Full disclosure: I wrote the below article/paper for a Gender in Media course in May of 2012. I had moved to Atlanta a few months earlier, and was *quite* disenchanted by the local Bear scene, or what little there seemed to be. So yeah, there was a healthy dose of angst fueling my writing, but I think the overall conclusion remains valid. You’ll notice that I had to dumb down the introductory material, as I was under a strict word count limit; I felt that the real meat of the argument was more important than providing a detailed origin story.
Looking at this article now, I do feel that I’d perhaps had a bit too much of the “Bear Kool-Aid” – at this point, I don’t really believe there’s a singular Bear “community,” as each city seems to have it’s own definition (something I’ll be exploring in later blog posts). I’ve also had a number of chats with fans of Bear City since, and can see the greater purpose the film served. Do I think it’s a fine piece of modern cinema? No – but it offered some insight (however distorted) into a “greater community” for those who may not have easy physical access to Bear-centric groups and events. At any rate, I hope you enjoy – and as always, please comment, share the article, send questions, etc.
“Representations of Masculinity in Gay ‘Bear’ Media”
Growing out of several gay sub-groups, the gay Bear community arose in the 1980s as a reaction against the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate and weak. Defining themselves as regular guys who just happen to be gay, Bears created a culture which until recently was relatively insignificant in gay-oriented media, and all but invisible in heterosexual popular media. In examining the early history and values of the Bear community alongside more recent examples of Bears in gay media, it becomes clear that a division has occurred. While the Bear community itself remains more or less committed to its original goals and ideals, print and film representations of Bears have more in common with the negative stereotypes traditionally associated with hegemonic masculinity.
In order to best comprehend the implications of this shift in focus, it is first necessary to understand the concept of hegemonic masculinity. In his 1993 article “What is Hegemonic Masculinity” theorist Mike Donaldson explains that hegemonic masculinity is a combination of factors, both social and political, which lead to a broadly accepted notion of masculinity. He states that concepts of masculinity extend beyond merely the individual, incorporating “persuasion of the greater part of the population, particularly through the media.” In this system, men are expected to not only behave in an appropriately “masculine” fashion, but must also convince others that patriarchal dominance is the natural state of society. Donaldson places some emphasis on heterosexual male reactions to homosexuality, noting that a fear and distrust of gay men plays a large role in heterosexual identity. For many straight males, the very idea of homosexuality is repellent. By sharing this view with other heterosexual males, men are able to stake their claim as “real men” in a patriarchal and hegemonic landscape.
Furthering Donaldson’s theory of hegemonic masculinity, gender specialist Sharon R. Bird explores the construction of heterosexual masculine identity in her article “Welcome to the Men’s Club: Homosociality and the Maintenance of Hegemonic Masculinity.” For Bird, hegemonic masculinity is the end product of homosociality, which she defines as “the nonsexual attraction held by men (or women) for members of their own sex.” After a long period of discretely observing heterosexual male bonding behavior, she concluded that there are three main principles which influence homosociality: emotional detachment, competitiveness, and the sexual objectification of women . While these are commonly seen as negative traits, Bird’s study suggests that they are still the dominating influences in male heterosexual social groups. Men must be sensitive, gracious, and respectful of women, they must also be the opposite of these things in order to maintain their social status among other men.
Similar models of behavior also appear frequently in traditional gay male social groups. Sociologist R.W. Connell notes that in response to frequently threatening heterosexual male behavior, gay men often retreat into a “gay network.” Yet within this network, homosocial behaviors very much like those explored by Bird still exist. In the course of repeated interviews with eight openly gay men, Connell encountered “multilateral negotiations of emotional relations in the home and in the sexual marketplace, negotiations of economic and workplace relations, [and] negotiations of authority relations and friendships.” It seems that regardless of sexual orientation, masculine identity is largely a by-product of these complex “negotiations”.
In the often highly critical gay community, where popularity and sexual success is often based on complex social interactions, emotional distance and sexual objectification are not merely negotiation points—they are tools critical to social survival. Not all homosexual men willingly participate in this ultra-competitive lifestyle, of course. In recent decades, a number of gay sub-groups have formed which ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
I joined the Bear community in 1985.
Okay, maybe at eight years old, attending a private Christian school, I didn’t know what a homosexual was, much less a Bear. But I knew I was fat—I knew I was different—and I knew that some of my classmates had incredibly hot dads. In the summer before school started, I gained a lot of weight; looking at school photos from the year before compared to those taken as I ventured off for my first day of school in ’85, one would be hard pressed to see any similarities between the average-sized old me and new-and-improved Fat Kid. I’ve forgotten or blocked out most of my memories of my grade school years, but I do remember the initial reaction of shock from my classmates, followed by immediate and relentless teasing. I never lost that weight; by the time I hit high school I was pushing 200 lbs, and by the time I graduated in 1995 I was at nearly 250 and rocking the world’s scruffiest beard. I was generally miserable throughout my teens—I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and I wrote a lot of tortured poetry. Being a closeted, overweight teenager with a neck beard and acne is no one’s idea of a good time, and frankly I’m still a bit shocked that I even survived. But I made it, thanks to a few good friends and the power of mid-90s alternative rock (thanks, Billy Corgan).
I didn’t officially come out until a few years later—I even had a girlfriend for a while (she looked a bit like Tori Amos, and had a hunky fireman uncle, so it wasn’t ALL bad). In those days, living in the dullest of the dull Detroit suburbs, I took some small comfort in the pages of gay magazines procured from the mom and pop porn shop around the corner.Between Out magazine and the oiled up and occasionally slightly furry models in Honcho, I imagined the “Real Gay World” was a series of porn shoots on cruises and weekly trips to curiously well-maintained leather bars. Eventually, the adult bookstore started carrying BEAR Magazine—it quickly became the only magazine I purchased; I’d dart in every two months, hoping for a new issue, hoping the gorgeous cub cashier was working (he later started visiting me at the drive-through convenience store I worked at, always giving me a hefty tip…I, naturally, was flattered and just clueless enough to never ask him out).
In the pages of BEAR, I saw guys that looked like me, and guys that I was far more attracted to than any of the slick models in traditional magazines. I read articles that didn’t revolve around the best vacation spots; there were articles about music, about small community events, and of course plenty of erotic fiction about truckers, mechanics, and cowboys. In the late 90’s, BEAR magazine was a lifeline for me, and I suspect it served a similar purpose for others in similar situations. Before I even set foot in my first Bear bar, I felt like I was a part of something—something proud yet humble, something that I would be a part of for the rest of my life. I was a Bear, and that was okay.
What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, actually…(to be continued)
Disclaimer: Nothing I say here is meant to be any sort of Bear Gospel truth. I’m writing from MY experience, with no illusion that I represent any or all of the greater community. I welcome comments, discussions, and pie. Definitely pie.
Last night, I attended the Birmingham Brings Broadway event as part of Central Alabama pride. It was an amazing broadway revue that benefited PFLAG Birmingham and Equality Alabama. Bearlebrity reader Blake Britton provided red carpet photography for the event and took some great photos!