At a conference of literary scholars in December, a friend was interviewing a candidate for an academic position. After answering the usual questions about proposed courses, teaching loads and scholarly interests, the candidate volunteered,
“Oh, by the way, in addition to 19th century American literature, I work on bear studies.”
The interlocutors were perplexed. “Bear studies?” one asked. “Do you mean bears in literature — say, William Faulkner’s story ‘The Bear’ ?” Someone else suggested “Winnie the Pooh” — perhaps the candidate worked on children’s literature?
It soon became clear, however, that the candidate had something else in mind. By “bear studies,” he meant an area of academic research that explored the subculture of hirsute, usually heavy-set gay men — burly guys who identify with a masculine style and who shun the popular image of homosexual guys as smooth, hairless, Calvin-Klein-ish blond young men.
I was tempted to chuckle over yet another wacky academic trend. But I knew a few bears — one of my best friends, who considers himself a bear, had once outlined the bear taxonomy for me. Thin bears are called “otters.” Younger guys are “cubs,” East Asian guys are “panda bears,” and gray-haired gents are “polar bears.” For aficionados of the bear physique, the ideal male body is that of Tony Soprano (especially in the show’s recent seasons, when the mob boss puts on weight).
Columnist Andrew Sullivan recently declared himself a bear, and there’s a year-old glossy magazine, A Bear’s Life, aimed at a readership of “gruff voices and furry faces” who want to celebrate the “masculine lifestyle and bear accomplishments.”
But is there really a scholarly field devoted to the phenomenon?
The answer seems to be an affirmative growl. A number of scholars are exploring the increasingly visible subculture of “ursine” gay guys and their admirers. What fascinates these scholars is that self-identified bears have created a kind of counterculture, with its own language, values and rituals.For instance, anthropologist Robert Ridinger is examining the formation of minority groups that identify themselves as “natural men.” Media scholar Jerry Mosher, author of “Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression,” is studying how the fat body is represented in television and film. Lawrence Mass, a founder of New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, has focused on the special problems facing bears (sleep apnea is, for example, a common ailment).
There have been several scholarly articles and books devoted to bear studies. The Papa Bear of the field is Les K. Wright, a retired professor and San Francisco-based founder of the Bear History project and editor of “The Bear Book Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture.” That 1997 volume was such a hit among students of bear culture that it was followed, in 2001, by “The Bear Book II.” Essays by academics investigate such topics as “Bearaphernalia: An Exercise in Social Definition,” “The Bear Clan: North American Totemic Mythology, Belief and Legend” and the inevitable navel-gazing “Academics on Bears: Thoughts on the Middle-Class Eroticization of Workingmen’s Bodies.” Most of these scholars draw on such theoretical academic disciplines as masculinity studies, cultural studies, gender and queer theory and eco-criticism.
Some writers strike a utopian note. In an essay titled “Theoretical Bears,” Wright argues that bears can be “both masculine and feminine, strong and sensitive, gruff and affectionate, independent-minded and nurturing.”
The work of Yale historian George Chauncey has been especially influential in bear-culture scholarship. In his 1994 book “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940,” Chauncey explored turn-of-the-century working-class men who adopted a highly masculine personal style and rejected what they regarded as middle-class effete gay-male behavior (in those days, bears called themselves “wolves”).
A number of scholars have searched for more recent examples of a bear presence in American culture. In his 1992 book, “The Bear Cult,” art historian Edward Lucie-Smith traced the big-muscled imagery of today’s bears to 1950s gladiator movies. In the minutes of a now-defunct Los Angeles gay organization, the Satyrs, Wright discovered a 1966 reference to the formation of a Bear Club, perhaps the first known instance of the term being used in the sense it is employed today.
“It’s a relatively new, relatively unknown area of scholarly inquiry,” said John Edward Campbell, who teaches in the communication studies department at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of “Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity,” which is an ethnographic study of the activities of social scenes in the world of the Internet. “When I began my work in media studies, all the research on the Web concerned straight white guys,” Campbell said. “But my own experience of this world was radically different. My research looked at communities of masculine-identified-bears, a group that has exploded on the Internet, a phenomenon that no one had really looked at before.”
Although Campbell is reluctant to refer to the academic interest in bears as a field, he regards the scholarly attention to the bear phenomenon as serious. Academics have always been interested in studying subcultural groups and how their members perceive themselves and are viewed by the larger culture.
Most of today’s bear thinkers see themselves as challenging what they consider the unrealistic norms of mainstream society, which push idealized images of gay men on such television shows as “Will and Grace” and “Brothers and Sisters.” With its rustic setting featuring ranch hands, the movie “Brokeback Mountain” might have been a bear classic, except that by bear standards the actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, were practically “twinks” (the dreaded opposite of bears — preppy gay men).
Some bear theorists liken their scholarship to that of feminist critics 20 years ago, who in such classic polemics as “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” and “The Beauty Myth” analyzed the perils of the high premium that society places on physical perfection. The same standards oppress gay men, bear critics claim.
“One reason I think there’s been such an explosion of interest and activity around the bear community is that a lot of gay guys, as they get older, find [they put] on weight and don’t find themselves fitting the model of the svelte, young guy,” said Stevo Harris, publisher of “A Bear’s Life” magazine. “They look around for new models — and they discover there’s a bear community in which men have real bodies, not the fantasies you see on television.”
Wright frets that today’s bear culture is all too willing to turn itself into just another consumer group. He also fears that the bear community has become too obsessed with mimicking — as opposed to experimenting with — masculine stereotypes.
“In many ways, the whole culture has moved in a more conservative direction — for instance, the current interest in gay marriage — so it’s no surprise that beardom has become much more mainstream.”
In fact, politically, it would seem that there’s no such thing as your average bear. Beardom crosses the political spectrum: Sullivan, the columnist, is a social conservative.
“Still,” Wright insisted, “people are much more aware today that there’s a bear community that they can join, and that’s a good thing.”