Nov 17, 2012

Boyfriends Down Under: Skippy the Bush Kangaroo

Since I couldn't see many movies, video games hadn't been invented, and I didn't like sports, you might think that I spent the first 20 years of my life staring goggle-eyed at the tv set every day from 3 pm to bedtime.

Actually, I was quite busy: LOTS of church activities (choir, prayer meetings, Bible studies, youth groups), plus school clubs, orchestra, cross country, and judo.  But those were sites for indoctrination into heterosexism, not sites of freedom.  When I liked a boy, every adult, from my Sunday school teacher to my orchestra director to the sensei at the dojo, insisted that we were "pals," if they acknowledged the relationship at all, but when I befriended a girl, they could barely restrain their congratulatory shoulder-pats and misty eyed proclamations that I was "growing up."  

I could discuss dreamy boys with female friends, but only teen idols. If I mentioned the boy with dark curly hair and a nice smile who sat behind me in Social Studies, they got blank, uncomprehending looks and changed the subject.   

I could discuss muscular men with male friends, but only if they were spies or superheroes.  If I pointed out a high school hunk playing basketball shirtless on the playground, they would order me to "stop fooling around"  and probably punch me in the stomach.  Of course, no gay people existed; I was just being silly.

So I returned, again, and again, to the tv programs, movies, books, and comics that hinted at the existence of a "good place."

Like the Australian outback.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was syndicated in the U.S. from 1969 to 1972, but it appeared only sporadically, at weird times like Sunday morning or Saturday afternoon, so I only caught occasional glimpses.  

Enough to know that it was about a 10-year old boy named Sonny (Garry Pankhurst) who lived in some sort of national park with his dad (Ed Devereaux), a forest ranger, and his pet kangaroo.  Like Lassie, or Flipper.





Except Sonny had two hunks in his life: his older brother Mark (20-year old Ken James, left), an ever-smiling practical joker; and tanned, handsome Jerry (25-year old Tony Bonner, right), a park ranger who flew a  helicopter.  I was pretty sure that Mark and Jerry liked each other.

In most kid-pet dramas, the kid needs rescuing all the time, but in Skippy, Jerry and Mark were always getting into trouble, requiring Sonny and Skippy to save the day.  In one episode, they were being held hostage by a young juvenile delinquent.  In another, they both ate spoiled fish, so Sonny had to actually fly the helicopter to bring them to the hospital.

What could be cooler than rescuing your brother and his boyfriend in a real helicopter?

I don't remember a lot of shirtless shots, but Ken James made up for it later, on many Australian tv series (the only one airing in the U.S. was Barrier Reef).  He even had a nude shot. 












 Tony Bonner briefly pursued a teen idol career before returning to his true loves, acting and life saving.  Gerry Pankhurst has retired from acting, and manages a Lutheran senior citizens home.












Green Hornet: Batman Lite

The Green Hornet appeared on Friday nights in the fall of 1966 with guns blazing, ready to take the kid world by storm.  There were coloring books, comic books, action figures, viewmasters, Green Hornet costumes for Halloween (apparently he was a revision of an early pulp hero).

  But he turned out to be Batman lite, reviled or ignored by everybody at Denkmann Elementary School, especially the boys who liked boys.






1. Instead of spandex costumes that beautifully displayed muscles and bulges, crime-fighting vigilantes Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee) wore silly green business suits and overcoats.  Ironic, considering that Van Williams, formerly of Sunset Strip, was well known for his muscular physique.













And Bruce Lee's beefcake posters would soon be plastered on the bedroom walls of millions of gay and non-gay kids.

2. Instead of cool villains like the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman, the Green Hornet and Kato fought crooked insurance companies, construction contractors, and local politicos.  And they expected kids to watch?

