Jim Downs: Teenage Dreams: Masculinity and Katy Perry





[Jim Downs is an assistant professor of history and American Studies at Connecticut College. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write.]

Is Katy Perry changing what it means to be a man?

It all seemed to start this past fall on Glee when Blaine Anderson played by the self-identified straight actor Darren Criss serenaded Kurt Hummel, played by Chris Colfer, who earned a Golden Globe award for his palpable portrayal of gay teen angst. Since Kurt had been bullied at his public high school in small town Ohio, he went on a search to find a school that had a zero tolerance policy on bullying. He uncovers an aristocratic prep school: imagine Dead Poets Society meets the allure of Great Gatsby. Kurt stumbles upon Blaine Anderson, think Gatsby, a confident, charismatic and handsome figure, who in the typical fashion of a TV musical invites Kurt to glee club practice. The scene unfolds in the enticing deep mahogany decorated halls of a prep school, evoking the iconic castle of teenage boy bonding: dark wooden bookshelves, navy blazers and preppy haircuts. Think Dead Poets Society.

If Kurt had not already been swept away by the invitation, then Blaine's musical outburst left him stunned. The idea that a guy is signing to another guy on network TV in a high school setting is groundbreaking. It is even more powerful, if we exit the study hall-cum-music video and consider recent events, particularly the media's reporting of gay suicides and teenage bulling. Blaine singing to Kurt more than likely made many gay people across the United States realize that marriage equality may not have yet been achieved, but something radical had just unfolded on the Fox Network. By having teenage boys actually seducing each other publicly with a popular pop song iconoclastically revolted against the mantra of prep schools as a bastion if not incubator of masculinity and heterosexuality and irreverently flipped it into a "safe space" for homosexual desire.

Even more profoundly, in this homage to Katy Perry, the representation of gay men on the silver screen had transformed radically. No longer were gay men simply represented as sexually promiscuous, their bars and clubs exposed as the backdrop to crime scenes on Law and Order. No longer were gay men told the only place they could sing was belting out some antiquated show tune on a Broadway stage. No longer were gay men shown on TV or film as dying of AIDS or fighting for equal rights. Instead, they experienced the pinnacle of teenagehood: the high school crush. They finally were able to come out as a people who had for generations in high schools, prep schools, and boarding schools had "teenage dreams" of the charismatic, popular boy making a move on them. It is the TV version of Christopher Rice's A Density of Souls, when the awkward gay kid scores with the high school football star.

This episode of Glee set off fireworks for fair Kurt, but it should not go unnoticed that Blaine sang Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." Unlike Lady Gaga's songs that speak to listeners across racial, gender, sexual, age and many other lines, this particular song by Perry is the embodiment of heterosexuality -- there are no utterances, hints or subtexts in this particular song that are found in Gaga or even Madonna that could subversively speak to a gay listener. There are such themes, of course, in other songs by the California siren, such as in her breakout hit, "I Kissed a Girl". Yet in "Teenage Dream," a gay or alternative subtext does not exist, it is instead a heterosexual anthem of teenage lust played out on a California beach. But that's all the more reason why it blew Kurt and audiences away, because Blaine had deftly managed to take a purely female voice and whip into his own seductive, masculine version. And in so doing Blaine broke through standard gender conventions by adapting a female song and making it cool in the process. The reverse is often true. Women sing and adapt men's songs all the time, but in a culture that heavily polices male behavior, men don't sing women's songs. And when they do, they are often performed under the banner of camp and drag and never channeled through the masculinity and virility born out of prep schools and male bonding.

But fortunately, this gender revolution is being televised, and Katy Perry seems to be the omnipresent narrator. Recently, at the University of Arkansas a group of guys, looking like fraternity brothers, posted a video on YouTube of them performing Perry's recent hit "Firework," a song that specifically aims to speak to kids, who feel marginalized for a number of reasons from challenges with obesity, terminal illness and homosexuality. Unlike "Teenage Dream," this song by Perry does in fact have a deep social message that was clearly heard by this group of guys, who on a snow day at the University of Arkansas opted to create a music video. Like Kurt, viewers of this video are stunned to observe that behind the closed doors of what appears to be a fraternity house, the college guys sing and dance along to Katy Perry. These guys prove that life may indeed imitate art. The humor and seduction of the video lies in the fact that guys don't dress up in order to perform the song, but instead the video derives its power from their authenticity. Some of the guys are unshaven, others wear plaid, and one is even shirtless. They parade around in their messy, worn-out house, where clothes pile up in the background and junk carpets the floor. Like drunken fraternity guys, they go nuts. They dance on the roof; roll around shirtless in the snow, and sing loudly with the windows down in their cars, disrupting the otherwise sedated college town. Inevitably, they provide insight into the interior of masculinity; it is an updated version of Girls Gone Wild. But there is a catch: there are no girls. They sing a highly popular girl's song, which until now was thought to be consumed mostly by those on the margins not those at the center of fraternity row.

So, is masculinity changing? When I was in college in the 1990s, white guys never danced, unless intoxicated and even then it was without rhythm and was often reduced to a head nod and body shrug in honor of Kurt Cobain's death. Even the breakout of the boy bands in the late 1990s did not signal such a radical transformation in male gender norms in the same way that these high school and college guys have innovatively transformed gender roles by ventriloquizing Katy Perry and choreographing snappy dance moves. So, something does seem to be definitely changing. According to historian Nicholas L. Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps, college men's identity has constantly been in flux and has been reconstituting itself throughout the past two centuries. Syrett explains how men in the second decade of the twentieth century broke out of their nineteenth-century molds that emulated literature and scholarship as the hallmarks of masculinity and instead began to define masculinity in terms of sexual conquest. Manliness, Syrett insightfully contends, has a history and each generation redefines what it means to be a guy.

So maybe, Katy Perry in a surprise twist is doing more to change gender identity than the highly theatrical Gaga, popping out of an egg and calling it "born again." Maybe the gender renaissance is happening because of the "California Gurl", who has produced the lyrics that have made it fun and acceptable for guys to sing songs made popular by girls. And maybe that's the "Teenage Dream"....



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