Baggy-pants thuggery & hip-hop burlesque - Clothing as sexual politics in America
By: Kevin Esser
- 1 Do gay guys wear tight pants so other guys can check out their butts?
- 2 When did this start?
- 3 The so-called Sexual Revolution
- 4 And yet, call it a paradox
- 5 Then, as gradually at first as someone waking from contented dreams, this culture of androgyny and lush playfulness began its sad metamorphosis
- 6 It's tidy and convenient and largely accurate to pinpoint 1980
- 7 At this same time
- 8 The catastrophe of AIDS
- 9 So what exactly took its place? What was happening by the late Eighties? By 1990?
- 10 But if short-and-tight was now gay, then what was straight?
- 11 A new anti-gay aesthetic had been born
- 12 For the boys, there was no choice, no alternative
- 13 In other words, this fashion is not a fashion. This style is not a style
- 14 But how is this current uniformity any different from the behaviour of previous generations of teenagers?
- 15 Every aspect of male life betrays this style that is no style, this fashion that is no fashion
- 16 The body phobia
- 17 OK. Enough said. End of discussion
- 18 In all this cultural debris
- 19 And maybe, while rummaging for clues and subtext, we should ponder, just briefly, the head-to-toe veiling of fundamentalist Muslim women
- 20 That must be the answer
- 21 Here's the truth
- 22 But why search for meaning or understanding?
- 23 Clothing has meaning
- 24 So what's the answer, finally, to that puzzled boy's question?
Do gay guys wear tight pants so other guys can check out their butts?
That's what some teenaged boy wanted to know in a 1996 film documentary dealing with gay issues in the classroom. How else could he think? What else could he wonder given today's dress code of Hetero Correctness? His question has been answered by many dismal years of American males in oversized, baggy clothing-men and boys hidden from one another, hidden from themselves, hidden from the dangerous reality of their own bodies.
An otherwise sensible gentleman confesses to watching these boys in their baggy clown shirts and clown pants, to finding them actually attractive. Room enough, he jokes, to climb in there with them and play around. Nothing but a laugh to him, this situation, nothing to contemplate beyond the boys themselves and the dishevelled, butch excitement he finds in them. Of course, boys in Nazi scouting regalia might also have seemed cute as teddy bears-those sporty shorts, those jaunty neckerchiefs-but no one should be so oblivious as to ignore the brutish agenda behind the attire. Not then, not now.
When did this start?
How did this stylised disfigurement of an entire gender become the norm? It's a discussion that begs to be illustrated: here a boy in "shorts" that reach comically to his ankles; here another in pants with a crotch that sags to his knees; here yet another dressed for the beach, a foolish spectacle in swim trunks that might have come from Bozo's closet. No bare thighs or knees. No evidence of hips or buttocks. Nothing now but a sad-sack army of anonymous males, shapeless and identical, shorn and shrouded like so many ritual mourners, like prisoners of war, like refugees from some battle fought and lost.
To understand what's happening now, go back to a time when that battle, that war, seemed to have been fought and won. Go back, let's say, thirty years. Startling now to see movies or photos from those days-from the Sixties, the Seventies, right through the mid-Eighties.
Boys in mini cut-offs and bare-tummy T-shirts, in mesh tank tops and knee socks and the scantiest of gym shorts, the clingiest of sweat shorts, often with no underwear, more provocative that way, nothing to confine the bulge in front or the cheeks in back. Full and frank display. Startling now, yes, but not back then. Young males were expected to look that way, just a natural aspect of their whole cocky, rude, show-off persona. But what explains that nonchalant acceptance? What explains those fleeting years of erotic flamboyance? And what happened to bring doomsday to Eden?
It's useful to remember, as historical context, that males have always determined and governed the rules of modesty-both for women and for themselves. Men have always decided, in this and every other culture, how the body will be displayed, and where, and to what effect.
A hundred years ago, even in America, the unclothed male form was not an unusual sight, regardless of what we might think today about Victorian prudery or Edwardian stuffiness. Boxers of that era commonly fought in miniscule trunks that left the buttocks mostly bare.
(Take another look at the George Bellows painting, Stag at Sharkey's. Or ponder the image of "Gentleman Jim" Corbett nearly naked in his 1897 bout versus Robert Fitzsimmons.)
Young boys, even teenagers, routinely swam nude in public-given the evidence of archival films and photographs-no shock at all to see them skinny-dipping from city docks and piers or splashing naked in the municipal fountains of crowded city squares, in full view of urban passers-by and onlookers. Swimmers at male-only YMCA pools and school pools and community pools were expected, often obliged, to swim nude.
