Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Photoshopped

Have a look at the following image, move the cursor on and off it. It's a before and after Photoshopped publicity still and it shows so clearly how advertising and media work to create perfect images that are unreal in order to manipulate us into thinking a certain product will work wonders on our wrinkles or a certain actor or actress is more beautiful than they actually look in real life. The actor in the picture looks rather worn out, with heavy lines and uneven skin tone - but Photoshop gives him the equivalent of 15 years of botox and a face lift. Similarly, the woman in the picture loses her eyebags and every single stray hair is mercilessly removed.

Techniques like Photoshop have been around for decades, and before that similar effects were achieved with good lighting or clever make-up. But now it's very unlikely that any image you see in the context of advertising has not been heavily Photoshopped to clear up tiny imperfections.

What's worrying about these images is that they present us with an unattainable ideal from the start - even the models don't look like that, so how on earth are ordinary people expected to measure up?

And perhaps more importantly - who decides that Photoshopped images are actually better? We look at the before and after shots and we think we see an improvement - because that's the way we're subliminally educated to see improvements. Standards of beauty are utterly subjective, due to changes in fashion. If you're old enough, look back over old photos of films stars or pop stars you found attractive in the 1970s or 1980s - you'd probably note how raw and unfinished they look, how bad their hair is, how the shape of their bodies wouldn't cut the mustard today. Similarly, you can "educate" yourself to notice things about people's faces and you see them in a whole different light. I watched Gone With the Wind a couple of days ago - great film! I've seen it about five times - the last time about ten years ago. But this time one thing I noticed was that Vivien Leigh and Olivia DeHavilland had really big noses (well they do compared to the nose-jobbbed actresses we see nowadays). After a friend had botox recently, I've also started noticing wrinkly foreheads. I never used to pay them any attention at all - but now I'm hideously aware of the lines that appear when someone frowns or raises their eyebrows. What I'm getting at, is that beauty is utterly subjective - it's to do with what we notice or don't notice and what society tells us to place value on. And while Photoshop is a very useful tool, it's been used to push the subjective notion of beauty to a place that no-one can reach.

There's some philsopher I read once who said that humans are born to be slaves - in the past this was literally the case. But now, although we have freedom, slavery is imposed on us in other ways - we make ourselves unhappy because we don't have enough stuff or we aren't thin or muscly or young or pretty enough. Modern gyms are an almost perfect metaphor for our self-imposed slavery - with the treadmill machine being its ultimate symbol. You run and run - but you don't get any further forward - because everyone else is running alongside you and the stakes keep on getting upped. While there are plenty of good reasons to go to the gym for the sake of your health, I've been thinking of getting off a few of my own treadmills lately. I think I'd be a lot happier if I did.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Steps forward?

It's sometimes easy to forget how quickly attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality have changed in the UK. Homophobia still exists here: gay people are attacked in cruising grounds, the right-wing newspapers make ignorant spiteful comments and for many young people "gay" means "lame" while religious communities impose their own form of intolerance. But on the whole, the situation is much improved than what it was 20 years ago. When I came out to my parents at the age of 17, it was a hugely traumatic incident, with tears, anguished discussion, arguments that went on for months and my mother's fear that "the neighbours would find out". It was like living in a bad made-for-tv movie that wouldn't go away. When I first started a relationship with my fella in the early 1990s, I was 19 - two years away from being "legal". But there have been a number of important legal advances in the UK since then - equalising the age of consent to 16, allowing gay men and lesbians to serve in the military and Civil Partnerships. When I "come out" now, I do it in exactly the same way as a straight person would "come out" as being straight - by mentioning my partner if it comes up as relevant in a conversation - it's no big deal. Additionally, the media is a lot more accepting of gay men and lesbians. The other day I watched one of those tv home-improvement shows on BBC1 at 10 in the morning - it was about a gay couple who were intending to downsize their home. The banality of it all made it very clear - gay is normal.

