Beach Rats: That Gay-Not-Gay Film

The realms of male sexuality are often violently policed. You’re either straight and fit in or you’re gay and will be ostracised. There’s little space for exploration and straight men doing gay things will often get bullied and shunned for it or will come up with ingenious ways of avoiding having to be associated with gayness, yelling “no homo” is but one example. It is this space of confusion and prejudice that the film Beach Rats explores as 19 year-old Frankie navigates the boardwalks of Coney Island. Inspired by a selfie of a young topless guy in a baseball cap (yup, this film was based on a selfie) this film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 and won much critical praise. There is much to praise – plenty of epic writing, acting and filming, but it’s the central story I want to critique and the tropes used to tell it. Ultimately, I find this film as confused as its protagonist, and not in a good way.

Firstly, the writer-director Eliza Hittman has been very clear in numerous interviews that this is neither a coming out nor a coming of age film, she calls it “a coming of consciousness” story as Frankie tries to get to know himself. He does so by taking drugs with his mates and hanging out on the beach, getting a girlfriend, and using a gay hook-up site to get with older men. So the film is very much about Frankie’s sexuality but both Frankie and Hittman are adamant that he is not gay, as Frankie says: “I don’t really think of myself as gay”. He might think of himself as bisexual or heteroflexible or queer or just never desiring of attributing a label to his sexuality, or he might just be really confused. By Frankie being not-gay the film also becomes not-gay, seeking to explore that strange and violent world of toxic masculinity and male sexuality. This could make for a great and nuanced film but, sadly, Beach Rats is still overloaded with gay content and relies much too heavily on gay tropes to tell an all too familiar and cliché story. As for those tropes, here are a few (spoilers).

The high volume of topless, sweaty men. The film poster comprising of these topless, sweaty men. The lingering shots on Harris Dickinson’s face. The lingering shots on his six-pack and bum. The full frontal male nudity. The sex between men. The sex between younger and older men. The fact that depicting sex between younger and older men was considered taboo – even though for many guys it’s completely normal! The use of gay hook-up sites. The fact that depicting the use of hook-up sites was considered taboo even though it’s a completely normal way for guys to meet up. Straight (or perhaps not-gay) male characters mocking the gay hook-up sites. The same characters choking and punching a gay guy called Jeremy towards the end of the film and leaving him stranded on a beach. The fact we don’t know if Jeremy survives. That Jeremy is basically a disposable trope: a plot device with little character or characterisation who is a stepping-stone in Frankie’s unhappy and dangerous life. That violence towards gay men is used as a plot device and left uncontextualised and unresolved (this trope is so common it’s got a name – Bury Your Gays). The way women are often emotionally and sexually used by confused men without apology or adequate resolution for those female characters. That distraught mothers and girlfriends are means via which a troubled man can continue his journey of discovery.

It’s a long list and in isolation, many of these elements don’t have to be considered gay or a gay trope but put them together and I think Beach Bats manages to appropriate, fetishise, exoticise and capitalise on gay life without ever acknowledging it. The film yells one loud “no homo” while cashing in on the pink pound. Furthermore, so many of the above issues don’t just happen onscreen, they happen in real life. So many LGBT+ people are beaten up and killed, ostracised from society, and suffer, and I don’t enjoy seeing this reflected on the screen with little nuance and empathy. For me, a film like Beach Rats is the product of a predominantly heterosexual team trying (and failing) to tell a gay-not-gay story. It’s not that straight people can’t tell these stories and shouldn’t be allowed, it’s that they need to do their research and better express their allyship. This needs to happen off-screen as well. If we truly want to explore the world of male sexuality and create a world in which men can more wholesomely explore their sexualities then it’s “no homo” that needs to be buried, not gays.

 

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Confessions Of A Public Schoolboy

It’s time like this, when a general election looms and the likelihood of another Tory government seems all too (but a little less) possible that I think back to my boarding school days. From 13 to 18 I was a boarder at a public (i.e. private) school in Kent. Amongst other things I played a bit of rugby and a lot of fives (a game with padded gloves and a ball that they invented at Eton, another public school), I studied far too much (I was better in the classroom than on the sports pitch, which ultimately counted for very little back then), I wrote a few articles for the school magazine (long before the time of blogs), I got involved in a lot of pillow fights (they were fun), I organised and participated in a naked calendar shoot (that was a highlight) and when it came to our mock general election I voted…Liberal Democrat.

