Tag Archives: gay

Mark Simpson: “the world’s most perceptive writer about modern masculinity”

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I have been saying this ever since I bought It’s a queer world in 1996, and I say it every time I read another book, another weblog, every time I see him on one of those otherwise inane  100-top-this or 50-worst-that compilation documentaries. But who am I to say? Thankfully, I have the full weight of the ‘science of cool’ website www.scienceofthetime.com to back me up, since they’ve just listed him as No. 1 of their top reads for the weekend on the topic of males, and published this near-perfect eulogy to my hero:

Mark Simpson is probably the world’s most perceptive – and certainly the wittiest – writer about modern masculinity. Mark Simpson is by far the sharpest mind when it comes to changing masculinities. With a worldwide reputation, a long story of excellence and many international publications he is simply world wide leading.[from www.scienceofthetime.com here – nice article, too]

They go on to give an overview of his books and a selection of his best bits to get you salivating. My favourite is still his article, ‘Walk like a man’, which I quoted in another blog post (Why we need Stonewall), and I still pick up and savour It’s a queer world often. His ideas are so singularly perceptive and against the tide, reading him is strangely like being listened to at the same time as you’re listening to him. And as befits someone who thinks and writes so incisively about masculinities, I have to say I find something deeply erotic in his  unique balance of  insight, intelligence, humour, strength, vulnerability, balls and gentleness, gravitas and worldliness, moral courage and healthy filth. Whenever I read his work, I think of the way that Sontag praises Barthes:

He always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable. […] it is work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favours compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.
(Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes reprinted in Where the stress falls, p. 65)

It’s writing that has a punch and a musicality that inspires me and that I aspire to, even if I rarely achieve it.  Good on you, Mark, and thanks for letting us know.

More sexist crap about ballet

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I was looking for a sentence in Rupert Christiansen’s article in last week’s Telegraph (‘The New Recruits to Ballet’s Boot Camp’) that might serve as an example of a new kind of sexism and homophobia that I see embedded in so much journalism about ‘boys’ ballet’.  I gave up, because I might as well quote the whole article, starting with the title.

The title says it all: you can talk about ballet as long as you couch it in masculine terms: discipline, boots, camps, recruits. Bye bye to all that girly stuff, ballet is for men. If you knew how hard it was, how abusive the training could be (I’m not making it up, the word ‘abuse’ is used further down in the article as a positive term), you might not worry about your son wanting to take it up. “It’s not effete, it’s not wimpy,” says Christiansen, in a paragraph which includes the words “Billy Elliot”, ” highly athletic”, “energised”, “testosterone”, “physicality”, “competitive sport” and “nifty backflippers”.

We move on, predictably, to Balletboyz. Guess what, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt are “visibly and audibly regular guys. Married with children, they radiate a likeably lippy attitude”. Oh well, that’s all right then: as long as they’re not gay or anything. I’m intrigued to know what ‘audibly regular’ means: I guess it means they don’t have a lisp, they swear a bit, and can usefully erase any trace of  the plummy accents they might have picked up in Floral Street, and don’t talk about art or anything effete like that.  Likeably lippy. Regular guys. Good for them. And, continues Christiansen, “they have popularised the idea of men dancing with an intense physical intimacy that doesn’t automatically radiate homoerotic overtones”. I think they have a while to go before Balletboyz could be classed as popular culture, but aside from that,  what’s so wrong with homoerotic overtones? What was Stonewall for?

In any case, the point about overtones, if the metaphor is borrowed from acoustics,  is that they’re overtones, not fundamentals, the things that give a note its timbre rather than its pitch: I wouldn’t mind betting that it’s the homoerotic overtones that make it interesting, otherwise you might just as well watch wrestling. In fact, I’d rather watch wrestling than watch two men dancing without any erotic overtones.

Why do I think this is sexist crap? Well, all those words that envelop male ballet with respectablity such as athletic, physicality, competitive sport and energized are equally true of female dancing, if not more so: after all, in classical ballets, men get an easy ride while the women are dancing away on pointe – it may look pretty, but it’s harder work than gesturing nobly from the side of the stage.  There are at least two solos in the ballet repertoire where the music now used for male solos – big ‘butch’ and loud – was originally written for a woman.

