Loving couples

Two things that came to my attention over this holiday (Valentine’s and Presidents Day) weekend, both involving same-sex couples: a piece on two men who are a couple (an engaged couple, in fact), Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black, in the February issue (the “love” issue) of OUT magazine; and a review (in the NYT Book Review on the 14th) of a children’s picture book about two hermaphroditic worms in love.

In both cases, the question is how these couples will present themselves and how they will be portrayed in images (photographs or illustrations) — in particular, how they will treat the conventions of coupledom for other-sex pairs, in which the sexes are often sharply distinguished. There are three possibilities: (a) to embrace these conventions; (b) to abandon them, by appearing as equals; and (c) to fragment them, by assigning each partner a mixture of them. Daley & Black present themselves / are presented sometimes via (b), sometimes (c), and the worms go for (c). I’ll get to (a) — which is well represented in male-male couples in gay porn, and sometimes in real life — after some discussion of Daley & Black.

Daley & Black, photographically equal on the cover of OUT:


Here they are coded as equals in dress (both playfully in pajamas) and in the positioning of their bodies (neither is above the other or behind the other, but instead they are side-by-side and face-to-face). Black’s hand on Daley’s shoulder might be seen as indicating what I’ve called,  in a recent posting on gay pornstar Kevin Wiles, hands-on ownership (by a more dominant partner of a more subordinate one), but could just follow from the fact that Black is a bit taller than Daley.

In real life, partners are never entirely equal. Daley and Black have equally substantial careers, but Black is significantly older (by 20 years), so that Black has more authority (seen as masculine) while Daley has more sexual desirability (often seen as feminine). From the OUT article, “Dustin Lance Black and Tom Daley fell in love at first smiley” by Aaron Hicklin (photography by Harry Borden):

One was an Olympic diver who loved Nerf guns; the other was an Oscar-winning screenwriter who made great burgers. A chance encounter at a dinner in Los Angeles — and a smiley face — set the scene for a procession of foiled wedding proposals.

Wikipedia on Daley and on Black, very briefly:

Thomas Robert “Tom” Daley (born 21 May 1994) is an English diver and television personality. Daley specialises in the 10 metre platform event and was the 2009 FINA World Champion in the individual event at the age of 15. He started diving at the age of seven and is a member of Plymouth Diving Club.

Dustin Lance Black (born June 10, 1974) is an American screenwriter, director, film and television producer and LGBT rights activist.

Now, one of the photos inside the magazine, another couple shot:


A remarkable shot (thanks to Juan Gomez for calling my attention to it).. On the one hand, Black is positioned above Daley (man above woman, as Erving Goffman noted in his remarkable 1979 book Gender Advertisements); Black is wearing a business suit (a sign of a masculine status in society), while Daley is mostly or entirely naked (he’s appearing here in his occupational status as a diver, so he’s probably in a Speedo, but the effect here is to foreground the sexual desirability of his body, as women are presented in advertisements and sometimes in couple photos as well); and Daley is made to look smaller than Black (as women are generally smaller than their male partners). On the other hand, Black is positioned in front of Daley (as women typically are in couple photos; they are displaying themselves for the viewer, while their male partners are displaying social status or authority), and Daley is clasping Black with both hands, indicating serious hands-on ownership. So each of the men is projecting some m characteristics together with some f ones.

Couple photos are made for several purposes — for simple display (in living rooms and the like) and to accompany the rites of coupledom in our society, all with a sexual tinge to them: prom photos (in the U.S.), engagement photos, and wedding photos. Traditional engagement and wedding photos have the woman seated in front of a standing man, with one or both of his hands on her shoulders (he has hands-on ownership and is displaying her as a trophy); and they are differently attired. In a traditional engagement photo, the man is in a business suit, indicating formality and often occupational status, while the woman is in a “good dress”, indicating femininity (and sometimes sexual desirability as well). In a traditional wedding photo, the man is in a tuxedo, indicating formality, while the woman is in a wedding gown, indicating her role in the wedding ceremony (tuxedos are worn for a number of formal occasions, while wedding gowns are worn almost entirely in wedding ceremonies).

This description holds pretty well for the state of things when Goffman wrote his 1979 book (which looks at more things than advertisements), but the world has changed. Engagement photos, in particular, are almost always informal in dress, though they fairly often preserve the positioning and hands-on characteristics of the tradition, as in this example:


Wedding photos, on the other hand, generally preserve some version of the traditional attire, with the woman in a wedding gown and the man in some sort of formal or “good business” attire (not necessarily a tuxedo), as here:


What’s changed here (at least in the New York Times) is that the wedding couple is usually shown  in some sort of egalitarian positioning, side-by-side or face-to-face.

On to same-sex couples. What I said on this blog in an 8/4/10 posting on “Marriage equality”:

As my grand-daughter put it recently, Jacques and I weren’t allowed to get married — so we racked up a series of domestic partnerships, the last of which (contracted while his mind was still up to it) granted by the city of Palo Alto. On February 14, 1996. Valentine’s Day, and a beautiful day it was (not always a sure thing in these parts in the middle of February). There was a ceremony inside City Hall, then a party, put on by the city, on the plaza outside.