3. People actually died on The Green Hornet. And they expected kids to watch?









4.Robin was Batman's "youthful ward."  I didn't know what a ward was, but apparently it involved living together, emotional connection, and lots of nick-of-time rescues.  Kato was the Green Hornet's valet.  They lived together, sort of, but no emotional connection and no "my hero!" moments.  Ironic, considering that Van Williams was one of Rock Hudson's associates and rumored to be gay, and the liberal Bruce Lee would probably be a supporter of gay rights.

Facing strong competition from The Wild Wild West and Tarzan,  the series crashed. Guest appearances on Batman in September 1966 and March 1967 didn't help.  After 26 episodes, it vanished, never to be seen again -- until Seth Rogen and Jay Chou starred in a comedy version in 2011.

Nov 16, 2012

Alley Oop: The Time-Traveling Cave Man

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, the comics page of the Rock Island Argus was dismal -- no Peanuts, no Dennis the Menace, no Wizard of Id -- just bargain-basement knockoffs (like Winthrop) and relics from the Depression era that made no sense (like Out Our Way). The Golden Age of Newspaper Comics  (Little Nemo, Krazy Kat,  Buck Rogers) was thirty years past, and the Second Golden Age (Foxtrot, Pearls before Swine, Get Fuzzy) still thirty years in the future.

But at least there was some beefcake in Prince Valiant. And  I was intrigued by a cave man, square-headed, superbly muscled, with massive biceps and flat 8-pack abs, being held captive in a Middle Eastern palace.







What was a cave man doing in the Islamic Middle Ages?  Or in ancient Egypt, or among the Aztecs, or in the Wild West?


Eventually I discovered that the cave man was named Alley Oop, created in 1932 by V. T. Hamlin for a wacky-adventure strip set in a dinosaur-human prehistory (as in The Flintstones). But in 1939 he was zapped into the future by the grizzled Doctor Wonmug (a play on Einstein) and the young, black-haired G. Oscar Boom.  Unfazed by culture shock, Oop became a time-traveling research assistant for the duo, checking out whatever historical period the cartoonist found interesting.


Back in the prehistoric kingdom of Moo, Oop had a girlfriend, Oola; but during his time traveling adventures, he bonded mostly with men.  Often they were also semi-nude, with loving attention paid to their pecs and abs.









Oscar accompanied Oop on many of his adventures, sometimes an antagonist, sometimes a buddy.








At its heyday, the strip was a phenomenon, producing games, toys, Big-Little Books, comic books, and even a song, "Alley Oop," which charted at #15 in 1960. It still appears in 600 newspapers.  Modern continuities tend to bring Oola along as Oop's co-adventurer, but that doesn't eliminate the buddy-bonding.

Michael J. Fox/Alex P. Keaton



Michael J. Fox was the first celebrity I ever  met.  Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, I met a guy who knew him from acting class, and the three of us had lunch at a place on Melrose Boulevard.  He was very nice, and completely gay-positive (and heterosexual, even though my insanely jealous boyfriend Ivo claimed to have dated him).

 Unfortunately his sitcom Family Ties (1982-89) wasn't.

It was one of the 1980s "family values" comedies, like Growing Pains, Life Goes On, and Home Improvementabout liberal ex-hippies (Meredith Baxter Birney, Michael Gross) with politically conservative kids (Scott Valentine was daughter Mallory's boyfriend). Michael played the teen Alex P. Keaton, a Young Republican whose money-grubbing provides most of the jokes.


Gay people did not exist in the world of Family Ties -- if they did, Alex's ultra-liberal parents would certainly have had gay friends.  However, sometimes Alex plays the "is he gay?"  game.  In order to impress a girl, he dons an apron to cook dinner. When Dad criticizes this gender transgression, he counters "I hope you don't mind -- I borrowed your apron.  I got quiche on mine."  The joke plays with the expression "Real men don't eat quiche."


In "Little Man on Campus," he fails his first test, and asks his sister Mallory why she fails so often:

Mallory: When I take a test...my mind starts wandering.
Alex: What do you think about?
Mallory: Boys.
Alex: (Waits for the howls of laughter to subside). Let's hope it's different for me.



