A lively tale of a charming bandit and proto-terrorist prompts Mark Simpson to wonder why we’re still thrilled by ruffians.
(Independent on Sunday, 5/1/2003)
Why, after so many years, are we still so hot for outlaws? As popular culture and news bulletins keep reminding us, Rebels, Robin Hoods, bandits, gangsters, serial killers and terrorists continue to exert a sweaty grip on our imaginations.
Is it because, to strike a Nietzschean pose (riding crop in hand), those who are not sadists are necessarily masochists? Are we all secretly itching to be held up, tied up and blown up? Is civilisation such a non-experience that we need a – preferably young, attractive and well-dressed – feral-eyed brute to slap us out of our dullard drowsiness?
Or is it because, having surrendered our own sadism to civilisation, we need someone who will rob and kill on our behalf? Someone who will, in other words, be “free” for us: an emotional lottery winner justifying our own pitiful, ticket-stamping repression – hence the need to make them very, very famous? Are “sociopath” and “psychopath” just names we like to call those who have more guts for life than us, but not enough education to know what we mean?
Jesse James, “last rebel of the American Civil War” and one of the first rebels of the modern age, didn’t have much of an education, but he certainly had an answer. “We are the boys that are hard to handle,” he declared in one of his many swaggering missives to the press, “and will make it hot for the party that ever tries to take us.”
Or, as Robert Pinkerton, the head of the famous Chicago-based detective agency humiliated by James after trying to “take” him, put it:
“His gang killed two of our detectives and I consider JJ the worst man, without any exception, in America. He is utterly devoid of fear and has no more compunction about cold-blooded murder than he has about eating his breakfast.”
High praise indeed from Mr. Pinkerton, whose men firebombed James’ mother in her home, maiming her and killing his young half-brother, and were to become the hired goons of strike-breaking US businessmen.
The passengers on the St Louis-Little Rock express flagged down and boarded at Gads Hill, Missouri, in January 1874 knew better than to try to take on Jesse, an irresistible mixture of sociopath and southern gent. “We do not want to rob workingmen or ladies,” declared the tall, handsome, finely dressed and feral-eyed outlaw to the stunned passengers on the express, “but the money and valuables of the plug-hat gentlemen are what we seek.”
Stunned not just at being held up at gunpoint, but that the gun in their face should belong to the famous Jesse James. As the celebrity outlaw walked down the passenger car, playfully exchanging hats with members of his captive audience, his elder brother Frank recited his favourite author, William Shakespeare, while their bandit buddies busied themselves unburdening the male passengers of their cash and valuables. When one man introduced himself as a minister, they promptly returned his money and asked him to pray for them, like the good Baptist boys they were. Likewise, after pocketing the conductor’s gold watch they returned it sheepishly when the baggage master protested: “For God’s sake, you won’t take it for it is a present.”
After courteously shaking the hand of the engineer and cheekily advising him always to stop at a red flag, the bandits departed on their horses in a cloud of dust and rebel yells. The crew then discovered the final and possibly most important act of the Jesse James Show: a prepared press release left behind with instructions that it be telegraphed to the St Louis Dispatch, a sympathetic Confederate-Democratic newspaper. “The most daring robbery on record!” it began modestly.
“The south bound train on the Iron Mountain railroad was robbed here this morning by five heavily armed men and robbed of dollars — There is a hell of excitement in this part of the country.”
The figure to be filled in the blank space would amount to $2,000 – not a vast sum of money, even back then, especially when divided five ways. However, as was often the case with Jesse’s performances, the hold-up was a priceless public relations coup.
Jesse and Frank were sons of a pro-slavery Baptist preacher who died in 1850 in the California Gold Rush when Jesse was just three, and a fiercely patriotic and dominating Southern mother, Zerelda, whom everyone seems to describe as “formidable”. Both brothers fought in the Civil War (1861- 1865), Jesse joining up at the stripling age of 16, serving with some of the most brutal and successful Confederate guerrillas, or “bushwhackers”. They conducted a war of annihilation against Unionists in Missouri, casually but systematically murdering their Federalist neighbours and freed or runaway blacks.
Missouri was a border state, and hence nowhere was the American Civil War more “civil” – that is to say, terrible. In the war of secession, civilisation lost to its malcontents and Jesse emerged a leader of these: despite the chivalry – and showbiz – of hold-ups like the one at Gads Hill, Pinkerton’s cold assessment of James was on the money.
As TJ Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War , billed as “the first major study of Jesse James in 40 years”, shows, James was both the product of this cataclysmic struggle and its legacy: after the South surrendered at Appomattox, ex-guerrilla banditry became a symbol of Confederate resistance to Reconstruction and the Radical money-men’s plans for emancipation in the South, as well as a political instrument of the Confederate wing of the Democratic Party. Without popular and political support, James’s criminal career would have been cut short much sooner; in fact he was only brought to account – a fellow bandit assassinated him to collect on the $20,000 reward posted by the railroads – long after his popular support and political usefulness had receded.
Stiles argues James was neither a Robin Hood (he didn’t always rob from the rich and certainly did not give to the poor), nor a Wild West figure (he was politically motivated), but instead a proto-terrorist:
“a transitional figure standing between the past and the industrial, violent, media-savvy future, representing the worst aspects of both”.
While this may be a convincing argument, it perhaps mistakes what a Robin Hood or an outlaw – or, for that matter, a terrorist – is. Mr. Hood was popular not because he actually stole from the rich and gave to the poor: rather, his popularity was expressed and excused in the myth of his stealing from the rich and giving to the poor; that is, the fantasy of him stealing and killing on our behalf.
