James Dean and Richard Davalos, still from East of Eden
Sexuality and Identity

Boys Together Clinging

Don Draper is, and Joan Harris, too, but Pete Campbell definitely isn’t. Jesse Pinkman tries hard to be but isn’t. Walter is, though in a very dark way and not in the first season. Obama perhaps was when a candidate in the Democratic primaries, not as second-term President.

Cool. Though it may not be easy to define, we know it when we see it. If cool is elusive it is also exceptional. There are only so many rings of power in circulation, and magic elixirs are hard to come by. So, too, the cool.

For a few firms that sell products that are truly beyond the reach of the vast majority of consumers, price alone may define exclusivity, though even here the experience of purchasing the product must be packaged with the appropriate trappings of privileged luxury. For firms which commodify privilege, however, the illusion of exclusivity is paramount to the success of the brand. This illusion is communicated through different narratives, one of the most salient of which is the discourse of cool. It is all in the packaging, and all very carefully designed.

Abercrombie & Fitch is a particularly successful example of a firm that goes to extraordinary lengths to cultivate an image of privilege and luxury couched in the aesthetics of cool in order to sell high-priced clothing to what, in the end, is a decidedly mass market. In Abercrombie’s case, right down to the point on the arm at which its male shop assistants are permitted to roll up their sleeves. Or to the characteristics of the buffed, shirtless store greeter, a fixture of the A&F in-store experience as integral as the cologne that’s continually sprayed into the changing rooms and the dimmed store ‘lighting”.

This carefully orchestrated strategy of mystique building has paid off. Under its CEO Michael Jeffries, Abercrombie & Fitch has transformed itself from a dying mail-order outfitter selling hunting apparel and accessories into an apparel chain with over a 1,000 stores and annual sales of over $4 billion. Abercrombie’s brand definition is unambiguous: “A combination of classic and sexy creates a charged atmosphere that is confident and just a bit provocative.”

The Abercrombie aesthetic of male beauty is unmistakable: almost exclusively white young men, clean-shaven, body-shaven, and ripped to 3% body fat . In an interview with Salon in 2006, its CEO Michael Jeffries said that Abercrombie targets the “attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends.”

Critics have said the aesthetic is more Aryan than American. It is an interesting discourse, with its intimations of heartless blond fascist youths of cold perfection. But the froideur is not coincidental. Aloofness and self-confidence are elements of cool, though not arrogance, which is why the half-naked boys at the entrance to the A&F stores smile and issue their scripted welcome address. Cool is unapproachable without being stand-offish.

This froideur is also a part of the edginess and sexuality that is intimated in the ‘charged atmosphere’ of the Abercrombie brand definition. In fact, the edge in its aesthetic of coolness is considerably more radical, that is, rebellious. The brand, perhaps before all others and certainly to a greater and more consistent extent, has made marked use of homoerotic imagery in its firm’s print campaigns and videos. This is especially evident in the work that Bruce Weber has done for the brand, whose videos of buffed half-naked guys wrestling and showering together are laden with powerful sexual overtones. (For the record, though it’s fairly clear that this is an A&F shoot, the firm has of late disowned the video series, who knows for what reason)

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I don’t think the significance of this marketing strategy has been fully appreciated. Yes, wags will say that the Abercrombie and Fitch men’s catalog is gay soft porn. But consider the message these images communicate to the vast majority of its customers–straight young men. Abercrombie’s discourse of hedonism leaves aside questions of sexual orientation entirely. We have no idea if the young men in these ads are gay, straight or bisexual, but what we can see if how at ease they are with touching and holding another man. The message is clear: being physical with another man is cool.

Horsing around with teammates in this way is anything but conventional. This particular locker room obeys a law of its own and its athletes celebrate a hedonistic camaraderie that is, or could be, socially disruptive. In its celebration of male bonding, the video is close to what Whitman spoke of in his poem, “We Two Boys Together Clinging”:

Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving.
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving,
threatening

/

In this same interview, which resurfaced recently in a Business Insider feature on the firm and its CEO, Jeffries went on to say:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.

