francois Rousseau. In 2003, in Paris, the then marginally known artist and photographer (Rousseau) was commissioned by Dieux Du Stade, a very successful side enterprise for the French Rugby and Soccer teams, who had the brilliant idea to shoot a series of nude images of the players for a yearly calendar. By the accounts of the marketing and creative individuals featured on the DVD, this venture had proven to be very lucrative in France as well as a few other European countries; from the year 2000 forward, bringing both sports teams a whole new fan base. Rousseau's shoot was slated for the 2004 calendar. According to various pop culture polls, bookstores, and gay media merchandising websites like TLA Releasing, the 2004 Dieux Du Stade calendar proved to be an even bigger success than all other previous calendars, selling in the millions and reaching international fame. Rousseau's images were the perfect marriage of art, the new male aesthetic and high-end fashion style photography, which drew praise across the board. Francois Rousseau is now in demand; not only commissioned by Dieux Du Stade for a second calendar in 2006, with an accompanying coffee table book entitled Dieux Du Stade: Locker Room Nudes: The French Rugby Team and Their Guests (Universe 2006), which was previously unprecedented for any other Dieux Du Stade photographer before, but Rousseau’s alluringly sexy and innovative homoerotic images were in such demand that "Making Of" videos were also made of the 2004 and 2006 photo shoots. Later on, according to many reliable Hollywood publicists and entertainment related sources, celebrities like Madonna, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Johnny Depp and Adrien Brody were very much interested in Rousseau shooting photography sets and press kits to illuminate the stars high profile images. The fashion world was right on Hollywood's heels. Rousseau has since shot for magazines like GQ, Vogue, Bello Italy, as well as all of the top fashion designers. In early 2006, Rousseau’s 2005 coffee table book Amor Causa: Les Beautitudes (Fitway-Paris 2005), and the resulting art exhibit, held in Paris, became the toast of
Some art and fashion enthusiasts would also argue that around the same time as Francois Rousseau's incendiary photographic style and modern day homoerotic sensibilities were breaking new ground in twenty-first century pop culture, there came an artist and photographer from American shores by the name of Tony Duran who was also beginning to gain notice in fashion, Hollywood and Madison
In concluding, most cultural observers, visual arts, and fashion experts would agree that Francois Rousseau and Tony Duran have both capitalized immensely from twenty-first century pop culture's high demand for both artists brilliantly unique styles of homoerotic imagery which appeal to the new mainstream aesthetic sensibilities, becoming very successful multimedia creative entities who are re-shaping the modern visual aesthetics of fashion, advertising, Hollywood, and pop culture in the twenty-first century. In taking up the creative torch for their fore bearers, both are perhaps, indeed changing perceptions, or at the very least, opening up dialogue among many closed-minded individuals, who had in the past, been automatically dismissive towards any of the subject matter discussed within this thesis.
Alexander J. Aidan and Frances Ross (2006) ,"Masculinity, Fashion Consciousness
and Homoerotic From a Spatial Angle", in GCB - Gender and Consumer Behavior Volume 8, eds. Lorna Stevens and Janet Borgerson, Edinburgh, Scottland : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 14.
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--. Locker Room Nudes: Dieux Du Stade: The Rugby Players of Stade Francais
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