Sure, Jesse James became a political symbol of resistance to Reconstruction, but more profoundly he also became a symbol, as all outlaws do, of resistance to civilisation and its repressions. The political resonance legitimised the enjoyment of his psychopathic freedom, at least to Confederates. Perhaps this is why his reputation of Southern courtliness was so important: courtesy and wisecracking from a man with a gun in his hand is perhaps the greatest expression of freedom, terror and, to ‘noble’ superiority.
Ironically, Jesse himself was anything but free. It was his ability to recognize and play the role assigned to him by society, history and family which guaranteed his lasting fame. Like other famous Good Bad Boy rebels that were to follow in his footsteps, from Elvis to Eminem, it was his momma he had to thank for that showbiz talent. The strength of Jesse’s narcissistic mother-son bond can be estimated by the fact that the woman he married was his first cousin and named “Zerelda” after his mother. As the Kansas City Times wrote of the original “Zee”:
“She is a woman of great dramatic power. The James family are nothing unless dramatic or tragic.”
A heart-warming clip of US Marines entertaining themselves aboard ship with a lucky pink jelly dildo has been doing the rounds on social media.
It appears to depict a deepthroating competition. One won, judging by the ecstatic response of his watching – and videoing – buddies, by a shirtless tached young jarhead, when he swallows the penis-shaped toy, attached by its sucker to a mirror on the mess bulkhead, to the silicone balls.
Here it is on Twitter – 16.9 million views and counting:
The banana curiousness I wrote about a decade ago looks like it has gone way beyond curious – and been shopping online for some proper gear.
Which is a good thing from a Health & Safety perspective. Bananas may be ever-so temptingly phallic, as well as nutritious, cheap, and widely available, but they have a nasty habit of breaking up in your windpipe. A quality sex toy won’t do that – no matter how greedily you throat it.
Although I have no idea about the sexuality of the Marine deepthroat champ in the clip, this is probably yet another manifestation of the shits, giggles, bondings, and possible arousals that bored mostly straight military men get from ‘acting gay’ on and off camera. But gagging here instead of Gaga.
A subject I so very selflessly researched myself some years back. Of many moments to cherish, I shall always remember especially fondly the way the paratroopers earnestly enquired as to which of them sucked my “uncut English cock” best.
Speaking of which, I would like to brag that, based on this clip, US paratroopers have way better technique. Those jarheads are far too excited and breathless over a disappeared seven inch (max) dildo.
How Marine mores change! ‘Rolf’, a seasoned veteran of the Californian gay porn industry who, in the 1960s and 1970s, facilitated introductions between comely Camp Pendleton jarheads and moneyed male Beverly Hills types (a subject he wrote about for Steve Zeeland’s Military Trade), told me by email:
That deep-throating antic might reveal the current Marine generation’s change in attitude toward the serious business of cock-sucking. I note that Steve Zeeland’s books captured echoes of a far older Marine generation’s scorn – scorn for what was doubly taboo. First, to take the role of fellator in cock-sucking was to reveal oneself either as a faggot or a sailor. By contrast, Marines were supposed to confine themselves to the ‘manly’ act of buggery.
But in the late-1990s – as you so vividly know – Dink Flamingo showed us that some U.S. paratroopers not only sucked cock but did so on camera, with obvious pride in their skills. And, with his hasty relocation to San Diego in the early 2000s, Dink showed us that a new generation of Marines seemed just as willing as the paratroopers. The old taboo had disappeared.
You’ll certainly have noticed that not a single Marine among the observers is frowning in disgust or disapproval. Instead, all the faces beam a mixture of amazement and absolute joy, like watching a member of one’s own FC score the most unexpected of goals. It’s a revelation.
To which I replied:
I do remember the quaint Marine taboo on faggoty fellatio – in contrast to the manly business of being buggered. Then there’s also the currency of the insult ‘cocksucker’ in the US – an insult that, like ‘motherfucker’ but more so, has always fascinated me with its positively pornographic detail. We don’t have an equivalent in the UK – except perhaps ‘wanker’, but it’s milder, less descriptive, and anyway describes all men.
What happened, in addition to the decline in sexual taboos in general, was probably porn – which also contributed heavily to the decline in sexual taboos. Straight porn sold cocksucking to straight men.
Perhaps it didn’t need much selling, but as you know, cocksucking is a very important staple of straight porn: essentially the beginning and the end of heterosexual coitus.
“Is this your first time with a guy?” asks Jason solicitously in his Tennessee burr.
“Erm… no,” I stutter, “not exactly…”.
It’s an odd question for me to be asked by a straight paratrooper who is trying to fluff me. But then, this is a rather odd situation.
I am on a bed wedged between not one but two naked fit cute, and ostensibly straight American soldiers in their early twenties, “Jason” and “Carl” who are being very friendly indeed. On camera. And they’re much more ‘up’ for this than I am.
“I’m sorry about this lads” I say, gesturing to my semi, “I’m a bit nervous”.
“You mean it gets bigger dude?” asks Jason, with a forgiving wink and a smile, proving, to my mind at least, that he most definitely isn’t gay.
Then again, this is my first time. It’s my first time in porn, my first time with two paratroopers, straight or otherwise. And the really odd thing is that these guys who have had little or no exposure to the tired codes of gay porn are making it feel, in their joshing, horsing around, try-anything, decidedly non-jaded way, like my first time with a guy.