The culture was guided by the Greco-Roman ethos of the gymnasium (a word that means, don't forget, to exercise naked), masculine physicality unblinkingly accepted in all its uncouth dynamism of muscle and gristle and sweat. Only much later in the century did this casual acceptance give way to a more suburban, middle-class code of modesty that we've come to associate with the 1950s and with Eisenhower-era conservatism. The male form gradually disappeared in this country as an object of public spectacle. Years would pass before new sociocultural developments spawned its return.
The so-called Sexual Revolution
was this momentous rebirthing force. Boys and girls both were suddenly happy and eager to shed their conservative drag, to exhibit themselves, to flaunt themselves more and more boldly, more and more immodestly. Woodstock Nation. The return to nature. Back to the Garden.
Hell, why not go all the way and strip bare? Remember streaking? Largely, no surprise, it was a male phenomenon-ritualised exhibitionism, flashing as a fad, what you'd expect from boys with all inhibitions erased.
Hair and Oh! Calcutta! brought this frolic of youthful nudity to the stage. At the movies, Franco Zeffirelli created a Romeo and Juliet in 1968 that epitomized this Age of Aquarius sensuality, his young men and boys voluptuous in their hose and codpieces, his puppyish teenaged Romeo shown frankly and delectably naked.
For roughly twenty years, this male riot of bodily display would equal or surpass anything enjoyed by females, boys often more skimpily and seductively attired than girls, packs of them prowling the malls and the arcades like half-naked catamites, denim shorts so tight they wouldn't zip.
And yet, call it a paradox
this lusty romp thrived in a milieu of sexual naiveté, the revelers themselves all gleefully anarchic in a juvenile sort of way, like children first discovering their own bodies, fascinated and giggly and eager for new sensation..
The original Flower Child exuberance gave way, in the Seventies, to the feral excess of punk and glam, a carnival of hedonism and sexual ambivalence featuring the likes of Queen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie. Long hair on girls, long hair on boys. Short-shorts on girls, short-shorts on boys. The teen idols from these years-tender boy toys such as Davy Jones, David Cassidy and his brother Shaun, Leif Garrett, Tony DeFranco-were the perfect avatars of this new androgyny.
There was a unisex worship of the id, a unisex celebration of the Body Erotic that reached its heyday with disco, with Village People and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with macho men doing the milkshake and having fun at the YMCA. Suddenly, remarkably, gay and mainstream were one and the same, no segregation, no distinction between queer and straight, an entire culture cheerfully and unwittingly homo-eroticised. The hetero aesthetic and the homo aesthetic had become indistinguishable among young males-in matters of music, hairstyles, and, yes, clothing-no thought or care given beyond looking good and feeling good.
This twenty-year idyll of naïve flamboyance burned brightest at the end. Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Prince, Wham!, Menudo-the biggest male pop stars of this fin de disco era all were icons of sumptuous androgyny. Break-dancing provided the fiercely libidinous backdrop with its brash accoutrements of chains and tight leather, of rising-sun muscle shirts and samurai headbands. Francis Ford Coppola, with his 1983 film of The Outsiders, contributed a melodrama of sultry teen fellowship that gave us characters named Johnny and Sodapop and Ponyboy swooning prettily in one another's arms. On the radio, a song called Let's Hear It For The Boy became the fitting anthem for this gaudy and rambunctious eve of destruction.
Then, as gradually at first as someone waking from contented dreams, this culture of androgyny and lush playfulness began its sad metamorphosis
Two powerful sociopolitical forces were already lumbering towards collision by this time, namely the mid-Eighties, with young males trapped between as unfortunate casualties.
- Repressive demagoguery from the Right,
- clamorous identity and advocacy politics from the Left.
One without the other would have been the hammer without the anvil; together, these counter forces met head-on and obliterated twenty years of high-spirited masculine display, twenty years of young men and boys flaunting the beauty and sexiness of their own bodies. That type of "gay" behaviour, as it now seemed, became anathema, intolerable.
It's tidy and convenient and largely accurate to pinpoint 1980
as the fateful turning point, the year of Reagan's election and the political ascendancy of his right-wing coalition-even though the full seismic shocks went unfelt for several more years. These dour neo-Puritan champions of so-called "family values" quickly took up arms against a sea of perceived indecencies.
The White House itself led this crusade, Reagan's Attorney General Ed Meese issuing his report on pornography in 1986. Congress passed its own draconian Child Protection Act of 1984 as a sop to the psycho-sexual hysteria being generated by the Christian Right and by the new industry of abuse and victimization that blossomed at this time. Regressive hypnotherapy and its windfall of recovered memories, later discredited, fuelled this boom industry. Police and prosecutors throughout the country, with gleeful media complicity, were suddenly awash in cases of alleged pedophile rings and ritual Satanic abuse, the vast majority of which proved to be unfounded and were never even brought to trial. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum-these and other demagogues had moved from the sidelines to the establishment centre, bringing their potent arsenals of hate-mongering and humourless conformity with them.