Pretending to be gay as a joke only works if you don't have any significant same-sex friendships, so Alex carefully avoids sidekicks.  Wacky next door neighbor Skippy (Marc Price) hangs around because he has a crush on Mallory; they become friends anyway, but Alex carefully polices the relationship, even rejecting the standard sitcom stage business of sitting pressed together on a couch (so they can both be in a closeup).  In one episode, they somehow fall onto the bed together.  Skippy nonchalantly continues their conversation, but Alex recoils in horror and jumps away.  Since no gay people exist, this rejection has an even greater emotional impact than the homophobia of Teen Wolf, marking even nonsexual friendships as bad, wrong, and disquieting.


A few episodes suggest -- but immediately reject -- the possibility of romantic love between Alex and a male friend. In "Best Man," Alex's friend Doug (Timothy Busfield) gets engaged.  He treats Alex and his fiancee as emotional equivalents, hugging them and squealing "You're both so cute!", but still, Alex feels threatened by the new relationship and refuses to be his best man.  When he finally understands that he will still be an essential part of Doug's life, he hugs Doug so tightly at the altar that the minister, in "jest," asks which couple is going to be married.



In the two-part episode "A, My Name is Alex," Alex's friend Greg (Brian McNamara) is killed in an auto accident, and Alex is so distraught that he requires psychiatric help.  But after digging into his subconscious, the psychiatrist fails to find any homoromantic feelings, just guilt because Alex refused to accompany Greg on the errand that killed him, and the recognition of his own mortality.

How does someone who is so gay-friendly play someone so anti-gay on tv?

It was the 1980s?

See also: My Date with Michael J. Fox.

Nov 15, 2012

The Clones of "Saved by the Bell"


During the 1990s, as advertisers were squabbling over the affluent teen market and cable stations were struggling to fill slots, Saved by the Bell-like teencoms appeared regularly: Welcome Freshmen (1991-92),  California Dreams (1992-97), Running the Halls (1993), Saved by the Bell: The New Class (1993-2000), Hang Time (1995-2000), Breaker High (1997-98), USA High (1997-99), City Guys (1997-2001).

The formula was easy: take six to eight beautiful people, three or four boys (schemer, hunk, nerd, and ethnic minority), three or four girls (cheerleader, feminist, princess, and ethnic minority).  Give all of the boys some tongue-lagging, eye-exploding girl-craziness, and all of the girls an obsession over boys.  Give them three sets: high school hallway, locker room, and teen hangout.  Add a clueless principal and an occasional parent, and voila!  The scripts write themselves (or actually, they can be recycled from  40-year old episodes of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).





In spite of the dull repetitiveness of the plots, gay teens might find them worth a look.

1. The shirtless, swimsuit, and speedo shots were constant, and the muscles often spectacular.  Even those teens who weren't man-mountains got their turn in the wrestling singlet.



Or found some other reason to take off their clothes.






















2. Many of the high school hunks came in pairs, polarized into white/nonwhite or nerd/jock.  Breaker High was notable for having two homoromantic pairs: the nerd  Sean (Ryan Gosling) was paired with the schemer Jimmy (Tyler Labine); and the jock Max (Scott Vicaryous) was paired with the ethnic minority Alex (Kyle Alisharam).

These pairs often enjoyed emotional bonds much more intense than those of their knee-jerk heterosexual romances.  Plots often involved threats to their relationships.  For instance, on Breaker High, Alex and Max break up, and Jimmy jumps at the chance to befriend the hot jock.  But then he realizes where his true affections lie and returns to Sean.

But at the same time, they constantly patroled the boundaries of their relationship, evoking and rejecting the possibility of homoromance in joke after joke, episode after episode.  The studio audience usually responded with hysterical laughter: they knew exactly what was not being mentioned.

Beefcake, buddy-bonding, and borderline homophobia.  What else could a gay teen want from a Saturday morning teencom?