You see, even then, when I was being groomed to become another privately educated dickhead I knew there was something wrong. Most of the teachers, nearly all male, just weren’t very good role models. They were the sort of men who expressed themselves through shouting and anger, who bullied the ‘stupid’ students in their classes and had red-faced tantrums. Some of them  tried to be our ‘mates’ as they vicariously lived their ‘laddish’ dreams through their teenage pupils. Others took their religion very seriously but skipped the whole empathy thing, some were doddery old men who didn’t have a clue while others were aspiring autocrats on a power trip (I think one was also done for possessing child porn and another for assaulting a student). But don’t get me wrong, I also had a load of epic teachers who helped me get to where I am today – admittedly lots of them were weird but weird in a nice, friendly way. Unfortunately, some of the less awesome ones even had loco parentus – they effectively became my legal parents in absence of my actual parents. You might recognise that loco also means mad in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t help but feel that none of these men were the sort of man I wanted to become.

As for myself and the other boys at my school, we were a mixed bunch. We were bullies, racists, homophobes, sexists, classists and a whole raft of other prejudices. We were also friends, partners in crime, mates, pranksters and, sometimes, loving – although love for a public schoolboy is a difficult thing especially as we didn’t get taught emotions and were bullied for having them. Meanwhile, the explicit message of our schooling was that we would become life’s winners. If we could win on the sports pitch, in the classroom and even in the music room (although music was really for losers) then we would win at life. We would grow up to become those winning men who did manly things such as make lots of money, have dysfunctional relationships, despise chavs and, of course, vote Conservative. During my school’s mock election three boys were selected to represent the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour party leaders. There was a bit of campaigning and, naturally, the Tories went down a storm and won most of the votes. I, on the other hand, had a bit of a problem with aspiring to be a posh, entitled tosspot. I remember printing off posters which read “I vote Conservative because Mummy and Daddy do” and sticking them up around my boarding house (a bit like Hogwarts but with Conservatism instead of magic). That was my rather dismal attempt at teenage rebellion, which also manifested as a vote for the Liberal Democrats. I didn’t have the guts to go all the way and vote Labour.

Now, as another general election looms I can imagine lots of the boys who went to my school will be readying themselves to vote Tory again. Lots of boys who, in many ways, are ace people and fun to hang out with but also, like me, were forced to grow up in a bizarre education system that stifled growth and fostered prejudice. Boys who, if they’ve bothered to read this far, will either be feeling angry, patronised, indignant or humourously aloof – the four emotions available to the likes of us. Ultimately though the thing with public school boys is that we’re still boys. Like Peter Pan, we never grew up, except rather than fight the evil pirates we tried to become them. But who knows, as June 8th approaches maybe, just maybe, us boys will finally ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ and vote for a party that gives a shit about other people. Or not and we’ll carry on living out our weird Oedipal complexes by voting for a woman who looks a bit like our Mums.

These Are The Christmas Adverts!?

It’s that time of year again, still pretty far away from Christmas but our economy’s on the rocks and we need to get people shopping pronto. The lights are up in the streets, Paris is ordering another giant, green butt-plug and Black Friday is looming. To fuel this pre-Christmas consumption extravaganza the propaganda machines, I mean televisions, are doing their best to spew out an array of emotive adverts to get us racing further into debt. Here are some of the highlights (well, lowlights).

Sainsbury’s and the 4th Industrial Revolution: this Xmas ad is a simple one, an overworked Dad who works in a toy store (as if we have those in Britain anymore) gets worried he won’t be able to spend enough time with his family at home. As stresses mount and this unforgivably long advert unfolds the Dad’s solution is to automate himself, yup, riding the trend of replacing humans with robots he gets a drone to do his shopping, machines to run the factory production lines and a nodding dog to do his ‘yes-manning’. This radical transformation of our society is being heralded by the World Economic Forum (self-important 21st century Adam Smith types) as the 4th Industrial Revolution but to those of us who aren’t super rich and who don’t work in think tanks it heralds loss of jobs and increased social atomisation. Thus, rather than an uplifting advert this is actually a bleak prophecy of things to come, worthy of a Black Mirror episode, but Sainsbury’s do give a great nod to diversity in British society as people of colour and different faiths appear in this advert, of course, the protagonist is still a white guy proving that the supermarket will go some of the way but not all of it.