At this same time
Charging from the opposite ideological direction, came the aggressive activism and rhetoric of Gay Identity Politics. This is not to say that gay activism was an invention of the 1980s. Homosexuals had been politically strident for many years, the Stonewall Riot of 1969 just the most notable event in a tumultuous history. But that earlier activism had been a desperate struggle for basic civil liberties, for freedom from police harassment, for the right to assemble, to fraternize, to exist. This new radicalism was something altogether different, nothing less than a full-scale assault on the American cainstream in order to establish, forcefully and permanently, a distinct gay identity and a powerful political presence. The struggle for basic rights and minimal tolerance had now given way to a demand for total recognition and total acceptance.
The catastrophe of AIDS
more than anything else, inspired the zealotry of this movement. By 1982, the health crisis was already being featured in Time and Newsweek and other mainstream media outlets. The sensuous frivolity of disco and its early-Eighties denouement was now being replaced by a type of left-wing gay activism just as grim and humourless as its right-wing counterpart. Understandable, given the deadly stakes, no time or energy to waste for those engaged in this ghastly struggle for survival. Rock Hudson became the AIDS poster boy in 1985, bringing unprecedented publicity while also personalizing the murky gay identity for hetero America. ACT UP and Queer Nation, among others, further fanned the flames of publicity and national awareness. More and more, there was this very real prominence of homosexuality as an "alternative lifestyle" and a distinct subculture or other-culture apart from the hetero mainstream. That twenty-year idyll of naïve and flamboyant androgyny had truly and thoroughly ended.
So what exactly took its place? What was happening by the late Eighties? By 1990?
The onslaught of right-wing orthodoxy and its conformist agenda had proven itself ruthlessly effective. Intergenerational sex had become demonised in new and sensational ways. The age of consent was being revised and raised nationwide, state by state, to redefine the very nature of childhood. Anti-pornography hysteria and litigation (with the wrongheaded support of radical feminists and lesbians) continued to thrive, from Cincinnati art galleries to the Sears catalogue, a chilling wave of censorship and intimidation soon exported by America Prime to its far-flung imperium (Western Europe, the Philippines, Thailand, etc.). Robert Mapplethorpe's and Sally Mann's photographs, Michelangelo's David, Isabelle Holland's The Man Without A Face-all were attacked as obscene, as perverted, as inimical to Americans and Christians everywhere. A film such as Popi, rated "G" upon its original release in 1969 despite several scenes of pubescent male nudity, now would have met the legal definition of obscenity in most American communities. The giant retailers, led by Sears and JCPenney and Montgomery Ward, even stopped using live models in their ads for boys' underwear, the national psyche attuned by this time to seeing scantily-clad young males solely in terms of homo-eroticism and kiddie porn.
The gay-rights movement itself shared responsibility for this upheaval of sexual fear and loathing. Its AIDS-fuelled militancy had been successful in gaining a token seat at the noisy multicultural table, but the response from hetero America was something close to panic. Like intoxicated libertines suddenly waking in some stranger's bed, heterosexual males suffered a traumatic morning-after of revulsion and self-disgust, frantic to distance themselves from both the literal and figurative contagion of homosexuality. Gay Identity Politics had met head-on with the inevitable "equal and opposite reaction" of Hetero Identity Politics. Left-wing zealotry had collided with right-wing zealotry to create a profound cultural schism, forcing the public to identify with one sexual camp or the other-gay and proud over here, straight and proud over there.
Once begun, this sexual divergence became an unstoppable duel of force/counterforce. Gay Pride Parades and Christian counter-rallies competed on the evening news. We're here and we're queer! God hates fags!
For the first time, certain images and iconography were being openly identified and celebrated as gay. For the first time, boldly distinctive ways of looking and dressing gay were being publicized for the whole world to see. Those same ways of looking and dressing which an entire culture had joyfully shared for so many years now became the unique style of a queer other-culture. Straight males, conditioned by the new right-wing orthodoxy and its "family values" homophobia, began looking in the mirror to find themselves, much to their squeamish amazement, dressed like faggots, dressed in the kind of short, tight clothing that only girls or queers would wear. Being sexy and displaying the body, from now on, could be for homos only, not for real men.
But if short-and-tight was now gay, then what was straight?