Nov 13, 2012

Gay Nerds of the 1980s

Many movies during the 1980s featured a teen nerd, a handsome, intelligent, likable, and wealthy high schooler who for some reason is ostracized by the other students,  except for his flamboyantly feminine best friend.  He is in love with a cheerleader, but she ignores him to hang on the arm of a jock so boorish, violent, possessive, and disagreeable that one can't imagine anyone able to stand him for more than 30 seconds.  You know how it ends: the teen wins the respect of his peers, whereupon the cheerleader melts into his arms, or he settles for the girl next door who supported him all along.  (The formula has been used many times since, notably in The Hard Times of RJ Berger).

There might be a few minor changes, but the major players were always identifiable, reenacting a 1980s morality play about dismissing the homoerotic other.

Why is the teen nerd ostracized?  His intelligence, lack of athletic prowess, or some other despicable trait signify that he is gay.  In Lucas (1986), the locker room jocks assume that Lucas (Corey Haim) is gay because he has a small penis, so he turns the tables: "I don't get semi-erect among other males like some of you fellows do...you can tell the fags in a warm shower by who has the longest dong."

They punish him by smearing Ben Gay on his dong -- but of course, to do that they have to touch his dong.



In Three O'Clock High (1987), teen nerd Jerry (Casey Siemaszko) is assigned to interview transfer student Buddy (Richard Tyson, left) for the school paper.  He says "hello" while they're both at the urinals, and Buddy shrinks back in horror: "You're a fag!"  Jerry immediately protests that he is straight, but Tyson is not convinced, and schedules him for an after school bashing.  Jerry tries to hire school bully Bruce (Scott Tiler) to protect him, but Tiler misunderstands the proposition: "If you're a fag..."



Heterosexual desire, however ardent, cannot redeem the teen nerd's gayness.  In Sixteen Candles (1984), Ted the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall, right) asks Sam (Molly Ringwald) for a date, but she refuses because "You're totally a fag." Lucas dates a girl in full view of the jocks, but is derided as a fag anyhow.

Since the teen nerd is constantly accused of being gay, he must constantly police his arguably romantic relationship with his flamboyantly feminine best buddy.  In Better Off Dead (1985), nerd Lane (John Cusack) and buddy Charles (Curtis Armstrong) are sitting together at a dance, when a jock jokes, "You've got my vote for the cutest couple."  Charles starts laughing hysterically; in the next scene, later that night, he is still laughing.  Then he vanishes from the movie.  Clearly the jock has hit a sensitive nerve.




One Crazy Summer (1986) is a rare example of a positive gay-coded character. Visiting Nantucket for the summer, Hoops (John Cusack) meets  Ack Ack (Curtis Armstrong), a sensitive, poetic, nonviolent boy who can't abide the militaristic career his father and brothers have planned for him.  They become friends, but not best friends; instead, they form a buddy quartet with twin brothers, Egg (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Clay (gay actor Tom Villard).


Romantic potential thus defused, Ack Ack can be oblivious to girls and like boys as much as he wants.  When his father kicks him out of the house for being too sissified, he seeks comforting (and a place to stay) with Egg, who wraps an arm around him and says "I understand."  Ack Ack lays his head on Egg's shoulder.  One expects them to kiss at any moment.

See also: 12 Forgotten Beefcake Boys of the 1980s






Arnold

Arnold needs no last name.  He almost single-handedly took bodybuilding out the realm of Muscle Beach physical culturists and Italian sword-and-sandal movies and created the genre of Man-Mountains. His superlative physique and distinctive Austrian growl have been parodied innumerable times, on Saturday Night Live, on Seinfeld, on Tiny Toon Adventures).    It's hard to leave a room temporarily without being tempted to use his signature line from The Terminator, "I'll be back."


Already a Mr. Universe and nearly a Mr. Olympia, the 21 year old Mr. Schwarzenegger moved to the United States in 1968 with his best friend Franco Columbu, to become an actor.  He posed for a lot of fitness magazines, including the gay-coded Tomorrow's Man.  In the 1970s he was the subject of more conventional semi-nude paintings by Jamie Wyeth.