For young gay men, it's easy to think that it was always this way. But it wasn't. And you only need to step outside the UK to realise that the relative tolerance experienced here is certainly not the case in other parts of the world. In fact, the situation seems to be getting worse, not better in some countries. In Poland, for example, the Polish President Lech Kaczynski regularly bans Equality Parades while frontbench parliamentarian Wojciech Wierzejski of the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) claims that gay men are paedophiles and have links with drug dealers. A similar situation is happening in Russia where a couple of days ago a Gay Pride event in Moscow resulted in violence instigated by neo-Nazis. In Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a general fatwa against gay men and lesbians, calling for the killing of homosexuals in the "worst, most severe way". Militants entrap gay men via internet chat rooms, arranging to meet them and then killing them when they show up. The Iraqi police recently executed a 14 year old boy accused of having sex with men and creating a scandal. In Iran, gay men are also routinely hung. In Nigeria, new anti-gay legislation outlaws almost every expression of homosexuality and even forbids gay safer sex education. In Jamaica, homophobic reggae stars like Buju Banton advocates people to shoot gay men in the head, pour acid over them and burn them alive. The list goes on and on.

Another depressing aspect of this global homophobia is the rather languid or even brazenly stone-faced response that our so-called "betters" sometimes present. In 2004 the MOBO Awards accepted the nomination of homophobic reggae singers, the Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has remained silent about the homophobic legislation in Nigeria. The Queen failed to send out messages of condolence when 3 people were killed and 70 injured during the bombing of the Admiral Duncan, a gay pub in 1999. She has never publicly referred to homosexuality during her 54 year reign (although ironically a very large percentage of her staff are gay). When you are in a position of leadership, your silence on a subject is often interpreted in a certain way. People like the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury could do an awful lot of good to improve attitudes towards gay people if they wanted to. It can be difficult to criticise other countries' social policy, leading to at best accusations of being patronising and at worst racism. But when there is a human rights issue at stake, such criticisms should and must be made.

Religion, or the interpretation of religious law has a large part to play here. Although religion is only a part of the problem - often used as an excuse to impose hatred of anything different. At the bottom of things, it's simply about creating and maintaining power. And particularly male power over other men and over all women. Men are supposed to be the head of the family, act butch and fuck women. Anything which threatens this very narrow conceptualisation of what it means to be a man has to be routed out, despite the fact that bisexuality is very common in many of the most homophobic cultures. But it all has to be kept hidden. Similarly, when effeminate men are punished, we are reminded that women or anything womanly is inferior or second-class. If women had equality in these cultures, then there would be no shame in men who possess stereotypically female traits.

Although I'm glad I'm gay, I don't consider myself lucky to be gay. But I do consider myself lucky to be living in the UK in this period of time. I believe it can only get better, and that gradually, education, prosperity and political stability will mean that the more homophobic countries will come round to our way of thinking, despite the fact that it sometimes feels we're taking two steps forward while they take one step back.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Epiphany at Bingo

I went to Bingo on Wednesday night - for the first time (although I have played Bingo at seaside amusement arcades before, I've never experienced the full-on camp shock of Gala or Mecca). It was in a converted cinema in Bedminster (a slightly rough bit of Bristol). Everyone who worked there seemed to be called Darren and about 90% of the clientele were old ladies with white/blue/yellow candy-floss hair and walking sticks. The games were played really quickly - I will never assume that old people are slow again! I had trouble keeping up at times and I'm sure I missed a few numbers. Lots of different types of games were played, including mini-games within the main games - that went at break-neck speed (it didn't even sound like the callers were speaking English), and a live link-up with all the other bingo halls in the country - where you could win a very large sum of money. I didn't win anything all night, although 5 of the people I was with (out of 6) won games (2 of them won £100). We would have won more between us, but we were so slow that one win didn't count as it was a "late call".

As I was playing, I had a mini-ephipany as to why Bingo and the Lottery and games of chance tend to be popular among people who have limited incomes. For such people, the odds of them winning are at least levelled out and equal to everyone else - games of chance mean that everyone has the same odds of winning. In real life, the world is not like that - from the moment you are born, your genes, where you're born and the social class of your parents have huge roles to play in deciding how "lucky" you're going to be in your life. And if you're born to a middle-class family you're probably going to get more than your fair share of the goodies that life has to offer - i.e. the odds for you are going to be better than playing games of chance like Bingo. In reality though, gambling games have pretty rubbish odds as well - the winner is usually the Banker. And the less money you have, the less you should actually be risking it (can you tell that my mother was raised a Methodist and passed down her values to me). But it whiles away the time, provides a bit of excitement and hope - which are very valuable commodities - and at least people aren't paying for their own electricity bill when they're there.