If skimpy-and-sexy was now improperly homo, then what was properly hetero? How should this new culture of Hetero Separatism and Hetero Correctness express itself?
This conundrum had never existed before. In the days before Gay Identity Politics, there had been a naïve disregard for sexual orientation, a simplistic credo that maleness always meant heteroness. Sure, queers existed, but somewhere else, maybe in Greenwich Village or some offbeat locale like San Francisco. They were invisible; they were irrelevant. However males chose to look or behave or dress was, ipso facto, properly and appropriately heterosexual because, after all, what else could it be? Nothing can "look gay" when there's no gay way to look, no gay identity, no gay anything. Boys in Speedos? Hetero. Boys in short-shorts? Hetero. Only when gays asserted themselves to become a conspicuous and distinctive subpopulation, a distinctive demographic Other to the hetero Us, did a way of looking gay and dressing gay emerge.
Aggressive self-promotion of this gay identity, coupled with the equally aggressive counterattack of Hetero Separatism, forced young men and boys everywhere to start dressing themselves not just as proper males but, for the first time, as proper straight males.
This was something new in the history of Western culture. Male attire had always, more or less, been specific to gender, but never to sexual orientation. The naughty unisex protocol of the previous twenty years had been replaced by a stern protocol of dualism. Girls and queers had laid claim to short-and-tight, to skimpy-and-sexy, so boys, not wanting to be seen as sissy or gay, began a frenetic scramble to establish a new and exclusively hetero male protocol that would mark them as separate, that would proclaim their own straight, macho identity. By the rule of opposites, this new uniform of Hetero Correctness replaced short with long, tight with loose, skimpy with baggy, sexy with shapeless.
A new anti-gay aesthetic had been born
Not all of this happened overnight. The metamorphosis was gradual but relentless. On the basketball court, as early as the mid-Eighties, Michael Jordan was showcasing an original way of looking macho in shorts that were longer and baggier than any worn before. In college basketball, Michigan State and some few other schools became early converts to this new and still slightly odd style of covering up to display manliness, covering up to be cool.
Not surprising that a game dominated by African-Americans should be the trendsetter. Young blacks, long at the cultural forefront, were now using their innovative prowess to undo what they themselves had helped to create over the previous twenty years. This urban culture of rap and hip-hop would become the dominant force of the Nineties-more than just a way of dressing, actually a new lifestyle of Hetero Extremism, a street religion of cartoonish and exaggerated heterosexual behaviours and attitudes, beliefs and taboos.
What Michael Jordan had first popularised on the basketball court was now adopted and adapted and embellished by this culture of hip-hop into an extravagant caricature of sloppy, goonish virility. Of course, hip-hop is just an easy label for the new way of thinking and behaving which has come to define maleness. It's a huge catchall of mannerisms and music and language and, not least, fashion. It's a manifestation of Hetero Separatism, but not the cause. Simply ascribing the current burlesque of male bagginess to "hip-hop fashion" is to mistake the symptom for the disease.
Early on, in fact, a Seattle-born movement of music and attitude called "grunge" vied with hip-hop as the prime pop-cultural force among American youth. Nirvana and Pearl Jam exemplified this genre of neo-punkish, suburban angst. But whether the offshoot is grunge or hip-hop or some other sub cultural variant such as Goth or gangsta or slacker, the aggressively hetero taproot remains, each style identical in its gross contempt for the male body, the idea now not only to cover and conceal but actually to disfigure and uglify as a proclamation of gender integrity.
Buffoonishly oversized clothing is worn in protective layers, like sexual camouflage, to obliterate any trace of the body's shape or contour: baggy jackets over baggy shirts over baggy pants, the pants themselves with low-sewn crotches specifically designed to make the fabric sag and flatten in front and at the seat, eliminating once and forever the unsavoury homo spectacle of hips and bulges and buttocks. Boys end up looking freakishly elongated and misshapen, like figures distorted in a funhouse mirror.
Much was made, at first, of this bagginess as just another youthful fashion trend, just kids being kids, just the latest way of looking cool, defiant, outrageous. Teenagers themselves, mostly boys but also some girls, could offer no deeper insight or self-perception, usually describing their own bizarre wardrobe as comfortable, simply comfortable. This profoundly significant mode of expression was dismissed as something merely frivolous, few people if any fully understanding the deeper, more insidious explanation for their own appearance.
Soon enough, girls stopped having anything to do with this new way of dressing, never more to them than a whimsical fashion fling, a brief foray into the outlandish, like playing dress-up at Halloween. They left baggy clothing to the boys and happily claimed for themselves a monopoly of the Body Erotic.
For the boys, there was no choice, no alternative
What girls were free to choose or discard as just another style, no more permanent than platform shoes or tie-dye, boys were forced to continue wearing as a self-imposed and mandatory uniform. Whether packaged as hip-hop or grunge or some other pop-cultural curiosity, baggy clothing was now the centrepiece of a rigidly enforced dress code, the outward and immutable expression of male anti-gay solidarity. Once established, this dress code of Hetero Correctness made any retreat impossible, appearance linked inextricably to sexuality from now on.
In other words, this fashion is not a fashion. This style is not a style
Baggy clothing is now a permanent and essential weapon in the defence of proper, hetero masculinity. Boys announce to themselves and to the world, every time they dress this way, their own witless self-loathing, their own dull and knee-jerk acceptance of male grossness, male brutishness. Young men and boys, who once displayed themselves in clothing that was all about being frisky, playful, affectionate, sexy, open, unique, beautiful, joyous, now shroud themselves to appear grim, dark, covered, sullen, thuggish, hostile, ugly, shapeless, anonymous.
This new regime of male self-abhorrence should be plain for everyone to see, for everyone to understand. Men and boys are declaring, loudly and belligerently and unmistakably, that females and only females are attractive and sexually alluring; that only females may dress seductively and flaunt their sexiness; that only females may be viewed as exciting, erotic beings.
That, furthermore, as healthy heterosexuals, males themselves must feel not just a positive attraction towards females but an actual revulsion for other males, and must display this revulsion, this manly self-contempt, by disfiguring themselves, by covering themselves, by sparing themselves and one another the unpleasant sight of their own bodies. Boys are not physically attractive; boys are not sexually alluring; boys must not be viewed, by themselves or by others, as exciting, erotic beings. The clownish, baggy clothing they wear is the uniform of this proud Hetero Manifesto of mutual loathing.
But how is this current uniformity any different from the behaviour of previous generations of teenagers?
Haven't young people always craved the security of the pack? Weren't boys just as mindlessly conformist twenty years ago in their tight short-shorts and knee socks as they are today?
Yes, they were-the adolescent herd mentality never changes. But yesterday's conformity, to call it that, was actually a collective celebration of each boy's uniqueness. Today's identical bagginess is designed to hide the body and to make everyone appear drably the same, shapelessly and sexlessly anonymous; yesterday's aesthetic of short-and-tight was designed to achieve the very opposite, to show the body and to display each of those bodies as unique, to display each and every boy as unique, each form, each figure, each shape beautifully different, beautifully distinct.
Yesterday's style also was just that: a style. It arrived, it thrived, it eventually expired. Never, even during its heyday, was it the sole and only way for males to dress. Young men and boys might have revelled in the freedom of that sexy clothing, but other choices certainly existed. Today, those choices are gone. All clothing for young males is more or less baggy. Any boy who might, in some rebellious mood, desire to wear something tighter or shorter is simply out of luck. That type of clothing is no longer manufactured by major labels or sold by major retailers. Bagginess is not a style; bagginess is not a choice; bagginess is a strict and uncompromising code of heterosexual propriety.
Even within the gay community itself, of course, baggy clothing has now become the norm. But this should surprise no one. The same political activism which first brought a startling new gay identity to the national consciousness eventually won homosexuals an uneasy measure of acceptance and respectability from the socio-cultural mainstream.
Once inside the master's house, these former pariahs became eager to consolidate their newfound status by blending in, by stressing sameness over difference, by showcasing themselves as "normal" members of the diverse American family. This sheepish compliance has bred a conformist mentality no less rigid and dull-witted than the regimentation of Hetero Correctness itself. Gays now prove their "we're just like you" normality by aping the conventions of the straight mainstream, which means looking and dressing like every other "normal" Tom, Dick, and Harry. The edgy symbiosis has come full circle; homo and hetero have once again become largely indistinguishable; only this time, today, it's the straight aesthetic of shapeless anonymity providing the insipid template.
So, given the absence nowadays of an urgent gay threat, the absence of a flamboyant queer nemesis, why do heterosexuals persist in their own aggressively separatist dress code? The answer has already been given: Once established, this dress code makes any retreat impossible. Once a "hetero look" has been prescribed, there's no renouncing it without renouncing your own sexual orientation. Abandoning it would equal a declaration of gayness.
Never mind the craven eagerness of homosexuals themselves to assimilate; the stereotypical "gay look" remains vivid in the cultural memory and can never again be allowed to contaminate straight males. No clothing must ever again be too tight or too short-in other words, too gay. No boy must ever again show too much bare skin or display himself in any way that might acknowledge the beauty of his own body or encourage the world to look at him, to desire him-because that would mark him as a sissy, a deviant, a fairy.
