The new gay-acting straight men

One Direction pose at the Logies last year.

One Direction pose at the Logies last year.

 If ever there was a pop group perfectly engineered to fuel the fantasy lives of adolescent girls (and a subset of grown woman and gay men), it’s One Direction. The Simon Cowell-managed and -manufactured fivesome are equal in looks and charm (if not necessarily in talent) and sing about parties, kissing, and girls who don’t know they’re beautiful, in songs tailor-made for the Twilight generation.

It wasn’t like this when I was growing up. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the talent was just as uneven and the songs equally corny, but even within the boy band genre, the “cute one” was a one-man role (alongside the “bad boy,” “shy one,” and the “one with the talent”), rather than a prerequisite for appearing on stage at all.

But One Direction differ from the all-male singing groups that came before them in other, less superficial, ways as well. Take the video for their latest ditty, Kiss You, in which Harry Styles, riding on a motorcycle behind Zayn Malik, reaches forward to cheekily tweak his band mate’s nipples. Or their previous hit, Live While We're Young, in which the boys wrestle, hug, and play with giant inflatable banana. Not to mention the countless TV appearances, interviews and live concerts in which the band have groped or mock-kissed each other for the cameras.

Yep, there’s a definite whiff of the homoerotic about 2013’s foremost boy band.

Groups of young men who sing, dance and wear brightly coloured jeans (or back in the 1990s, plastic trousers and tight t-shirts) have long been objects of sexual mockery. ‘N Sync, the American boy band famous for launching Justin Timberlake, was the butt of homophobic jokes long before Lance Bass came out of the closet in 2006. The Backstreet Boys? “More like the Backdoor Boys,” the turn of the millennium joke tittered.

One Direction are no different. No sooner had the band’s Kiss You video hit YouTube than a parody emerged with jokes about “gay leprechauns,” “dropping the soap,” and liking men’s butts. Hilarious, no?

But what distinguishes One Direction from their predecessors is that rather than trying to fight these stereotypes by gushing about women and being careful not to stand too closely together, they play up to them. They flirt. They roughhouse. They touch each other’s bottoms at concerts, and perform at gay nightclubs. They also have girlfriends. People may call them gay, but (most of the time, at least) they don’t give a toss. Because for the One Direction generation, being “gay” isn’t a bad thing.

In fact, amongst the demographic Harry, Liam, Louis, Zayn and Niall occupy, this kind of behaviour is common, says UK masculinities researcher, Eric Anderson. Anderson is the author of a 2010 study which found that 89 percent of 18- to 25-year-old self-identified heterosexual men had kissed another man on the lips - and in most cases, there was nothing sexual about it. “This is what young men of that age do in the UK,” Anderson says. “Touching, hugging, cuddling, and bum/testicle slapping are all ways you show your mates that you love them.”

It’s a shift that is deeply tied to a broader decline in – and increasing unacceptability of – homophobia, Anderson believes. In periods of high "homohysteria" he argues – places and points in history in which same-sex attraction is both widely recognised and reviled – men will keep their distance from each other in order to avoid being labelled as “gay.” At when homohysteria is lower, men are able to be more freely intimate: whether that means One Direction-style horseplay, friends holding hands in the Middle East, or rugby players posing with their arms draped around each other instead of standing with their arms solemnly folded.

Australian sociologist Michael Flood has observed a similar blurring of boundaries between straight and gay cultures, pointing to the rise of the metrosexual, the hipster, and indeed of men like himself: for whom going to Mardi Gras or hanging out with same-sex attracted friends is second nature, but who go home to female lovers and partners. He calls them “straight queers.”

But this blurring has been “very uneven,” Flood warns. “It’s much more common amongst urban young men than rural young men. It probably goes along with particular peer cultures as well. You’ll find fewer straight queers in death metal or pub rock than in hipster cultures, cafes and so on.” And while the prevalence of homophobia is lowest in the 18 to 24 age group, it is significantly higher amongst 14- to 17-year-olds. Not to mention that One Direction are playing with gay culture in a safely heterosexual space. “Coming out would be different,” Flood maintains.

Then again, it seems that in this case, coming out isn’t really the point. One Direction’s mock kisses and crotch grabbing may garner attention on YouTube, but they represent the flirtatious tip of a decidedly more platonic iceberg. Beneath them lie a myriad of more subtle intimacies, and a gradual shift to a culture that allows men to banter, make body contact, and even love each other a little bit, without it marking a threat to their status as men. In other words, a culture that allows young men to enjoy the kind of friendship and intimacy that has traditionally been associated with young women.

As for One Direction themselves? When asked by an American interviewer why they grab each other’s butts and crotches on stage, Niall replied, “See, that one, that one’s just to make the girls scream, isn’t it?” “See, [Harry’s] done that, and the crowd’s going crazy,” chimed in Zayn.

“We do it for a laugh,” they concluded.