This is disingenuous, of course. Abercrombie & Fitch had net sales of $ 4.5 billion in 2012, including its turnover in Abercrombie kids and Hollister brands. No way there are so many cool young guys and women. No, their target market – apart from the niche markets of the already cool and gay men – is a much broader audience of high-school and college kids, and older adults as well, eager to be in-vested with the confidence and the aura of desirability of the cool.

In any event, the resurrected story went viral and triggered anti-Fitch protests from various quarters. Ellen DeGeneris did a show-and-tell with a Barbie-sized polo shirt (the ideal size of the targeted market in her view). Someone uploaded a YouTube video of himself distributing A&F clothes to people living on the street in Los Angeles. The video ends with a call to viewers to do likewise in the aim of making Abercrombie & Fitch “the world’s number one brand of the homeless.” At last count, the video had over 7.3 million views. Twitter lit up and #fitchthehomeless trended.

The Militant Baker (Jes A. Baker) posted an ersatz A&F photo shoot on her blog. It featured the size-22 young woman in the firm’s jeans and t-shirt—and at times without the shirt—posing with a buffed young guy, a juxtaposition of bodies, as the blogger notes, that is indeed “visually jarring” but works. It does so precisely because of the confidence the young woman herself exudes, her rebelliousness and I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude vis-à-vis conventional definitions of what is attractive: “Not only do I know that I’m sexy, but I also have the confidence to pose nude in ways you don’t dare.”

The discourse of these protests touched on discrimination and body image and aesthetics. But the damage to the brand was broader, I think. Along with the 2006 interview, material soon began to resurface on the Internet that laid bare the mechanics of Abercrombie’s myth-making apparatus and strategy: the obsessively detailed style book for A&F employees, the crew’s handbook for Jeffries’ private jet (a dress code involving boxer shorts and flip-flops, and seating arrangements for his three dogs), the horror stories told by former employees.

By drawing attention to his strategy, Jeffries was undermining the very allure of coolness that he had been trying, with considerable success, to cultivate. He violated one of the core elements of this elusive concept, attitude or behavior we call cool: the aplomb and nonchalance of the young guy or woman who does not try to be yet nonetheless is desired and emulated. He told us how hard his firm is trying to be cool. How very uncool.

Magic, once explained, may call forth admiration for the dexterity and ingenuity of the conjuror, but the enchantment has been lost. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” applies as much to fashion as it did to the Wizard. Jeffries—and the attention that was drawn to style books and hiring tactics and campaign briefs—broke the fundamental rule of cool: its effortlessness.

To paraphrase a line in one of the most iconic cool films of recent time: “the first rule of cool is that you don’t talk about cool.”

Fantasy films and pornography alike bewitch us precisely because the mechanics of special effects are hidden. This is why it is so disconcerting to see an actor’s gaze shift from the action at hand to the camera. I once saw a German porn film from a self-styled radical director which broke the fourth wall of both porn and cinema. He provided an extended “the making of” segment which shows the actors on set before the scenes are shot. One of the protagonists, stark naked except for a pair of boots, tries to shoo away a young pit bull that has wandered onto the outdoor set. A couple of actors joke around with the crew as they’re being shown their marks. Another sits to the side of the set as an assistant “preps” him for the scene. It is funny and endearing in the way the outtakes to a sit-com are. But it’s no longer erotic.

I once replayed the DVD. I kept thinking, where is the pit bull now?

How far up the arm did you say the shirt should be rolled up?

/

I went to a school where everyone more or less wore Abercrombie & Fitch, or equivalents thereof. We didn’t do it to be cool, but because we had to. The school had a dress code as unyielding as the style guide Abercrombie has for its employees. We were told what shirts and pants could be worn and how. Shirts, for example, had to be collared and tucked in. Blazers were standard. Ties were worn to the top button. Socks were foreseen and had to be visible. Faces were expected to be clean-shaven, hair washed, combed and cut to acceptable length.

The code was a work in progress, reshaped and expanded as fashions changed. Fabrics were specified at my time, but only later was the phrase “to be worn on the waist” added, as were the prohibitions of earrings, chains and tattoos.

