Big Little Banana Book
23 August 2017
anal penetration, Art, artist, big dicks, Bisexuality, blowjob, F. Valentine Hooven III, Female Masculinity, Gay, Gay Leather Fetish, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, giant cocks, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Humor, Jack Halberstam, Kake, leather, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Pornography, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, soldiers, Sucking Cock is a Great Way to Spend a Friday Night, The Advocate, The Complete Kake Comics, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Well of Loneliness, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, Touko Laaksonen, uniforms, Working Class Men
A man goes into a bathroom to take a piss. Another man walks up, whips it out, and starts to pee. The men look at each other’s cocks, smile, and start to fool around. In the middle of their fun another man walks in and joins in, the next man who walks in is a sailor, this is followed by a young student, then a black man in a suit, and finally a biker dressed in rough denim and a sleeveless leather vest. The story ends with all the men fucking butt to butt to butt to butt to butt, and my reader gets it from there. Despite the graphic intensity of this image what is absolutely important about this story, which is told as a series of pictures, is that all the men who are having sex in this bathroom are smiling.
That may not seem terribly important, but for the time this story was drawn out it was not only controversial, it was unprecedented.
I don’t apologize for admitting that I’m a consumer of pornography. And to be perfectly honest, there isn’t anyone living in this contemporary period who should. Pornography has transcended its previous space in society which, until recently, was at the bottom of your dad’s sock drawer or filing cabinets. The days when little boys (and some girls, let’s be fair here) would steal their father’s Playboys and tremble as they turned pages discovering the awesome power of airbrushing has passed, and now generations of little boys (and girls, again, let’s be fair) now have an unlimited supply of images and videos of naked people fucking. Now there’s plenty of discourse about whether this new openness and ease of access to pornography is negatively affecting the population, but that’s for another essay.
I am a consumer of pornography, and while at times this is a fact that can be embarrassing there is one crucial fact that needs to be observed: I watch and consume gay porn because I’m queer and I want to remain faithful to my wife.
It’s taken quite a while to develop the kind of confidence to admit this, both out loud and to millions of anonymous strangers on the internet, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Since I came out I’ve begun to read more and more about bisexual identity, homosexual identity, and more specifically about sexual intimacy between men. My growing Queer library is almost completely dominated by men (phrasing) and one book in this ever-rising mountain of same-sex intimacy has become not only one of my favorite books, but also the most important: The Complete Kake Comics.
Kake, pronounced Kah-ke or cake, dealer’s choice, is the creation of a man by the name of Touko Laaksonen and has become since his early appearance in the 1950s and 60s, and icon of gay and bisexual male culture. With his leather jacket, slim moustache, and black leather cap Kake established a visual ideal from which gay men the world over identified and mimicked in their dress and overall behavior. If the reader has never observed or read any of the Kake comics I’ve provided some images within the body of this essay, some of which are obviously hyperbolic and purely pornographic. I
discovered Kake, and his creator Tom of Finland, completely by accident. I wish there was a dignified way of explaining this serendipity other than “I googled hot guys and look what came out” but, yeah, again, dignity, that’s a thing I don’t possess.
In my defense, however, after discovering the snippets of online content of Tom’s work I managed to track down a complete book on Amazon which I purchased and read. Studying the drawings was entertaining, not just for the obvious perverted reason, but because Tom of Finland manages to illustrate beautiful scenes of men fucking in a wide variety of contexts and locations and each page is beautiful for the perspective and attention to detail. Reading the book I enjoyed seeing these handsome men having fun and enjoying themselves and fucking with abandon because, unlike most of the pornography in the contemporary market, these men looked like they were actually having fun while they fucked. The sex wasn’t about berating your partner, calling him a bitch or a fag, and then relishing in any pain. The sex was just about enjoying yourself.
That, and there’s also lots of gargantuan cocks.
This is a long introduction however to my real focus which is a book that few people will ever actually read. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times by F. Valentine Hooven III is out of print and so it’s unlikely that outside of a few die-hard fans the book will ever be encountered by the casual reader of queer studies. It’s because the book is out of print that I felt compelled to write about it, but also because, as I noted before, Tom’s men are beautiful examples of what sex between men (and sex between people) should look like.
Hooven observes this as he examines Tom’s men:
The Third element of Tom’s art was its sense of humor. For whatever reason, sex and laughter have been linked throughout history. From Lysistrata to Tom Jones to Lolita, the preponderance of the great works of erotica have been comedies and even in the narrower field of hard-core pornography a large number of better works […] combine humor with their graphic depiction of sex. Tom followed
firmly in this tradition and consciously imbued his drawings with a general sense of light-hearted play. No heavy-handed drama, no sense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was permitted to intrude. Even when Tom’s men steal and fight and tie one another up, there is an overall feeling of “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!” (92-3).
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when this paragraph hits a familiar ear. Hooven I would argue accurately sums up the problem of much of the early pornographic writing, or even simply romantic writing, of the time because anyone who has ever read much early queer fiction recognizes that much of it is nothing but queer people mourning their very existence. This isn’t just my own observation, for even queer critics and historians have noted this tragedy in works that are now cannon of queer literature, the most obvious example being Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The novel is a romance that was published in 1928 and told the story of two lesbians, one of which assumed a kind of personality and physical make-up that many would refer to as butch. It’s a mode of being that assumes what some in culture would refer to as “masculine traits” but it retains the gender identification of female. The Well of Loneliness was made a bit of hubbub when it was first published, and in their book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam observes the gender matter in the novel, while observing this narrative trend:
Both novels [The Well of Loneliness & The Picture of Dorian Grey] depict homosexuality as congruent with some kind of gender inversion, and both depict the subterranean worlds of homosexuals as lonely drug dens filled with moral perversion. […] Some lesbian critics have begun the work of recuperating The Well of Loneliness by referencing it as a brave depiction of butch sexuality that replaces a model of lesbianism as a sin with medical and sociological models of the lesbian as invert and victim respectively. (98).
I could get into a long explanation as to why many of the early queer authors were forced to write about homosexual existence as a morbid affair, but the simplest explanation is the fact that homosexuality was still considered either a vice or else a mental disorder. Many homosexual people could face outright persecution, exile from loved ones, incarceration in mental hospitals where all manner of tragedies including lobotomy and electroshock could occur, and outright death sentences. Is it any wonder then that homosexual life, and sex, was often portrayed by writers as gloomy and miserable?
Taking this knowledge into account Tom of Finland’s work is simply incredible for its time. It’s not just that the art work is provocative and satisfies what is sometimes referred to as “hard-core pornography.” One crucial element makes his work as powerful and dynamic as it is and Hooven explains it to his reader.
But there was one aspect of Tom’s work above all the others that made it unforgettable. This element was the very one Tom worked the harde
st to add to his drawings. It was partly a compendium of the three qualities already mentioned: the sense of humor, the feeling of immediacy, and the more and more blatant homosexuality; but it was more than just a sum of these three. It could be as simple as a smile, yet it was one of the hardest things to draw deliberately; Tom managed to portray it. Namely, his men were unmistakably happy.
Happy homosexuals? That was new! (94).
If the reader is not familiar with the history of homosexual people, this sentence could almost be eyerolling in its sentiment. Current media being what it is, many people might immediately push back and wonder why this presentation was so unique. Hell, just a casual glance through the perverted landscape of Tumblr is enough to make anyone question why would the presentation of happy queer men be so shocking or important? My response to this, dear reader, is exactly the last line of Hooven’s analysis. These happy homosexuals were new.
Queer artists interested in presenting homosexual sex, both in terms of serious art as well as pornography owe their freedom in this capacity to Tom of Finland because the man’s work established a precedent where men could illustrate sex between men as something that was fun. And considering the presentation of sex that often occurs in art this is still something relevant. Watching sex scenes in movies and T.V. shows and even in pornography, most of it isn’t about fun. Sex is often just about scratching an itch, completing one’s sense of identity, showing it as part of a lifestyle, filling an emotional void, or at its worse, proving your virility. There really hasn’t been any presentation of sex as something fun as far as I can see apart from a few obscure artists and Tom of Finland.
