For their documentary 'Hyper Masculinity On The Dancefloor', Berlin filmmakers Selin Davasse and Emre Busse sought out the most hard-bodied techno lovers to answer a few crucial questions about manliness.
All photos courtesy of Selin Davasse and Emre Busse
"We think we understand masculinity," says film director Selin Davasse, "because a white man is the norm, we don't feel the need to talk about it. So when we ask, 'How would you define masculinity?', there are so many contradicting answers."
Davasse and her co-director, Emre Busse, are looking for the answers in their new short documentary Hyper Masculinity On The Dancefloor. The series features talking head-style interviews with a group of mostly gay men, all of whom embody an ultra-manly aesthetic. The interviews are interspersed with sweaty, red-lit dance scenes, where participants are shown pumping their engorged biceps along to pounding techno, courtesy of local DJ Furfriend.
Busse and Davasse are both regulars on the queer party scene in Berlin (Busse runs the queer club night Pornceptual with photographer Chris Phillips), making weekly pilgrimages into the clique of macho gay men in their regular corner of techno megaclub, Berghain. Topless on the dancefloor with these sweaty, barely clothed Greek gods, Davasse became interested in how their hardbody aesthetic spilled over into beliefs and behavior.
"These masculine men are sometimes bothered by my existence there," she says. "It took a while for them to accept me as part of the group." After long discussions with Busse about the significance of this aesthetic on the dancefloor, particularly from their point of view as a queer man and woman, the pair posted an open call on Facebook to invite friends and dance partners from Berghain to be interviewed.
In the film, participants answer questions such as "What do you think masculinity is?", often provoking a cascade of contradictory answers. For example, being sexually predatory is described as both masculine and not masculine by two different participants. It's one of many answers that points to the fragility of manliness: No one can quite put their finger on what it means.
Our perception of male homosexuality is inextricably tied to our ideas about masculinity. We see it in the media's frequent portrayal of gayness as feminine, to queer men's appropriation of uber 'masc' and straight male visual identities, particularly in the wake of the AIDS crisis.
"This hyper masculine culture came up in the 90s because gay men wanted to show that they were healthy," Busse explains. Physical wellbeing became a gender presentation. "They were associating femininity with weakness," Davasse adds, "and therefore [with] being infected or positive."
Although this might explain the historical reasons for the gay community's adoption of a hyper masculine identity, the answers within the film are a little less unifying. What is most remarkable in participants' responses is the significance they place on being perceived as manly, while simultaneously refusing to admit that they put any effort into it.
"They really denied it, saying, 'I was born this way, I was raised to be a man, so I don't try, I don't look at myself in the mirror!'," Davasse says. "They are trying to reach up to this straight ideal, and maybe doing it better than the straight men. I feel like these hyper masculine men are, in some ways, similar to the hyper-femininity of drag queens, but they don't realize the performativity and kitschiness of it."
Davasse and Busse's questions often reveal more than aesthetic choices: Are these men not only replicating maleness in their aesthetic choices, but also the logic of the patriarchy through femme-shaming and sexism towards women? (As Davasse puts it, "Gay misogyny is a thing.")
Judging by the interviewees in Hyper Masculinity On The Dancefloor, this often seems to be the case. In one of many frustrating comments throughout the film, one participant states, "We have all been given roles by birth and I think we have to act accordingly." Women's 'role by birth', though not the focus of his comment, is the unmentioned other that defines this gender binary. There are also worrying implications for trans and genderqueer folks: where do their experiences fit into this worldview?
Audience members at the Berlin premiere of the film accused the men in the documentary of colluding with patriarchy by adhering to the same old value system that places men and perceived masculinity above femininity. But what immediately becomes clear in the film is that homophobia, bullying and insecurity has been a common reason for these men to embrace this look. Bulking up may have become an aesthetic, but in many cases it started as a way to protect themselves.
"If you come from this rough life, perhaps the only way for you to defend yourself is for you to build muscles so that people will be intimidated by you. It's a defence mechanism," says Davasse. In other words, building muscle isn't just a way to combat identity oppression, it's also a practical way to deal with homophobia.
It's a point brought up at length in the film by Kevin Andre, a black American man who lives in Berlin. He explains that social pressure to appear masculine was heightened by his blackness as he was growing up in Southeast US. "It's unfortunate that the world, especially within the black community, forces you to choose."
Andre says he would never approach a white man in an American club. In Europe, he is frequently hit on by white guys, particularly those looking for a sadomasochistic, master-slave relationship and who see him as a natural dominant due to the colour of his skin. "Especially for me, being a black American, and coming from a background where I am a direct descendent from slaves... This really ties into that story," he says.
In both the film and the Q&A, Davasse and Busse aimed to let their participants speak for themselves and allow their opinions to be explored fully. "I think these men have to be protected a bit because they were super honest about how they felt," Davasse explains. "We're trying to analyze their reasons for trying so hard [to be masculine], so it wouldn't be right if we didn't portray that."
But there is one moment in the film where you can hear Davasse's voice from behind the camera, just as one participant tells her that he's not attracted to men who act femme. "And why is that?" she asks, slipping into audible frustration. The directors chose to include it, and it feels like a framing for the context of the film: a queer, non-macho exploration of hyper masculinity. As Busse puts it: "If you watch with a queer eye, it's a good field trip..."