 









I had a friend in the 1980s whose bathroom featured what looked very much like a nude photo of Arnold, clipped from a fitness magazine.  It's not the black and white flexing photo that's available everywhere; this one was in color, and showed Arnold standing on a hillside.



His first starring role was in Hercules in New York (1969), which nobody saw.  His accent was so bad that his lines were dubbed.

I saw him (and Franco) in Stay Hungry (1976), about a young man (Jeff Bridges) drawn into the world of bodybuilding, and in The Jayne Mansfield Story (1980), where he played Mansfield's muscular husband, Mickey Hargitay.







But his break-out role was Conan the Barbarian (1982), an invocation of the Conan of heroic fantasy novels and comic books as a Man-Mountain.  He is a warrior of the Hyperborean Age who battles an evil snake cult -- but, contrary to expectations, he gets captured and rescued as often as he does the rescuing.  And he has a male companion, Subotai (Gerry Lopez), with whom he has a bond as strong, if not stronger, than that with his girlfriend Valeria (Sandahl Bergman)..

Who would have thought that a Man-Mountain could be so easily queered?  And did I mention the beefcake?

Conan the Destroyer (1984) also gave Conan two companions, a comic-relief thief (Tracey Walter) and a fierce warrior (Grace Jones).  This time he does a lot of rescuing, but there's no fade-out kiss.



No heterosexual interest in his naked cyborg in The Terminator movies (1984, 1991), but he does buddy-bond with the young John Connor (Edward Furlong).

Then he started playing Man-Mountains who get girls, in Red Sonja (1985), Commando (1985), Predator (1987), and Total Recall (1990). But there were still muscles to look at.

The former governor of California is certainly no gay ally; he has been very clear about his opinions of "girly-men" and gay marriage.  But during the 1970s and 1980s, he was the "first crush" for many gay boys.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Ask any male boomer when he realized that he was gay, and he’ll most likely say when he saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). I saw it in the spring of 1968, on the family’s brand new color tv set.


The plot is obviously a version of Robinson Crusoe: after crash landing on the frigid Red Planet, astronaut Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) builds a cave habitat so warm he can walk around shirtless or in a tight-black t-shirt, displaying an amazingly buff, hairy chest.



He has food, water, and a pet monkey, but he is intensely lonely. Then an alien mining company establishes a beachhead nearby, and he helps himself to one of their slaves. “I prayed for a companion,” Kit exclaims, “And I finally got one!” 

Somewhat Aztec in appearance, “Friday” (Victor Lundin) is so accustomed to the Martian cold that he can comfortably walk around in nothing but a kilt, displaying a massive, sculpted body, with golden skin, thick arms and shoulders, and a smooth, hard chest.

The two men are extremely physical in their interaction. Shortly after they meet, Kit takes Friday’s hand and places it on his own knee, an image that is intensely intimate and sensual. Kit is buried in a shower of space debris and nearly suffocates, and Friday rescues him. As they walk away, Kit wraps his arm around Friday’s waist.  At the end of the movie, they are rescued, and go back to Earth together, permanent partners.

Who would produce such a film, about two men who love each other and build a home together, in the dark homophobic days of 1964?

This was Paul Mantee’s first credited acting role; he went on to make dozens of two-fisted movies, sometimes with “man” in the title to emphasize the intended audience, such as A Man Called Dagger (1967) and That Man Bolt (1973), and he then settled down to write novels about heterosexual Italian-American adolescents.  And he obviously stayed in shape.

Victor Lundin played a series of Klingons, Indians, savages, and bad guys, and cut some country-western records. Today, on his website, he sells a cd with a song about how much he likes girl-watching.