How did I get here?
Long before the Department of Defense and the global media took an interest earlier this year the ‘art’ films of Dennis Ashe alias ‘Dink Flamingo’ at ActiveDuty.com had become a phenomenon amongst the self-abusing cognoscenti. With ‘stirring’ titles such as ‘Battle Buddies’, ‘Tour of Duty’, ‘Rear March’ and ‘Band of Lovers’, not only do they offer the online voyeur athletic young military guys with military tattoos and military demeanour who actually look the part, but, manfully, they frequently do everything. No ‘tops and bottoms’ sissy role-play for them. The guys in ActiveDuty are videos are impressively versatile, frequently taking on almost any challenge. What’s more, they usually do it with cheeky grins and gosh-darn dude-ness. (Though sometimes it does look more like an endurance test or another assault course than intercourse.)
And, contrary to much of the coverage the story received, they’re not ‘gays in the military’; many if not most of them are straight-identified, some with wives and kids. They’re ‘gay for pay’, even if they look like they’re mostly enjoying a play.
If they’re faking their enthusiasm, they’re doing a much better job than, say, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain: they take it like real troopers; not Hollywood cowboys. There’s a curious blend of innocence and corruption, and genuine excitement to Dink’s deliberately amateurish films. The guys seem to be getting off on the sheer naughtiness of what they’re doing. After all, it’s contrary to both the etiquette of their official sexuality and the Pentagon’s Matronly sex-policing which decrees no sodomy, no adultery, no prostitutes, no porn (so what’s the fucking point of joining the army, dude?). And they get to be that most modern of celebrities, a porn star – rather than just wear the T-shirt.
Somehow I managed to convince myself that this story of straight military men ‘acting gay’ in the form of mansex rather than manicures was something that I, the ‘father’ of the metrosexual and over-keen follower of masculine trends really needed to research. Personally.
So in 2004, with a commission from Salon.com and an introduction from mutual friend and co-author Steve Zeeland (we published a book of salty correspondence called ‘The Queen is Dead‘), I flew to North Carolina to meet Dink, the man behind ActiveDuty and also the director and cameraman who you never see – though you might occasionally glimpse his helping hand – but you always, always hear. Sex-rapping constantly in his tobacco-rich Southern drawl: “I’ll re-spect your boun-dar-ies… would you like some more lube?’ is one of his favourite lines. Usually followed not long after by: “Arch your back, bitch!”.
Picking me up from the airport, the faceless Svengali of military porn turns out to be a short, very stoutly built, affable and charismatic chap in his thirties, with an infectious chuckle-giggle that starts off low but can go mighty high. He’s not exactly what a modern homosexual is supposed to be: “I’m a queen, not a ‘gay man'” he informs me defiantly. But he’s had his revenge. Not only in the form of all the buff military boys he can eat, but also in living the American Dream super-sized. Much of Dink’s childhood was spent in penury but the car he has driven out to meet me in at the airport today is a latest Jaguar convertible – one of several luxury cars in his fleet. He has only been in the military porn business since c.1996, but has been very, very successful, blowing some of his much longer-established competitors out of the water.
Driving back to ‘Camp Flamingo’, the flashing neon signs of churches and strip joints sliding past, Dink tells me how, growing up in a military town and attracted to men, in his late teens and early twenties he began picking up horny military guys – “lots and lots of them!” – in topless dancing bars and adult video arcades. He began filming them for his own pleasure, and theirs – “military guys like to be admired’. Then some friends suggested that there might be a market for these films. “And boy, was there!” But, businessman that he certainly is, Dink isn’t just in this for the money. “This is my job – but, Mark, I LOVE my job! I also love my boys – I feel very mat-ternal towards them. Many of them become good buddies and call me up asking for advice. I cook big Thanksgivings dinners for the guys.”
We pass a particularly ramshackle strip-joint with a sign promising ‘DINNING & DANCING’. “I guess not a lot of dinning goes on there!” chuckles Dink.
Arriving at his house, a sprawling 1960s suburban pile, he tells me a couple of paratroopers are coming over this evening for a shoot. “It’s meant to be a double jerk-off video,” says Dink, “but I think I can turn it into suck and fuck film”. Truth be told, it’s almost certainly a suck-and-fuck film already, but Dink is very good at selling you the narrative of corruption-seduction.
And if he sounds a little blasé about all this, that’s because he is. He claims there are literally too many volunteers for duty on the sodomy front for him to film, even though he films almost every night. He estimates that in total he has filmed “hundreds” of guys. “About 95% of them are straight. And you know what? The straight guys almost always perform better – I guess because they’re not so worried whether the guy they’re with is their ‘type’ or not,” he cackles, only slightly bitterly.
If you wonder how a straight-identified military male could do gay porn consider this: Dink, who has few competitors in Fayetteville, gay or straight, pays his stars the full market rate for gay porn modelling – several hundred dollars (several times the going rate for male models in straight porn). The average paratrooper at Fort Bragg makes between $1,200 and $1,700 a month. So a couple of hours at Camp Flamingo could earn them the equivalent of nearly a month’s pay from Uncle Sam.
In fact, gay porn is often made by models who are not gay. Ex-USMC and veteran porn star Rod Barry, who considered himself straight for many years but who now just considers himself “just sexual”, told me that most of the guys in the adult video industry are straight-identified and many prefer to bottom – “It’s easier. You don’t have to get an erection on camera. Plus, if you ask me, there’s something wrong with a guy that doesn’t like something up his ass.” And as an exclusive top, I couldn’t agree more.
