TUMBLR – Legitimizing female desire, or: girls who like boys who kiss boys
Posted by Hedwig on July 29, 2011
As you may have noticed, I’ve kind of been sucked into this whole tumblr thing, and it’s kind of glorious and scary at the same time. From an outside perspective, looking just at Notes on Films, it looks like a normal (maybe slightly minimalist) blog, but there’s a whole interface behind it that’s more reminiscent of twitter: people following people, people “liking” posts and re-blogging them, etc. This also means that, like twitter, tumblr is anything but monolithic. If you’d put all the relationships in one of those sparse matrices BF works with and laid it out in graph form, you’d see all kinds of busy, intricately interlinked hubs with barely any connections between them. In what follows, some observations, and the meandering thoughts it inspired on the changes in the way female desire is reflected in current movies/media. Warning: long.
The hub I’m mostly in is the (classic) movie one, which seems to be dominated by fairly young girls (i.e. younger than me), and which is characterized partly by a lot of fawning over male movie stars*. One of the most prominent is current it-boy Michael Fassbender (just do a tumblr search for “sassy Fassy”, if you dare), but what’s most noticeable to me is the sheer diversity that’s on display: the classic heartthrobs make an appearance (Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, etc.), but there’s also tumblrs that feature Gene Kelly over and over, or Buster Keaton, or Robert Donat. There’s one girl who loved Anton Walbrook so much she got a tattoo of his name, and many others. Point is: people who still maintain that woman are “just not that visually motivated” can find literally thousands of counterexamples of tumblr, and that’s a good thing.
Biebers, Pattinsons and Kens on steroids.
Of course, female desire, especially teenage female desire, has been influencing pop culture for ages. In my mom’s time, the Beatles were the recipients of teenage screams; when I was a teenager, it was boybands (who mostly left me cold) and Leonardo diCaprio (who, at the time, didn’t); today, it’s Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson. I can’t say I understand the latest thought, but that’s completely irrelevant: I’m closer to thirty now, and these boys are meant to grace teenage bedrooms, not mine. They’re almost designed for it: blandly handsome (at least in the case of Bieber) and, more importantly, fundamentally non-threatening. They might awaken all sort of sexual desire, but they’re not terribly sexual themselves – in Pattinson’s franchise, he spends most of his time trying to AVOID sex. This plays into the idea that teenage girls are curious but a bit afraid, and well, I don’t really have a problem with that: in my case, that pretty much summed up my attitude.
After growing out of the screaming phase, though, it was apparently believed that woman just – I dunno. Got married? Lost interest in sex? There were heartthrobs, but they were supposed to be attractive because they were charming and sometimes handsome, but even when they were hot, the hotness was not as emphasized as that of any generic love interest. I know, I’m generalizing way too much here, and of course there were many hot stars, but let me remind you that for a long time, romantic comedies were dominated by Tom Hanks.
So I liked it when, in AUSTRALIA, Hugh Jackman had a true beefcake moment, throwing water over himself in slo-mo. I even appreciated the bulked-up men of TROY, more for what they represented than for how they looked. And now, the list is almost endless: THOR gets the camera attention that previously would have been lavished on his love interest, CAPTAIN AMERICA’s pecs are apparently awe-worthy even to the people around him, and not an episode of TRUE BLOOD goes by without at least one of the male protagonists going shirtless.
But let’s turn to TRUE BLOOD, for a second, because it provides the perfect illustration of the problem with this trend: Alcide. For those not watching, he’s a werewolf character, and he takes his shirt off a lot. It’s warranted, due to the changing and stuff, and it reveals an impressive eight-pack, which has only gotten more pronounced over time (you’re welcome). He is a hot dude, no doubt about it – so what’s the problem? Well, part of it is that he’s a werewolf and yet… has a completely hairless chest. This sounds like I’m nitpicking, but it shows just how pervasive the prevalent aesthetic has become: it’s all about smooth chests with rock-hard abs and not even a happy trail in sight. Put the torso’s of THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA next to one another, and I dare you to distinguish them. It was annoying enough that the concept of “hotness” was so narrowly defined and plastic for women, but it seems it’s going in the same direction for men: as the female gaze finally becomes a thing, it becomes more uniform and, well, boring.
And now, for something slightly different, but related…
Girls who like boys who kiss boys.
Guys like to see two girls kiss. This is such a standard trope it’s pretty much accepted as a given, and it really plays into the male gaze, taking female desire and transforming it into something that, once again, comes down to pleasing men. Girls who like to see boys kiss, however? That’s just weird. Right?
Confession time: I find it hot when two hot guys kiss. Don’t know why – though if someone has a coherent explanation for the phenomenon, I’d definitely be interested. I’ve just always liked homo-erotic tension in films and TV-shows, and finding out about slash fiction was – aside from fun – a big relief: I wasn’t such a freak after all. Some woman apparently found the thought of Harry and Draco’s hatred of each other being a disguise for Twoo Wuv so compelling, they wrote whole stories around it. I still don’t know how common it is (some of my friends agree completely, others don’t understand at all), but a faction of GWLBWKBs is definitely present on tumblr – and more and more, we’re being catered too.
Part of it, I think, is because homophobia has become uncool in this past few year**. It’s really a recent phenomenon: remember BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and how disappointing it was that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger apparently felt pressed to re-affirm their heterosexuality over and over again in interviews, with stories about how they prepared their kiss and everything? Now, though, we have Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law practically flirting on the press tour for SHERLOCK HOLMES, and on the press tour for X-MEN Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy were outright teasing the audience about maybe having had sex. I can’t help but think that this is partly because they’ve discovered that it sells: there are apparently enough girls for whom it adds a welcome thrill. Again: I’m not saying homoerotic tension is new, just that I can’t remember it being quite so blatant (and blatantly advertised) before.
Conclusion (yes, I mean there was kind of a point to the ramblings)
I think it’s a good thing that there are so many outlets now for female desire, and that it is more and more catered to even by the mainstream. There is a danger, though, of losing the diversity of tastes that is so apparent on tumblr. It’s nice to see something suggesting a female gaze alongside the male gaze, but let’s not forget the problems that male gaze has had: creating a (plastic, mostly unattainable, bland) narrow ideal that promotes a commodification of human bodies. That’s not been good for women, and it’s not good for guys, either. I’m not saying Chris Hemsworth in Thor wasn’t hot – I’m not saying Megan Fox isn’t hot, either – but it’s a pity to restrict our idea of hotness to them and those resembling them. As for homoerotic tension, I can only encourage its proliferation!
*Don’t get me wrong: these are very knowledgeable cinephiles, many of whom have seen a mind-boggling number of movies and whose opinion I respect. I concentrate on the lust here, but I don’t want to disparage them in any way. I feel kind of uncomfortable saying this, since it’s silly that this disclaimer is necessary at all – I can’t think of a single male critic who never comments on a female stars attractiveness, and this (almost, see: Wells, Jeff) never impungs their credibility.
**And how great is that, seriously? Of course, would be nice if reasons like, oh, plain empathy led to a decrease of homophobia, but it being uncool is probably a lot more efficient.