In fact, to be honest, the last sex scene I watched on television that made it appear that sex was something fun was the sex between Gabe and Samantha White on the Netflix show Dear White People, or the masturbation scene with Lionel. Both of these scenes show people have sex or masturbating and at the end it’s clear that the act was about enjoying yourself and just having fun.
Looking at my own desire I think this is the reason why I keep returning to Tom of Finland over and over again, because while it is just about the itch of masturbation, there’s always another level in it for me. I want my desire to be something healthy, and I want the expression of it to be something fun. Even if I can’t have sex with another man, if I could I wouldn’t want the experience to be just about proving my virility or enjoying a lifestyle. There should be an honest joy in fucking because fucking is supposed to be fun.
It would be enough to observe that Hooven notes Tom’s approach to illustrating gay men as happy and content, but one other characteristic of his work is noted and catalogued in this biography. The reader will probably observe in the images of Tom’s work an attention to clothes, specifically the way men are dressed in jeans, leather, or military uniforms. I’ll admit freely this is also part of the appeal of these men for me. I’ve noted in several essays that growing up I felt less than fully confident in my masculinity, not out of misidentification with my gender, but because I didn’t feel like I was a “real man.” This still exists to some extent (it’s hard to feel any kind of macho when you spend most of your working hours in dress pants and bow-ties), but part of the fun of my bisexuality has been discovering what kind of man turns me on, and it’s almost always working class men.
These men embody the kind of masculine ethos that I lacked with their denim, callused hands, and their down-to-earth attitudes. And, if I can speak plainly, it’s mostly because they’re fucking hot as fuck.
This image of queer men however was something that, much like images of happy men, were unheard of. Queer men of the previous era were resigned to the “invert” or else the “fairy,” characters who were effeminate, flambouyant, and almost always self-loathing. It should be noted that effeminate queer men were and are legitimate personality types, and while not every queer man subscribes to that label no one should feel bad if they are a queen. Still for many men this gender presentation wasn’t true to their selves and so they found in Tom of Finland’s work a mode of dress that matched their perception of what masculinity was.
From 1957 on, Tom’s Work set up a series of powerfully masculine images for large numbers of gay men. In the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay pride, many of those men were no longer satisfied to merely lust after Tom’s men. In the seventies, San Francisco’s “Castro clone” look—Levi’s, boots, and work shirts—swept the gay scene, and gay men began to try to be Tom’s men. Even as the baby-boom gays aged during the eighties, they strove to emulate the Tom of Finland ideal. More and more of them began working out; super-butch haircuts and outfits and attitudes spread in popularity. So Tom’s work in the eighties presented an older but butcher male. In a way, this alteration was a reflection of changes in gay male society that were in turn partially a reflection of Tom’s work in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (164-5).
I’ve divulged a lot about myself in this essay, and probably revealed aspects of my personal life many people were probably happy never knowing, but after I finished Tom of Finland: His Life and Times I realized that I had to write about this book, not just because of what Tom’s work has meant for me and my personal sexual development, but for millions of men across the world. New generations of gay, bisexual, and queer young men will discover the man’s work and find in his images their own erotic truth. They’ll find images of men that satisfy their erotic interest, and some of them will be so inspired that they’ll pick up a pen and start drawing.
Pornography as a mode of art does not receive a great deal of credit or respect, and studying it as I have it’s pretty clear not much of it deserves credit. Pornography as an art is usually a back-scratcher: it’s designed to take care of an itch and then be laid aside and quickly forgotten. Growing up the way I did, I realize however that pornography was an intimate part of my sexual development and has been for millions of young people. As human beings progress forward into this Information age, online pornography is going to shape the sexual lives of young people and so the work of someone like Tom of Finland is not just an esoteric study, it’s something important to talk about.
If people are going to be exposed to pornography at young ages, it’s important then that they understand what healthy sex is. Looking at the landscape of pornography Tom of Finland’s work is a beautiful exception because it encourages people to be themselves and be happy. Rather than present sexuality as something violent or misogynistic, Tom’s work is just sexual play. It’s appeal to the imagination where human beings can just imagine fun situations that can be repeated over and over again by turning the page and seeing a new angle or a new position. It may be pornography, but at least it offers a healthy view into sexuality.
And, if I can make at least one more appeal, it offers a firm reminder that there’s something about a man in uniform.
All quotes taken from Tom of Finland: His Life and Times were provided from the First edition St. Martin’s Press hardback copy.
NOTE: This book is currently out of print, therefore tracking a copy down for yourself will be difficult…unless you follow the link below to amazon where you can buy a copy. Tom of Finland is just too important to be forgotten
And if the reader would be interested in finding The Complete Kake Comics, you can follow the link below:
My reader may have observed me using the word Queer in place of Gay for most of this essay. I’ve decided that whenever I write about same-sex intimacy between men that I will use queer in place of Gay, not out of a desire of homosexual erasure, but more as a way of leveling the playing field. I’m a bisexual man who prefers the term queer because my desire is pretty open ended. Plus, not knowing the sexual identity of my reader I feel queer provides more of a safety net. Writing out “queer man” is far simpler than “gay, bisexual, pansexual, man.”
If you hate me for this please remember that we’re all united in our love of cock. It is, to quote the great philosopher, just fantastic.
I also found, during research, a link to an article about a film recently made about the life of Tom of Finland. If the reader is interested simply follow the link below:
I also found an article published in The Advocate about the lasting importance of Tom of Finland:
Alice Walker, Black Sexuality, Black Woman Sexuality, Black women's narratives, Breasts, Celie and Shug, clitoris, Description of the Female Body, Everyday Use, Female Masturbation, Feminism, Hermoine Didn't Masturbate and Neither Did Jane Eyre, Homosexuality, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Masturbation, Novel, Personal Development, Poetry, Purple, race, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Sexuality of Women in Literature, The Color Purple, Women in Literature
My first thought was why the hell did it take me so long to read this wonderful book? My other thought was that the rain was probably soaking into my coffee, but momentary discomfort was worth it.
I had known about the existence of The Color Purple ever since I was in the sixth grade and had to do a book report over a biography of Steven Spielberg. I delivered my report in my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap and I still remember being the only kid who went ten minutes over the required time. While mostly reading about the films Jurassic Park and JAWS, which tended to interest me far more than any of Spielberg’s other movies, there was a brief mention of the film The Color Purple. That was it for a few years until eventually I arrived in eleventh grade and got into American Literature. It was there that the book made another passing appearance because we read Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use. Somewhere during the lessons on the short story there was a brief biography of Alice Walker and mention that she had published a book which was banned. When asked why the book was my teacher carefully explained that the book was about, or contained, lesbianism. Given the fact I was a teenage boy that should have been enough for me, but again, for whatever reason Miss Walker’s book remained background noise to real concerns like memorizing every episode of Family Guy and beating my friend at Smash Bros. For the record I achieved only ever the first task.
In the end my wife and tweed became the way I finally got around to reading the novel. My wife, for some accurate reason, thought I would good in tweed blazers. Being a poor man, Men’s Warehouse is out of the question and so I get most of my blazers at Goodwill which also usually has a book section. To be fair most of its crap Christian inspirational books, but sometimes you’ll find a real treasure. Having grabbed a nice blue blazer with elbow patches I spotted the novel tucked between Sarah Palins crap memoir (I can’t even remember the title) and a Chicken Soup for the Soul was a clean, crisp paperback copy of The Color Purple.
On a nice rainy day I sat out on my back porch in a fold out lawn chair with my pile of books and a cup of coffee, and in between the long periods where I would just watch the rain soak into the grass and dirt, I opened Walker’s novel and disappeared.
