Now We Are Nine, a Journey to the East

(Underwear and race / ethnicity / nationality / religion among gay men.)

News from Daily Jocks: a birthday for the Australian premium men’s underwear firms 2eros and Supawear (brothers in sexwear):


(#1) 2eros


(#2) Supawear

Notably, Asian models for the birthday celebration. Most sexunderwear firms are very light on black models, Latino models, Asian models (of all ethnicities and nationalities), and, for that matter, identifiably Jewish models. Andrew Christian is, on the whole, a stunning exception: his advertising reflects the use of “exotic” models in the fashion industry rather than the custom in the premium men’s underwear industry of relying on models whose looks are pumped-up mirrors of their customers’. The customers are mostly SAE-D — standard average European-descended — men (“standard average European” here is a little linguist’s joke, making reference to Standard Average European (SAE) languages, in Benjamin Lee Whorf’s terminology); the products either flatter their self-images or feed their fantasies of exotic men (for certain values of exotic).

More flesh. From Supawear itself, more images of the extraordinarily muscled model in #2:


(#3) Supawear’s Sprint line


(#4) Supawear sale

Meanwhile, 2eros has created a site — their Hunk Gallery — with information on its models. So far there are only four men on the site, but one of them is:


(#5) Jason Chee, doing a fine pitsntits presentation

Their puffery on the site (with some corrections to its text):

HUNK DETAILS: Jason Chee is Singapore’s heart throb

PROFILE: Jason is a b[o]dybuilder and personal trainer in Singapore and [has] been in many of Asia’s fitness magazine[s]. What a body!

Sexual politics. An immensely complex topic, but it starts from the fact that SAE-D gay men, reflecting wider prejudices, tend to wall themselves off socially from “minorities”, or even to be openly hostile to them — a situation that gave rise, among other things, to the defiant move to add black and brown stripes to the Pride flag, and the angry resistance to this move by many white guys.

At the same time, some of these minorities serve as powerful  figures of sexual fantasy: black men and Latinos and Arabs as stereotypes of rough working-class masculinity (the thug ideal), Asians as stereotypes of smooth-bodied boyishly playful masculinity (the twink ideal). Israeli men are idealized as tough military men (while other Jews suffer from anti-Semitism).

SAE-D gay men can deal with men from any particular minority separately in different spheres of life: socially, in friendships; sexually, in sexual encounters; intimately, in more enduring partnerships; and imaginatively, in fantasy sex. All sorts of configurations are possible. There are white guys who will have sex with black guys but will not consort with them socially, in friendships or romantic partnerships. There are white guys who won’t have anything to do with black guys at all in the real world (insofar as they can manage that), but use them to power jack-off fantasies. There are white guys who are X queens, where X picks out some minority that they are especially attracted to and seek out — for sex, for more enduring relationships, or as objects of sexual fantasy.

Many men are inclined to think of all this as merely an expression of tastes, in social, sexual, romantic, and imaginative contexts — preferences and dispreferences similar to other preferences and dispreferences in partner choices. Some men have a taste for blond men, or a distaste for redheads / gingers, as sexual or romantic partners. Such tastes can be quite idiosyncratic. On the other hand, they can also reflect much wider patterns of attitudes — think “no fats or fems” — in particular, the constellations of attitudes surrounding race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. In which case, they can be decidedly edgy.

Look at things from the other side for a moment — from the side of a gay man in one of the minorities I’ve been talking about. Being viewed as an object of sexual attraction because you’re in a specific minority, when your minority status is socially  problematic in general, can be quite uncomfortable. You’re dogged by the idea that guys are coming on to you only as a representative of your kind, not as a person. Ok for a trick, but otherwise uncomfortable.

And you might well find the sexual objectification of your kind offensive and demeaning.

So I’m unsure of my response to images like #1-5 above. On the one hand, I find it refreshing to see models beyond the usual SAE-D ones, and in some numbers. (For one thing, it pleases me that such models can get work.) If they’re being displayed as just like the other models, as offering generally desirable bodies (which might sell some underwear), great. But if they’re being displayed as performing explicitly for our pleasure in their exoticism, like circus animals, then I’m troubled.

These are matters of performance and audience, intent and reception, and they can’t be judged just by looking. You need to know the social and cultural context, and here I’m largely ignorant. The initial audience for these images is Australian, and I just don’t know enough about how Asians, especially Chinese and Southeast Asians, figure in the Australian context, in particular in the world of gay male Australians.