Lidl/Aldi: Nostalgia and the Dangers of Anthropomorphising Vegetables: at least these ones are short. Lidl’s is called Homecoming (yup, it has a title) and is about a family redecorating their Grandad’s old cottage out in the countryside in time for Christmas day. This is a blatant play on British nostalgia for the countryside and ‘family values’, which today are, of course, being trashed by urbanisation and rural poverty, which are both exacerbated by supermarkets taking jobs away from farmers and forcing them to engage in unsustainable farming methods. This advert is effectively a nostaligc lie about what our past once was but probably actually wasn’t. Meanwhile, Aldi’s advert (Aldi is another German superchain and Lidl’s top competitor) shows a carrot running across a Christmas table laden with food – he runs past the corpses of other carrots, the mashed remains of dead potatoes and even gets the skin of his back grated off – all so he can reach the plate by the fireplace with a mince-pie for Father Christmas on it. The carrot gets its wish and, unlike all his dead and eaten friends, ends up caught in the antlers of a reindeer at the front of Santa’s sled, perhaps a subtle nod to the idea of the carrot and the stick, and this time the carrot is incentivising us all to eat loads and buy even more. Whilst funny this advert does highlight the dangers of anthrompomorphising vegetables because, ultimately, we kill, cook and eat them.

M&S Does Sexism: I would mention the Waitrose and John Lewis adverts but their over-reliance on creepy CGI animals and their unrealistic plots really let them down this year (a normal robin would not survive that journey and besides the fact animals don’t use trampolines they also don’t get on that well: the badger would attack the foxes, the foxes would eat the squirrel and the second the hedgehog landed on its back the foxes would be eating that too). Although, this US election result take on the JL advert is inspired and depressing! Instead, it’s M&S, which shows Santa Claus heading off to do the rounds leaving Mrs Claus at home. Not only does she lie to him when he asks if any “last requests” have arrived in the post and she says “no, just bills” – actually, there was a letter addressed to her and unless her bank uses crayons it’s pretty clear it’s not a bill. It turns out a young boy threw his sister’s trainers at a dog and she cried a lot (typical girl, amirite) so could Mrs C sort this out. Sort it out she does: changing into a highly impractical dress given the weather, getting on a jet-ski, into a helicopter and flying half way round the world to add a final present to the pile her husband will have just put under the tree. She even has a cheeky bite of mince pie but not a big one because women have to be dainty in their eating behaviour, amirite! Naturally, the sister is overjoyed because all girls care about is clothes and shoes, amirite! So, not only does Mrs C do the dirty work of a young boy too lazy to buy his sister a present but just before Mr C gets home from his worldwide trip she hides all the evidence: her secret HQ (think bat cave meets festive cheer), her cool dress and even the letters she receives from kids all vanish behind the wall. She even pretends to have fallen asleep whilst reading a book called ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ (because women only care about sex with sociopaths, amirite) and when Mr C asks how her night was she says, “oh, you know, quiet.” Um, not true! So why is she lying? She tells her husband it “wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets” whilst giving the audience a knowing look and she’s basically asking us to collude in patriarchy, where men’s egos are so fragile the thought that a woman can contribute to the working world is just too much. Mrs C would rather weave an incredibly elaborate web of lies and deceit rather than have her husband know quite how resourceful and independent she can be. Talk about #masculinitysofragile. Either that or she’s just very bored of her marriage.

Is The Flaccid Penis A Joke?

A NSFW post and if you’re a younger reader maybe best to ask a parent or guardian before you carry on reading!

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This question came up at the pub recently: is the flaccid penis a thing of beauty or a joke? The responses were many and varied, and it got me thinking about the male member. On the one hand a dangling willy can look quite silly but does this mean men should feel ashamed of what is between their legs or can they reclaim their manhood?

On the side of the penis-as-joke there were multiple arguments. The simplest was the aesthetic one, that it just looks silly. Now, this of course depends on your taste but I can’t help but feel that if we’re telling men that their tackle is basically one of evolution’s (or God’s) punchlines then we’re going to create a lot of insecure men. ‘Man up’ one might say to this and just get used to the fact that the meat and two veg look ridiculous. A further argument is that a floppy penis is pointless, surely it’s just a dormant erection. This is interesting because it completely instrumentalises the penis, implying it is only of use when it is hard (presumably for sex rather than an object of greater aesthetic worth). The implication here is that the soft penis, in and of itself, is pointless. It’s only useful when it’s doing something else. Curiously, the curators of a recent Madrid fashion show might disagree as they’re clearly using the non-erection to help sell handbags (video very much NSFW).

https://i2.wp.com/www.italianrenaissance.org/wp-content/uploads/Michelangelo-David-e1429028121909.jpg
An aesthetically pleasing penis?