On the other hand, many of these boys are from conservative rural and religious backgrounds where homosexuality is. at the very least, frowned on. Might not this be, I suggest to Dink, a way for them to express their same-sex interest? Dink acknowledges that most of his models are probably ‘curious’ but insists they would likely never go looking for sex with a guy and that, ironically, being paid to appear as actors in a porn film is for them a way to explore that curiosity without necessarily having to own it. “Sometimes I get guys calling me up saying ‘Dink, I want to make another movie’ and you think that it’s not just because they need the money – it’s because they want the experience again.”
But a paratrooper allowing himself to be filmed have sex – clearly, identifiably, contravening the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which bans appearing in porn – seems like a particularly dangerous way to experiment? Dink is very familiar with the UCMJ, but says he’s determined to protect ‘his boys’ as much as he can – or as much as someone filming them having sex and putting it online can. He points out that he was always careful not to mention the Army, or paratroopers, or Fort Bragg on his site. Nor would he allow illegal drugs in his house. And despite the years he’s been in business and the “hundreds” of military men he’s filmed, there has been (until 2006) very little trouble.
“In 2000 A couple of OSI [Office of Special Investigations] guys did come round once,” he told me. “They tried to push their way into the house. I slammed the door in their faces: ‘What do you want? You know you have no jurisdiction here. I’m a civilian.’ They wanted me to show them the model release form for this guy they wanted to kick out. I told them to get lost. They kept hammering on the door. So I grabbed a cane, opened the door and charged them, shouting ‘GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!’ They ran like the wind.”
Imagining Dink in full-frontal cane-wielding mode, I don’t blame them. The investigation fizzled out, apparently without any courts martials or discharges.
“The boys should be here any minute,’ says Dink. Adding, in a precisely-calculated casual style, “would you like to sit in on this shoot as an observer?”
Oh yes, I would, actually.
How does he solicit his talent? “Well, mostly word of mouth now. But in the good ol’ days I would go up to them wherever I found them, including Wal-Mart, and say, ‘have you ever thought about modelling? You have a wonderful face,’ and hand them my card”.
Would they have to be alone? “Nope. Often I go for the best-looking one in a group. They’re usually the leader and if you get him then the others come along too. Plus, you’re flattering a guy by approaching him in front of his buddies and telling him how good-looking he is.”
I meekly suggest that to many people it might seems a very, ahem, brave thing to do, approaching a trained killer like that in broad supermarket-light, often in front of his buddies. “It’s not brave,” counters Dink. “You know what it’s called, honey chile?” he purrs, slipping out of his low, business-like voice into his somewhat higher Mae West-meets-Truman Capote – while cupping his man-breasts. “Hmm? I’ll tell you what it’s called! It’s called LACK!… OF!… SENSE!”
Speaking of which, what about this interview? “Well, I’m sure it will be fine Mark, so long as you don’t mention the town or which base the guys are from or that they are paratroopers. Nobody wants to claim a problem like me unless they’re forced to, you know what I mean?”
‘Jason’ and ‘Carl’, our stars for the night, arrive. Easygoing Southern country boys, in their early twenties, both sport lean, rangy bodies in standard-issue jeans, t-shirts and ball caps – these buddies could be shooting the shit in a pool room or over a pick-up truck. They’re ordinary young American military guys – except that both have both done a porno for Dink before. Last week Jason did a ‘solo’ flick, in which he jerked off to orgasm – while pushing an impressively large dildo up his butt. Apparently this was a few days after his wife had given birth. Perhaps it was his way of sharing the experience – or perhaps it was just a way of helping to pay for it.
Jason is dark and hairy, butch, rambunctious and loud. Carl is quieter, smoother and slightly buck-toothed, a not entirely unattractive flaw. Jason banters with Carl, teasing him, “Your asshole is gonna get torn up bad tonight, dude!” Carl laughs, flicks some ash off his Marlboro, and replies, poker-faced “Nope. I don’t think so. It’s yours that is gonna get reamed!” Then he adds, laughing, “Man, I’m not leaving this house gay tonight!”
Dink makes sure the models are well supplied with Budweiser and viagra, then swiftly sets up lights and a camera, encouraging them to banter more, knowing how much his large and loyal audience appreciates this almost as much as the action. (If their straight boy banter is an act, it’s an extremely convincing one to this cynical homo.)
After his verbal fluffing, Dink tells the models, who are now lazily propped up against the headboard, to start playing with each other, which they do, giggling a little, glancing repeatedly at the straight DVD porn discreetly playing off-camera on a TV by the bed. Then he orders them to ‘start sucking’. Jason warns buck-toothed Carl: “Dude – no teeth, OK?” Then Dink, who perhaps has not entirely abandoned the idea of Carl relinquishing his bubble-butt cherry that evening, directs Jason to ‘rim’ Carl. Jason in his boisterous way decides to improve on this: he stands on the bed, makes Carl do a handstand, then grabs his legs from behind and unflinchingly, heroically follows orders.
The word “freedom” appears frequently in street signs in Fayetteville: ‘Freedom Furniture and Electronics’ and ‘Freedom Paintball’ are just two such I noticed during my return to the city two years later last March shortly after the scandal broke: ‘Seven U.S. soldiers from an elite Airborne division have been charged with “knowingly engaging in sex for money on a public Web site”,’ reported CNN. The men were from Fort Bragg and the website was ActiveDuty.com.
