“Take your choice!”: When men’s lips meet

Benetton’s ads are causing an uproar, which of course is the idea. The Italian firm has perfected the art of advertising not products but itself. It’s also mastered the divine skill of selling things by making people angry, in the apparent confidence that a surge of outraged adrenalin directly stimulates the consumer organs. In this, they seem to have paved the way for the longtime success of Silvio Berlusconi, whose successive assaults upon the public’s patience only made him a more desired and demanded commodity — as if he were his own antidote. But with the high panjandrum of being-hated-into-office now turned to a defeated dud, the field is clear for the sweatshop owners.

This ad, showing Benedict XVI osculating the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo — the Clinch of Civilizations — pushed the Vatican too far: “This shows a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offence to the feelings of believers, a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people,” said the Holy Father’s spokesman.

Photoshopping Obama’s lips against Hu Jintao’s prompted US ire: “The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes,” said spokesman Eric Schultz.

Now, one interesting thing is how many of these provocative images are of two men. There is indeed a strikingly chaste portrayal of Angela Merkel giving Nicolas Sarkozy a sauerkraut-faced smack:

They both look as though they have been forced into a medical experiment. Even the most ardent agitators against German dominance of the European Central Bank, however, aren’t likely to take offense at that. The aim to upset is far more effectively fulfilled by Netanyahu forcing his affections onto Mahmoud Abbas, with the ardor of a whole shtetl of settlers unleashed upon the land:

There’s interesting stuff for reflection here, on how homoeroticism between men still awakens unease. And it’s a particular kind of unease, in that all kinds of other relations –of political amity and civilizational conflict, of submission and overwhelmingly of power — offer themselves up to be read into that unmuted tonguing. A man kissing a woman is pretty much just that, banal from overexposure, symbolizing nothing much more than (the possibility of) sex. Looking at Merkel and Sarkozy, it’s hard to infuse much meaning into their liplock beyond a suspicion that one or the other has bad breath. But set the Vicar of Rome and an imam mouth to mouth, and every kind of association from the Battle of Poitiers to Le Pen, from Saladin to Samuel Huntington, comes crowding around like a band of paparazzi watching Madonna do a public strip-tease.

In other words, homosexuality is still in the unenviable position of meaning more than itself. It’s never just there, sufficient on its own; it keeps getting enlisted into other agendas, serving other programs, speaking in other voices, living in other rooms. One might remember Art Spiegelman’s famous New Yorker cover, which appeared in early 1993 a couple of years after rioting in Crown Heights between Hasidic Jews and African-Americans had shattered the city’s tenuous racial peace. It caused a stir at the time, but the sheer heterosexuality of it gave the feeling of alarm nothing tangible to hang onto. So what if the rabbi is laying it onto Queen Latifah?  Their kids will grow up to be doctors and play basketball. The frisson died down quickly for lack of ambiguity. But compare it to this photograph, taken for a story on lesbian and gay firefighters and police in New York after 9/11 (the photographer, Dirk Anschütz, acknowledges the debt):

It’s … different. It’s just different, somehow. Look at it for a while, and you start wondering things like: Why is the cop holding the fireman’s lapels that weird way? Is he attracted to him, or arresting him? Whatever happened to Abner Louima, anyway?  Why isn’t there a fire hose (nervous titter)? Why is that skyscraper there? Is a plane going to hit it? Isn’t this the kind of thing that is just destined to provoke another terrorist attack? They hate us for our freedoms, for God’s sake!  Can’t you be less free for once?  And who is that brown man siting across the aisle from me? Stewardess!  IS THERE AN AIR MARSHAL ON THIS PLANE?

In this light, I have to point to an obvious antecedent of the Benetton onslaught. Sandip Roy, in a charming essay on the Benetton campaign, has already observed the passing of the once-hegemonic Red Kiss:

Communist iron men were prone to these smooches unlike their more cowboy counterparts on the other side of the Cold War. They were secure enough in their masculinity — all those pogroms and tanks rolling into town squares surely helped.

