In one of the most oft-quoted passages from Gender Trouble, Judy B. recounts her admiration of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” For Butler, Franklin’s tune highlights that sex and gender require a good deal of discursive TLC in order to maintain the impression that the categories “man” and “woman” are both self-evident and, well, natural. Aretha feels like a woman only in relation to subjects whose own gender performances (and desires) reflexively characterize her own. How, then, does one “feel like a natural man,” and particularly within the context of homosocial subcultures?
Within bear discourses, feeling “naturally” masculine is usually at a premium. Even ignoring the growing menagerie of animal appellations for the various sub-types of men who populate bear counterpublics, scholars such as Les Wright have noted the movement’s reinscription of American longing for pastoral elsewheres where men’s bodies could come into homoerotic contact, unfettered by the restraints of a culture which, for possibly the first time, was coded as feminine. Through a valorization of “natural” masculinity and “naturally” male bodies—hirsute, bearded, and bulky—bears seek to resist and side-step homonormative beauty standards—characterized by smooth, gym-toned bodies—as well as heteronormative assumptions about gay men’s masculinity (or supposed lack thereof).
But where does a gay renegotiation of hegemonic masculinity stop performing queer and/or feminist critique, and start veering into earnest, garden-variety masculinism? When does a counter-aesthetic become every bit as normative as the standard it resists, and thus inadvertently shame those subjects who fail to meet the chest hair quotient? Can one praise “natural” masculinity without nostalgically fetishizing rural, working-class men’s bodies? And, as scholars of queer studies, aren’t we supposed to be awfully suspicious of bodily matters to begin with?
Despite the sometimes embarrassing tendency for bear rhetoric to wax utopian, I am most interested in bear subcultures as a means to pose these questions of contemporary masculinities, rather than to answer them. I would contend that potentially subversive and troublingly essentialist ways of “feeling” masculine don’t necessarily stand opposed in bear discourses so much as they brush up against each other, establishing a sense of productive friction.
It’s no surprise, especially given my twee sensibilities, that what I admire most about Sean M. Johnson’s Beardlove series is the way in which Johnson celebrates masculinity not as the scopophilic spectacle of men’s bodies, but as various touchy feely forms of contact between men’s bodies. Rather than escaping to the pastoral, Johnson’s men are staged in inviting, intimate domestic spaces—forts made of bedsheets, bubble baths—that are, quite literally, warm and fuzzy. Like Ann Cvetkovich’s lesbian archives of affective feeling, Johnson’s Beardlove series constitutes an archive of gay male tactile feelings which are facilitated primarily through “naturally” masculine bodies whose hairy contours—cultivated in their own way, to be sure—open up a range of gentle, tender, and nurturing possibilities for male-male contact. This archive stands in stark contrast to the more “official” archive of male-male touches and forms of relationality, the sort which Sedgwick so compassionately noted are inevitably haunted by sexual anxieties and abject violence. Rich with textures—bubbles popping, beards nuzzling, a cat tail brushing one’s leg—Beardlove focalizes the sense of touch in the image. Embracing the tactile, Beardlove offers a form of masculine feels which, because enacted in and on bodies, never take them for granted.