Walker is poet, and that’s not just a cute metaphor for her abilities as a writer, she’s actually a published poet and her prose benefits from this ability. Reading The Color Purple, even though it is written first hand as a series of letters, is like reading a novel written purely in poetry. Some of that might simply be the fact that her characters write in a southern dialect, but I believe the main reason for the beauty of the book is the fact that, the protagonist Celie, as she experiences one heartache after another, writes plainly and honestly about her emotional being so that her story becomes a song. Celie is raped by her father, essentially sold to her new husband, receives beating after beating, and eventually falls in love with a woman named Shug Avery, a jazz singer who actually defies her husband and who manages to help Celie find her own spirit and sense of self-worth.
The relationship between Celie and Shug is what lasted after reading The Color Purple for me, partly because it was a lesbian relationship. My regular reader will remember, as if I’d let them forget, that most of my reading and writing explores human sexuality, and while most of the time that is centered on sex between men, I try to balance it by reading stories of women so I’m not lop-sided. I’m not sure if that metaphor works, or if it’s a metaphor at all. Point is, while reading the novel I focused my attention on the queer relationship between Shug and Celie because it lied at the heart of her personal transformation.
Walker’s writing is still impressive for the fact that she doesn’t hold back when describing sexuality. Unlike other authors who try to veil sex beneath metonymy and color descriptions of flowers “opening,” Walker presents a woman feeling her desire in her body. In one passage Celie is watching the men watching Shug and noticing her own reaction:
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug’s bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do. (81).
This continues later on when Celie narrates the first morning after she and Shug make love:
Grady and Mr. ______ come staggering in round daybreak. Me and shug sound asleep. Her back to me, my arms round her waist. What it like? Little like sleeping with mama, only I can’t hardly remember ever sleeping with her. Little like sleeping with Nettie, only sleeping with Nettie never feel this good. It warm and cushiony, and I feel shug’s big tits flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr. ______ at all. (114).
Speaking of breasts, I’ve been fortunate in my life to spend most of my life surrounded with women. There was a dark period when puberty started where I couldn’t speak with them without mumbling, drooling, and/or generally speaking in tongues, but over time I got over this. To this day I work mostly with women, and most of the people I regularly interact with are women. Because of this I’ve become aware a strange fact: women tend to describe and talk about their bodies differently than men describe them. I believe the word “duh” is appropriate after this statement. The word “suds” and “flop” demonstrate this. When women describe their breasts, either in conversation or writing, it’s almost always different than when men do it. Male writers often use pretty words like “slope” and “rise” when describing ripe, perky breasts or “bubble-boobs” if you prefer. Whereas Walker as a woman describes breasts as “suds” that “flop,” and while a male author might use such language to describe flaccid and therefore grotesque breasts, Walker still manages to present a genuine eroticism.
I don’t want this essay to be nothing but discussion of breasts, but when the opportunity arises, well, I’m still pathetically male.
Reading this brief passage I was struck by how honest Walker paints the body, and how while reading Celie seems to find some kind of happiness in her life. It’s not simply that Celie enjoys having sex with Shug, it’s that the love making and the conversations they share as women help her develop into a more mature person who is more aware of her body and what it can give her.
No passage reveals this as much an early exchange between Shug and Celie when they discuss sex with men and Shug gives Celie one of the most important gifts one woman can give to the other:
She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why Miss Celie. You Make it sould like he going to the toilet on you.
That what it feel likem I say.
She stop laughin.
You never enjoy it at all? She ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy?
Never, I say.
Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin.
What?” I ast.
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter ad then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lots of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work.
Button? Finger and Tongue? My face hot enough to melt itself.
She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it have you?
I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Them my pussy lips be black. Then inside like a wet rose.
I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. Maybe. (77-8).
This is a long passage, but necessary because it was a moment that I had never experienced before while reading any “literary classic.” Oliver Twist never discovered the joys of self-love with his friend Master Bates (that name is real by the way, look it up). Hamlet never touched himself. And looking at other women in fiction there’s a pronounced absence of self-discovery. Jane Eyre never masturbated. Neither did Elizabeth Bennet. Neither did Jo March. And neither did Hermoine Granger. I understand that each of these women were working with different times and paradigms governing women’s body’s in literature, but looking at the literary tradition I was raised on what becomes obviously missing from it to the point of being galling is sexuality. Specifically, exploring sexuality in order to become a more well-rounded person.
Celie, from her experiences with Shug, begins to recognize her own innate strength enough to challenge her husband and discover that he has been hiding her sister’s letters from Africa from her. This discovery prompts the next wave of her emotional development, but this could never have happened if she hadn’t learned to even look at her vulva.
This last act assumes great importance to my reading largely because I’m a guy. If the reader doesn’t realize it, and I’d be terribly sad for them if they didn’t, men and women are different anatomically speaking. Because the penis is on the outside of the body boys never grow up not knowing what their genitals are or what they look like or how to navigate them. Because of this, boys eventually develop into men who are able to master their sexual exploration far easier than women. Put it simply, I never as a boy had to worry about whether I had anything down there because I had been using mine since before I could walk.
But this also creates a real ignorance about women’s anatomy and physiology. Being a boy you don’t recognize that some women struggle to find their clitoris, or that some women can go their entire lives without ever having an orgasm. Reading this passage was illuminating because it was one of the first real instances of a woman discovering her body, and it’s joys, in a real literary novel. As I noted in the previous list women like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Hermoine Granger, and Jo March were women I knew from my literary training, and while they all are wonderful characters with great personalities, they’re all, for the most part, sexless creatures.
I’m not saying that we need to read about Jane’s masturbatory habits or Hermoine seeing her vagina for the first time for a novel to be truly great. The Harry Potter series is wonderful, and Pride & Prejudice is one of the most beautiful novels in human history. But Celie’s story remains an important opportunity for women’s literature to grow and develop because it explores a new territory by introducing a real sensuality that isn’t just veiled or hidden behind pretty words.
The Color Purple is a novel that shows a woman discovering her body, and seeing her sex for the first time Celie can use words like “pussy” and “button” and still leave the reader with a feeling that they have read a beautiful passage about self-discovery. When I finished The Color Purple I realized that I had finished a beautifully written novel, but I had also read one of the few fictional works that was willing to honestly and unashamedly portray a woman’s personal discovery that her sexuality was not simply a procreative act, it could be, in the worlds of the nameless philosopher, “a bit of fun.”
Lesbianism and female masturbation are still new and developing territories in fiction, and so when a novel like Walker’s comes around which manages to explore the territory and make it beautiful is the reader’s time.
Though it should be noted that Pride & Predjudice & Vibrators should be held off until the reader’s taken the time to figure out the position Maryanne and Ginger. Google it.
All passages from The Color Purple were taken from the Harcourt Paperback copy.
While researching this article I found this small blog post which briefly explores how the lesbianism in this book helps shape Celie as a woman. Enjoy.
And, because this it the person I am, I decided to look up some articles about women, sexuality, and masturbation.
Finally, on one last note, shortly after finishing this essay I checked the Poem of the Day for PoetryFoundation.org, and I found this gem which made me think about the nature of purple and thus reflect back on Alice Waker’s beautiful novel. Hope you enjoy:
Book Review, Cloche Hat, Family Guy, Feminism, Gracie and Frankie, Harry Potter, Manipulation of women, Play, Playboy, Queer Theory, Rape, sexual Education, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Superbad, The Big Lebowski, The Penis Book, The Vagina Monologues, Vagina, vaginal imagery, Vibrators, Voldemort, Vulva, What Vaginas Smell Like, What Vaginas would Wear, Women's Bodies
If I had a vagina myself I think it would wear a cloche hat. I know it originally as a “flapper hat,” but that’s far too obscene when discussing women’s lady-bits. I’m thinking that it would have to be light gray with a solid black band and a feather or else a felt flower along the right side to really make everything pop. My vagina would never wear red or pink or maroon hats, for that would be too grotesquely obvious, and in fact the only color near those shades I would ever consider wearing would be a deep wine, and the name of that particular hue would have to be as obscure as the dye that produced it for nothing is too good for my vagina.