But then, much of Fayetteville is not so much a town as a benign growth on Fort Bragg, one of the largest military bases in the world. Clearly it’s a patriotic town that wants to show support to its Boys, as well as relieve them of their bucks. But there is a slightly camouflaged irony here. After all, Fayetteville is a military town and the US military, though it may see its mission as defending freedom will prosecute its indentured servants for Puritanical crimes that are largely a thing of the past in the country it serves: such as “adultery”, “sodomy” – or being taped while having sex. (Do any civilian Americans have sex nowadays without being taped?)
Those are the charges officially handed down in February to seven young soldiers after an Army investigation established that they had appeared in gay porn. These weren’t just any soldiers however, but elite paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, “America’s Honor Guard”, one of the most heralded units in the military. Four soldiers were given the maximum “non-judicial punishments”: demoted to Private, confined to base for 45 days, given 45 days of extra duty and forced to forfeit half their salaries for two months. They also face discharge. Three others have been named and “shamed” and charged with “pandering”, “sodomy” and “wrongfully engaging in sexual acts with another person while being filmed with the intent of broadcasting the images over the Internet for money.” One has also been charged with “adultery”.
Altogether, the charges for doing gay porn in the US military add up to a potential if unlikely 16 years incarceration [in the event all three plea-bargained and were sentenced to three months]. Followed by dishonourable discharge. Compare the treatment of these young enlisted men, some of whom were veterans of Bush’s (illegal and immoral to many) ‘adventure’ in Iraq, for what they did with their own bodies in their own time out of uniform with, say, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jnr, the man who killed an Iraqi general during interrogation/torture in uniform – no jail-time, no discharge, no demotion, just a $6000 fine.
‘Free’ Fayetteville is not what you’d call conventionally pretty. It’s too… butch for that. Just one road of several leading to the giant base has 35 barber’s shops along it. Bars, strip joints, and ‘military pawn shops’ abound, testament to the day-by-day, night-by-night lives of many military men and their families – and why some extra cash is always tempting. Why not pawn your body? After all, isn’t that what you do when you sign up?
And what bodies! Fayetteville’s soldiers can be painfully, winsomely, devastatingly beautiful. Driving their pick-up trucks and cruising the strip malls in tank-tops and shorts, these young, usually country boys, whose smooth, muscular, tattooed bodies are the instruments of Bush’s foreign policy – and frequently have to pay a very personal, very physical price for it – display a not-so innocent all-American beauty that would steam even Bruce Weber’s lens. Writer and military male admirer Steve Zeeland, a Walt Whitman for our times, describes them perfectly in this passage about young Marines appearing in gay videoporn in the early Nineties at the centre of another scandal:
‘They display a touching abashment, a cocksure bravado, unexpected grace, a blond-trash coarseness, and the desperate horniness of rutting beasts.’ ‘Sometimes,’ he adds, ‘all in the same sequence.’
Military guys and gay porn have a long history. There have been several “gay porn scandals” involving the US military before [see sidebar]. Previous scandals, which were only the tip of the military gay porn iceberg, have generally resulted in non-judicial punishments and a few token, quiet, rushed dismissals that generated minimum publicity. Fully-fledged courts-martials are unusual, not to say reckless, for this kind of offence.
This, however, is the first scandal in wartime – unpopular wartime, when recruitment levels are falling ever shorter. No doubt in the eyes of the Pentagon this scandal makes a poor recruiting ad. Arguably though, it is the unnecessarily harsh scapegoating of these young guys, men who have already risked life and limb for their country, for some consensual, cash-lubricated x-rated horseplay that is the really poor recruiting ad.
Perhaps that other US Army ‘gay porn’ scandal, Abu Ghraib, has something to do with it. After all, these are not images of simulated acts of sodomy but real ones; they’re not coerced but (mostly) enthusiastic; they’re not performed by Iraqi detainees but US soldiers. Meanwhile, at Guantanamo, gay porn has reportedly been used as a torture technique by US military interrogators. As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is not entirely impossible that detainees might have been inadvertently tortured by gay porn featuring US paratroopers. Just one of the surreal paradoxes of the military world which makes you wonder whether gay S/M leather clubs are derivative parodies of masculinity or in fact the original template.
At least the crackdown had not been prompted by my work. After returning home to the UK and delivering my copy my editor at Salon insisted, amongst other things, that Dink ‘prove’ that his guys were ‘really military’. Dink, funnily enough, wasn’t keen on faxing his guys’ military IDs to a New York online magazine and the piece was spiked. According to a source, the real problem was that my editor, who was gay himself but a little uptight, appeared to have been scandalised by the explicitness of my piece and the way I personally, as you will see, ‘crossed the line’. (It was to be the last piece Salon commissioned from me.)
So I filed the article away in a drawer and forget about it. Then two years later, with all those headlines about US PARATROOPERS IN GAY PORN SCANDAL the story had, in a sense, come after me. So did that editor at Salon – who had the impressive gall to email me out of the blue asking if I would agree to “talk to a reporter we’ve assigned to the story.” I demurred and explained that now that the Department of Defense had proved to Salon’s satisfaction that Dink’s models were military after all, I’d be taking my story elsewhere. Somewhere that actually had some money. So with a commission from Conde Nast-owned Details magazine, I returned to Fayetteville to gauge the reaction from soldiers and citizens there to the scandal.
Predictably, it’s hard for some people to understand. “All this gay stuff is something that someone from my generation just doesn’t get,” explains a retired, middle-aged ex-army NCO running a sports supplement shop in town. “To me it’s another sign that this younger generation just aren’t as disciplined. Back in my day we would never have done something that disgraced our uniform like that.”