But this is to miss the point again: we shouldn’t have to defend ballet by saying ‘don’t worry, it’s all quite masculine really’, or try to butch it up by aligning it with athletics, machismo, discipline, (sports) science and taking all the eroticism and vulnerability out.  That’s an archaic model of masculinity which is as dull, oppressive and misleading as the ultra-pink and sparkly patina of ballet as seen in popular culture. Celebrating the ‘manliness’ of ballet – and this article is only one of many – is insidiously sexist and homophobic in its implicit denigration of everything conventionally regarded as ‘feminine’, or not conventionally masculine. It’s the small change of hate and violence and it leads nowhere. Oh, and it’s completely untrue, too. Ballet may be tough, it may be physical and challenging, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about men who do it, whether they’re straight or gay.  That’s why they’re interesting  and wonderful people.

If ballet dies as an art form, it will be this that kills it.  There is a side of ballet which disrupts and challenges, offers alternatives to mainstream machismo, and celebrates the beautiful, the exotic and the unusual, femininities and masculinities.   Take that away, and what’s left? Me, I’ll be watching Beautiful People, thank you very much.

Jan Moir and ‘orchestration’

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I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised: how likely was it that Jan Moir would get her knuckles properly rapped for her nasty article on Stephen Gately? It oozed with latent homophobia, prejudice and disgust, but it was like the smell in the fridge that you can’t trace: it stinks, but you can’t find the source. And then you begin to doubt yourself: maybe it’s coming from outside, maybe you’re imagining it, maybe there’s something in your nose, not in the fridge.

That’s just what Moir seemed to imply when she suggested that all the complaints about her article were part of an ‘orchestrated campaign‘: it’s not me, it was them. It’s an odd argument to use against a few thousand people who have elected to complain about you at their own cost,  when you are paid to write opinion pieces for a paper that has a circulation of over 2 million. ( I suppose there are people who actually buy the Daily Mail, but the only time I ever see it is when it is offered free to passengers at airports.)

There are strangely musical resonances in Moir’s argument. What, in fact, is so wrong with ‘orchestration’? If you rally like-minded people to act, surely that’s just democracy in practice. But then in the music world,  orchestrators tend to be held in lower regard than composers, and composers who delegate orchestration to others, even lower. I suspect Moir views herself as a composer in the most vainglorious 19th century sense,  not as an orchestrator. She is the Beethoven of the Daily Mail, her noble thoughts inspiring those who agree with her,  transcending those who don’t: if you don’t agree with her, you simply don’t understand her.

In another (musical) sense, Moir’s dark insinuations about Gateley’s death echo ancient prejudices and homophobic narratives, the archetype of which is Tchaikovsky:

In novels, plays, films and other representations in dominant culture, the homosexual always dies, and it is significant that a fierce controversy has developed around the death of Tchaikovsky.[…] The myth of the tortured, morbid homosexual taking his own shameful life is one kind of essentialist stereotype, but the “gay-positive” image of a homosexual composer of this period experiencing no tensions is equally essentialist and unrealistic.”

Philip Brett & Elizabeth Wood ‘Lesbian & Gay Music’ in Queering the Pitch, p.377

I’m sorry that Moir wasn’t forced into a tighter corner when it came to apologising, but on the other hand, whatever quantity of disapproval and suspicion she thought she could bring to Gateley posthumously has been heaped on her many thousand times over while she is still alive, so it’s not all bad. But it’s shameful that she should have got away with apologising for the ‘ill-timed nature‘ of the article. There is no time ever, in my view, that what she said is acceptable. None of the details which she hypothesized about were of any concern to her or the public. If Gately had not just died, the Mail would not have bothered to publish it because it wouldn’t have been ‘news’.

It wasn’t ill-timed, it was plain ill. The PCC decision may have been the only one they could take, but it (and Moir’s ‘apology’) does not even scratch the surface of what was wrong. No matter, for top-down journalism like Moir’s, the writing is on the wall, I believe; or to put it another way,  the tide is coming in, to borrow a nice metaphor from Anton at enemiesofreason, speaking of the twitter backlash on the Gateley article:

This was just a first skirmish. I’ve said before the tide was coming in – and got roundly slapped round the chops by a crusty old newspaper columnist, in a badly written and poorly researched piece that didn’t do him any favours, for doing so, which if anything confirmed my suspicions. I think that kind of recalcitrance indicates something beyond mere contempt for us, the great unwashed, daring to speak out for ourselves on the issues we want to talk about rather than leaving it to our beloved journalists to do it for us, important and vital though real quality journalism is. I think it indicates fear that the tide really is coming in.