This is all a lovely exercise in imagination, but the conflict remains that I have a penis and penises don’t look good in hats.
Like so many things in my life I learned about the Vagina Monologues through Family Guy. If you listen close you can hear thousands of feminist’s cringe after reading that. Given what the Vagina Monologues are actually about, and given the fact that Family Guy has, in the last few seasons, done little to actually help its own reputation as being a den of refuge for sexist humor this cringe isn’t entirely unwarranted. Still the image of a woman’s waist, clad in just a pair of pink panties doing stand-up, was actually pretty funny and a great opportunity to observe the real originality of the early seasons of the show. Whether Family Guy is sexist or not is for the YouTube comment sections, the point is watching that show exposed me first to the idea that The Vagina Monologues was a performance that had something to do with Vaginas and, most assuredly, feminism in some form or capacity.
On that same note before actually sitting down to read the book I had never considered how the smell of vaginas could actually play a role in how a person felt about their own. Likewise, it was a revelatory experience reading the names of various types of clothes women would wear, or dress, their vagina in if they got the chance. Vaginas, and here my maleness really shines, were just internal body parts for women that had to do with sex and childbirth. In my defense, growing up in East Texas I rarely heard the word at all, and in fact actually saying the word aloud was like muttering the name of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, yet another famous V word that really needs to be spoken aloud so that we as a society can eliminate the fear that surrounds it.
Voldemort, I’m talking, writing, about Voldemort. And vaginas.
Eve Ensler, who is the main performer and writer (really compiler) of The Vagina Monologues has a section where she reads just the smells women have offered for vaginas, either their own or others and I have to list out a few because they range from beautiful to morbid to hysterical:
Earth, Wet garbage, God, Water, A Brand-new Morning, Depth, Sweet Ginger, Depends, Me, No Smell, Pineapple, Paloma Picasso, Roses, Yummy candy, Somewhere between fish and lilacs, Peaches, the woods, Strawberry-kiwi tea, Fish, cheese, ocean, sexy, a song, the beginning. (93-95).
She also provides several lists throughout the Monologues and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the list of clothes women provided when asked, “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?”:
A beret, a leather jacket, mink, a pink boa, jeans, a male tuxedo, emeralds, an evening gown, Armani only see-through black underwear, Sequins, Something machine washable, Angora, a red bow, a leopard Hat, a silk kimono, glasses, sweatpants, An electrical shock device to keep unwanted strangers away, a pinafore, a slicker. (15-17).
I’m sure if I read that out loud to my wife she would appreciate the “electrical shock device” but that’s just because she would, if it were possible, be a supervillain that destroyed people for fun. As for myself, like I said above, my vagina would wear a cloche hat and look fabulous while doing so.
These lists though are important to read and listen to, principally because they do not come from just one woman’s imagination. The Vagina Monologues is not so much an original play, as it is the readings of various testimonies of women from all walks of life. Ensler has made a career talking to women and hearing their stories and she repeats their stories for audiences so that they hear from a woman in her 80s who had never even seen her vagina, a six year old girl who says her vagina would smell like snowflakes, survivors of rape-camps during the war and genocide in Bosnia, lesbians and their sexuality, women menstruating, a woman who hated her vagina until she met a man who loved it, a woman who had an orgasm once during her teens and the resulting “flood” embarrassed her too much to worry or think about it for almost 40 years, and the stories could literally fill volumes from that point on.
My reader may interrupt and ask why a whole book is really necessary when talking about Vaginas, but to this complaint I can offer only contempt or pity. You see the most popular essay I have ever written was about dicks. Big black dicks to be precise. Almost every day I pull up White Tower Musings and see that some other person has typed in some charming assortment of words involving “penis,” “black,” “girls fucked,” and “Mandingo.” There is a near constant worship and fascination with penises, which is ironic when you remember the fact that people will seemingly do everything they can to talk about penises without actually saying the words penis. If there is a paranoia or embarrassment with acknowledging vaginas in our culture, there is a dramatic and sometimes violent fear or disgust of the vagina.
Two cultural references probably give better examples than I could. The first is from the movie Superbad. Jonah Hill is defending his free use of pornography and when the issue of penetration comes up he has a line that’s revealing and truly pathetic.
Evan: You could always subscribe to a site like Perfect Ten. I mean that could be anything, it could be a bowling site.
Seth: Yeah, but it doesn’t actually show dick going in which is a huge concern.
Evan: Right, I didn’t realize that.
Seth: Besides, have you ever seen a vagina by itself?
Seth: [shakes his head] Not for me.
Likewise in the movie The Big Lebowski, Julian Moore plays an artist who is probably the exact image of feminism every anti-feminist thinks about when they masturbate to how much they hate feminism. She introduces herself to The Dude before mentioning a particular quality about her art.
Maude Lebowski: Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?
The Dude: Uh, is that what this is a picture of?
Maude Lebowski: In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.
The Dude: Oh yeah?
Maude Lebowski: Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.
The Dude: Johnson?
These two impressions are just microcosms of the larger issue which is that people are often encouraged to ignore and feel repulsed by vaginas at the same time they’re taught to love and adore them. One example of the book provides a beautiful, in every sense of the term, demonstration of this when she interviews a group of senior women:
I interviewed a group of women between the ages of sixty-fie and seventy-five. These interviews were the most poignant of all, possibly because many of the women had never had a vagina interview before. Unfortunately, most of the women in this age group had very little conscious relationship to their vaginas. I felt terribly lucky to have grown up in the feminist era. One women who was seventy-two had never even seen her vagina. She had only touched herself when she was washing in the shower, but never with conscious intention. She had never had an orgasm. At seventy-two she went into therapy, and with encouragement of her therapist, she went home one afternoon by herself, lit some candles, took a bath, played some comforting music, and discovered her vagina. She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried. This monologue is for her. (23-4).
From here if my contester has any other objections I’m afraid they’re going to have to leave them at the door, because after this story The Vagina Monologues aren’t just relevant they’re more important than ever. It’s important that men and women, especially from previous generations to realize, that sexuality is not limited to youth. For my own part I learned this lesson by reading Ensler’s play, but also from the show Gracie and Frankie. Originally when the show began I wanted to watch it because I loved Martin Sheen in West Wing and growing up Dad would often let me watch Law & Order where Sam Watterson was always the most interesting part of the “law” slot. The show is about two couples and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play the wives who find out over dinner that their husbands have been having an affair for close to forty years. Gracie and Frankie, who at first hate each other, begin to live together and so the show follows them as they try to figure out what’s next and where to go after the life you’ve built suddenly stops. The end of the last episode of season two brought the issue of elderly women masturbating however because Frankie receives a vibrator as a gift (I think it’s a Hitachi wand) and she sprains her wrist.
I sound painfully virginal when I write this out, but I didn’t think women over a certain age masturbated. Even if I did, I just didn’t really consider it because being a young man masturbation is a far more personal experience and you usually don’t think about other people masturbating while you’re masturbating. The attitude is, sexist as it may be: of course men masturbate, but why would a woman?
Perhaps this demonstration of masculine solipsism is great Segway into lesbianism.
Ensler interviewed several lesbians, but one in particular came back to the show and told her she hadn’t quite got it right and so Ensler tried again.
“As a lesbian,” she said, “I need you to start from a lesbian-centered place, not framed within a heterosexual context. I did not desire women, for example, because I disliked men. Men weren’t even part of the equation.” She said, “You need to talk about entering into vaginas. You can’t talk about lesbian sex without doing this.
“For example,” she said. “I’m having sex with a woman. She’s inside me. I’m inside me. Fucking myself together with her. There are four fingers inside me; two are hers, two are mine.” (115).
Once again I must profess my ignorance. Being a bisexual man, and former straight man, one is often exposed to “lesbianism” via pornography. This unfortunately perpetuates a bad label because, as boys grow up with the internet as I did, there is cultivated the idea that lesbians are fluid in their sexuality, open and available to men. This is obviously bullshit, but unfortunately nobody teaches you that. Because schools in the United States often cower beneath the might of outraged parents or religiously funded institutions, real healthy sexual education is often a garage enterprise, with the odd sex-ed teacher showing up with condoms and the eventual abused banana. My point is simply this passage was an excellent reminder that lesbianism is misunderstood by many men because no one bothers to teach them that lesbians don’t hate men, they just aren’t part of the equation.
In one of the more powerful portions of the book Ensler discusses her experience interviewing women who survived the “rape-Camps” of Bosnia. The break-up of the former country of Yugoslavia created a political cluster-fuck resulting in an ethnic cleansing and apparently between the bouts of murder a few soldiers established a systemized unit for the consistent rape of women.
I should forewarn my reader that this can be a little rough:
Not since the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me. So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don’t know whether they’re going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain. Six of them, monstrous doctors with black masks shoving bottles up me too. There were sticks and the end of a broom.
Not since I heard the skin tear and made lemon screeching sounds, not since a piece of my vagina came off in my hand, a part of the lip, now one side is completely gone. (63).
Ensler’s recordings here serve a historical and political purpose, but I find that simply writing these stories down is a profoundly human act. It’s also a reminder that I lack a great strength because simply typing them out I had to stop.
I had to stop and cry again. Close to 2000 women were impregnated as a result of rape, because of these camps.
But lest I succumb to the morbid conclusion Ensler notes what The Vagina Monologues mean for her later on:
This is my favorite part about traveling with the work. I get to heat the truly amazing stories. They are told so simply, so matter-of-factly. I am always reminded how extraordinary women’s lives are, and how profound. And I am reminded how isolated women are, and how oppressed they often become in their isolation. How few people they have ever told of their suffering and confusion. How much shame there is surrounding all this. How crucial it is for women to tell their stories, to share them with other people, how our survival as women depends on this dialogue. (98).
I hear the complaint immediately. My reader will contest; this is nothing but typical feminist tripe. Why isn’t there a Penis Monologues? Why isn’t there a show where a man reads testimonies by men about their penises and the funny or sad or terrifying stories about their penises? Why should I care about vaginas?
There’s a problem with this argument and it reeks of bullshit. The contester who makes this argument is often self-serving because they are lazy. If the critic who makes this charge is truly serious and is legitimately concerned about the absence of a Penis Monologues then he should stop complaining and actually do something about. Quit your job, start asking men about their dicks, start recording the stories that they tell, start booking gigs, and make The Penis Monologues a thing. But of course they won’t, because it’s as I said before, the critic who suggests the Vagina Monologues are self-serving feminist tripe are themselves just pedantic cowards who need to feel special shitting on someone else’s good time rather than going out and making something of their own.
My animosity aside, there is tremendous importance to The Vagina Monologues as a performance, but for my own part as a written document. Not everyone will be able to see Ensler’s show. Not everyone will be able to meet her and tell her their story or listen to the testimony of other women. The chance to hear the stories is where everything comes full circle. “The Battle of the Sexes” is an unfortunate lingering marketing ploy that, beneath the layers of bullshit reveals an almost mythic truth, which is that men and women constitute their own communities. Calling The Vagina Monologues feminism is of course fair, but it’s also limiting for at stake is not just whether women are allowed to talk about their genitals as much as men. The Vagina Monologues are the community of women recognizing one another, recognizing their differences, and at the same time finding themselves unified by the very fact they each possess the same, and at the same time not so same, set of genitals. Each woman forms a relationship with her vagina the same way a man does with his penis, and by having a venue from which to talk about their relationship women are able to find one another.
And at first it will just be about the differences but then the similarities. Women who were abused, women who are lesbians, women who never found their vaginas and perhaps still haven’t, these connections and differences make the Vagina something more than a place where babies go in and out, it makes them a symbolic totem from which women can find one another as individuals, as women, and feel connected to someone else.
Ensler ends her introduction with a statement that is almost a manifesto:
In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered. It’s an obvious idea, but like a vagina, it needs great attention and love in order to be revealed. (xxxvi).
One of the best teachers I ever had was a woman, and during one of her lectures (I think it was during Jane Eyre) she told us that consistently it has been observed that the way societies remain advanced is by educating women. Education is a frightening activity, and requires dedication for it often a tedious exercise. Most of all however, it requires real courage that comes from inner strength.
A book like The Vagina Monologues is vital, not simply because it’s a wonderful feminist document, but because it affords women, as well as men, to examine the way we as a society and culture view vaginas, how we treat people who have them. Rather than hiding them, or being disgusted by them, we should at least have the courage to at least talk about them. Even if we’re uncomfortable, even if we’re scared, and even if we’re simply apathetic, we should still try and find the effort to ask a few simple questions about them and listen to what the other has to say. These little questions matter, because they encourage reflection.
They also make me reevaluate the cloche hat, but damn if nothing else looks good on my vagina. And sun hats are just so blasé.
For my own part, I didn’t get a chance to work it into the article. but here’s my vagina story.
For my own part, though I don’t have one myself, vaginas have always been a mystery. When I was five years old I had the nasty habit of going through my father’s stuff. Usually his desk because he has nice pens and pencils. One day, and I’ve never forgotten it, I was looking through his drawers, shortly after he’d told me not to, and when I opened one of them I saw a naked woman resting against an old aluminum radiator. This was my first Playboy magazine. Boys are supposed to go through a “latency period,” a period of life when “girls are gross” and one forms homo-social bonds with other boys. I never had that. My first memory ever was a girl, and looking at the girl on the magazine I felt an overwhelming urge to be “close” somehow. I knew it was bad looking at this, but I stole it under my shirt and snuck off to my room. Once the door was closed I opened the magazine and studied each picture. It was a collection of centerfolds from the late 90s to the original founding of the magazine. There were lots of beautiful women in all manner of poses, and while the breasts were nice to look at what I’ve never been able to let go of is the impression of seeing a woman’s vulva and pubic hair. I didn’t know what a vagina, a vulva, or pubic hair was, but I did know one thing for certain: I liked it.
I would eventually steal this same magazine over and over again through the years until I found the internet, but those women were my first exposure to vaginas. I may have come to find Playboy a rather repulsive institution over the years, but I can never take away that first moment when I realized that women were different and my interest in them seemingly doubled over night.
This is my vagina story.
I found this Daily Show Meme a few years back and I’ve been holding onto it hoping to find a proper place for it. I hope you enjoy, and also allow to reflect on the fact that a woman using the word vagina in a public debate on abortion was barred from speaking. Let that sit in and then reflect on how American culture handles, or doesn’t handle, vaginas in discourse.
I’ve discussed vaginas a lot in this essay and I’ve used a lot of images that are reminiscent of vaginas, or refer to vaginas, or act as pseudo-vaginas, but like The Penis Book before it would be a mistake to be coy about this, so below is an anatomical rendering of a human vagina. No jokes. No funny. Just what it is. And in fact, if you pay attention, this isn’t a vagina at all, this is a vulva, a word which, when often spoken aloud, makes people either giggle, roll their eyes, or become righteously offended.
And that’s the point. Vulva and Vagina are words, medical terms, and we can’t even say the word without either giggling or else feeling repulsed. It’s just a part of the human body and the healthy attitude isn’t to fear it, but to acknowledge it, because the alternative isn’t really working in anyone’s best interest.
Academic Book, Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, Chris Packard, Clint Eastwood, Cowboys, Fievel Goes West, Heath Ledger, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jane Tompkins, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Kirk Douglass, Literature, masculinity, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowyboys, Novella, Queer, Queer Cowboys, Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, The "Fairy", West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns, Wiley Burp, Willie Nelson, Working Class Men
Just remember, Fievel – one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder… head up, eyes steady, heart open… I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.