On the other hand, penis-as-thing-of-beauty, we still find ourselves battling pervasive tastes. If the majority of people have been conditioned to see the flaccid penis as a joke then how do we undo that conditioning so they can come to see it as something beautiful or, if not beautiful, at least as something that isn’t stupid? One possible answer is to continue to create great art (like Michelangelo’s David) that elevates the willy from the ridiculous to the sublime. At least then men, ashamed of what’s between their legs, can see the penis reclaimed and begin to undo the narratives that pervade their own minds telling them their tackle doesn’t amount to much. Of course, we might never reach a place where everyone admires the soft willy but there might be a day where people at least take it seriously.

Now, feminists amongst the readership might be asking why I should bother with a post on the penis. It’s a good question, surely there’s enough phallocentrism out there already, surely most buildings have been designed in the patriarch’s image, and didn’t Freud write enough on penis envy? Whilst this is all true the political is still deeply personal and this includes body image. And sure, focusing on the flaccid penis might come across as a little trivial (but I must confess the tone of this piece isn’t entirely serious) or maybe that’s just because the willy is used to derision but men do care about their manhood. Men who may well be riding off the back of much privilege but who may also feel disenfranchised. Thus, perhaps if we shift the narrative slightly and reclaim the flaccid penis then men will have one less thing to worry about and can get back to the task of challenging male privilege and being awesome feminists.

Anyways, whatever your view on the male member here are some rowers from Warwick college getting their dongs out for a good cause – tackling homophobia in sport. Now that’s an innovative use of the flaccid penis!

The Night Manager: A Slower James Bond

The Night Manager, it’s the new John Le Carré adaptation on BBC1, a typical story of intrigue, spying and nefarious businessmen screwing the rest of the world over. If you’ve ever seen a James Bond film then it’s like that (sorry, spoiler alert) – big baddy selling weapons, objectified women who get killed by baddies and some dull, semi-sociopath spy caught in the middle of it. Except this time M is played by Olivia Coleman and she’s got a northern accent and a baby on the way. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts you’ll be able to predict my complaints: it fails the Latif and Bechdel tests so far (I’m on episode 3 and still asking myself why I didn’t stop at 1), there’s plenty of sexualised, female nudity and zilch sexualised male nudity (not even some side penis to compensate for all the side boob we get) and the protagonist has no charisma, genuinely zero, he doesn’t even register on the personality scale. To summarise, this is a boring yet glamorous waste of time. If you really want your fill of slightly-more-intelligent-than-James-Bond spy thriller (but still disappointingly chauvinistic) watch The Constant Gardener.

So, need this blog go on? Well, one thing I do find quite interesting about this series is it’s depiction of rich people. And we’re not just talking millionaires we’re talking the billionaire businessmen who sell arms and pull strings in national governments to get away with it. Yup, it’s the elite of the elite, those at the top of the capitalist military industrial complex. And the one in The Night Manager is called Richard Roper and is played by Hugh Laurie. And, curiously, he’s not very scary. He tells crass jokes, he flops around his villa eating brioche, he quaffs champagne, he does the odd deal, he dances with his much younger girlfriend (who is often to be seen naked unlike Hugh Laurie of course). Meanwhile, his rich friends have drinking problems, are insecure about how they look, cheat on their wives with their French au pairs, have complexes about their masculinity (and penis size no doubt), and genuinely do what insecure, entitled men do. Meanwhile, the wives look on as they try to ignore their husbands dodgy dealings whilst packing off bratty Tamara and Tim to boarding school.

And these so-called elites, the 1%, are the ones we’re encouraged to aspire to be like!? The only difference between these people and any other group of malfunctioning humans (which is most groups) is that when they negotiate over a contract that contract tends to be about weapons that may well be used in a war. When I fall out with my friends it’s usually over a round and the repercussions might be a split pint or two. For the 1% it’s whether British arms will be used to trash the next Middle Eastern country. So The Night Manger, whilst being a well-worn cliché of exotic locales and exoticised women has done me the favour of putting me off my dream to become a billionaire. The rich come across as pretty boring and Hugh Laurie’s attempt at justifying his lifestyle is also quite boring. After having said how great it is to be able to eat brioche whenever he likes and go skiing a lot he then says: “Children grow up thinking the adult world is ordered, rational, fit for purpose. It’s crap. Becoming a man is realising that it’s all rotten. Realising how to celebrate that rottenness, that’s freedom.” I mean, seriously, what a half-hearted attempt at justifying egoistic nihilism. The whole point of nihilism is that you don’t need to justify it, it’s just an excuse to be a complete wanker and not care about anyone else. Sure, Roper fits the bill but is a villa in Mallorca really the best he can do? Personally, I’d prefer some nice friends and not facilitating World War 3.

What About An International Men’s Day?

