Back to Nurture: Bear Bodies and The Tactile Tactics of Queer Masculinity

Curator's Note

In one of the most oft-quoted passages from Gender TroubleJudy 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.


Thank you, Kaelin, for pointing us to Johnson's slyly provocative multimedia project. Your own incisive note brings two somewhat competing thoughts to my mind.

Beardlove appears to offer an avenue for viewers to engage with a queer subculture in, as you aptly point out, ways that might stimulate a haptic response over more commonly recognized visual pleasures. But does this allow us to sidestep the potential prickliness (pun intended) of the bear reinscribing masculine standards? The tension between your reading of Beardlove's images and Johnson's own artist's statement for the series brings us right back to the questions you pose in the midpoint of your note (nicely done). Johnson very clearly situates his work as putting forward bearded/bearish gay man as "the icon of masculinity and a representation of what I feel is somewhat lacking in gay culture." In a way strangely resonant with the manvertising campaigns Peter presented yesterday, Johnson's invested in staking a claim for manliness amidst a perceived demasculinized cultural context, albeit the context of dominant gay culture rather than dominant heteronormative culture. Does the pronounced tactility in his visual representations really avoid the pitfalls of his own desire to champion this more traditionally masculine variant of queer identity?

But perhaps more to your earlier points, just how keenly should we as scholars of media and gender be preemptively concerned with the potential of subcultural masculine identities coming to dominate a mediascape within which they are only beginning to find a modest level of expression? I, for one, have been heartened by the glimmers of bear culture that have appeared in popular media, but should I instead be more wary?

Thanks for this compassionate, thoughtful response. My gut reaction to the bear phenomenon is also a sense of optimism. Bear communities and discourses perform a lot of important—and, in the post-AIDS era in which they found their footing, literally vital—renegotiations of the representations of men’s bodies, following a long tradition of work by feminist scholars. In this way, I think bear discourses, like men’s studies as an academic discipline, adopt feminist sensibilities to address the ways that patriarchal cultural structures affect men just as negatively as they do women. Bear discourses also establish crucial intersectional dialogues about gender, sexuality, publics, class, and fat politics. Most urgently, perhaps, bear communities offer alternative spaces for gay men to relate to each other in surprising, novel ways.

At the same time, particularly in light of the utopian rhetoric they sometimes employ, I think it’s important to remain sensitive to some of the directions discourses on beardom take. As you point out, representations of bearish men remain largely niche or absent in both gay and mainstream media. At the same time, bear communities are growing and bear events are becoming more numerous, both in the US and abroad. Les Wright and others have noted that, since bear communities first came about around 30 years ago as a grassroots movement, beardom has developed its own consumer culture. How, then, do we reconcile the subversive, communitarian potential of the bear phenomenon with mediated representations of masculinity that are commodified—as the tag-line for BEAR magazine reads—“with all the trappings?” Of course, we can’t.

With these tensions in mind, I think it’s important to highlight that Johnson’s work on masculinity here is, literally and figuratively, reparative. In a lot of the "Beardlove" videos, Johnson depicts men comforting each other as a response to affective or physical damage (“Elliot heals me,” “Jim after the sad movie”). Along those lines, I find his self-consciousness about fetishism refreshingly transparent. Although "Beardlove" is invested in exploring men’s bodies as fetish objects, I also see it as equally recuperative and humanizing. Instead of just seeking to compensate for the anxieties of a contemporary masculinity under siege, or found altogether “lacking” in gay male culture, bodies in "Beardlove" nuzzle and nurture, tending to wounds rather than disavowing them. 

During the most recent television season the new show that I have loved the most is ABC's Modern Family.  Reading your post I was reminded of the bear character Cameron.  Thinking about your observation that bear discourse tends to be utopian, I realized that Cameron is presented as the most well adjusted, confident and least neurotic character on the show.  He is often a source of tension for the rest of the family and a source of embarrassement for his partner but he is comfortable in his skin and has no problem presenting his body in motion (please see the episode "Moon Landing").  I am wondering if this is part of the utopian discourse that you are identifying.  Is bear subculture related in any way to regionality?  For example Cameron grew up in the midwest, shops at Costco and watches football, he is of the heartland where the "real americans" live.  Is there some kind of crossover between the authenticity of bear sexuality and the "real people" that live in the "fly over states"?

Terrific piece,  Kaelin, and thanks for sharing this multimedia project.   I'm struck by your note in the comments section here about "tending to wounds rather than disavowing them," which seems to be an important insight into the deeper gender play happening alongside the more visible aesthetics of the subculture.  Wounds are not something associated with traditional male masculinities (they are, as you point out, typically disavowed or displaced) so to see them foregrounded so significantly alongside other unmistakable male markers is not only fascinating, but remarkably progressive.  

I also want to make a point about the presence of the cat.  It might seem like a small, insignificant detail, but in a culture where almost everything has been gendered (including cats, which are anything but "masculine" in mainstream imagery), I find it fantastic that the cat seems to have its own little narrative alongside these men, completely comfortable and a welcome part of their tent.

Yet, ultimately, I felt a similar response as Dave when digging into the material: does this confrontation of emotion and affect, in some ways, merely incorporate some terrain into a landscape heavily populated by rigorously traditional markers of male masculinity?  In a roundabout way I'm reminded of Judith Mayne's suggestion to those excavating feminist film history to avoid the pitfall of romanticizing essentialist differences in the search to identify and mark women's histories and creativities; I can't help but feel, in some ways, that there's some similar slippery terrain potentially happening here.  The word "natural" in particular seems to represent a minefield, especially for those men whose "natural" bodies might not match the visual requirements for the subculture.  If it's not the visuals that matter, but the behaviors, then we're back to square one.  What's being left out even in this process of opening up?


Kaelin - you ask: "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?"

I think this particular video helps negate/avoid the problems you're bringing up in these very good questions. You chose a good one here, precisely because of the tactile aspects. The emphasis on tactility in this video is simple, sensual, and does not strike me at all as a performance of some impossible norm. It's clumsy and playful. It avoids slickness. The tent is held up with a freakin' broom. I think the trouble arises when any subculture is presented with overly produced, slick images of ideals. This video dodges that completely, and yet still provides pleasurable images.


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