In 1997 Kevin Kline starred in a film called In & Out. The story is of a heterosexual acting teacher about to marry his sweetheart. When one of his former students wins an Academy Award, his televised acceptance speech drops the well-meaning bomb that Kline’s character is gay. In 1997 this revelation could hush a movie theater and provide an actor of Kline’s comedic talents much opportunity for goggle-eyed scenery-chewing. Not only is Kline’s character emphatically not gay, the televised “mis-outing” comes on the eve of his wedding day to a longtime sweetheart.
His student’s announcement on the most watched television broadcast on Earth comes as a complete surprise to Kline, who initially doth protest too much. Way too much. But slowly he begins to realize his personal tastes, habits, and demeanor are in lock-step with accepted cultural markers for homosexuality. Kline loves Streisand, adores poetry, uses a napkin when he eats, and knows what a split infinitive is. Oh, and he’s driven absolutely mad by having his shirt half-untucked. And so on.
What ensues is a film that wittily but ruinously reinforces what it is to be a straight man, and what exactly it is to be a gay man. When I saw the poster I believed I understood the synopsis—but I’d overestimated both the director, Frank Oz (familiar to Mankind as the voices of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and Miss Piggy, and of Yoda—Dagobah’s diminutive Jedi blabbermouth), and celebrated gay playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick. The self-consciously daring film notably featured a 12 second kiss between raging hetero poster-man Tom Selleck and Kline. Which was just about the only ground broken in this 1997 attempt to tweak retrograde thinking about sexual identity.
Could it be Magic
In the film’s penultimate revelation, Kline’s panicked osterone is tested by a self-help audio course whose voiceover acts as guide and comic foil to Kline’s supposed epiphany. “Truly manly men do not dance” the voiceover assures. When Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive” starts blaring, of course Kline struggles mightily, but finally can’t override his gay gene and—like Superman succumbing to Kryptonite—begins dancing like a dervish. “Stop shaking that booty!” the announcer commands. “Be a man! Kick someone! Punch someone!”
As social history goes, the film is notable for casting in cheap concrete our collective late-90s wisdom concerning the bright line between gays and straights. Kicking and Punching = Heterosexual Man (today you can add Assaulting). My delusional hope when the film began was that the producers were breaking ground, would end the film with Kline’s revelation—and our own—that many straights also have a fervent love for Streisand (to use a little shorthand here), tear up copiously and often, and laugh uproariously with hands clasped and head thrown back.
In fact, heterosexual men have been known to swoon in romantic settings, sob quietly at “chick flicks”, gyrate to Donna Summer (her version of Manilow’s “Could it Be Magic” – are you freaking kidding?!) and otherwise confuse the gender brand. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Testosterone, I shall Pause and Gather Wildflowers with Both Arms. I’m talking of course about today’s Mer-Man. And this is only loosely to do with Ethel.
Here Comes Your Man
Am I manly? Oh hell yeah! But not so’s you’d notice. I have hair all over my back, but it is the hair that has fallen screaming from the top of my head. I am not a Sean Connery type who needs to shave his neck every day just to look civil. When I say I shave religiously, I mean once at Easter and once at Christmas.
On the Man side of the ledger, I have a gorgeous sweetheart of a foreign-born wife with whom I have sired two wonderful children. Yes, when in the throes of that procreative ecstasy I probably sounded a lot like Carol Channing being mugged. My vocal register tends toward the girlish, it’s true. When I’m excited or perturbed, I would not sound out of place sternly instructing Dorothy to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. If I had a dollar for every time a phone solicitor responded to my greeting with “Hello Mrs. Wing!” I could buy and sell you all.
What’s more, I write poetry, am indeed drawn to chick flicks, get a tracheal sob-cramp at every single hearing of Eydie Gorme’s viscera-wrenching version of “If He Walked Into My Life” from Jerry Herman’s musical “Mame”, regard beer as ghastly pre-incarnate urine, am completely mystified by the idea of professional sports, and get fluttery in the presence of Gene Kelly’s happy-faced acrobatic whimsy. On paper I am a gay man. At least as our easy-money pop culture would have it.
Rain-Soaked in Rangoon
But if being gay or straight is technically, if not altogether culturally, decided by sexual preference, I’m as straight as the beeline I made to see a shapely and rain-soaked Patricia Arquette in the otherwise sobering film “Beyond Rangoon”. To this day, the words “Burma” and “Myanmar” inspire in me a feverish excitement that has little to do with my wanting to find the place on a map or delve into its tormented history – and present tense. Those geo-political factoids are best presented by a soaked Patricia Arquette, as director John Boorman no doubt knew.
My unique strain of heterosexual manhood is a golden thread that can be traced back through the misty eons and predates a fully upright gait. My ancient Pliocene ancestor is the hunched, attention-deficient cave dweller who, while out with the tribe’s Hunter-Gatherers simply had to pause to marvel at the wondrous delicacy of the giant leafy Cyathea, and was noisily ingested by a saber-toothed poetry hater.
Chauvinist Straight Guy Warning
Today it’s politically fashionable to pretend that gay men and straight men share an equal footing, but in my view they do not. Possibly these next remarks will draw accusations of “sexism”, but my experience is this, and has been for a long time; wherever you have a gathering of people, the gay guy is typically the warmest, funniest, most easily gregarious, best-looking, and most interestingly dressed man in the room. This may be more straight chauvinism reinforced by a pop culture that anymore posits the gay man as a masterfully scripted wit and bon vivant, but it does seem to me an inescapable truth. Why should this so often be the case? Because (and pardon my ignorance, if that’s what this is) a gay man, like a laudably feminized man, has more of the stuff in him that makes the world go round. Namely: Woman.
To put it plainly, women (very generally speaking) are, in my personal view, more interesting, complex, and full-blooded than their penile counterparts—and the more feminine dynamism a man possesses the better. I’m not talking about presentation. I’m talking about the female geist. A woman is more creative, more emotionally intelligent, more expressive, more rational, more deliberative, more empathetic, and more acutely aware of the so-called “30,000 foot view” than a man. In my considered opinion. Anthropology explains this. “You go out and get food and I’ll hang out back here and make our Lives.”
Empathy. Broadsword. Mer-Man
I (think I) know there is an agitating cohort of women for whom association with the above-mentioned attributes is infuriating, and even considered toxic to the very real and deservedly pissed-off struggle in which women remain engaged today. I think some women consider winning at “empathy” and “creativity” a net loss, at least while men are being elevated as being analytically acute, physically unstoppable, courageous, and better at hefting the all-important broadsword. I get it. “Empathy” isn’t going to get women their absurdly long-awaited equal pay for equal work, nor the systemic respect of our self-stroking man-culture.
But “feminized” men, and females themselves, will ultimately save our bacon. Artists, writers, cinephiles, musicians; all ordinary enlightened empaths and payers-of-attention to quotidian treasure—give me as many of those as you can find. They’re slowly moving the needle.
In Ben Stiller’s screamingly funny male-model sendup, his title character Derek Zoolander—a globally famous, vain, straight, and adorably empty-headed nitwit/care bear—“goes home again” and tries to work with his dad in the family coal mine. Zoolander of course develops an effete little cough after a single day in the mines (“..I think I have the black lung, Pop…”).
After work, a lavishly produced moisturizer ad appears on the big screen t.v. in the company bar, Derek Zoolander swimming sinuously with an Esther Williams fish tail and murmuring: “…moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty…”. The gathered mine workers laugh derisively. Zoolander’s father is likewise disgusted. “I just thank the lord your mother didn’t live to see her son as a mermaid!” Zoolander corrects him. “Mer MAN!” *cough* — *cough* “Mer MAN!”
May they save us all.