Sure, gays might be good campy fun these days, quaintly and comically entertaining in The Birdcage or on Will & Grace, maybe even worthy of pity as the tragic victims of AIDS-but no one should want to be like them, no one should want to be mistaken for them. They're OK, but still, after all . . . they're gay, forever the Other, forever the Opposite.
Any glance around the cultural landscape will confirm this state of hopeless, no-retreat intransigence. What began as a random and spontaneous consequence of gay radicalism colliding with hetero orthodoxy has become institutionalised and commercialised and vigorously marketed by corporate America, not only in this country but throughout the entire Americanised world. Watch any TV show from Venezuela, from England, from South Korea-pick a country, you'll see the same baggy male clothing, the same unwitting emulation of America and its hip-hop burlesque of Hetero Extremism.
Every aspect of male life betrays this style that is no style, this fashion that is no fashion
Sports, due to Michael Jordan's early influence, were first to convert and transmogrify, basketball especially susceptible to this grotesque imperative of the thuggish, of the buffoonish. All other sports quickly and slavishly followed, an identical evolution from short to long, from tight to baggy. Soccer shorts and gym shorts, track shorts and tennis shorts and boxing trunks-all underwent this same transformation. Wrestling singlets also were lengthened to eliminate the inappropriate display of bare thighs.
Even beyond athletics, this rule of long-and-baggy forced the redesign of everything from scout uniforms to clothing for infants and toddlers. But only male scouts, of course. And only male infants and toddlers. This supposedly teen fashion, just kids being kids, has altered the appearance and character of an entire gender, no regard to age or race or any other demographic factor that might normally determine a style's popularity.
No spectacle more vividly betrays the true prevalence and permanence of this heterosexist über-protocol than males, young and old, in baggy swimwear. How could a mere fashion of the streets force such exaggerated body phobia at the beach? At the pool? Why would six-year-old boys and sixty-year-old men show identical subservience to something which is no more than a silly teen fad, an insignificant hip-hop whimsicality, even to the extreme of covering themselves where uncovering has always been the happy-go-lucky custom.
Swim trunks for males are now baggy swim pants, some nearly ankle-length, the farcical antithesis of everything you'd expect to see at the beach or the pool, those traditional havens of carefree and immodest display, even nudity. The pretence of bagginess equalling comfort finally crumbles in this context where nakedness, let's face it, is the ideal. As clothing is added, comfort is reduced; as skin is covered, pleasure is diminished. Swimming is also called bathing, after all-and there's a certain lunacy to bathing in baggy pants. Yet men and boys do just that and do it willingly, a blatant example of senseless and counterintuitive behaviour that can be sustained only through persistent conditioning and aggressive marketing.
No one would want swimwear which is designed to be heavy and hot and uncomfortable unless they've been convinced of its overriding necessity, its deep importance as symbol and totem, its value and its virtue as a uniform of hetero identity, hetero allegiance, hetero belonging. This is institutionalised "street fashion" and "counterculture" at its most corporate, its most commercial, its most relentlessly cynical.
The body phobia
produced by roughly fifteen years of this protocol and its unyielding dress code is real and drastic, an entire generation of boys trained to despise their own physiques, to look at themselves with debilitating shame.
Such an assertion might be dismissed as hyperbole, as paranoid rhetoric, as shrill alarmism-except for testimony from corporate insiders such as Stuart Isaac, vice president of sports promotions for Speedo, the company responsible for developing the new Fastskin swimsuit. This full-body suit has helped to rekindle interest in competitive swimming among young males. Why? According to Isaac himself, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, boys have been "turned off" from swimming in recent years because of "their reluctance to wear a tiny suit in public." But now, even for those kids unable to afford the full Fastskin bodysuit, Speedo and other companies have come to the rescue with a modified version, with trunks similar to bicycle shorts which are long enough-again according to Stuart Isaac-to help "alleviate concerns."
That's right: Boys can now stop worrying that anyone might ever again see them improperly exposed in those "tiny" suits, thanks to corporate America and institutionalised Hetero Correctness. The cardinal sin of those tiny suits, let's not forget, being their inherent gayness. Always that equation now between showing off the body and being queer.
A recent PBS show called Shore Thing offered its own wry confirmation, wondering how best to distinguish a gay beach from its straight counterparts, then answering, "Well, the suits are smaller and tighter here..." Of course. Or take this definitive summation from yet another Chicago Sun-Times article about male swimwear: "Anything tight on a guy-regardless of physique-is unattractive. Loose is better. For men, loose should be the only way to go."
