Queer heads have been exploding since gay New York Times columnist Frank Bruni penned his column that evoked fan fiction imagining a romance between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Critics have argued that the article and an array of memes and photoshopped images that imagine Trump and Putin in some kind of romantic and/or sexual tryst are inherently and irredeemably homophobic.
Over at Slate, Andrew Kahn presented a litany of tweets that described an imagined porn fantasy that involved the two leaders. The author goes on to cite Foucault, the McCarthy hearings and Adorno, ultimately arguing that he feels much of the public interprets Trump as having gay attributes, and thus implies a strain of archaic homophobia.
The Advocate’s Tracy Gilchrist also chimed in, quoting gay Pennsylvania representative Brian Sims, who argued in a tweet that the animated short featured on the New York Times’ page was “intensely stupid and “homophobic as hell.”
Like Kahn, Gilchrist concluded that the images and accompanying jokes, and in particular their reception, were rooted in nothing but old-fashioned homophobia. “In creating and posting the digital video that posits Trump and Putin as unicorn-riding, tongue-kissing lovers,” she concluded, “the Times not only turned love between men into a dirty word, but it failed to listen to the outcry from LGBT people calling out all of the homophobic jokes that came before.”
As a queer film buff who teaches queer cinema and has written extensively on the subject of LGBT imagery on screen, I will have to dissent. I get it. I understand that, on first glance, these images may seem only to demean people who are in same-sex relationships, or who may deviate in terms of what most see as heteronormative.
But when I look at these images I find them funny but also something to rally around. By imagining that two leaders might be queer — not just on fan forums but in very public media spaces like the New York Times — these images and ideas are asking us to question our ideas around masculinity, machismo, gender roles and dominant codes and types of sexual behaviour.
After all, both Putin and Trump are, in fact, parodies of fragile heterosexuality. Both have sold themselves as returns to order and as strong, virile leaders who will guide their respective countries back to an imagined, lost greatness.
Putin famously rides shirtless on horseback; Trump ran dubious beauty pageants and has married various mistresses, and was caught boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Both have married their heterosexual, macho image to an unapologetic, brazen homophobia and transphobia. Those two often if not always accompanying misogyny.
I’m perhaps a bit surprised that more LGBT onlookers aren’t sensing why this makes the idea of depicting Trump and Putin as queer so radical — the equivalent of throwing a brick through the looking-glass window. Their respective presentations as “real men” are ready-made parody, after all, about as necessary as making fun of Sarah Palin’s idiocy (as much fun as Tina Fey’s impersonation was).
Consider that fascist regimes often rely on such veneers of heterosexual “purity.” The Third Reich did, though as many critics pointed out, the famous propaganda film Triumph of the Will mixed up fascism with homoeroticism so fully that it became almost impossible to tell them apart.
Whenever I screen the film in class I always note that it looks like one big porn movie (filmmaker Paul Verhoeven would ramp up the homoeroticism in his brilliant 1997 parody of fascism and fascist propaganda, Starship Troopers).
It would also be important to consider where many of our collective ideas of machismo and masculinity have come from: cinema, and in particular, Hollywood. Mid-20th century icons of masculinity include Rock Hudson, James Dean, Montgomery Clift and especially Marlon Brando, who arguably set the template for brutish macho behaviour in the film A Streetcar Named Desire (notably written by a gay writer, Tennessee Williams).
What do all of those actors have in common? It was kind of a rhetorical question, but here goes: they all, we would learn later on, were either gay or bisexual.
In other words, the ideas around what was macho, masculine — what appeared to constitute “normal” heterosexual behaviour — was, in fact, a ruse, a façade, a construction and an utter falsehood.
Hollywood’s many façades paved the way for the drag and trans artists who would be captured in the documentary film Paris is Burning in 1991. That the stars of Hollywood’s golden age were themselves trapped in closets should really have told us anything and everything we need to know about macho bravado and the derision of girly men.
Thus I would argue that the Trump-Putin bromance images are not only funny, they’re actually playing an important function: they are clearly identifying Trump and Putin’s personas for what they are: a construction, a ruse, a façade, a performance and especially in these particular cases, a fraud.
The endless macho/hetero posturing is precisely what it looks like — posturing. The images of them kissing and cuddling is not disparaging homosexuality; it is mocking the very idea of a heterosexual ideal and what are thought of as masculine characteristics.
When I interviewed William Shatner years ago, I was warned that if I wanted to bring up Slash fiction — that is, (often explicit) stories and drawings created by fans that depicted the Star Trek characters Kirk and Spock as lovers — that I should leave that question to the end of my time, in case he hung up. He was fairly polite about it when I did ask him (“Now that’s science fiction!” he replied) but I could sense his squeamishness on the other end of the line.
He didn’t like it because the very idea of homosexuality “infecting” his image as Captain Kirk was threatening to him. That’s why depicting fictional characters or politicians who repeatedly insist they are diehard heterosexual is cheeky and should be welcome: it challenges the very idea of concrete identities and behaviour around sexuality and gender.
I look forward to the animated web series of the Trump-Putin bromance. Bring it on.