But most other people in Fayetteville I spoke to were not terribly concerned – or surprised. Many mentioned reports by returning vets of homosexuality among frustrated male soldiers serving in Iraq, where there are almost no women and strict rules against alcohol and pornographic materials. Military divorce rates have skyrocketed with long-term overseas deployments. Perhaps this is the real ‘Brokeback’ story: lonely bored young American soldiers, not cowboys, sharing tents in the middle of nowhere, wondering if they’re going to die tomorrow or merely lose all their limbs, and whether anyone will care.
Two friendly early-twenties military best buddies from Oregon, drinking in a Country and Western Bar, killing time before their third tour of duty in Iraq, told me that they had both been divorced by their wives during their last tour. “Neither of us wanted to go back to living on base so we rented a house together”. It sounds like the perfect marriage, I tease. They look at one another and laugh, but don’t disagree – or smack me on the chin. Times are changing.
Unsurprisingly, none of the military guys I spoke to would talk on the record about Fort Bragg’s gay porn scandal. One did volunteer it made him “want to barf”, but most seemed largely uninterested and much more concerned with pay, with the war, and most of all with a sense of not being valued enough by either the military or the public. Of course, being paid money to take your clothes off and be filmed having sex is one way to feel valued – and more than one soldier told me that they might have considered it themselves: “for the right price.”
For his part, a young gay chap living near Fort Bragg told me: “Most of my buddies are military and they don’t give a shit about me being gay or this so-called scandal. But then,” he added, laughing, “I’m blowing half of them.”
“Fayetteville is not such a strait-laced town as you might think,” explains April, a friendly twenty-something manager of an adult bookstore and video arcade near the gates of Fort Bragg – one of Dink’s old stalking grounds, which, perhaps uniquely in the whole of Fayetteville, features a display of ActiveDuty titles. Under glass. Retailing at $60 a pop.
“For a start, people here are from all over. I’m from New England, but dated a military guy and ended up here. Yeah, the military has old-fashioned regulations, but the boys – well, at lot of them are wild. They’re always getting into trouble: drugs, prostitutes, DUI, rights, you name it. So when you’re living in a military town you have to take a pragmatic view of things. Boys will be boys.”
And do boys? “Yeah, that too! A soldier was telling me how in Iraq they’re living around one another 24-7, they shower together, sleep together for months on end. He told me that you start thinking about stuff after a while.”
Homosociality is sometimes only a dropped-bar of Dial soap away from homosexuality. Witness the convincingly simulated gay gang-bang ‘field fuck’ scene in the movie Jarhead – very ActiveDuty. I put it to April that maybe gay porn isn’t such a big deal to some soldiers because soldiers aren’t so squeamish, so… pussy about dick as civilians. After all, their bodies are already weaponized. “Well yeah,” she says, “they jump out of planes, for god sakes!”.
If masculinity – and joining the military – can be a form of showing off, so I guess is doing gay porn videos.
“I majored in Human Sexuality” says April, “but I’ve learnt a lot more in this place – including that a lot of straight guys have an interest in guy-on-guy stuff. Yeah, they’re usually terrified of admitting it – whereas women together, well, that’s just fine. But I think that’s changing – I think the ‘metrosexual’ stuff is the beginning of that.”
Ah yes, that word again. April is probably right though – even young soldiers, even men whose bodies are ‘weaponised’, have also been immersed in media images of male desirability since birth and, judging by the gym-honed muscles, designer tattoos and fashionable casual wear I’ve seen pimping around Fayetteville, desire to be desired as much as the next metro-guy. As Dink used to whisper in their ear: Have you ever considered modeling?
“A friend of mine, a waitress, recognised one of the guys on the website,” recalls April. “He was, like, sucking two cocks. She asked him ‘How could you do that?!’ ‘It was no big deal,’ he replied, matter of factly. ‘And besides, I got paid.'”
At the centre of this globally-reported scandal, and yet still somehow remaining off-stage ‘somewhere in North Carolina’ and not wishing to aggravate the situation further, is the man I met two years before, Dink Flamingo. The director-cameraman who took the young military men he found in video arcades like April’s and turned them into porn stars, showcasing them in the big video arcade in the sky known as the internet, wouldn’t talk to me on the record on my return trip. Although he did assure me that neither of the models I met were involved in the scandal and were already out of the Army by the time it hit.
TV reporters had been leaning on his doorbell for weeks but he had refused to speak to any member of the press. He obviously didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself in such a small town, but he also seemed to have a genuine desire not to make things worse for ‘his boys’ facing courts-martial and jail-time.
Two years ago though he wouldn’t shut up. Dink is a very talkative, very persuasive man. But, like the military, Dink knows that where guys are concerned the most persuasive thing of all isn’t chatter, or money or flattery but camaraderie. As I experienced first hand during the porn shoot I was supposed to be just ’sitting in’ on….
As I sat on the sofa, watching Jason and Carl perform while I hid behind my notebook, Dink started suggesting, first in jokey fashion, then more seriously, that I join in. “Just for ten minutes or so. It would be great for your story…”.
I tried laughing it off: “Oh I couldn’t, I’m English after all.” But soon the guys started egging me on too.
“C’mon man,” implored Jason, like he was inviting you to arm-wrestle or a drinking competition, “Show us your uncut English cock!”
And almost before you could say, “God save the Queen” I was stripping down to my foreskin.