OK. Enough said. End of discussion
Recently, it seems, even mainstream media have recognized something oddly pathological about these current male attitudes and behaviours, coining the term "Rude Boy culture" in an attempt to make sense of the senseless. Consider an article from the February 5, 2001 issue of Time, which observes that "Rude Boy culture has a determined self-loathing streak"; that this Rude Boy culture 'treats women as sex objects while implying that men are morons"; that, indeed, there is 'even a root uneasiness with maleness itself in some Rude Boy culture."
All obvious to anyone who's been paying attention. Males have abandoned the Body Erotic to females and adopted the role of gangster, of thug, of sideshow psycho, trapped in this dysfunctional persona of their own creation with no hope for escape.
In a fever of overcompensation, these predatory Rude Boys have hyper-sexualized females into what can only be described as sluttish prey. Females themselves have responded with avid complicity, smugly content in their monopoly of all things erotic and seductive, showing off more and more of themselves while males show less and less.
What's popular now with girls, as the Washington Post and other sources have reported, are salacious items such as "booty shorts" that leave the body as bare as possible, a vogue known among designers and retailers as the nude look. The resulting confluence of these baggy boys and these next-to-naked girls-in any music video, for example-can be a jarringly surrealistic sight, like the freakish dalliance between some gang of deranged circus clowns and their hooker consorts.
In all this cultural debris
does any trace remain of that effulgence of male display from the Sixties, the Seventies, the early Eighties? There does, yes, but only those bits and pieces that pose no threat to the strict tenets of Hetero Correctness.
A harmless vestige of the Eighties such as People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" is one high-profile example. Soap opera studs and Baywatch hunks are another, their type of bare-chested manliness still perceived as safely orthodox, their above-the-waist mode of display still acceptable. Below the waist, of course, would stigmatise them as queer-which is why Mad TV, Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Drew Carey Show, etc., all have portrayed "gay" characters wearing tight short-shorts or tiny Speedos for quick and easy audience recognition.
One intriguing exception to this otherwise hard-and-fast rule is professional wrestling, where many performers still compete in the scanty spandex trunks of a bygone era. This is allowed, perhaps, because of the cartoonish and fantastical nature of the wrestlers themselves, as if these ersatz superheroes and villains have been given some special license to play dress-up, to create their own alien extravaganza of brawling beefcake.
Fascinating, therefore, the enormous popularity of this spectacle throughout the culture at large, and among teenaged boys in particular. Is the bizarre homoerotic subtext itself part of the attraction? Is there a yearning, especially in the male psyche, for something lost and irretrievable? Maybe professional wrestling functions, on some deeply unspoken level, as a boisterous guilty pleasure for a culture demoralized by years of hetero orthodoxy and regimentation, a culture hungry for that type of uninhibited male flamboyance now taboo in everyday life.
And maybe, while rummaging for clues and subtext, we should ponder, just briefly, the head-to-toe veiling of fundamentalist Muslim women
Is there some analogy between that tradition of the hijab and what's happening now throughout America and its cultural colonies? Are young men and boys wearing their own hip-hop version of the Iranian chador and the Afghan burqa?
There's much of the same self-loathing in these seemingly disparate situations, the same body shame and phobia, the same fanatical control of public bodily display by an overseer establishment, the same mortifying submission to one's own depersonalisation.
It's most intriguing, though, to remember that those Muslim women are veiled, according to doctrine, as a means of blunting male desire. The female form is regarded with a sort of superstitious reverence and trepidation, as something precious that must be protected but also as something dangerously provocative that must be kept covered and suppressed.
- Have American males turned this same type of custodial fanaticism against themselves?
- Are boys, in this country, the forbidden temptation that must always be jealously hidden?
- Are boys the intoxicating provocateurs who must be kept covered and suppressed?
- Are men and boys cowering from their own treacherous bodies beneath those layers of baggy clothing?
- If so, what a demented saga of inverted sexual repression and longing and self-denial these last fifteen years have been.
That must be the answer
That metaphor of the hijab must finally explain the tenacity of what might have been and should have been nothing but a passing folly. The spell of hetero allegiance continues to exert its own powerful hold, of course, any retreat from bagginess now tantamount to gender betrayal-but put aside even that. Put aside also those tunnel-visioned explanations of bagginess as an outgrowth of the urban crime-scape, as merely a bizarre expedient for hiding weapons and drugs.
Here's the truth
Boys are beautiful, every bit as beautiful as girls, therefore boys must be kept covered. Bagginess is necessary for hiding the reality of that male beauty. The indisputable visual evidence of that beauty, quite simply, must forever be kept under wraps. How else to preserve a strong and united hetero front? To keep the faithful in thrall? How else to perpetuate the fallacy of masculine ugliness? To maintain the illusion of males as somehow aesthetically and erotically inferior to females? Only one way: Keep boys covered in baggy hip-hop chadors. Keep their bodies and their beauty carefully concealed. Otherwise, the hetero protocol collapses.
