What if, in his latest video, Drake rubs his hand gently up Macklemore’s beefy, exposed thigh? Maybe Robin Thicke can grab Justin Timberlake from behind and passionately throw him against a wall — or vice versa?
You and I may like these scenarios, but “America” would not. The thought of something like that, being presented not as a joke but titillation, is so outlandish to be almost inconceivable. Yet, female pop stars constantly “play” lesbian, teasing their audience with suggestive duets and gyrating hips that certainly lie.
Take Shakira and Rihanna in the video for “Can’t Remember to Forget You”: they caress walls and shake asses like 15-year-olds at a rave. They then take it to a big lounge chair so they can cavort together in heels and bathing suits. When not sticking their butts in the air, they roll around and grope each other (they also puff on fat cigars and stare at the camera with bedroom eyes — subtle).
The ladies certainly look sexy, which Miley Cyrus and Madonna almost pulled off during the former’s Unplugged session on MTV. The country-ified mash-up of “We Can’t Stop” and “Don’t Tell Me” wasn’t a complete train wreck; a little awkward but mostly fun. Of course, the two couldn’t get through the song without pawing at each other. Don’t just blame Madonna, the queen of the Sapphic tease, it was Miley who grabbed Madge’s belt and yanked her close, not to mention spanking and grinding against her yoga-ified ass (you can see a glimmer of buyer’s remorse in Madonna’s face).
More subtle and stylish was the strange, mostly wonderful pairing of Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera, who recreated a Jackie Collins novel with their December performance on The Voice of “Do What U Want.” When they held hands it looked sisterly, but their relationship got more loaded when Gaga led Christina to a couch and they held each other, grabbed some bubbly, and then toasted together with arms entwined. It certainly has that lesbian titillation factor, but, unlike the other two duets, was artful enough that actual lesbians could enjoy it without being shamed by a Jezebel piece.
Bowie, Jagger, and Iggy Pop may have toyed with bisexuality in the ‘70s, but if Adam Levine planted a big, serious kiss on Blake Shelton, like Madonna did to Christina over a decade ago, the entire media industrial complex would implode. That buss would be the biggest story on the morning talk shows the next day, your Facebook feed would never be the same, and there would be shock, horror, and an enormous backlash you can sum up with one non-word: “Ewww.” This country may think you have the right to die for your rights, but it still can’t stomach two gorgeous male specimens rubbing on each other. Or at least America’s straight males would claim they can’t.
Pop princesses can play around as much as they want because they live in a man’s world, a straight man’s world. The misogynistic culture in which they operate demands hetero male desire be coddled and cared for, even though women and gay men constitute the majority of their fanbases. Is it that misogyny that’s making straight men so averse to gay images in pop culture?
I’m not implying straight bros are dying to see men get frisky, but would it really give them the heaves? Does watching every movie and TV show that depicts heterosexual lust repulse you? Probably not, but depictions of straight sexuality provide at least one object of desire for gay men and women. Regardless, no gay person is turned on by every display of straight affection — it’s just normal to us, so we don’t wince. Seeing men touch each other in an erotic way is mostly foreign to everyone except LGBT people. Different=scary.
It’s pretty clear the gross-out factor stems from fear, and not just of the unknown. If straight men didn’t object to gay images, they could be perceived as gay. Heterosexual women can watch Rihanna and Shakira caress each other’s thighs without throwing the remote at the TV because even if they like it, or even confess to being a little turned on, their entire identity won’t be questioned. Women are beautiful and maybe all of them are a little bisexual, the conventional thinking goes. But if a man finds another man attractive, even during the course of a music video, well then he’s GAY. He likes men, sister! He’s gonna leave you for your gay hairdresser!
The straight male disgust of gay love can be blamed entirely on nurture, not nature. We all know vomit and excrement is gross from the earliest of ages, it’s in our DNA, but we’re taught that eating bugs is nasty. If McDonald’s always served grasshopper shakes and ant burgers, we’d think consuming cows and drinking their milk was repulsive.
Most lesbians aren’t repulsed by gay men groping each other (at least with their clothes on), and most gay men aren’t driven to distracted disgust by seeing two ladies get playful. We’ve seen it a million times at bars and Prides, and even though we’re not attracted to anyone in the party — unless we’re bi — it’s not repulsive as a rule. But remember the first time you saw gay men kissing or fondling each other? If you’re a gay guy, especially one over 30, you were probably turned on, but also a bit squeamish. That attraction was mixed with disgust because as long as you could remember, gay=gross. All things being equal then, the disgust felt by straight men over gay flirtation and affection is learned behavior and not innate. They’re not turned on by guys and their world tells them that two men together is akin to someone making out with their cat.
My hope is not that male pop stars resort to lazy publicity ploys like their aforementioned female peers. Gay affection needs to simply be more integrated into mainstream entertainment, so it becomes less charged and more normal. We want to be exploited as much as the straights! That representation, along with gay men feeling comfortable enough to be affectionate in public, will be the only things that make two guys touching each other less scary to straight dudes. Once men, all men, feel free to flirt with homosexuality, homophobia will cease to exist. So, while marriage equality and ENDA are great, what our cause really needs is a live performance of “Happy,” where Pharrell goes to second base with Bruno Mars.
NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor in chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman