HoYay Today: More Homodomestic than Homoerotic
HoYay—short for “Homoeroticism, Yay!”—celebrates the sexual potential of male-male relationships. Proponents and auteurs of HoYay in contemporary television series—including such shows as Supernatural, Teen Wolf, Suits, Hawaii Five-0, Sherlock, Community, and Merlin—argue that the intimate relationships highlighted between key male protagonists both mirror and suggest male-male romantic relationships—in short, duos like Derek and Stiles and Merlin and Arthur are gay without being gay. In order to ably name these relationships, they use the term homoerotic, describing not only what is present onscreen but also what becomes present in a culture that extends beyond what is depicted—in fan fiction, slash, ‘shipping blogs, and in the imaginations of both the viewer and possibly the creator of the shows as well.
Homoeroticism has a long history. The earliest surviving fictions, the ancient Sumerian epics of Gilgamesh, feature what has been described as a homoerotic relationship between the ancient king Gilgamesh and his closest companion, Enkidu. Likewise, the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Bible has likewise been labeled homoerotic. The idea of male-male sexuality, and its potential to inform, outrage, amuse, and intrigue audiences, is as old as fiction itself. In modern parlance, we use a wide variety of terms—bromance, BFFs, besties, husbros, blood brothers, etc.—all of which may suggest that whenever two men share a form of intimacy, be it mental, emotional, spiritual, moral, or physical, there is a potential for eroticism inherent in that relationship.
Gilgamesh mourns the death of Enkidu
But homoeroticism is more tightly defined than simply “intimacy” connecting two individuals of the same gender. Strictly speaking, cultural critics like Robert Martin have directly connected homoeroticism to physical intimacy. The term “erotic” itself implies a physical reaction, based on a physiologic stimulation. Homoeroticism is used to describe actions that mirror homosexual behavior without the self-awareness that the actions are, in effect, gay. A useful—if unusual—example of this is the bed scene in the 1987 film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. In the famous scene, stranded travelers John Candy and Steve Martin awake in the same hotel bed, spooning. Alarmed, Steve Martin asks John Candy where his “other” hand is, and the latter replies, “between two pillows,” as the two men simultaneously realize that John Candy’s hands are, in fact, not between two pillows. Horrified, the duo leap out of opposite sides of the bed and, in a comical scene designed to express their rigid, heterosexual masculinity, the two desperately avoid making eye contact while talking about sports.
Scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has talked about homoeroticism as part of a continuum that may begin with what she terms homosociality, an environment dominated by one gender, and ends with homosexuality. For literary, film, or television characters to be accurately labeled as homosexual, the characters themselves must in some way acknowledge their own sexuality. For Sedgwick and similar scholars, this lack of acknowledgement may reduce a character’s actions into the realm of the homoerotic; the character is performing an activity that may be essentially gay, but without any form of self-acknowledgement or self-awareness, there is no way for a reader or viewer to be completely sure.
Awareness is a key concept here, because such actions are all ultimately based on the awareness of a character, an author, or a filmmaker. In a series like Merlin, there is little doubt that Merlin and Arthur share an intimate bond. For Arthur, Merlin is a moral touchstone: an advisor, a confidante, the person who knows him better than any other. For Merlin, Arthur is his leader and, as he often asserts, his “destiny;” he would sacrifice himself for Arthur without hesitation, because of the faith he has in him. The two share a world dominated by homosociality. Despite being married to Guinevere, Arthur is usually in the company of his knights or, more commonly, alone in the woods with Merlin. The two share intimate thoughts, private jokes, and can communicate in a type of shorthand that most long-term duos share, but few others do.
Despite this intimacy, though, there is absolutely nothing erotic about their relationship. Though frequently in physical proximity, the two rarely touch, and often when they do, they do so in a violent manner, such as when Arthur uses Merlin for sword practice or smacks him on the back of the head for an impertinent remark.
Merlin and Arthur have almost never shared any moment that could be strictly labeled as erotic. The same is true for characters in other shows like Supernatural, Hawaii Five-O, Suits and Sherlock. Even in Teen Wolf, where the male body is commonly on display and made the subject of the viewer’s gaze (oh, those frequent locker room scenes,) the characters do not often engage in behavior that can be seen as mirroring homosexual activity. When they do—such as the scene where Stiles is rendered unconscious and falls on top of Derek in a police station—the action is played somewhat for laughs, no different than in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Why, then, do we continually read these relationships as homoerotic? This is partly because of the general nature of male friendships. Anthropologists have long observed that, in modern Western cultures, male friendships tend to be formed in larger groups and not between more intimate pairs. Male friendships rely on activity to cement their bonds; talking between male friends is more commonly done to achieve some task or to pass the time than to discuss feelings or other intimate issues. However, when two males form a “dyad”—a term that describes an intensely close relationship between two individuals—they create a more intimate bond.
Traditionally, males have formed dyads only with their romantic partners. However, male “best-friendships” are becoming more commonplace, and television shows like Merlin are depicting these changing paradigms of male friendship. Yet how do they do so, when there are few examples to draw from in real life? I would argue that characters like Arthur and Merlin are modeled, in a very real way, not on male best friends, but, indeed, on gay male couples, or—to be a bit more broad about this—on married couples in general. Consider the dynamics between the two: they argue, tease, and cajole; they are each other’s compass; they spend more time with the other than anyone else; one is the breadwinner, one tends to the home. In short, they mirror traditional (and in some ways outdated) interpretations of married couples.
Such depictions between two men in popular culture have been around for a long time. Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple had a similar relationship nearly fifty years ago. So how are Merlin and Arthur different from Oscar and Felix? It is not that these types of characters have much changed; rather, it is how the viewing culture understands the relationship that has changed. Few individuals would have seen Oscar and Felix forty years ago and imagined them as a gay male couple; yet the same pairing today would find such a reading almost inevitable. As homosexual couples have become more visible, more prevalent, and more commonplace, society’s understanding of the dynamics of their relationships likewise becomes more visible and more commonplace.
Jack Klugman (left) and Tony Randall in The Odd Couple
In creating and sustaining these relationships, television series creators are bypassing the potential of the homoerotic and moving directly into the potential of homosexual relationships themselves. They borrow not from an eroticized world, but something arguably far more intimate. The erotic, after all, can happen accidentally, or exist as a byproduct of happenstance, as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles demonstrates. For two characters—for two men—to elect to enter into a dyad, to enter into an intimate coupling with another, is an action far more deliberate, and meaningful, than any accidentally erotic moment could ever entail.
In some ways, such relationships may be viewed as progressive, indicating not only changing mores in the ways males act as friends and toward each other, but also showing that gay male couplings have become so common in popular culture that their underpinnings can be aped by other aspects of the culture and understood by the viewer. Merlin and Arthur’s bond is designed to be the most significant on the show—and what bond is more significant than marriage?
Nonetheless, one could also suggest that such pairings are highly regressive as well. For, indeed, instead of mirroring gay male relationships, why not actually make the duos gay? Why not bring sexual intimacy in with the other levels of intimacy that already exist in the relationship? Sadly, such pairings between two men, where sexual intimacy combines with all other forms of intimacy, remain bleakly rare on television. In asking viewers to fill in the erotic blanks, the producers and writers of these shows are also negating the potential of these characters, and such relationships in general, of existing in ways that supersede what is considered both normal and acceptable.
Nonetheless, these intimate dyads represent a real cultural sea change in television’s depictions of men. Ultimately, these characters may not be homoerotic; perhaps, then, we should label them as homodomestic instead, mirroring not sexual behavior but intimate, joined—bluntly stated, married—relations between members of the same sex. Viewers are asked to fill in the sexual blanks themselves—which they do in spades, through slash, fan-fiction, and ‘shipping—but sex here exists, perhaps, as an afterthought. In the end, Merlin and Arthur, like Derek and Stiles, and Sam and Dean, and Dean and Castiel, and Troy and Abed, and Steve and Danno, and Holmes and Watson, and so many others, may not be homoerotic; but what they are, perhaps, has the potential to be far more significant—and intimate—than sex.
via AfterElton.com http://www.afterelton.com/2013/02/tv-hoyay-merlin-teen-wolf-supernatural-homoerotic
- From Covert to Commercial: Images from decades past illustrate a homoerotic and cultural evolution (pinkbananaworld.com)
- Homoerotic Subtext in Literature Classics (osu.uloop.com)
- Merlin Page (scifitalk.com)
- Domiziano Arcangeli Talks About Homoeroticism in Horror Films in Advocate.com (lcoonline.wordpress.com)