Now, some cynics might suggest that I did this because I was somehow unprofessionally aroused by the prospect of joining two fit naked young paratroopers in bed. But, alas, on this occasion they’d be wrong. I wasn’t horny, I was terrified. That’s the nature of a dare, however. To not join in would have felt… unmanly. (Though I had a strong suspicion that the guys had been coached beforehand in just how to entrap me).
Besides, Dink was right: it would make for a better, more ‘interactive’ story than simply observing from behind the lines. (Even if it turned out to be too good a story for Salon.)
“This is very brave of you, Mark,” Dink had purred at me as I climbed onto the bed.
“It’s not bravery,” I retorted. “You know what it’s called? It’s called LACK!…OF!…SENSE!”
So the three of us went through most of the gay porn ‘foreplay’ repertoire in almost every queer Rubik’s Cube possibility. But it felt more like horseplay than gay sex. Actually, if felt too friendly to be gay sex. (Even Jason’s deep-throated implorations to, “Yeah, fuck my bitch-ass good!!” seemed to emanate from a different place than, say, Falcon videopacs.)
Though I was still terrified. I had at one point to go to the bathroom to try and furiously fluff myself. When it came to the money shots we all took forever to hit the jackpot, individually – and had to close our eyes and go to our own happy place, Carl covering his face with his hat. Ultimately, even in sex movies, sex is a very private thing. They always edit that part out of porn – not least because it would otherwise make them twice as long, and much too realistic. Even the ‘reality’ type of porn that Dink specialises in is of course not real. It’s showjiz.
After I’d bonded with my co-stars – and towelled off – Jason asked me earnestly: “So tell me man, who was the best at sucking dick, Carl or me?”
“Well, er, I don’t want to hurt any feelings…” I mumbled. “But that would be you, Jason.”
Jason turned to Carl, punched him in the shoulder and crowed, “I told you, dude! I told you I suck dick better than you!”
Carl didn’t seem to be arguing the point.
There’s Something About a Man in Uniform: a brief history of military porn scandals, by Rolf Hardesty
1977 — The Brentwood Scandal: The enterprising little Brentwood Studio, famous for its stable of the most gorgeous of models in that era’s porn (most of whom were active-duty Marines), ceased operation soon after the FBI came to call. The owner joined the San Francisco-based “Falcon Studios”. (The early numbers in Falcon’s DVD catalog feature much of the old Brentwood material.)
1985 — The Kly-Max Studio Scandal: The owner of this tiny studio filmed the self-pleasuring of active-duty Marines, in his Oceanside apartment. Like Travis, he panicked when the FBI came calling, folded his studio, and moved out of state.
1994 –The Bobby of Oceanside Scandal, and The Seabag Scandal: Feisty Filipino Bobby employed a sharp attorney when he began filming active-duty Marines (c.1990) who assured him the Corps had no jurisdiction over him and that the FBI couldn’t charge him with anything if he wasn’t “transporting persons across a state line for immoral purposes”. So Bobby — who appeared in virtually all his videos, interacting with solitary Marines as insertee – simply refused to run and hide, after Oceanside’s weekly newspaper exposed his operation. He’s even rumoured to be still in business. Around the same time, a local TV station in San Diego started a campaign against the “Seabag” military-themed gay porn studio operated by Rick Ford. But, like Bobby, Ford refused to close down.
2000 — The Twentynine Palms/MarineMeat.com Scandal: Amateur wanking videos, shot in a high-desert motel room by Dan Devlin. After some dozen or more sessions, the Corps came calling — whereupon, Dan decamped – literally in the middle of the night. Not for fear of the Corps but it seems for fear of a vengeful assault by the young men whose military careers he’d ruined.
2006 — The Fort Bragg Scandal: At last, a branch of the Army has achieved its own notoriety, thus breaking the monopoly of the Navy and Marine Corps. ActiveDuty proprietor Dink Flamingo, a former lawyer, remains in business, though relocated.
Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film‘Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal NickHaeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .
(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)
Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?
Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.
Stan: Well, you do don’t you?
Ollie: We won’t go into that!
Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?
Stan: You need a baby in your house.
Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?
Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.
Their First Mistake, 1932
SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimension’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’
Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?
Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to confirm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, including: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other intimate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens).
Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’
But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.
In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.
This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’
In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great American Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,
‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’
Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbidden desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discomfort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?
In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.
The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.
Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.
Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them.
This is the other meaning of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.
In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that accompanied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.
Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’.
At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.
In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to successfully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, businessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effectiveness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.
Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.
‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.
The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laughable arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bottom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.
And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruction to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension.
In the anally-fixated, scatological humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun.
If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relationship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.
So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking invalidity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s.
True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.
One American soldier, however, is captured by the Germans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyrannical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guardians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.
The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.
In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bourgeois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offering a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relationship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscription quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.
Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.
Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.
This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)
However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tradition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping.
Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.
It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.
In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault suggested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:
‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.
Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexuality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.
In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed.
Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.
Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp
You may have seen this photo of four young (white) working class lads minding their own business enjoying an evening on the town together, dressed in the way many working class lads dress these days – showing off their ink, their worked-out bodies, and their shaped facial hair. Spornosexuals.
Taken by a stranger a couple of summers ago, it was originally posted by Connor Humpage (on the right) to his Instagram, with the self-mocking caption ‘Tight trousers chose us’. The photo was then hate-memed to death by people who didn’t know anything about them. Except that they could abuse them with impunity.
