Every day over at str8bro.net, a few new photos are posted that feature meathead bros doing what meathead bros do best—drinking cheap beer, excessively exercising, reveling in how sculpted their abs are, and engaging in subtly homoerotic exchanges with other meathead bros. There are also short blog posts, like one on “9 Normal Things You Did as a Kid That Are Actually Kind of Gay,” that maintain the voice of a hyper-masculine bro who fears having his masculinity challenged.
The man behind the posts is Kevin Arnold, a Dartmouth College graduate who studied “critical theory and cultural studies” and is currently wrapping up his Ph.d. in English at SUNY Buffalo. He’s a complicated guy, and his site, despite the largely bro-tastic subject matter, is complicated, too. He sprinkles the site with some posts written in his own voice—a member of the LGBT community who’s critical of mainstream gay rights organizations and likes to think beyond the classifications of homo and hetero. The str8bro brand has gone through several different incarnations over the last three years, including a few separate Facebook pages and a Yahoo! Group, but now, Arnold says he’s happy with it.
It’s an interesting mix, seeing a clearly academic writer apply his studies and philosophy to a blog that’s largely parody, but it’s an entertaining read, and it’s definitely helped Arnold spin off into other roles, including a weekly writing stint at Guyism.com. Here, I caught up with Kevin to talk about contradictions inherent in his material, his dissertation on masculinity in literature, and the difficulties of balancing satire and serious criticisms of masculinity.
AP: What’s the purpose of “str8bro”? Why start writing as this character and continue it through so many different incarnations?
KA: The goal has been the same all the way through: To try and conceptualize, then elaborate, forms of male desire (or, more neutrally, “bonding,”) that are not reducible to homosexual ways of desiring, being, representation. I think the need for that is just as urgent today as it was then. The “trial and error” has been about finding the best way to capture that, to “pitch it,” to reach various audiences. I want to foster modes of expression [about complicated topics]. Humor is one way of “getting away with it.” It allows the complexity of the feeling to be expressed while still reassuring us that it’s “just a joke.” You can speak to multiple audiences in this way.
AP: To be clear, who are you satirizing?
KA: I think I’m satirizing both straight and gay culture. The straight aspect is tricky, because my objective is not to say, “Look, this is gay, and these guys won’t admit it.” In fact, countering that way of thinking is perhaps my main objective. I take these “modes of desire” very seriously, as something else or as something more than “mere homosexuality.” It’s a kind of complexity, ambiguity, and nuance I want to be attentive to, rather than lumping it in the box of so-called repressed homosexuality. I want to awaken—you might even say “arouse”—erotic feelings in straight men when they look at the pictures.
AP: And with regard to gay culture?
KA: For the gay activist consciousness, [the bros] are the “oppressors,” or at least these are the men who need to be “brought into the fold.” When a gay man looks at my pictures, I don’t want him to do so lustfully. [I mean to say,] “You’re a man, just as he is. You have more in common than you have differences.” I want him to experience that and to respond in that way.
AP: Is there an inspiration for str8bro?
KA: I try to be as “honest” in writing str8bro as I can be. Certainly, it is fantasy, but fantasy is something I take very seriously. Str8bro is not reducible to one “type”—it resists that, and that’s sort of the point. I draw on multiple, even contradictory aspects of myself and my experience with others.
AP: So would you describe yourself as a gay rights advocate? And how do you balance the activist in you with the satirical aspects of str8bro?
KA: I would absolutely describe myself as in support of gay rights. I think of what I do as a kind of politics, and that politics includes being critical of the gay rights movement. I see the two identities as inextricably related. Satire is a form of political critique I work with often—in addition to the more straight-forward, direct arguments.
AP: So, do you stand any risk of being offensive? Or do you ever fear that readers won’t understand your satire, since there is so much crossing over and balancing of personas?
KA: Do I fear being offensive? No. I think people, especially the mainstream gay rights movement, needs some rattling, and I’m more than happy to be the one to do that. I would say that I do fear being misunderstood. That was the source of a lot of problems in the early iterations of str8bro. I would get drawn into very long, circular debates with more moderate gays. But where I’m at now, I try and let it go. I don’t think str8bro’s effectiveness is predicated on a simple, pithy “thesis statement.” Str8bro does not lend itself well to simple sloganeering. Rather than trying to (re)solve the contradictions, I want to proliferate them—as an experience, as an experience of desire. Homosexuality is becoming much too simple nowadays. We take it as a simple facticity, as an ontology, as an “I was born this way.” I think the vitality of homosexuality depends on its continuing to be complicated or problematic. What I fear is this mortification of homosexuality into an “identity.” There’s nothing sexy about that.
AP: Have you come under fire from people who don’t understand, or who vehemently disagree—For example, with your piece in Guyism that sort of defended Kobe Bryant’s use of the word “faggot”?
KA: The only real arguments in favor of me have been coming from people saying, “It’s just a word.” And that is not at all my position. Words matter, which is precisely the point. What I wanted to do with that piece was to demonstrate the way that words are complex and polyvocal—resisting that sort of simple sloganizing of gay activism as “don’t say that.” For me, there is something very complicated about that word and how it’s used that I want to be attentive to. What I want to do is go to these problems and sit with them for a while, see what they can do for us, rather than faciley trying to “solve” them, dismiss them, do away with them.
AP: Let’s talk about your dissertation. “Pitch” it to me.
KA: The dissertation is on 50s and 60s American literature. Something very interesting was happening at that moment, before the advent of gay “liberation” and this consolidation of homosexuality as an identity category. In the absence of those modes of understanding and politics, these writers had to think about same-sex desire very differently, as a problem in relations between men, all men. For these writers, homosexuality was a question and a problem, not an answer. I very much like that idea—it keeps things open-ended. I sort of envision this idea of all men during that period as just men, plain and simple, and the alternate vicissitudes in their desire (homosexual, heterosexual, etc.) as a product of a problem in masculinity itself. Rather than a primary, essential difference between gay and straight men from the start, you just have “men,” and coming out of that category, you have various, differential forms of desire.
AP: OK, last question. What would str8bro say about the Good Men Project’s mission—to have a discussion about what it means to be a man?
KA: [He’d say:] “I’m more interested in bad boys than I am good men.”