–Wiley Burp, Fievel Goes West
Like many closeted young men at the time, I refused to believe that cowboys could be gay. I also refused to acknowledge the fact that cowboys had in fact, always been gay, or at least gay in the sense that they exhibit homoerotic tendencies. When Brokeback Mountain came out in theatres, pun not intended, it caused a bit of an uproar and not just because it was one of the few watchable Jake Gyllenhaal movies made at that point, but because it was a mainstream film which featured openly gay, or at least bisexual, characters as the center point of the plot rather than as quirky side characters. An unapologetic gay love story, while not unprecedented, hadn’t reached mainstream audiences in such a way. The fact that Ang Lee dared to make a movie about honest love between two grown men in an atmosphere that satisfied the typical qualities of a Western, a film genre that is looked upon often with reverence despite the fact no film director since Sergio Leone has managed to make one worth watching (unless you count Django Unchained and I do), created a controversy for the reasons I just stated. Brokeback Mountain challenged the masculinity of the Western because it placed two gay, or at least bisexual men, alongside men like Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglass, and, my hero at the time, John Wayne.
As I said before I was closeted at the time and didn’t recognize that that weird feeling I got looking at the underwear models wasn’t just bad Chinese food I had eaten, and so at the time my reaction reeks of the typical desperation of those wanting to cling to the heterosexual identity. Cowboys for me were figures who answered the faults in my own masculinity because I was the young man often presented in cartoons and movies on the sidelines of the game, either my nose stuck in a book, or trying desperately (and pathetically) to talk to girls. Growing up John Wayne was the answer to my masculinity problems, because he seemed to exemplify everything that a man was supposed to be. Men were strong laborers and heroes while gay men were prissy fairies.
Growing up, cutting the shit, and reading lots of books has a remarkable way of changing your perspective. In graduate school I took a Queer theory course (which I won’t shut up about as some readers may know) and while reading Butler, Bersani, Halberstam, and Sedgwick I decided to finally get around to reading Brokeback Mountain, the novella by Annie Proulx. I’d bought the novella for a dollar curious, in every sense of the word, about the book because the media had portrayed the story as a homoerotic pornographic snuff film. I’m sure like many people I was slightly disappointed when I opened the book and discovered, not an erotic masterpiece, but an emotional melodrama that was beautiful to read and imagine in my mind.
It was while studying this book, and producing a paper about how it queered the landscape of the Western, that I realized I was bisexual, came out to a friend and my wife respectively, and began to read more and more about male same-sex intimacy.
There are only two moments of intimacy between Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist described in the novella and Annie Proulx writes it carefully:
Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear-slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s chocked “guns goin off.” Then out, down, and asleep. (14).
It speaks to a heteronormative standard that the first sexual act between these two men is anal sex rather than a blowjob and in truth this is something I’ve struggled with as both a writer, a reader, and a critic of the novella. On the one hand because Annie Proulx is a straight woman it does make sense that physical penetration would be the first sexual scene described, but many literary and queer critics have bashed her for this. The argument is that it perpetuates the idea that the only kind of sex that can occur between men is anal sex because of old heteronormative standards of “active vs passive partner” best exemplified by the bullshit question: “So which one is the girl?” I recognize the problem these critics have with the text and I agree that this does perpetuate a bad example of what male-male sexual behavior is, but at the same time I’m willing to forgive Proulx for this description simply because it makes sense to Ennis and Jack’s economic background.
Ennis and Jack are both working-class men who come from poor upbringings. If I can write this without sounding elitist, it does stand to reason that both of these men are not exactly literate and so the nuances of sexual behavior and identity, or the idea that they could experiment sexually before anal sex occurred, would not be developed. Proulx even goes so far as to write this out herself:
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state […] both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that left him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper and bad tires; when the transmission went there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work. (4-5).
Ennis and Jack are both men who have received little education and come from traditionally heterosexual families, as such both of these men have been raised with the idea of what masculinity is, what it isn’t, and how people are to behave during sex. Looking back at the previous passage, this is clear when Proulx notes that Ennis “ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock.” Ennis in this moment has clearly bought into the idea that men do not “receive” during sex; that their role is instead to be active and penetrate their partner. As such Ennis becomes the “top” and Jack becomes the “bottom.” Both of these characters may be acting a traditionally heteronormative sexual behavior, but I think it would be unfair to expect anything else from these men.
At this point my contester emerges wondering why they should care? I’m not gay and I don’t care how gay people fuck, that’s none of my business. Why should I care about a novella about two gay guys who bang each other in Montana? Where’s the relevance?
The relevance dear contester is in the fact that this sexual act opens up a new territory in the Western which, whether they like it or not, typically defines the American landscape in the minds of countries around the world. The United States contribution to the collected consciousness tends to be “The West” and with that image came the figure of “The Cowboy.” The other night at Graphic Novel Book Club we were reading Preacher and the idea of “The West” came up. While we largely trashed the book, we did all recognize that the image of Texas, specifically cowboys and the desert, are usually the images of America that the rest of the world immediately perceives. Cowboys have come to define what and who Americans are, and anyone from Texas can attest to the fact that Texas itself captures a mythos. Mentioning to someone that you’re from Texas usually creates a strong of questions running from “Do you ride horses to school” to “Is it true everyone has an oil well in their backyard?”
For the record only queers and democrats ride horses, Texans ride longhorn bulls to school, and we each only have one oil well and that’s only so we can fertilize the endless fields of blue bonnets planted by Pecos Bill before he and Elvis Ascended to Enlightenment.
That’s a joke for the record.
My pathetic attempts at humor aside Brokeback Mountain is important because of this perception of the Western as the definitive narrative of the United States. The important idea that emerges after Brokeback Mountain is that “The Cowboy” is no longer only straight. Although there are some who would argue the cowboy never was truly straight in the first place.
Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, apart from having a monstrously long title (though it’s actually relatively short for an academic book, trust me on this) came to my attention after I received a rejection letter for my Brokeback Mountain paper. One of the reviewers mentioned that I had clearly never read Queer Cowboys, and that any work on homoerotic behavior in westerns had to reference this book. I could say that I pouted for several weeks imagining that reviewer’s face as a butt, but given what normally happens after criticism of any of my work I immediately looked for the book and devoured it. Chris Packard’s small tome is a brilliantly researched text that looks at the genre of the Western and observes how homoerotic and homosocial bonds between men in Westerns constitute a queer lifestyle. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying Packard’s book looks at how cowboys were pretty gay in their own right.
Looking at just a small passage from his introduction he makes some compelling points:
Most people, if they think about it at all, assume that the cowboy in history and in literature practiced sexual abstention until he arrived in a town, where he practiced the acceptable vice of dalliances with female prostitutes. But this explanation is counterintuitive and is not supported in the literary record. Particularly in Westerns produced before 1900, references to lusty passions appear regularly, when the cowboy is on the trail with his partners, if one knows how to look for them. In fact, in the often all-male world of the literary West, homoerotic affection holds a favored position. A cowboy’s partner, after all, is his one emotional attachment, aside from his horse, and he will die to preserve the attachment. Affection for women destroys cowboy comunitas and produces children, and both are unwanted hindrances to those who wish to ride the range freely. (3).
Packard’s argument can be clearly seen in Proulx’s novella, for after Jack and Ennis have reconnected after four years apart they retreat to a hotel room and after they make love there’s a brief exchange where Ennis lays it out plain:
“I doubt there’s nothin now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m saying, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment— “grabs us on like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead. There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.” (27).
It’s important to realize that while Proulx is laying out a melodrama about being closeted in rural communities, there’s still this idea that domestic relationships are what’s keeping the two of them apart. Keeping in the tradition of the Western as a genre Garth and Ennis are left unsatisfied in their marriages, not because they don’t care for the women they’ve married, but because the opportunity to have a truly satisfying relationship together is denied to them.