 

37 comments

  • I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On one hand I’m excited to hear that the homophobic high school of the 90s that I went to might not occur these days. But I find the need to make a big deal out of men not being homophobic concerning. Rather than allow these men to be themselves we are labelling their behaviour as good or bad, gay or straight. What if the whole band is in the closest gay and you just complimented them on being behaved straight men? Shouldn’t we praise them as men or as humans, rather than define them by their sexual preference? It’s a double edged sword; I’m glad they’re relaxed about their sexuality, I’m glad we think acceptance is a good thing, but I wish we didn’t have to point and stare every time a guy wasn’t homophobic.

    But maybe I’m just old and out of touch, I will concede I don’t know much about One Direction other than the name and the hysteria. And as I was raised in a gay house hold this all seems a bit behind the times, rather than new times, to me.

    Commenter
    Tom
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    January 31, 2013, 7:33AM
    • Tom I agree but I also think you need to give straight men positive reinforcement for being homo-friendly so the others who aren't so comfortable get the message.

      Commenter
      StBob
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 8:37AM
    • I agree StBob, I think we should praise good behaviour when we see it, that’s why I have mixed feelings. I’m struggling more with the semantics. Praising homo-friendly behaviour is different to praising straight men for homo-friendly behaviour. Fixating on the sexual preference of people is part of what caused homophobia in the first place. Men aren’t idiots, we don’t need to hand it to them on a plate and say ‘look at these nice straight men. They’re straight like you so you should be more like them’. We can communicate the same message with ‘look at these nice men’ and let the men decide what kind of a man they want to be.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 9:24AM
    • I agree with Tom that this article left me with mixed feelings. I feel like the main message should be more along the lines of the changes in male gender roles rather than the growing acceptance of homosexuality or "straight queers" (giving it a name is never a good idea). I hear about the recent trends of young boys getting in to body building and protein shakes and 'lifting' and I wonder why. Are they trying to embody "manliness"? Where does this pressure filter down from?
      I know men who have struggled with the pressure to be physically and mentally strong and not be seen as "weak" or not a "man". One Direction and the mindset that goes along with it can prove to young boys shaping themselves that acting more feminine doesn't make you weak. It can, in fact, make thousands of girls (and women) hyperventilate and fall at your feet.
      It makes me happy to know my 11 year old brother may have the freedom to pick and choose which "manly" traits he takes up and not get teased in the school yard when he wants to be romantic, intelligent and gentle instead of rough and strong (or all these things at once if he wants).
      I liked the One Direction quote at the end. It's nice to know that they are real people.

      Commenter
      Chloe
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 10:25AM
    • It could be a cynical tactic by Cowell having a laugh at everyone's expense. The non-threatening teen heart-throb aimed at young girls has been around for ages. Getting these boys to act gay could be a ploy to make them seem less threatening whilst Cowell laughs at the expense of his puppets.

      Or it could be insulting to the gay community that has battled for acceptance for decades and now see themselves be trivialised by a manufactured boy band.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:00AM
    • Yeah, I think I agree, Tom. It seems, from my exposure to One Direction and from this article, that they're definitely comfortable with acting 'gay', but that's still not the same as being comfortable with being gay. I guess it's a step forward, but we should hold off praise until there's comfort with actually being openly gay in boy bands/teen pop.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:23AM
    • For once I agree with Bender

      I think I need a lie down.

      Commenter
      Sir Lolsworthy
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:53AM
    • This comment stream is veering dangerously close to a drum circle, so if we can kindly turn on the BS detector for a moment:

      1. Mr Flood has got to eat. Being a sociologist he has decided to manufacture a thesis about the blurring of boundaries in human sexuality, creating a new brand "Straight Queers" (tm). To make Straight Queers (tm) marketable, he must attach it to something with traction in the real world - I know , One Direction! See how they're kinda gay yet kinda not? QED!

      2. Ms Hills has got to eat too. She needs an "angle". Hence the focus is on Mr Flood's contention that One Direction are "playing with gay culture in a heterosexual space". Ms Hills points out, correctly, that this may be nothing new.

      I cant wait for David Bowie's new album. He's been there, done that. 30 years ago.

      Commenter
      mint slice
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 2:26PM
  • I agree that it's great that that generation feel so easy and secure in themselves that homophobia seems to be melting away. For boys growing up, the anxiety that they might appear to be gay has been a terrible blight for quite a few decades. They could be bullied severely for it. (And as we know, probably those bullies are insecure about their own masculinity and are driven to try to prove it over and over by bullying others) Yet this anxiety didn't exist in the past and in other cultures. This development is a good sign, and may it spread.

    Commenter
    lola
    Date and time
    January 31, 2013, 8:21AM
    • I think Take That (in their first incarnation) were playing the gay circuit in the early 90s. And pretty much every other boy band (hello Westlife!) with a gay manager who saw the value in buiding up a support base in gay clubs. Even the Beatles had a gay manager. And of course every boy band has one gay member.

      Commenter
      StBob
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 8:32AM

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