But why search for meaning or understanding?
After all the fuss and bother and overwrought analysis, aren't we just dealing with silly trivialities of dress and appearance? Why worry about such things? Why care? So much easier to play along, to join the pack, to scoff at anyone who might differ or question. But that old Socratic maxim holds true for cultures as well as individuals: The unexamined cultural life, you could aptly paraphrase, is not worth living. Like it or not, there is significance to the way people dress themselves. Deep significance, for example, to the corseted primness of Victorian females. Deep and age-old significance to military and paramilitary uniforms, to clerical vestments, to the black garb of ultra-Orthodox Jewish males, to those Iranian chadors and those Afghan burqas. And deep significance, for those willing to see it, to the bagginess of today's men and boys.
Clothing has meaning
Clothing sends powerful messages. There's a way to dress that enhances and flatters the body, that proudly exhibits the body; there's another that disrespects and debases the body, that announces shame. There's a way to dress that shows off, that displays, that expresses self-respect and a joyous pride in one's own beauty and strength and worth; there's another that conceals and hides, that uglifies, that expresses self-loathing and hostility and a gloomy contempt for one's own worthlessness.
A way that says my body is good and should be celebrated; another that says my body is bad and should be despised and covered. Ignoring these meanings and these messages is the worst kind of intellectual corruption, something cowardly and gullible in the easy denial of the utterly obvious, in the surrender to blindness and conformity with never a word of protest or challenge, such an undignified embrace of the hateful, the stupid, the oafish.
But if there's any conspiracy to be found in all of this, it's one of silence. Men and boys seldom if ever have understood or verbalized the motives behind their own foolish appearance, no need for pronouncements or tirades.
Once the protocol of Hetero Correctness was established some fifteen years ago, complete with its aggressively anti-gay dress code, nothing but its own momentum was necessary to carry it forward. Always a visceral and intuitive entanglement of behaviours, this protocol requires no list of instructions or explicit marching orders. It's a protocol and a manifesto of the heart, not the head. And now, after these many years, no one even notices or wonders about the strangeness of it all.
This style that is no style, this fashion that is no fashion has become the natural order, the dreary status quo. Girls are pretty; boys are ugly. Girls are sexy and seductive; boys are goonish and repellent. Girls are prey; boys are predators. Their clothing proclaims this gospel to a world long since converted and transfixed.
So what's the answer, finally, to that puzzled boy's question?
Is it true that gay guys wear tight pants to let other guys check out their butts? Sure, some of them, it's a sensible enough strategy-but only those heretical few who've not yet camouflaged themselves in the bagginess of straight anonymity. For the most part, that boy need not worry; guys in tight pants are little more than a memory these days. Young males, in fact, might have no memory of them at all, might have trouble even believing that their fathers and uncles and older brothers once dressed, oh my god, like queers.
Nearly impossible now to make anyone understand how that once-upon-a-time loosening of inhibition and social restraint gave birth, however briefly, to an American heyday of honest desire, honestly expressed. Nearly impossible to imagine how that genie could have escaped the bottle for roughly twenty years, somehow allowing this American culture its heady fling of Boy Worship before the guardians of hetero orthodoxy were awakened to action.
More than just odd or charmingly old-fashioned, those pre-1985 filmic and photographic images of young males now strike the eye something like anthropological curiosities, like images of some lost branch of the human family tree. Or like some third, unique gender now gone extinct. The lost Boy-nymph. The vanished Boy-coquette.
Inconceivable that those exotic, come-hither creatures in their itty-bitty shorts and crotch-bulging jeans could have evolved into the baggy, shapeless clown-thugs of today. There's an aesthetic discontinuity between them that should make anyone dizzy, those immodest show-offs from yesteryear surely some alien species or gender that mysteriously came and went, victimized by one of those cataclysmic extinctions that leave nothing but tantalizing relics and a rumour of decadent splendour.
Any other explanation is too unsettling, any serious assessment of the truth too bitter, too harsh, difficult even to contemplate a culture that would turn against itself so viciously, that would destroy some rare and beautiful part of itself simply out of hatred and ignorance and sexual hysteria. It's a loss that everyone secretly must sense, secretly must share. Like music gone silent. Like laughter cut dead.
source: Article 'Baggy-Pants Thuggery & Hip-Hop Burlesque: Clothing As Sexual Politics in America' by Kevin Esser; OK Magazine, no. 88; December 2003