Plus, I think Darren the Bingo caller likes me.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Must have bottled water!

This year's Big Brother housemates are slightly older and better-heeled on average than usual. But there are still the old staples in there (tough girls with regional accents, ladies with large breasts and camp gay men). They seem like a nice bunch so far, not as poisonous as the last couple of years, but not as dull as season 4. Big Brother is, as usual, trying to manufacture conflict with its invention of a "Big Brotherhood" - creating a privileged class of housemates who get treats and are immune to nomination. Only Shazbah, a self-confessed "Paki poof" seems to be really causing contention. He's the ultimate unhinged attention seeker, vaccillating manically between bully/victim and setting back gay rights 100 years with his unwanted attention on poor innocent straight boys. Oh dear. Nicki ("I'm special") is my favourite housemate so far - she is a vaccuous glamour model who's main ambition in life is to marry a footballer. She threw a wonderfully scary fit because she was denied bottled water and had to drink from the tap like a common person.



Apparently, her friend says in the papers that she's anorexic and it's common for girls like that to be afraid of tap water as they think it contains impurities that can make them put on weight. As usual, a few of the housemates had very 'in your face' intro videos, and have either failed to make any impact so far (Bonnie, Mikey, George, Glyn) or have ended up being dynamically different to the personas they initially projected - both "sexual terrorist" Richard and misanthropist Dawn have ended up adopting rather mumsy roles. Dawn, allegedly faked her negative personality to get on the show, after been rejected two years ago for being "too diplomatic". She wants to become a celebrity so she can further her campaign to stop "cowboy" sports advisors taking advantage of people. And unsurpsingly, Pete, the boy with Tourette's Syndrome, is the most normal of all the them.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Remake me

I am 34 in a week. And I am starting to notice signs of immiment middle-age. The lines around the eyes. The popping sound that my knees make when I bend down. The fact that on the few occasions I step out on the gay scene I am invisible to everyone aged under 25. And the single grey hair at the front of my head which pops up and says "howdy - this is what we're all going to look like in 10 years time! Get used to it bitch!"

But the one thing that makes me feel old, old, old is Hollywood's current obsession with remakes. The Omen (first filmed in 1976 (when I was 4) is out again this year (something about 6.6.6 apparently). The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is remade as "Poseidon" this month (though no Shelley Winters). Even Hairspray, that fabulous John Waters film (1988) is being re-made with John Travolta as Edna Turnblad. He ain't no Divine. How dare they?

Remakes are Hollywood's way of playing it safe, showing that it's all about $$$ and not much else. Why risk all your money on a new idea when audiences might not like it. Far better to simply redo an old one - as long as 20 years have past, most of your audience (the 15-24 demographic) won't have seen the old version - because they're only interested in the "now", not the past. It's the same with sequels - audiences like familiarity and repetition - they don't have to do as much work learning the names of new characters if they can just go and see a sequel - which are often just remakes of the original film - a variation on a theme.

The other death-knell to creativity in film is in the fact that so many films can now only contain characters from the 18-25 age group - because people of this age group are unable to identify with anyone else and uninterested in doing so (apparently). A phenomenon of this is the current spate of "high-school" films, whereby any form of story is now transposed onto the American high school format: Clueless, 10 things I hate about you, Cruel Intentions, O, She's All That. Ironically, many of these films contain "make-overs" whereby an ugly duckling is giving a new outfit, cakes on the slap and pulls her glasses off to reveal a stunner! In the same way, the films themeselves are like high-school make-overs - take an old film with ageing, sagging actors, add a bit of glitter, a hip soundtrack and some perky teens and hurrah! Success and you shall go to the ball prom after all! The last film I saw, Brick, was a high-school film noir, with so-called school kids spitting out hard-boiled dialogue meant for 48 year olds. It just felt wrong. Not even Raymond Chandler can escape form the high-school make-over. This is a shame - older actors are gradually being edged out of the centre of the profession - instead having to make do with minor character roles, as our society becomes ever more youth obsessed.

Here are some films I would hate for Hollywood to remake (but who knows they may be doing it already).

Barbarella - there's been discussion that Lindsey Lohan or Drew Barrymore are supposed to be involved in a remake of this. I hope it's not true. They're both too old now anyway! They'll probably cast Dakota Fanning (aged 12) as the new Barbarella?

Showgirls - (1995) - it's only a matter of time before it's remade. Couple of years maybe? The only way I could countenance this is if it was done with drag queens playing all the parts.

The Valley of the Dolls (1967). I'm ignoring the awful tv remake of 1981. But please directors - leave this film alone to fester in peace. Can you imagine how depressing it would be if they got Eminen to rap the lyrics? And I predict Dakota Fanning again - although when she cries "I gotta have my dolls!", she's referring to Barbie and Raggedy Anne, not secanols.

Gone with the Wind (1939) - except huge CGI depictions of battle scenes. Or they'll set it in a high school and cut it down to 85 minutes. Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler will be 15 year olds and Tara will be the name of the rock band performing at the high school prom.

Carrie (1976) - no actress has ever come closer to the alien-like quality that is Sissy Spacek (although Juliette Lewis is of a similar ilk). Granted, this is already a high-school film. But can you imagine how turgid it would be to see a bucket of pig's blood poured over Keira Knightley (anyway, she's 21 now - I get the impression Dakota's going to be very busy for the next decade).

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Muffin top



A friend who was visiting recently made fun of a current fashion trend among women to wear low-cut jeans and high-cut tops, revealing a significant fold of fat, which he refers to as a "muffin top". For most women (and men), this is completely normal - you'd need to practice bulimia on a regular basis, have a tapeworm, very forgiving genes or fork out £4000 on liposuction to look like most skinny models.

Perhaps muffins are getting a bit of a bad name, because one of the coffee shops nearby where I live has started advertising "male" and "female" muffins. Type "male muffins" into google and you get lots of links to gay porn sites. However, this isn't exactly what the coffee shop means. The male muffins here are simply larger ones while the female ones are smaller. I asked why this was and the assistant said it was to advise people regarding calorie intake etc. I heard two of the assistants then talking about how some customers found it offensive. Offensive is a strong word - I'm more likely to find someone screaming "Fuck you!" from a passing car to be offensive, but I still don't like the idea of male and female muffins. What man is going to buy a female muffin, even if he's a bit concerned about his weight? You may as well accounce that you're booking in for a sex-change. And what if you're a woman and fancy a big muffin? You'll be made to feel unwomanly for taking a "man's portion". While it's true that most men are a bit taller and heavier than women, it isn't always the case. The whole thing just seems prescriptive and stereotyping and 1970s frankly.

I'm always going to have the "lady muffin" because I like to be contrary. So if you're in Bristol, let's go out and get a couple of gender-inappropriate muffins together - just because we can. Who knew that you could make a political statement just by having dessert.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Retch Limo



On the way to Cheltenham today, we got caught up in a huge queue, caused by fans going to some football match or other. Several of the fans had hired limos and were causing a ruckus, hanging out of windows, trailing flags and tooting little hand-held horns. Every now and again, one of the limo would pull onto the hard shoulder, encouraging men wearing gold chains and football shirts, who all lined up to take a group piss, not caring that they could be seen by everyone. Lovely.

When did limos become tacky? On a trip to New York in 2001, we hired one to take us from the airport to the hotel. Admittedly, it was quite fun and the extra space meant that you could lounge around, while the tinted windows added a bit of mystique. For about a second, I felt that I was "somebody".

But limos have always been vulgar - associated with celebrity and showiness. And so it is easy to see how, within the last 5 years or so, their meaning has been appropriated by the non-famous, the nobodies. In Bristol, where I live, every weekend you can see a Limo full of drunken, squawking, hen-night girls, windows wound down, breasts hanging out, cheap champagne on show. Just like the Grand Old Duke of York, these limos drive all the way up the top of the hill, turn around, and then drive back down again - and again. It's all so that the girls can be "seen" by the public - this is the value of celebrity today in Britain - a country where pop stars and footballers are role models for children (rather than doctors, writers and politicians, unless you count the many ghost-written books put out by reality tv stars Jade, Jordan and Jodie). The yowling girls in the limo don't actually have anywhere to go, except some dismal club once they've been paraded around a hardly-glamorous British town centre.

The appropriation of such symbols is a classic case of the "fashion cycle", put forward by people like Quentin Bell, Gabriel Tarde and Bernard Barber. Fashions come in "waves", they are started by innovators, usually powerful people in society and eventually "trickle-down" to the lower classes, by which time, the originators are required to invent new fashions in order to stay ahead of the game. Would any celebrity worth their salt really want to be seen getting out of a limo these days? Remember the high-maintenance celebrity, Honey Whitlock, played by Melanie Griffith in the film Cecil B Demented, complaining that she had been given a white limo to travel in, when everyone knows that white limos are trashy and black ones are classy. These days, I doubt the colour of the limo makes that much difference - when they can be hired by wannabees on a council estate, their cache is over.

With that said, a tremendously sad news story this week shows that perhaps, in some quarters, limos still have the power to impress. Nisha Patel-Nasri was stabbed by a suspected burglar who she tackled when he tried to break into her house. Her husband has a limo hire business and "it is not clear whether the attacker was trying to gain entry to the couple's home or was targeting Mr Nasri's stretch limousines, two of which were parked outside." While the limos may have appeared to signpost a home stocked full of riches beyond imagination, in actual fact, had the burglar managed to break into them, he would have found nothing but the leftover smell of vomit from some poor over-excited lass who couldn't hold her drink. We can at least take solace that when the killer is caught, he will be famous too.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Does Madam have alopecia?

We treated ourselves to a weekend in a nice hotel last week, out in the country. It was attached to a golf course and I don't think they get many "gentlemen of a certain persuasion" (to misquote Glitter for Brains) because the chap who delivered our breakfast on Saturday morning said "good morning Madam" to my fella, who was in bed. I had answered the door and I think he'd politely averted his eyes from the bed area, so had assumed I must be a straightie (I have recently had quite a butch haircut and as we all know butch = straight, allegedly.) Anyway, after saying "Madam", he clocked that the person in the bed was a balding 40 year old man, made a kind of embarrased choking sound and ran out of the room without saying anything else. We did laugh.

The next morning, however, word must have got round that there were "gays in room 311" because the next person to deliver room service was a camp little thing with one of those assymetrical mullet hairstyles and a slightly over-friendly demeanour. My fella had locked himself in the bathroom though, so I was able to cast an air of mystery over my sexuality that time. He didn't bring us enough milk or marg either - probably off his head on E the night before.

I usually assume that everyone knows I am gay and those who don't can probably figure it out the minute that I open my mouth. Normally I avoid situations where people may assume I am straight and if they do, I usually experience several responses - part of me finds it funny - cos it puts you in the middle of a bad farce or a sitcom. A bit of me is apprehensive - I now have to decide whether or not to "put them right" by revealing that I like men and that could potentially embarrass them or they might turn out to be homophobic nuts. And the alternative, not telling them is even more depressing - you end up being complicit in a lie and denying who you are. Then another bit of me is annoyed - why on earth should they assume anything (although I tend to assume people are straight as well, unless they're good-looking men, in which case they're gay until proven guilty). I also feel secretly pleased that I'm not such an obviously nelly queen, because let's face it, camp gay men are funny, but people rarely want to sleep with them - and it's masculinity where all the power is in society. Then I feel a bit depressed, because I know I've "bought into" the fucked-up gender/sexuality/power structure of our society and feeling pleased at being pegged as straight is merely internalised homophobia and I must hate myself.

