by Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe
Originally posted at Girl w/Pen!
Every year, since 2009, the men of England’s Warwick University’s Rowing Team pose nude together in a series of photos that can be purchased individually or collectively as a calendar. The sales from this calendar go toward supporting their team financially and to raise awareness about bullying and homophobia among youth. This year, however, the team received international attention (prompting the development of a twitter account, a website, and a store to sell the photos and other team paraphernalia—like their 2013 film, “Brokeback Boathouse”). At first glance it may seem surprising that (presumably) straight men would post naked with one another to raise money. But, when looking at other straight, young, white men’s stances on homophobia it becomes clear that, ironically, part of what is happening here is a shoring up of a particular form of heterosexual masculinity. Indeed the Warwick Women’s Rowing Team produced a similar calendar without the same amount of media attention (and the attention they did receive was more often condemnatory).
The attention the Warwick boys received echoes that directed at Seattle-based hip-hop artist Ben Haggerty (Macklemore) upon the release of his hit song “Same Love” in 2012. The song, a ballad of support for gay and lesbian rights, was recorded during the 2012 campaign in Washington state to legalize same-sex marriage. It reached 11 on Billboard’s “Hot 100” list in the U.S., and hit number 1 in both New Zealand and Australia. The single cover art features an image of Ben’s uncle and his partner, Sean. Macklemore, who “outs” himself as straight in the song’s opening, claims that the song grew out of his frustration with hip-hop’s endemic homophobia.*
What do the Warwick University men’s rowing team and Macklemore have in common? They are all young, straight, attractive, white men taking a public stance against homophobia and receiving a lot of credit for it. This development seems to contradict a great deal of theory and research on masculinity (as well as conventional wisdom) which has consistently shown homophobia to be an important way in which young men prove to themselves and others that they are truly masculine (see here, here and here for instance). Upon first glance it seems that Macklemore and the Warwick University Rowers are harbingers of change – young, straight, white men for whom homophobia is unimportant and undesirable. That is, homophobia is no longer a building block of contemporary forms of masculinity. Indeed, such a reading may be part of the story.
There is, however, another way to read this transformation. These young men may be doing what sociologist Laura Hamilton calls, “trading on heterosexuality.” In analyzing the popular phenomenon of same-sex kissing among young women at college parties, Hamilton found that this popular practice of same-sex eroticism is, ironically, consistent with a kind of homophobia. Young women who identified as lesbian (and thus would presumably kiss other women) found these party environments to be unwelcoming and hostile. The explanation for this seeming contradiction, Hamilton argues, lay in the meaning of the act, not the act itself. When heterosexual-identified women kissed, they did so for men’s pleasure. These women “traded on heterosexuality,” strategically relying on their ability to symbolically and performatively indicate their own heterosexual identities (in spite of these same-sex practices) to garner attention, status, and better treatment than other groups of women (such as lesbian women). Other scholars argue that pornographic representations of same-sex sex between women have a similar effect – undergirding the naturalness of heterosexuality by positioning this eroticism for men’s pleasure rather than challenging its inevitability.
Could the Warwick men be doing something analogous? That is, could posing provocatively and sensually to fight homophobia work to undergird their own heterosexuality? Their heterosexuality is so overpowering that any notion they might actually sexually desire one another is laughable. Similarly, Macklemore’s profession of his heterosexuality in “Same Love” actually bolsters his heterosexuality rather than calling it into question. C.J. Pascoe refers to this as a form of “jock insurance.” That is, young men who have (in whatever way) “proven” their (heterosexual) masculine credentials can engage in this sort of gender transgression and remain beyond reproach (see also here). These young men not only “get away” with gender transgressive behavior; their transgressions work in ways that prove exactly how heterosexual they are.
Sociologist Pepper Schwartz argues that for heterosexuality to be successful, it needs to be applauded and celebrated by others (here). The reactions to the Warwick men’s rowing team and Macklemore illustrate a sort of “digital” applause. From twitter, to facebook, to news media, the internet was alive with celebration of good looking, talented straight men’s authentic support for GLB rights. Indeed, for the Warwick team’s and Macklemore’s anti-homophobia to be consistent with heterosexual masculine identities, they need to be interpreted in this way by others.
Public proclamations of support on the part of heterosexual men to end homophobia are significant and important in changing opinion about GLB identities. But, asking what these men are getting out of the performance complicates such an easy analysis. This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobic stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore and the Warwick Rowing Team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobic stance can’t call them into question.
While important steps forward, both Macklemore’s “Same Love” and the Warwick men’s rowing team fundraiser work to individualize a much more complex issue. They ignore the how their performances of protest are – in some ways – produced by the same heteronormative ideals that help us make sense of their anti-homophobic heterosexual performances of masculinity. In the end, they’re actually strategically relying on the very discourse they claim to oppose.
* This assertion that has been critiqued as a narrow and racist reading of what constitutes hip-hop.