From: PCC & Jan Moir: Business as usual?

Why we need Stonewall

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Out from Stonewall, FIT, a movie for schools to help combat homophobic bullying.  And from me, a related rant.

To help with an essay on gender, music & ballet, a friend helpfully passed on a link to a short  film called Boys in Ballet.  I couldn’t have wished for anything better.  My favourite part (from a gender & music point of view) is the fact that when they show boys dancing, they erase whatever music was really going on, and overlay it with an upbeat soft-rock soundtrack, so that those grand pirouettes are accompanied by electric guitar and drums, the most masculine-gendered of instruments you can think of.  So it’s all right – ballet isn’t about dancing to music (feminine) – especially not the piano (even more feminine – there’s a glimpse of a pianist, but we quickly move away). No, it’s about jumping and turning like an athlete, while the music inside says urban, masculine, heroic.

The message of the film seems to be: it’s OK for to do ballet, because it’s strong, it’s not feminine, it’s definitely not girly. And look, here’s the proof: there’s a big Russian teacher saying ‘strrrong’ a lot. The Russians had an empire, Stalin, a communist regime and a nuclear threat, and they beat up Peter Tatchell  so they must be butch. Good old-fashioned masculinity like Mother Russia used to make.

There’s a lot about how much boys have to jump. Well of course they do, they have to jump so that they don’t look like girls.  It’s good for boys to train together, because then they can compete against each other – and that’s not girly either. And what a wholesome lot they are too: as the small ads say, no fats, no fems. I notice they didn’t give the story to a pretty male reporter, however.

Looking at the guys here, there’s no doubt how hard they’re working: every muscle in their body is straining to look not-gay, but still balletic. Muscular, but not like a squaddie. And then there’s the business of denigrating women, girls and femininity with a caring, manly smile.  No wonder they have to train so hard.  I borrowed that thought from an article by  Mark Simpson titled “Walk like a man”:

“For men, the whole point of walking is not actually to get anywhere, but to demonstrate that they never for a moment forget the deadly seriousness of what they are doing.

This is why new recruits have to spend so much time square-bashing. In being taught how to walk like men instead of boys, recruits are taught how to move like they mean business – that’s to say, how to look like they have rather fewer joints than females and pansies”

Mark Simpson, “Walk Like a Man” from Sex Terror, p.47). For more Mark Simpson, see his blog.

This film – and so many other bits of popular journalism like it – misses the point.  The problem here is misogyny and homophobia,  and a tendency (as Virginia Taylor said in her wonderful 1999  paper  “Respect, Antipathy and Tenderness: Why do girls “Go to ballet”?”) for wider society to regard ‘girly’ as a pejorative term, while ‘boyish’ isn’t. Making men’s dancing more ‘masculine’, as closeted Ted Shawn tried to do (with the result  that it looks like modern day gay porn), is surely veiled misogyny and homophobia, even if the homo that you’re phobic about is yourself.

It’s not just about sex. Stonewall recently published a guide for teachers on homophobic language in the wake of the whole ‘calling something a bit gay’s only a bit of harmless fun, isn’t it?’ debate.  Teachers themselves reported that pupils most affected by homophobic language are the following, in descending order:

  • pupils who are thought to be lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • boys for behaving / acting ‘like girls’
  • pupils who are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • boys who don’t play sports
  • boys who are academic
  • girls for behaving / acting ‘like boys’
  • girls who do play sports
  • pupils whose parents / carers are gay
  • pupils who have gay friends or family

From Stonewall’s  Challenging Homophobic Language, p.5

Yes, we need Stonewall. And strangely enough, I think ballet companies need to address the issue as much as Premier League football, for the sake of their straight dancers as much as the gay ones.

What Grove didn’t tell you…

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What a treat: from the Electronic Musical Review, the entire, unexpurgated text of Philip Brett & Elizabeth Wood’s Lesbian and Gay Music that was edited down to just 2500 words by the editors at the New Grove dictionary of music, with probably the most interesting bits being first to the scalpel.This is also the final chapter in Woods & Brett’s Queering the Pitch 2nd edition, so good value for money.  It’s in here that I found the priceless bit about Tchaikovsky & Saint-Saëns doing a pas de deux together in my last post.