Thursday, December 15, 2016

Prison Walls & Eros - Part 2: The Ridiculous


The male heterosexual imperative isn’t as persuasive a force as we’re led to believe: we depend on media saturation and extensive social engineering to prevent men from naturally slipping into varying degrees of homosexual experience. The truths and mythologies of male-to-male relationships within the most overtly segregated male institutions – school, the military and prisons – are rarely ever taken seriously beyond the assumption that no good will come of men being deprived of pussy. That assumption of course is entirely point-of-view dependent.

 Prior to punk rock and the 1970s reframing of the politicization of sex – and prison sex specifically – the “punk” was a behind-bars fixture: usually young, he dressed up and made up to advertise his sexual availability. At a price, he was as much predator as victim since he was often of quite ruthless character. Not “queen” or “fag”, it’s highly debatable as to whether or not his place in the prison hierarchy was most subordinate. To arbitrarily define and dismiss him as someone who “assumes a submissive female role at the bottom of the inmate gender hierarchy” isn’t necessarily as informative as it purports to be. While acknowledging the system in which he functions, he isn’t necessarily the poster boy of a feminist degradation narrative. He may very well as a man experience his role as intensely physically satisfying…for starters.

 
The archetype of the prison “punk” is mid-50s Elvis Presley: an obviously made-up and flamboyantly dressed longhair with wide-ish hips that moved slightly forward just like a lurid stripper. He didn’t disturb males of decent society for no good reason: if you hadn’t spent time in the slammer yourself and simply knew what Elvis Presley was, then word-of-mouth would quickly bring you up to speed. He wasn’t a non-threatening joke-queer like Liberace who laughed at himself: he was something else again…something dangerous, with heavy makeup and hair dye and silks and satins in defiance of repressed and suited conformity.

While much has been made of the fact that he further popularized "race music", the gender nuances of the young and raw Elvis Presley have become obscured by time and revisionist history. His self-invention as a punk for the masses can probably be attributed to the exhibitionist naiveté of a mama’s boy following intuitive gender callings. He hadn’t had the experience of incarceration, but was hypnotically attracted to the flashy drag and not-quite-male sexuality he promoted.





A sensation with both male and female fans, the image created a vicious public backlash which couldn’t be ridden out as The Beatles’ long hair would later be. Times hadn’t change all that drastically by the Beatles’ decade – Presley’s homoerotic threat was a far darker thing since it encompassed far more than a haircut, and was arguably due more to accident than design.

In a bizarre twist of art imitating art, the 1957 movie “Jailhouse Rock” would present Presley as a reformed jailbird who's become a rock star. A set piece has him bashfully introducing a television production number of the title song as a tribute to his former days of “horsing around” with pals behind bars. The choreography only hinted at his in-person bumping and grinding, but songwriters Leiber and Stoller got the following lyric past the censors:

Number forty-seven said to number three
"You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see
 I sure would be delighted with your company
Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me” 

From “Jailhouse Rock” ©1957 Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller 

 Quite a coup - when you consider that both dancing and the term “rock and roll” were euphemisms for fucking. Presley appears to struggle with overtly touching himself while deftly maintaining the narcissistic qualities of a sex object on display, but what he had previously represented was now sanitized and dismissed as something humorously non-threatening. Homophobia, after all, can be most effective when masked as good-natured fun.

 (Presley’s sexuality itself is still a much-debated topic, with protective fans and autobiographical self-interests contributing both normal and fucked-up “truths”. Wikipedia editing hostilities on the subject raged for years, with the militantly indignant representing the anti-queer agenda.)

But the world felt a whole lot better – and Presley’s career was sustained - when he got an army haircut and generally manned-up in uniform as a U.S. Army private. Elvis Presley’s image didn’t evolve: it was killed off and quickly replaced with a polished Hollywood fantasy of heteronormative maleness. Not remotely in the same class of timely rebellion as Dean and Brando, to his credit he at least gave us a tease of something dark and dirty enough to arouse prurient interests.

And sometimes that's enough.

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