Guy-on-Guy: The Female Gaze

Boybands have a short shelf life — a period of time where their superstardom snowballs to ridiculous proportions that they burn out within five or six years. It truly is a bubble of success, one they will probably never quite recapture since the combination of ruthlessly effective pop songs, perfectly swished hair, smooth skin, a high-street ready wardrobe and adolescent hormones explode to create something like a rapture. Even British boyband Take That, who reformed to huge success a decade after their infamous break-up, have probably never reached the ecstatic heights of their early years. In fact, it’s the nostalgia for such ecstasy that fuels the comeback in the first place. They sure are big business. Which is why when a new band appeared on the scene in China earlier this year and amassed 750,000 followers before even releasing a song, the industry bods perked up.

Acrush are a new sensation for 2017. At first glance, they look like Boyband 101, a textbook example. Five members: beautiful, young, all with similarly textured hair and frighteningly attractive features. Their elfin good looks went over particularly well in a culture that places immense aesthetic value upon pale skin and petite features. The A in their name stands for Adonis, the Greek God of beauty and desire. But it could just as well stand for Androgynous because the five singers in Acrush are actually all born female.

New kids on the block: Acrush. Image from here.

Their gender was known from the outset but what’s fascinating is that this didn’t stop them amassing hordes of young and mostly female fans in China, a notoriously conservative country where heteronormative ideas still rule. The young women in Acrush are forbidden from talking about their sexuality, according to their management, an uneasy contradiction to leader Lu Keran’s assertion that the message of the band is to be true to who you are. The whole endeavour is rather Apolitical.

Though Acrush is made up five females, each one of them clearly reads as male to their audience. Their phenomenal rise throws light on certain kinds of female desire, especially the adolescent variety, which rarely gets openly discussed. Female desire, and adolescent female desire even more so, is often categorised as being either non-existent or simplistic to the point of patronisation. Male desire also suffers from over-simplification but has the luxury of being far more visible and far less judged. Take for example Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden. An immaculate remake of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, the story charts the tumultuous love affair between a wealthy, young ward and her handmaiden.

Still from The Handmaiden. Image from here.

There are a handful of explicit sex scenes in the film including a long but narratively pertinent one between the two female protagonists. I heard more than one male critic describe these as ‘voyeuristic’ and/or ‘lascivious.’ As if the only reason two women could have such intense, intimate and frankly athletic sexual intercourse with one another was inevitably because they were puppets pulled by the hand of a male director. Alain Guiraudie’s thriller Stranger by the Lake, which made use of body doubles for unsimulated sex scenes, was conversely labelled ‘sexy’ and ‘elegant’ by male critics.

Still from Stranger by the Lake. Image from here.

I suppose sex scenes between females inevitably draw comparison to the popularity of lesbian pornography in what is cringingly referred to colloquially as ‘girl-on-girl.’ It seems to be common knowledge that most, if not all, straight men enjoy watching women have sex with each other — an idea which enforces the damaging practice of objectification which women face constantly in their everyday interactions as well as heaping pressure upon men who are made to feel abnormal if their own sexuality does not tend this way. It also seems to preclude the idea that women would enjoy men having sex with each other but female desire is multi-faceted and, in fact, women do enjoy the thought of guy-on-guy.

If you’ve ever delved deep into the world of fan fiction, you will come across numerous sub-genres involving the members of one of the biggest boybands to emerge in the last decade: One Direction. Particularly the theory dubbed ‘Larry Stylinson’ — the idea that members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly in love with each other. There are SO many stories dedicated to these two young men, some innocent, some eye-wateringly explicit, but their creators are obviously turned on (and not necessarily sexually) by the thought of Harry and Louis being romantically involved.

Old kids on the block: One Direction. Image from here.

Young female fans of One Direction have no issue with the prospect of their beloved band members getting it on with each other. There is perhaps something vaguely non-threatening and possibly even pure about a homosexual love affair of this kind. This formula is repeated with Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men series, Kirk and Spock from Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty in the rebooted TV series, Sherlock. Part of the success of Brokeback Mountain was not just its inherent artistic qualities but the tortured, intense love scenes between its two desirable leading men: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. Perhaps there is an undeniable pull for some women in the oxymoronic idea of straight men having sex with each other but, either way, plenty find viewing pleasure (erotic and/or aesthetic) in expressions of male homosexuality. Why else would young women fantasise, and it is a fantasy, about their favourite pop singers having sex with each other?

All of which returns me to Acrush whose rapidly growing fanbase throws an interesting light on this complex labyrinth of desire. Five young women adored by a legion of their same-gendered peers but with both sides dismissing any claims of homosexuality. Fans call members of the band their ‘husbands’ and seem to feel no anxiety in expressing such adoration, which undoubtedly is in part made up of sexual fantasy. Underneath the management’s claim that this is nothing more than five girls who dress as boys, there is an ocean of feeling. Perhaps this is a brilliant cloak-and-dagger method of opening up the vistas of sexuality in a notoriously conservative country. More likely it’s just another mammoth business venture. But it is a timely reminder that the female gaze is as steadfast and enigmatic as the male one. Dismiss it at your peril.

Shameless. Image from here.