Today is International Women’s Day. Now, I get it, women are half the world’s population and they give birth to the whole of it. And sure, they’ve done some important things. Apparently they’ve contributed to science (something about X-Rays and DNA), a couple of them run businesses, some female poets are OK, I think there are some female playwrights, some of them save rain forests, some led armies, there have been a few alright Queens I suppose, others got into politics whilst others didn’t get into politics but still stood up for social justice, I think there was even a woman who is famous for taking a seat on a bus (is that really newsworthy?), some are quite good at sports and there’s the odd, alright female singer. One even got famous for writing about wizards.  So, sure, a day to celebrate women is alright I suppose but…what about men?

Men do important things too. They’ve mastered the art of whistling at women in the streets, whistling is actually really hard. They send dick pics, lots of ’em, and photography is an art form. They get jobs their Dad’s used to do which they then pass on to their sons, men know how to look out for each other. Men are confident and independent whilst women are just bossy and high-maintenance. They’re full of great sartorial and dietary advice for women, yeah, you could do with losing a few pounds. And most of us are really nice guys, we’re so nice, we behave like gentlemen – opening doors for hot birds, only looking briefly at cleavages. Chivalry is not dead and all we ask in return is that women return the favour and act more ladylike. And, unlike, feminists who all hate men we have a lot of time for the opposite sex, we really like women, especially when they’re fit and do what we tell them to.

So, I think guys are pretty great, which is why I’m starting an Avaaz petition to establish an International Men’s Day to remind the world of the glory of man. I mean a patriarchal system designed by and for men predicated on the abuse and denigration of half the world’s population isn’t enough. Nor is the ability to ride on the wave of centuries of unquestioned privilege whilst assuming we are entitled to the power that is arbitrarily given to us. Nor is the systematic undermining of female advancement in professions across the sectors. Nor is a culture that glorifies the objectification of women and trivialises rape and abuse. This isn’t enough, we’ve still got a long way to go. So guys you know what to do. Man up.

A One Night Stand With One Direction

A one night stand with One Direction might sound like a dream come true for some (or many) but the lyrics to their song Perfect provide a multitude of reasons why it would be better to stay at home. You have been warned, by the 1D lads themselves.

Celebrity’s a funny thing right – I mean, all the 1D boys have to do is sing quite well and look conventionally quite good and we’ll do the rest: we’ll ascribe them all sorts of qualities that they may or may not have (honour, loyalty, intelligence), we’ll venerate them and we might even let them get away with the metaphorical equivalent of murder. But the 1D guys are good enough to acknowledge this, they know that with platinum selling records and their faces plastered on billboards and posters they are basically the 21st century equivalent of gods. They know our culture worships celebrity, especially if those celebrities sing pop songs, that’s why they come with a warning.

Thus, Perfect – “I might never be your knight in shining armour, I might never be the one you take home to mother, and I might never be the one who brings you flowers” – OK, ditch the fairytale fantasies these guys aren’t going to faff around with chocolates and wine (seriously, why would they waste the cash when all they’ve got to do is wink and hundreds will rush to their beds). “And if you like midnight driving with the windows down [hmm, sounds a little dangerous], And if you like going places we can’t even pronounce [Worcestershire perhaps, or Billericay]…I might never be the hands you put your heart in [yup, no blood sacrifices or organ donations necessary, they’re not pagan gods after all] Or the arms that hold you any time you want them [they’re being explicit here – they don’t do affection]…And if you like cameras flashing every time we go out [WARNING – one night of bliss with 1D = being all over the internet forever, something their career thrives off but yours might not], and if you’re looking for someone to write your break-up songs about [probable dig at Taylor Swift here from Harry Styles – further warning, don’t be an independent, successful woman who plans on standing up for herself].” So they make it pretty clear what they don’t do – affection, respect and safe driving – but what do they do?

They do like causing trouble in hotel rooms and the video shows them needlessly chucking their luggage at elevators and kicking footballs around the hotel lobby – what about the other guests!? They do like a secret little rendezvous, although it won’t be so secret if the paparazzi have anything to do with it. And they can do some loving “from time to time”, emphasis on the infrequency. So, yeah, basically 1D are promising one awesome night of passion and maybe the occasional quickie afterwards. “Girl, I hope you’re sure, what you’re looking for, cause I’m not good at making promises” – so you have been warned from the horses’ mouths themselves – succumb to their coiffed  celebrity charm and you might end up on the front of a tabloid and mocked in a subsequent number 1 hit. But one thing you most certainly will not get is a second chance. Thanks guys but I’m afraid I’m a “Not Attending” for tonight.