So being taken for straight tends to open up a can of worms for me, which is why I avoid those situations, or try to get it out in the open right away. The exception to this is taxi drivers - who have told me some of the most homophobic stories imaginable. I sometimes wish I was the sort of outrageous person who could shriek "Stop this cab you bitch! I'll have you know that I am gay and I'm going to use all my media contacts to have you fired and your company shamed for employing homophobes and not having a proper equality policy. And then I'm going to organise a Pride March in your garden!" But I usually just proffer a wintery smile and change the subject. The problem is, that such banal cases of homophobia are so random, and I'm rarely prepared for them - and even if I was, as I've gotten older, I've grown to hate direct conflict. I can't even stand a slightly critical email these days, so a face-to-face row would probably require me to lie down in a dark room for a week. I was quite the firebrand in my 20s and had numerous public fights, sometimes about sexuality, sometimes not. But I don't like getting angry these days. I get the impression that it affects me a lot more than the other person, no matter how clever and spiteful my bon mots can be. So I let a lot go. I always end up feeling sorry for homophobes anyway - I get the impression most of them have buried feelings and are just desperate to bring up the subject of homosexuality, even if it means slagging gay people off. They're their own worst enemies.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Stretchy Naked Men



I've been trying to keep up with my yoga classes over the last few months, although I guess I'm not going enough because it always hurts for a few days afterwards. I've been told about a workshop in London this weekend called Hot Nude Yoga and asked if I'll be going. I've been enjoying looking at their website which looks like it was designed by a religious cult. I love how Aaron Star, the leader makes and sells his own all "Natural Jams and Jellies". I wonder if they double up as lubricants.

In order to sign up for the class you have to fill in a questionairre, attach a jpg of yourself and say whether you consider yourself "fit" and why (although the class is apparently open to all ability levels). You also have to say if you mind another man "touching you sensually." To be honest it sounds like a bit of an excuse for a perve (and I wouldn't be surprised if the really hot ones get together afterwards for other "activities"). I think I'll give it a miss. If the class was full of good-looking toned men I would a) feel envious and b) worry about having a certain "response" if you get my drift. And if the class was full of mingers, then I'd c) be disappointed and d) feel like *I* was the free show.

Friday, May 05, 2006

My Dad, who has never had a job interview in his life, wants a career change at 58. He has been a bus driver for most of his adult life, and is now finding the work difficult - repetitive strain injury on his leg. Anyway, he applied for a job as a caretaker at a school near his house and got an interview. His strategy was to "be himself", which we all, rather cruelly, concluded would mean he wouldn't stand a chance. Anyway, he's phoned to say he got the job. So I am eating my words, metaphorically speaking.

But I've had some work success today too - I got promoted to senior lecturer. I guess that means I can never have blonde highlights put in my hair again and will have to start wearing corduroy.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Green is the new orange

My visit to Glasgow was fun, the main highlight being meeting the fabulous High Camp Caress Morell, who I suspect knows even more than me about trash tv and film. He joins a very small group of bloggers that I have met. We went to a bar called Delmonicas and just like the previous week, I got talked to again. However, this time I decided to be friendly (even though I think he may have been on drugs, and he told me off for not recycling enough). High Camp Caress Morell is a vision of loveliness anyway - and unlike me, he's single - something to bear in mind if you are passsing through Glasgow.



At Christmas I bought a huge book of 1970s films (it is big on pictures and low on commentary), but I have been trying to find the ones I've haven't seen. The other week I saw The Last Picture Show, starring Cybill Shepherd. It's a rather muted film, set in a nowhere town, where the teenagers dream of getting out as soon as they can (reminded me a lot of my teenage years in that sense). Cybill plays the manipulative high school beauty who comes between the two heroes. The shameless bint takes her clothes off during a naked pool party and uses men for sex and to stave off boredom when she feels like it. I have a feeling that had I been straight, I would have ended up with someone who looked like Cybill (or rather, I would have liked to, but the reality probably would have looked more like Arabella Weir or Sara Gilbert (Darlene from the sitcom Roseanne). In 1988, I used to enjoy watching Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting, which was considered very ground-breaking with its knowing irony in those days when postmodernism was still fresh. I had a poster of Cybill on my bedroom. Then Bruce Willis took his shirt off in an episode and that put a stop to all that. Oh well.

The other 1970s film I watched recently was Badlands, starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. Another weird film about wayward teens in the middle of nowhere. Sissy is a Bobbie Gentry song come to life. She's fab.