Elizabeth, bearing small wedding-equivalent gifts, came to see her fathers get domestically partnered. A surprising number of the couples were there with their children, so it was very much a family occasion, and most of them had been certified as domestic partners — an almost entirely symbolic status, but a powerful symbol for us nonetheless — several times before, though not in such style.

Later, our friend Robert Emery Smith (aka ModBob), who’s a professional photographer (among other things) came by to take pictures of Jacques and me. His wedding-equivalent present to us. There was some discussion about where J and I would pose (answer: on our front patio, among the cymbidium orchids that were my annual birthday presents to him) and how we would be arranged.

The classic wedding photo has the couple standing or (very often) the bride sitting and the groom standing — in either case, ensuring that the man will be shown standing above the woman. Also, quite often with the groom behind the bride, looking proprietary while she is shown off to the world, sometimes with his hand on her shoulder (to emphasize the gender inequality even further). In any case, the couple are facing the camera, and the world, presenting themselves to an audience.

All three of us just hated the whole business and the gender-relationships baggage that comes with it (we’d read our Goffman, after all).

In the end we took a couple of chairs out there, and sat facing each other [well, sitting side by side, but with our heads turned to face one another]. We’re symbolically equals, and we’re in this for each other, not an audience (though J’s kids, and the rest of his family, were just as pleased by the occasion as my daughter was). (We also decided not to go for formal wear.)


In shots from gay porn, couples are represented not in terms of f/m roles, but in terms of the corresponding roles I’ve called b/t. From a 12/19/10 posting on AZBlogX:

An obvious point about the b and t roles: they’re a re-inscription in Gayland [the fantasy word of gay porn] of gender stereotypes (feminine vs. masculine) in the straight world.  All sorts of things then tend to align with each other, among them: differences in physical characteristics like size, muscularity, and strength; differences in dress, hair style, posture and gesture, and speech; asymmetries in social roles, in particular those involving power, authority, assertiveness, and (in)dependence; and of course differences in sexual encounters as to who does what to/for whom, when, and how much.

The b in an encounter is subordinate to a dominant t, who’s in a sense in charge of the encounter; more details in that AZBlogX posting and a 12/19/10 posting on this blog. Although things are more complicated than this, there’s a tendency for b/t to play out as bottom/top in anal intercourse . As I wrote in a posting on Kevin Wiles:

Top and bottom roles [in anal intercourse] are often conveyed in publicity [for gay porn] not only by hands-on ownership but also by the positioning of the men’s bodies, with the top standing above the bottom (and behind the bottom, putting the bottom on display for the viewer) — reproducing the placement of other-sex couples in, for instance, wedding photos: husband over (and behind) wife. A typical portrayal, involving [bottom Kevin Wiles] in the flick Foreplay (Midnight Men, 1986): top over bottom, bottom on display as the trophy of the top’s conquest:


Somewhat more subtly, here’s a photo from a 12/13/15 posting on “Boyfriends”, showing pornstar boyfriends Sean Duran (t, left) and Nick Cross (b, right), their difference coded in a variety of ways (note bearded Duran and smooth-faced Cross, for example) and playing out in the positioning of their bodies and hands-on ownership (and sexually Duran is mostly top to Cross as bottom):


Worm Loves Worm. Now to Dan Vaccarino’s review in the NYT, in the print version “Will You Be Mine: Four picture books follow the many courses of love, from first meetings to the pain of separation”, where we can see a fragmented presentation of gender roles, as in #2:

Adults lug around a five-piece Samsonite luggage set of love and intimacy issues, but most small children have none, or at the most, a carry-on. They are unencumbered by personal history, commitment issues or self-doubt.

They just love.

Four new valentines disguised as picture books examine age-appropriate love affairs of every stripe: from high-rise-dwelling kids to urban polar bears, from worms to an ink drop and a snowflake.

… Gender roles are imposed on us all. As adults, we mostly accept, rail against, or at least acknowledge them, but as far as the youngest of lovers are concerned, the point is moot. J. J. Austrian and Mike Curato’s “Worm Loves Worm,” [for children 3 to 8] in which two worms of the hermaphroditic variety fall in love, brilliantly explores the idea of love between two beings, regardless of gender (or species) and despite societal pressures.

Curato’s spare but sure silhouetted images and Austrian’s straightforward text are a perfect match to deliver the simple story of two characters who just want to declare their love and commit to each other. With patience and good cheer they accept the various matrimonial trappings offered to them by their well-meaning insect friends, like a wedding party, a cake and rings — even though they have no fingers. The all-embracing spirit of the story is best represented by the worm couple’s lack of regard for traditional wedding garb: Each wears bits and pieces of a tuxedo and a wedding dress during the ceremony.


Note that they are both wearing their gold wedding bands.

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