But I think he misses the complexity of how those kisses were used. Here, for instance, was a famous one. Brezhnev, signing the SALT II treaty with Carter in 1979, decided, in what may have been an Alzheimerish impulse born of plaque on the cranial arteries, to treat the US President like a fraternal leader of a minor People’s Republic:

The moment, which was followed not long after by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, came up relentlessly in the next year’s presidential campaign, used to chip away at Carter’s masculinity. Reagan unveiled an election poster:

Rarely has a presidential candidate, and a conservative one too, invited American voters to identify themselves explicitly with a Soviet dictator. I submit: it’s the wildly multiplying and contradictory meanings — of power, submission, fear, attraction, contempt — that homoeroticism opens up which gave space (a kind of semiotic space, let’s let the academic in me say) for the Reagan campaign to make the leap. It worked. Carter, derided as a wimp too terrified to take on swimming rabbits, much less the Evil Empire, lost.

In 1990, when Hungary had its first free elections, the then-youth party Fidesz — which barred membership to seniors over 35, and was represented by a group of long-haired, rock-star student politicians seemingly straight off MTV — produced this famous campaign poster.

The top image shows Brezhnev planting a kiss on Erich Honecker, the iron boss of the GDR. The bottom one shows a happy young hetero couple rapt in springtime love on a park bench. The contrast the youth movement was trying to draw is obvious. The slogan is Tessék választani, which is a pun of sorts: It can mean “Take your choice!” (and as such was the title of a national Hungarian pop festival from the 60s on); it can also be, “Please vote.”

I remember discussing it with my gay friends in Budapest back then. We all felt a little ambivalent. Of course you were supposed to like the straight couple, so glowing and pretty and bold. (Kiissing outdoors was a bit daring and suggested rebellious freedom, even for heteros, back in those still-Puritan days.) And of course who wanted to imagine the caresses of those bureaucratic dinosaurs, like Yertle the Turtle mating? On the other hand, in the insistently heterosexual environment of 1990 Hungary, any image of male-male affection had a certain resonance for us. I even indulged in a bit of sympathy for the old guys, probably too worn out in that pre-Viagra era to get it up. I recognized, as my friends did, the inner ambiguity of the outcast: How should we choose? Which side were we on?

The Fidesz party logo was an orange, and that too was a pop culture reference: to a famous 1969 movie, A tanú (“The Witness”), a comic paysage moralisé through the absurdities of a Communist society. Everybody in the country knew its most famous lines. In one, the hero has been assigned to a laboratory to develop the first orange tree ever in Hungary. He succeeds, but on the morning before its unveiling, a kid steals in the lab and eats the fruit. To cover it up, the hapless fellow tapes a painted lemon onto the tree instead. At the ceremony, a party boss triumphantly takes the orange, peels it, and bites down. His face scrunches up like Angela Merkel’s. Then, puzzled but needing to claim success, he announces: “The Hungarian orange. It is small, it’s bitter — but it’s ours.”

It’s true, so true. All the ambiguity and all the freedom have now been leached out of that hopeful image, and nobody likes to sample the shrivelled, sour realities that remain. Fidesz, once a harbinger of vitality in politics, has turned into a middle-aged, far-rightist party that now leads the government and is trying desperately to restrict and roll back Hungary’s democracy. I’m older too, and I feel a bit like lumbering Brezhnev forced by cruel history to stare down his own unpopularity as I try to market myself online.

Phnom Penh 2010

Only Benetton rolls on, ageless as corporations are, evergreen in its ability to give out mixed signals, to get our attention. It’s a wonderful, sempiternal game, and it still manages to distract us from what’s behind the billboard. Homoeroticism conceals as easily as it reveals; it engrosses attention, engorges and agitates the mind, but keeps us from looking at what we’re not supposed to see. In Kasserine, the town where the Tunisian revolution started,  “Girls can work in the sweatshops producing for Benetton, where they earn less than 100 Euro per month.” In Cambodia last year, “Riot police used electric shock batons to beat women sweatshop workers when they stopped producing fashion labels for the UK and other Western nations.”  Benetton was one of the buyers of the striking workers’ products; the women earned just over a dollar a day. Unhate.