Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What's So Funny About Dropping the Soap?

Last evening an advertisement that assaulted me before my last.fm radio station would load got my mind a-racing. Perhaps it was for Jimmy Johns (advertising narratives have gone so far from product promotion I honestly am not confident the ad was for sandwiches at all), but some boy walks into a prison and as he passes the cells the camera, operating from his perspective, displays a series of stereotypical prison-types all eying the subject lecherously. The humor depends upon the culturally pervasive images of male prison rape, the ubiquitous jokes about 'dropping the soap' and the shared belief in the new-prisoner-initiation-through-buggery narrative. But I find two things especially curious about all of this:

1. Why has male rape become a site of humor?


2. How do the images of hyperbolically straight males hungry for gay anal intercourse subvert established beliefs about homosexuality?

I simply haven't read enough queer theory to respond to this adequately, nor do I have any studies/statistics on the prevalence of male rape in American prisons, but I believe this would make for a frighteningly subversive investigation. American cinema and television have perpetuated the idea that any smallish, typically white male in prison will be raped, but I'm seeing a sort of teleology in this imagery:

We start with the rape scene in American History X, a horrific, bloody, brutal offense. The well-muscled and sinuous body of Edward Norton is not an object of sexual desire but the male desire to possess that body, the privileged hetero male viewer sees himself AS the Edward-Norton-well-oiled machine, thus the male viewer experiences the horror of having his body queerly and forcefully penetrated.

Then we move to the HBO television series OZ, in which the rape scene becomes common and is translated as an entertaining spectacle, like a car explosion during the chase sequence of 'generic-action-film'. OZ also adds sexual desire to the usual assortment of possible instigators of rape (punishment, humiliation, establishing social order), and given the juxtaposition of the homosexual male romantic relationship on the show, male rape is simultaneously horrific and erotic. And common.

Now we have SNL skits in which Keenan Thompson, acting in a pseudo 'scared straight' program, fails to intimidate petty underage 'criminals' with threats of the abuses of prison life, mostly having to do with male rape. Dropping the soap. We also have this aforementioned advertisement which I just hunted down and am now certain is for Jimmy Johns. After a petit 20-something white male is escorted into a prison and the camera switches to the boy's own gaze, the viewer becomes the object of the queer carnal leering of 5 or 6 very large biker types and 1 black midget in a blonde ladies' wig (how many Others can we fit into one body for our amusement?). The slogan: Fresh Meat.

I accept the idea that much of the male rape in prison systems has to do with the 'pecking' order, so to speak. If I commit such and such transgression, I will be raped by X, Y can not rape me becomes I am Z's bitch, etc. And perhaps it really does happen as often as media would have us believe, but I'm not sure I buy it, and I certainly don't believe it is the only explanation. I also questioned a heterosexual male friend of mine about it last night at dinner and he supplied the other typical response to the 'why' of male prison rape: they haven't had sex with a woman in years! To which I retorted: "So, if you haven't had sex with a woman in 6 or 7 years, you'd have sex with men?" I think his response goes without saying. So why the hell do men purchase into the idea that after being sex-starved for years they will have sex with other men, but as soon as you ask them to really consider what they are saying they balk?

(Don't worry, I also see the holes in my line of reasoning here)

Here is where sociological data would shed some light on my uncertainty, but since I am left to speculate, I imagine that when prison rape does happen, it occurs more similarly to the American History X scene, in which it is a form of punishment and humiliation and not just a run-of-the-mill occurrence, not some right of initiation every new prisoner has to go through. So WHY ARE WE OBSESSED with this idea? Why does the MEDIA want us to associate prison with buggery? And is this a subversive imagery? Homosexual intercourse (although forced and under-eroticized) between heterosexual males? Performatively gay acts committed by men who perform strictly as heterosexual. If gay men can now be identified by a certain swish in the hips, the shine of daily moisturizer on the face and a pair of next-seasons shoes this season (oh wait, that was a 'metrosexual' I just hit on, oops), how do we respond when the ideal of heterosexuality in his biker jeans and his beard as thick as tree bark and the whiff of cheap beer on his breath engages in anal sex with another man (funny, this pervasive heterosexual male image is strikingly similar to the man of "Appalachian descent" and to most of the guys I've seen in gay leather bars...)?

Perhaps rape was horrific when hegemonic belief about homosexuality still gave credence to the idea that homosexuality is a transmittable disease and that gay men will do everything they can to subdue and force sex upon straight men, but today's hegemonic beliefs about what constitutes "gay" have created a nice and neat boundary around homosexuality to preserve the sanctity of heteronormativity (and define a new consumer group that is often childless and has plenty of capital to throw at superfluous goods and sevices). People no longer fear homosexuals because they can be explained..if you'll just take a look at this exhibit over here, you'll see the gay couple in their unfathomably tidy loft apartment, and over here you can see their two pugs, and here is a rare Chinese vase, look how the red lacquer compliments the muted sage of the window trim...Gay men are too busy decorating and shopping and getting their hair styled to bother with raping straight men.

So I can understand why gay prison rape scenes are no longer threatening...but what I don't understand is why they are FUNNY??? Do we laugh because we are uncomfortable with the subversive images of men who perform heterosexuality but engage in performatively homosexual acts? Do we laugh because the image is no longer subversive?

Or do we laugh because white males are still so privileged it is ironic that they could actually be the victims of rape? Men do the raping, they can't also be the object of rape.