My title. It combines two literary references: A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six and the Ming-dynasty Chinese novel Journey to the West. (With Six changed to Nine in the first, to recognize the ninth birthday of 2eros/Supawear; and West changed to East in the second, to recognize that the models come from East or Southeast Asia.)The two titles are joined as subordinate and main clause, thanks to the now in Now We Are Nine, which can serve as a subordinator (a (subordinating) conjunction, in traditional terminology): ‘as a consequence of the fact that we are 9 years old, we are taking a journey to the East’. Then there’s a significant ambiguity in to the East that plays a role here: though China, Singapore, the Phillipines, etc. lie to the northwest, not the east, of Australia, they are located in the geographical region conventionally referred to in English as the East (embracing East Asia and Southeast Asia).

First, the literary sources. From Wikipedia on the Milne:


(#6) Cover of the first edition

Now We Are Six is a book of thirty-five children’s verses by A. A. Milne, with illustrations by E. H. Shepard. It was first published in 1927 including poems such as “King John’s Christmas”, “Binker” and “Pinkle Purr”. Eleven of the poems in the collection are accompanied by illustrations featuring Winnie-the-Pooh. These include: “The Charcoal Burner”, “Us Two”, “The Engineer”, “Furry Bear”, “Knight-in-armour”, “The Friend”, “The Morning Walk”, “Waiting at the Window”, “Forgotten”, “In the Dark” and “The End”.

And from Wikipedia on the Chinese novel:

Journey to the West is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng’en. It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. In English-speaking countries, Monkey, Arthur Waley’s popular abridged translation, is most commonly read.

The novel is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled to the “Western Regions”, that is, Central Asia and India, to obtain Buddhist sacred texts (sūtras) and returned after many trials and much suffering. It retains the broad outline of Xuanzang’s own account, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, but the Ming dynasty novel adds elements from folk tales and the author’s invention, that is, that Gautama Buddha gave this task to the monk (referred to as Tang Sanzang in the novel) and provided him with three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, together with a dragon prince who acts as Tang Sanzang’s steed, a white horse.

Journey to the West has strong roots in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, and the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas are still reflective of some Chinese religious attitudes today. Enduringly popular, the tale is at once a comic adventure story, a humorous satire of Chinese bureaucracy, a spring of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeys towards enlightenment by the power and virtue of cooperation.

The novel has been filmed a number of times, most successfully as a tv series. From Wikipedia:


(#7)

Journey to the West is a Chinese television series adapted from the classic novel of the same title. The series was first broadcast on CCTV in China on 1 October 1986. The series became an instant classic in China and is still being praised as the best and most authentic interpretation of the novel. Unadapted portions of the original story were later covered in the second season, which was released in 1999.

Linguistic notes 1: subordinating now. From NOAD:

conj. now: as a consequence of the fact: they spent a lot of time together now that he had retired | now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her around for ages.

The subordinator most often combines with a finite that-clause, but in informal style, Ø-marked complements are natural alternatives: they spent a lot of time together now he had retired | now you mention it, I haven’t seen her around for ages | now we are 9, we are taking a journey to the East.

Linguistic notes 2: clause truncation. Another feature of the title, with the interpretation ‘now (that) we are 9, we are taking a journey to the East’, is that the content of the main clause is conveyed by a NP, the clause fragment journey to the East, rather that by a full finite clause. Clauses truncated to NPs are in fact very common in speech, both within sentences and serving as sentences on their own:

Now (that) it’s 4 o’clock, ice cream for everybody!

It’s 4 o’clock. Ice cream for everybody!

It’s then up to the hearer to determine, from the context and background knowledge, how the NP is to be understood.

Linguistic notes 3: to the east/East. In the Chinese novel, the journey is both to the west, that is, in an westerly direction, and also to the West, to the region known as the West. In my title, the journey is not to the east, that is, not in an easterly drection (East and Southeast Asia lie northwest of Australia); but it is to the East, to the geographical region conventionally known in English as the East (because it lies east of Europe; from a Californian’s point of view, East and Southeast Asia lie to the west — but lexical items are as they are, whatever their historical origins.).

In speech, the two interpretations are indistinguishable. In writing, English orthography provides a way to distinguish them visually, as east vs. East. But in titles, all significant words are capitalized, so the two interpretations are again indistinguishable: the title Journey to the East is ambiguous.

One Response to “Now We Are Nine, a Journey to the East”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Robert Coren notes another interpretation of my title, as referring to the Fellowship of the Ring in Tolkien: 9 companions journeying to the east, to Mordor.

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