If I can go back to Packard one more time, there is one passage that digs into the conflicts of marriage to the Western:
The trouble with wives in Westerns, at least until Wister’s The Virginian came along, is that they come with a doctrine that annihilates the identity of a free spirited cowboy. But as Wister showed, the partnership with a same-sex friend, when it resembles a marriage, provides safety, consolation, and perhaps erotic satisfaction either prior to marriage or alongside it. (60).
Brokeback Mountain is, as I alluded to it a moment ago, a melodrama because the conflict of the plot is taken almost from Romeo & Juliet. Two lovers discover one another in a fit of passion, express that love through physical acts, get swept up in their love, they are separated, and then ultimately they have to hide their love until it destroys them. For Jack it’s being queer-bashed by his father and some locals, for Ennis it’s a lifetime of isolation and dissatisfaction. Being gay in rural areas is ultimately going to lead to destruction, or at least that seems the end point of the novella, but looking to another book there is a logic behind the destruction of Jack and Ennis.
Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a vital book in my library because it seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t pluck it off the shelf to read or transcribe some quote from it. When I was actually writing my original Brokeback Mountain paper I cited heavily from it largely because Tompkins is a damn good writer, and partly because she opened my eyes to many of the tropes of standard Westerns I’d been watching and then reading for years.
In one passage she lays out a central concern for genre:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and antifeminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. (28).
And in a later passage she explains out part of the embedded homoeroticism:
In the course of these struggles the frequently forms a bond with another man–sometimes his rival, more often a comrade–a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the motions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action–usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (39).
And I suppose, with that in hand, my contester may still wonder then why they should bother reading it, but the previous quotes should be enough to explain. Brokeback Mountain is a book which, by exploring the romance between Ennis and Jack has not only allowed a part of the Western that was always there to “come-out,” it does so while also following the standard “rules” that makes the genre what it is.
For my own part it goes back to the early passages of Brokeback Mountain when Jack and Ennis are watching the sheep and falling and love:
As it did go. They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but our ours’ (15)
I wouldn’t realize that I was bisexual until a year ago and this knowledge is troubling to me. Growing up I always felt a sense of lacking in myself and I answered that largely by watching Westerns with my dad. Most of them John Wayne films, but there was also Feivel Goes West. The men in those movies, with their pistols, quick hands, horses, and cynical wisdom about humanity seemed like the kind of men I wanted to be when I grew up, and when I made my discovery there was some part of me that felt that lacking again. Brokeback Mountain checks that resolve however, for it in effect levels the playing field. While the novella may be a melodrama about the tragedy of being gay, Ennis and Jack do queer the Western genre by their very existence. Looking over articles and academic books about the genre I became more and more aware as well that cowboys weren’t the sole property of white male heterosexual audiences. There was a queer behavior embedded in those mythic men who defined the identity of Americans to peoples all over the world.
To the young bisexual or homosexual man, unsure about the possibility of possessing masculinity and their sexuality, Brokeback Mountain provides them a model to work with. Queer men aren’t just prissy fairies (though if you want to be that be it and rock it), they can be working class men as well; hard men that work the land and have to fight for paychecks. Proulx’s novella does an important job of reminding readers that while John Wayne might have gotten Angie Dickinson at the end of Rio Bravo, somewhere out there was a little boy who wanted to see Dean Martin wind up with Ricky Nelson too.
The cowboy was my hero growing up, and he still is. Whether it’s Roland from the Dark Tower, Chance in Rio Bravo, Sherriff Wiley Burp in Fievel Goes West, or Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, all of these men have taught me how to be a man, and at least one has helped me finally understand why those SEARS underwear models made me feel funny.
All quotes from Brokeback Mountain came from the Scribner paperback printing of the novella. All quotes from Queer Cowboys came from the Palgrave Macmillan paperback printing. All quotes from West of Everything came from the Oxford University Press edition.
The title of this essay is a line of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singers. Willie Nelson breathes the American spirit and sings the voice of long dead men. Anyway, I could wax poetic for days about the man, but the reader should listen to the song My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys at least once. If you’re interested follow the link below:
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
I didn’t get a chance to put it in but another reason to read the novella is simply because Proulx as a writer has a beautiful prose that, when read aloud, rivals poetry in its ability to blend aesthetics with mood. Take for instance this description of Brokeback mountain:
Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.” (9)
There are few passages about landscapes that ever achieve such beauty, and damn is Proulx doesn’t knock it out of the park.
****Writer’s REAL FINAL Note****
This is still one of the best conclusions to a Western.
abstinence and why it's shit, Atheism, Benedict Cumberbatch, biological arguments, C.S. Lewis, Christian Rhetoric, Keira Knightly, letter, Mere Christianity, sexual Education, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality
No Mr. Cumberbatch is not returning my phone calls, in fact the man has actually threatened to sue me if I continue our correspondence. Despite what you said in your last letter I do NOT have an unhealthy obsession with the man, because I find Keira Knightly just as…just as…
What was I saying? I can’t remember now.
I got your letter and I am sorry that your brother was offended by my remarks about religion, but I won’t apologize for what I said. I know it’s easy to write and publish words on the internet and not have the fortitude to back them up with real honest conviction, but I stand by what I wrote. While I saw firsthand in my life the benefits that religion can bring to people, it was too often outweighed by feigned interest of malevolent intent to sell me on it. I think what it did was school prayer. Now I went to a private school ( like I’ve mentioned, like, omg, a billion-billion times already, nobody cares) where it was legal to not only pray in the classroom but also to hold a weekly chapel service where we wore chapel dress, said the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s prayer, sang gospel songs, and listened to Sermons. This activity disturbed me at the time, because I honestly cared, a little, about the practice of worship, but to my surprise nobody else did. Girls were supposed to wear dresses or tasteful skirts, but instead they wore porn star skirts with leggings, as if that helped, while the boys forgot ties, or didn’t wear ties, and would be slapped with a detentions. It wasn’t just the dress-code though B——, in the middle of worship I would look at my fellow students and they were all so apathetic, they couldn’t give three shits why they were there. And after all that, when we would return to the classroom, they would discuss getting drunk and gossiping about who was sleeping with who. It was the most pathetic display I’ve yet to actually witness, and quickly learned me up good to the fact that many Christians liked to wear their Christianity on their sleeves.
Which brings me to C.S. Lewis and Sex.
I really tried B——–. Lord help me I tried to appreciate Lewis a second time around, but no matter how hard I fought, no matter how diligent I remained in swimming through Lewis’s never ending sea of metaphors and colorful war-analogies, I just couldn’t find much redeemable or worthwhile passages. But even that didn’t bother me so much as two fundamental flaws with Lewis’s work. First off, the man could have at least thrown out a joke every now and then to keep things light. I’m not talking about dirty limericks or “yo mamas” but at least one fucking knock knock joke so I could tell the man was human, or at least NOT so English.
The second troubling part for me was a chapter in the third part entitled Sexual Morality, and you probably can guess where this is going. That’s why, before I continue, here’s a photo of myself wearing a joke glasses and a mustache. Don’t I look ridiculous?
…well I tried.
Lewis’s argument is pretty much what you would expect, though I note in fairness the man is not condemning sex like many contemporary Christian voices seem to be, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Lewis did impress me for a moment of pragmatic awareness when he said:
Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.
If he had stopped there, I might have been able to allow the man some breathing room. But alas he didn’t and carried on with:
There is no getting aware from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.
But I have other reasons for thinking so. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. […] But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. The appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function. (95-6).
Damn, forgot myself again.
I know this argument has been made time and time and time again, but it’s an important one dammit, and we need to talk about it. Contemporary Christianity is afraid of ducking. Fucking. Shit. Let me try that again. Contemporary Christianity is afraid of Bonegs. Boners. SHIT! Okay, one last time. Contemporary Penis-.
You know what, I’m just gonna move on.