In a perverse prison camp mentality, members of the Student Council were responsible for enforcing the dress code. You were given a citation and points when found in violation of the code. Amass enough points and you got detention. Recalcitrant offenders were brought before the assistant principal in the presence of his parents.

Desmond was one of them. He continually tested the rules. He would loosen his tie and undo the first button of his shirt. He wore heavy steel-toed boots to school. He racked up more points and spent more time in detention than anyone else.

I had a crush on Desmond, though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. A guy doesn’t have crushes, I had learned. He could be desperately interested in a girl, willing even to be made a fool of for his infatuation. He might moon over a girl. He could bore his friends with his schemes for getting her to like him. But he never had a crush. That was something that only girls, who (we were told) were weaker and more prey to their emotions, had. And if having a crush on someone was unmanly enough, having one on another guy was unthinkable.

But I did have a crush on him. I would start to get a hard on when I saw him. Just the first stirrings of an erection, really, nothing embarrassing, nothing I’d have to explain to myself much less others. Faint enough to dismiss, if only for the moment.

Desmond had the brutal good looks of a young Brando, tempered by an odd reddish blush to his cheeks, as if he had applied rouge. He moved the way male jaguars or wrestlers approach each other, with slow, graceful yet vaguely threatening movements. Even in his aloofness there was something predatory to him.

But I only saw Desmond in the halls and cafeteria. Desmond was a year ahead of me, which meant we had no classes or friends in common. I ran cross-country; he played baseball, or did before he started experimenting with drugs. I was a geek of sorts; the only class Desmond did well in was music. I was on the outer edge of circles drawn around the regional class runners and wrestlers who were captains of the teams I played on; Desmond was the center of a group of guys who gravitated towards him because he was so very cool.

His most frequent cited offense, however, was his hair. He had a shock of straight and shiny black hair that he was determined to wear long. Our dress code foresaw that hair could not descend more than one inch on the shirt collar.

After receiving enough citations to warrant calling in his parents for a conference, Desmond started wearing a wig to school, into which he would stuff his increasingly luxuriant mane of over-the-collar hair. There was nothing in the dress code about wigs, and to add a clause at the time would have seemed vindictive. Desmond spent all of senior year with shoulder-length hair.

By carelessness or impish foresight, he always left a few tufts of his hair protrude out from under the toupee. No article of clothing could have been sexier. Or cooler.

Desmond was a rebel, but an oddly quiet one. Although a number of guys at school began to sport toupees as well, Desmond wasn’t an instigator of protest. His provocation was stance more than platform. As far as I knew he never made any public statements at school about the dress code or the administration. There were no letters to the editor of the school paper or petitions to the Student Council to amend the dress code. It was just this single and ultimately subversive gesture, encapsulated at its best in the moment he stepped off school property and ripped off his wig to let his long black hair fall free to his shoulders.

/

In response to the Jeffries interview, marketing consultant Anup Samanta penned an “Open Letter from an ‘Uncool Kid” on the Good Men Project in which he tries to define a “cool kid” on the basis of virtues such as inventiveness, solidarity, courage and helpfulness. A cool kid, he writes, “helps a buddy who needs guidance and support” and “stays up all night to study for an exam”. It is a kid who can develop an iApp or volunteers at a s0up kitchen or sets records in track and field. But Samanta is wrong. These are admirable qualities but they are not elements of cool. Calling something cool doesn’t make it cool.

But one item he mentioned is perhaps such an element. A cool kid, Samanta writes, can come out and be proud and defend his sexual orientation. This ease in one’s skin, sexual and otherwise, is not too different from the self-confidence and inner calm that Desmond had, though he was straight, or from what Weber depicted in his A&F videos, albeit in a highly stylized, almost pornographic, by which I mean illusionist, way.

I don’t think I would have been cool in high school even if I were out. But I would have been less concerned about fitting in if I had been. More like Desmond, in a way. Though I wouldn’t have worn a wig.

-/-

Image: James Dean and Richard Davalos on East of Eden set

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4 responses to ‘Boys Together Clinging

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