Under the cover of strobing lights, mild-mannered homosexuals take flight as fabulous superheroes at the annual Hard Heroes party at a gay bar in Los Angeles. Billed as “LA’s Hottest Superhero/Tight Gear Party,” Hard Heroes entices with the promise of the superhero’s throbbing physical power threatening to burst forth from the tenuous confines of his costume. But with most mainstream superheroes often reflecting the hegemonic position of white heterosexual maleness, usurping these fantastic bodies and redeploying them in the service of queer sexuality is a transformative act of resistance.
Among the many sexualized bodies at Hard Heroes, the “go go heroes” likely garner the most attention from attendees. These dancers, with their young, toned bodies, serve to stimulate sexual desire in patrons at bars. At Hard Heroes, these performers emblematize superheroes with fantastic skins painted onto their bodies that literalize the near-nakedness suggested in the skintight costumes of popular superheroes. As the go-go hero “Aquaman” receives his painted anatomical enhancements, his audience sees the performer’s body, already marked for sexual enticement, further shaped towards the superhero’s hyperbolically muscular body. Their burlesque encourages sexual objectification while also performing sexual objectification of the superhero. The costume’s theatricality overwrites the reality of the wearer to a degree as these men symbolically modify their skins to disrupt assumptions of any clear binary separating the normative and the exceptional.
Their body modification invokes the duality of the superhero and his secret identity while illustrating the potential plasticity of the superhero’s representation of idealized masculinity. The muscular body and flamboyant appearance points to physical power; in performance, attention is power, particularly for those on the margins of society. At Hard Heroes, theatricality serves as a strategy for those on the margin to brandish the sexual orientation and gender identities that demarcate them from the dominant heteronormative discourse. By taking on the superhero body and his “super-skin” with its embedded associations to masculinity, these performers at Hard Heroes symbolically juggle (and actually jiggle) the homoerotic and the heteronormative. They ultimately point to the superhero as a pop culture construct that can build socio-political positions or expose the cracks in them.