Now it would be a mistake to attack Lewis for this opinion given his time period, and I’m only going to attack him for his method of argument. He cites “the biological argument” a strategy commonly used by both Christians and atheists to defend their particular point of view. I note that both parties use this argument, though I will note I’ve seen atheists carry it off better than Christians. Now when he cites the horny young boy constantly following his biological urges he suggests that “the appetite is ludicrous” in its “excess” but is it really? Any real study of biology demonstrates that this urge is actually pretty leveled out by the actual chance to mate. A young boy may want to procreate with every woman in sight, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to. Ask any man(except Lemmy Killmister or Gene Simmons, or any Rock Star for that matter) and they’ll tell you their record is nowhere near that much. Okay, he’s gonna fluff it up a bit, but a single man is expected to have around 11 sexual partners in a given year, that is hardly a small village. That drive exists in proportion to the actual expectancy to have sex.
Let’s take it a step further and talk about bugs. I know B—-, I know. Just listen. My dad was an exterminator so I learned a lot about insects and arachnoids, and when it comes to mating strategies there’s usually a pretty consistent fate for the males. They respond to pheromones, mate with the female, and either die naturally or else are devoured by the females. The male’s job is simply to fuck, and then die.
But perhaps a conscientious Christian reader will object to my suggestion using insects for evidence, but I’m following a biological argument. Time and time and time again Christians will attempt to employ biology, all the while denouncing evolution as garbage, (Biology as a science is dependent on evolution by the way) and every time they miss the implication of following such an argument it just makes them look intellectually weak.
They’re willing to accept one aspect of a biological principle without accepting other established facts or concerns.
But it’s not just that Lewis is at fault here, it’s the fact that Lewis’s work is praised by many contemporary Christians as an important Christian apologist. Lewis is the theologian, if you can really call him that, I won’t, but some might, that has his words plastered on cheap mass produced goods sold at Hobby Lobby and awful memes your grandmother shares every time President Obama is on the news, that gives many Christians validation of their opinions concerning sexuality. Which of course leads into characters like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who open their mouths and say crap like earthquakes and tornados are god’s curse for being lax on homosexuality.
Poster after poster, novel after novel, associate the idea o sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humor. Now this association is a lie. (100).
Lewis was a product of his time, and so this attitude towards sex is understandable, but those of us living in a different time are living by different standards, different paradigms. Lewis moves from this point to argue that following every and all passions should not be indulged, and while I agree with that sentiment, the rhetoric being crafted is too close minded for those of us living in today’s society because there’s too much evidence against Lewis.
Regular masturbation isn’t just fun, it’s healthy. Studies have shown that men who masturbate or have sex on a regular basis lower the chance of forming prostate cancer. Orgasms have been shown to actually help people suffering from illness, because blood shifts to the genitals it has a chance to move back through the heart oxygenating it more effectively. Couples indulging in sex regularly deepen their intimacy and strengthen their psychological bonds which are crucial for the creation of a healthy atmosphere for raising children. Obviously it’s ridiculous to make our lives a non-stop fuck-fest, but no sane person is asking for that.
I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable B—–, I’m just addressing Lewis’s points, and the consequence many have taken by trying to live this way of life. The only reason I’ve attained any confidence in my sexuality is by studying it, by reading books about sex, by listening to testimony from sexual educators, by asking my parents about sex, by buying several books dedicated to sex jokes, by actually having sex (that one was kind of important), and getting over the fact that desire is something dangerous because that is bullshit. The only real danger comes when desire is stymied creating unnatural behavior, and here’s where, I’m gonna have to stop holding back.
Maybe before we continue we could see Benedict Cumberbatch radiant blue eyes as he lounges on a chair, the first few buttons of his shirt open…oh my…
What? Oh right. Now Keira Knightly…she…she…
Okay for real now.
The most recent Christian sexual scandal (they have their own category and that says everything right there) was the Duggar Family incident and their son Josh. Why are Fart-faced-Dick-bags always named Josh. Seriously! It’s like every douchebag in the 90s was named Josh. Go back and check. You just checked right, you see what I mean?
I’ll be honest I didn’t follow the Duggar family scandal very closely because it was old news. A Christian fundamentalist family that operates like a cult has a sex scandal. The only part of it that surprised me was that it wasn’t the father secretly having sex with a male prostitute. Josh Duggar molested his sisters and I took note during the FOX interview with Megan something-or-other, that when the father described the attacks he made especial note of the language, “He touched them over the bra. You know, it wasn’t rape.”
Let me clear this up.
If there is no consent, IT’S RAPE.
Do you know how I know that? Because I’m educated about sex.
The tragedy is many people in this country are not due to religious upbringing which encourages not just chastity but abstinence, a method of birth control that has been proven time and time and time again to fail miserably. It’s not just this attitude however which is the problem, it’s the inability, in fact it’s the adamant desire to remain ignorant about sexual health and education that is not rooted in Christianity that is bothersome, and not for the reason you think B—–. Even Lewis himself notes Chastity is not a deal breaker:
Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. (102-3).
Now I could list all the instances of Christians failing miserably in chastity and the corruption that has been wracked upon civilization for it. But I won’t. Instead I’ll tell two small stories.
In my school there was no sex-ed although there was a puberty day. The boys and girls were divided and we were given a book about our bodies. This created some conflict later as boys and girls would swap books to leer at the pictures. It was a fun day from what I remember of it. There was pizza and most of the people who talked to us were male teachers. The best memory I have is of Coach Francis coming in to talk to us about erections and he made us play a game where we could come up with all the fun names for them. Boner. Woody. Hard-on. One Eyed Monster. But the second memory I recall is of the school priest coming in to give us the abstinence talk. Father Tom was a nice man from what I remember of him, most of the priests were (they were Episcopal so I guess that helped). Father Tom was going to get married in about three weeks and so his lecture to us was about the expectation of sex. He told us how he was happy that he was waiting and that how that waiting would only make the union between him and his then-fiance more meaningful. Now while this was a beautiful sentiment I only remember the embarrassment and pity I felt for the man. All I could think was, why are you talking like you’re about to have surgery to remove something?
The second story took place a few years later. I told you before B—-that chapel was mandatory at my high school. Well one week our high school principle/Football Coach (it’s East Texas after all) came in and decided he was going to give the sermon for the week. And of course what better place to talk about sex than chapel? I don’t remember much except the embarrassment and pity again, for the man confessed to us that he had had pre-marital sex. This confession was followed by tears and light crying. Now to high school boy who thinks about boobs every three seconds, this story and reaction was asinine and has only become more so after years or reflection.
It doesn’t matter three fucks who your partner fucked before they met you. The only thing that matters, that should matter, is that you are honest about what you want, who you are, and that you maintain a mutual honor system. That does NOT mean exclusive rights necessarily. There are many couples that practice poly-amory, where you may date/seduce/sleep with people while still maintaining a central relationship. Some couples have open marriages where they bring other people into the bedroom or else don’t mind it when their spouse sleeps with somebody else. And then there are some couples are exclusively monogamous, and let me be clear, THAT’S PERFECTLY FINE.
This has been a long letter B——, and I apologize for making it so, but my intellectual reaction to Lewis was frustration and annoyance rather than introspection. Lewis makes plenty of little points that are relevant to a Christian soul, but he all he offers is little points.
And as for sex, I wish someone besides my parents, had taken the time to teach me that human sexuality is not a vice that is a corruption of Christian oligarchy. I don’t know if your experience has been different from mine, it probably has, but let me at least caution you to this and share a sexual lesson my father taught me:
As long as your fantasies aren’t about hurting other people, and as long as you wrap that rascal, you’re fine.
I do not and can not understand why so many Christian voices and minds are terrified by this small lesson.
Anyway, always lovely hearing from you B——. Please write back when you return from your mission trip, and kiss that guy for crying out loud. Seriously a third of your last letter was just you debating about whether to do it. That sweet story about him drawing a butterfly for you. I wept. You think if Benedict Cumberbatch and Kierra Knightly would…would…
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
P.S. You’ll note B——, I included plenty of pictures of two people in this letter, that’s only because I’m not sexy. If you’re going to talk about sex, it’s best to have sexy people around. Like Benedict Cumber….Damn it!