Initially the remarks and abuse were mostly about their ‘bizarre’ appearance – clearly from extremely-online people who never got out much, even before lockdown. As Connor told The Tab:
The lads were mystified as to why an innocuous picture of them had gone viral in the first place. “I still can’t get my head around why,” says Connor. “It’s just a normal picture with my mates.” Whilst their tight clothes have been mocked, all say they work hard at the gym and just wore normal clothes. “If we were wearing flares or bootcuts we’d get the piss taken out of us,” says Connor.
Well, quite. Every weekend thousands of lads like these decorate city centres across the UK, out for a good time. And perhaps proffering a good time to be had. These particular ornaments were from the Midlands and were on a night out in Birmingham. (The photo seems to be of them outside All Bar One at New Street Station.)
Things took a turn for the even worse when at the height of last year’s BLM demonstrations, their image was appropriated by people making bigoted assumptions about them based entirely on their appearance again – in order to signal moral superiority on social media. Which led to the guys being abused online all over again, one of them even receiving harassing phone calls at work.
One of these memes was tweeted by a (white, gay male) features writer at woke website Vice to his 19.4K followers. It remains up – despite the Tab article last year about the guys’ experience (which includes Connor’s George Floyd/BLM art), and another last month on the BBC website.
One not untypical reply – from an account with a rainbow flag and pronouns in their bio – reads: ‘Every single one of them with their course of antibiotics in their back pocket.’
I’m old enough to remember when gay men were smeared and abused for ‘spreading STDs’. But apparently bigoted slut-shaming of young men you know nothing about is prideful these days, and worthy of 11 likes (including one from the woke gay Vice writer). So long as they’re white, working class and assumed to be heterosexual.
This is just good old-fashioned snobbery – in social justice warrior drag. With a nasty strain of sexual jealousy thrown in. My dear! Have you seen the low-life riff-raff hanging around that awful All Bar One in their vulgar clothes and common, brutish bodies? Ghastly!
The whole demented furore around the photo is essentially a social-media updating of the time the rather plain and dumpy middle-aged middle-class writer Charlton Brooker penned entire column in the Guardian abusing and slut-shaming the underdressed, pumped, young straight(ish) men in Newcastle-based MTV reality show Geordie Shore, as ‘awesomely creepy’, ‘synthetic meat’ and ‘vinyl sex dolls’. But, strangely, had absolutely nothing to say about the equally processed and underdressed women in it.
We’ve also been here before with Vice, before it went woke, back when it was the hipster’s Bible. It was a hilariously sexually confused piece published there some years ago, beating up on ‘sad young douchebags’, which prompted me to rush to their defence: selflessly interposing myself between them and the cruel barbs. It was also when I coined the term ‘spornosexuals’, to emphasise the continuity between metrosexuality and its second-generation, more, ahem, ‘fleshly’ incarnation. As I put it then:
What’s a douchebag? Someone with bigger arms than you, who’s getting more sex than you – and probably earning more than you, despite being considerably less expensively educated than you.
Not to worry – there has however been enormous progress in the years since. Nowadays bitter jealousy is presented as uplifting wokery.
The All Bar One lads got virally memed yet again recently, prompting the current round of media interest. But this time the meme was much more benign, a ‘deep-fake’ TikTok animation of them singing a sea-shanty – which has had 6.9 million views.
Nonetheless, they are once again being ventriloquised – and thoroughly objectified. Albeit in a more sophisticated fashion. The meme is funny because they appear to be convincingly singing the shanty and, like Olde Worlde sailors, they are muscular, have tattoos, ‘silly’ pants and are drinking. But of course, the punchline is that their spornosexuality is a long way from Olde Worlde sailors.
It’s worth noting that sea shanties (a current TikTok craze) are songs from an era when pleasures for the working man were few and far between and ‘grafting’ was hard, and filled almost every daylight hour. This particular shanty, “Soon May the Wellerman Come”, is all about looking forward to that tantalising pleasure:
[c. 1860-70] is a whaling song which has drawn academic praise as “a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom “sugar and tea and rum” provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.”
Pleasure for the working man, now that ‘the tonguin’ is done’, is much easier to come by today – but clearly not everyone is happy about that.
For their part, the much-maligned lads have good-humouredly welcomed the TikTok meme: Connor thinks it’s ‘hilarious’. And are also relieved that it has prompted a completely different kind of response online to the first two waves of memes – friendly comments instead of hateful. As Connor told BBC’s Newsbeat:
“At first we were blown away by how negative everyone was. We didn’t ask for any of this,” he says.
“I think people forget about the people they’re trolling behind their phones or keyboards. We actually are real people and it does affect you.
“It gets to a stage where you don’t even read the comments anymore. You feel sorry for the people trying to ridicule someone just on how they look.”
Jamie, Connor, Kevin and Alex also ended up on one of the UK’s most popular breakfast TV shows, Good Morning Britain, finally talking in their own voices and own words about their experience. Though very briefly and, understandably, somewhat nervously.
Predictably though, it seems to have been mostly an opportunity for presenters, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid to reheat the stale ‘bants’ that would have got them totally cancelled if they used them on a woman guest who had been mobbed online for wearing a fashionably short skirt: ‘Couldn’t you find a pair of trousers that fit, was that the issue?’… ‘Couldn’t you find the right size?’…
‘With a bit of hindsight,’ persists Morgan, 55, clearly unable to help himself, ‘would you have worn different trousers?’
‘Absolutely not,’ replies Jamie. Good for you, fella.
But then, no one – NO ONE – wants to see Morgan’s arse.
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