Neither of the writers seem obvious gay allies, but when we look at the director, Byron Haskin, we find movie after movie set in steaming jungles, where men wear next to nothing and fall into each other’s arms a lot: Man Eater of Kumaon (1948), Tarzan’s Peril (1951), His Majesty O’Keefe (1953), Little Savage (1959). That explains the beefcake; what explains the bonding?


The Beefcake Star of "Life Goes On"

I disliked most of the heterosexist "family friendly" comedies of the late 1980s  -- Home Improvement,Growing Pains, Family Ties, The Hogan Family --  but  Life Goes On was my least favorite of the lot.  It was depressing, with way more tears than laughs -- did they have to have someone dying every single week?  And besides,  the other channels offered  the bonding-heavy Parker Lewis Can't Lose (starring Billy Jayne), Eerie, Indiana, and Great Scott (starring Tobey Maguire).

Besides, the opening featured my least favorite Beatles song of all them, the execrable "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

I only watched if I thought an episode might feature some beefcake. But I heard about it all the time.

The family consisted of Mom (singer Patty Lupone),  Dad (Bill Smitrovich), and three kids:  Paige, Becca, and Corky (Chris Burke), who had Down Syndrome.













Lots of movies and tv series, such as Shawn Cassidy's Like Normal People (1979),  involved mentally challenged teenagers proving that they could do everything a "normal" person could -- and more.  But never before had the character been portrayed by a mentally challenged person.  Chris Burke became a star, sought-after for interviews and speaking engagements.

Chris didn't get much teen idol attention, so the producers added Tyler Benchfield (Tommy Puett, previously of Aaron's Way), who bonded with Corky (but only as a big brother) and eventually began dating Becca.  The teen magazines went wild over him.





Unfortunately, during the third season the producers decided that Tyler wasn't depressing enough, so they killed him (in an auto accident) and gave Becca a new boyfriend, Jesse (Chad Lowe).  Corky didn't like him, Becca didn't like him, but he was HIV positive, and therefore could be gloriously depressing.

Jesse didn't die during the run of the show, but in the last episode, a 40-year old Becca informs us that he did die a few years later, and she married someone else. Life goes on, brah.

There were no gay characters on Life Goes On, though Jesse was occasionally the victim of a gay-bashing, so the producers could have their cake and eat it too, address homophobia while insisting that no gay people exist.

So all we had were Tommy Puett's muscles.  They weren't enough.

Nov 12, 2012

Twister: Sex in a Box

How many times have you wanted to talk to a cute guy or girl at a party, but you were too self-conscious?  Or you talked to them, but they didn't respond.  Or maybe you liked each other, but you couldn't show it, because you were supposed to like the "opposite sex."

Wouldn't it be great if someone invented a way to "get physical" with hunks or babes while everyone around thought you were just friends?  Or even the two of you thought you were just friends?

That's the whole point of the game "Twister."

It was introduced by Milton Bradley in 1966 as a "wild party game" for heterosexual grown-ups, but teens soon became the primary audience.  

You play on a large plastic mat covered with red, blue, yellow, and green circles.  The leader spins, and then announces "Left foot -- green", "Right hand -- yellow", and so on.  Players (up to 4) try to place the proper appendage on the proper circle.  If they can't, or if they fall down, they are out of the game.  The last player standing wins.


You might expect that, as players squirm and twist to hit the proper circles, intimate body parts would be pressed together, and in fact the game's critics called it "Sex in a Box."  But the mechanics of body placement really gives you about the same amount of intimate contact you would get in a wrestling match, or an extended hug.

But you do get that hug!


Teenage boys in the 1970s were forbidden touching, except for  brief, stylized handshakes and the aggressive contact of sports matches.  If they touched by accident, they were expected to jump back and feverishly brush off invisible contaminants, too disgusted for words.  So having license to touch at all was liberating.


It was no fun in mixed-sex groups, but you could often convince sleepover buddies to play.  It would have been even more fun in swimsuits at the beach, but that was hard to arrange in the Midwest, 2000 miles from the nearest ocean.