the complicated politics of the twink

If we really have entered the Age of the Twink, we need to understand the pain the twink body has endured and the pain it helps to perpetuate.

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May 16 2018, 1:02pm

This week the New York Times reported that we had entered a new cultural epoch -- the Age of the Twink. They cited many examples of slim, young, white men cropping up in popular culture this year as evidence of the dawning of this mainstream appreciation, including Timothée Chalamet, Olly Alexander, Troye Sivan and others. Most curiously, they distinguished between “gay twinks” and other types of twink, including straight actors in the movie Dunkirk. This dichotomy is ahistorical -- the twink is quintessentially and uniquely gay, as fundamental to our lexicon as bottoming, and just as mysterious to most straight people. But this was not the only revisionism in the piece. Its simplicity obscures the complicated politics of the twink body in the context of gayness, the pain it has endured and indeed the pain it helps to perpetuate.

The origin of the term twink is attributed to the American golden sponge cake snack with cream filling -- a crude reference to the stereotype of young, effeminate gay men being bottoms, and therefore filled with cum. Though language may have only recently gotten to grips with the twink, the set of social relations it encapsulates predate America itself. In ancient Greece, even more crucial to social cohesion than the reproductive relationship between man and woman, was the didactic, sexual relationship between man and adolescent boy. Athenian pederasty was formally acknowledged and even celebrated, but was strictly policed -- the man was expected to fuck his boy between the thighs, without anal penetration. Receiving anal sex was deeply stigmatised, and thought to stunt the boy’s evolution into manhood. The teen eromenos of ancient Athens were perhaps the first incarnations of the twink trope in recorded history, and still endure today, immortalised in decorative relics.

The Greek dichotomy of man and boy has evolved, but like the relics, it and its stigmas have survived. It can be traced right up through 2018, to the tribes you can select on Grindr.. Are you a twink, or are you a daddy, it asks? The fact that the most popular gay app on the planet expects you to categorise yourself by a set of sexualised archetypes reveals much. This strict social policing still shapes the lives of gay men today.

"The fact that the most popular gay app on the planet expects you to categorise yourself by a set of sexualised archetypes reveals much. This strict social policing still shapes the lives of gay men today."

From when we first stumble unguided into the murky waters of internet porn as awkward teenagers, shielding our computer screens furtively from our parents’ prying eyes, we are overwhelmed by this categorisation of bodies. Pornhub Gay offers categories including Bear, Daddy, Jock, Twink -- invariably, the muscular, masculine, hairy men are cast as tops and the slender, feminine, young men as bottoms. The masculine is dominant, the feminine is submissive -- this message is drilled and pounded (*sly wink*) into our brains from the moment of our sexual awakenings.

Young effeminate gay men understand that they are to be viewed as sexual objects -- that’s if they’re lucky enough to be wanted at all. On Grindr, in a trend that is now notorious, masculine gay men use the abbreviation Masc4Masc on their profiles to indicate that they’re only seeking sex with “real men” -- large, muscular, hairy and heteronormative. It is common to find men proudly declaring themselves “masc tops”, as if to be a feminine bottom is grotesque or lesser in some way. Ancient Athens’ bottom-shaming endures. This dehumanisation and internalised self-hatred from within the gay community compounds a sense of worthlessness visited on the twink body by the larger homophobic society. Twinks are stereotypically characterised by feminine traits, and this femininity is a lightning rod for homophobic abuse. Feminine twinks are the obvious targets for violence -- look at Matthew Shepard. As a child he was often “targeted for teasing due to his small stature and lack of athleticism”. The brutality of his torture and murder at the hands of homophobic thugs is a nightmarish page in gay history.

Young effeminate gay men seek solace in the reductionist tropes we are offered, hoping to find some sense of place in the gay community even if it means being shamed and objectified. The glorification of straight-acting tops within the community adds insult to the injury of being scapegoats for external homophobia. Twinky role models like Olly Alexander and Troye Sivan, who have come forward in recent years and celebrated their femininity, are doing positive work reducing the stigma of femmephobia. Sivan’s recent single Bloom has been hailed as a bottoming anthem, and Alexander’s Sanctify playfully hints at submissiveness in sex, as a collared Olly mocks the masc4masc trope: “You don’t have to be straight with me, I see what’s underneath your masc”.

It is true to say the twink body has historically been a locus for the oppression of femininity and the violence of homophobia, and that we are currently seeing some wonderful twink role models begin to dispel femmephobia in the mainstream - maybe this is what the Times sought to represent with the concept of the Age of the Twink. But it left a bad taste in many gay mouths. While acknowledging some aspects of gay politics, this reductionist statement erases a much more complicated, many layered power structure that lies behind the twink body -- the twink occupies a position of power below certain bodies, but crucially, above others.

The problem goes beyond feminine bottoms being shamed as an extension of the misogyny of patriarchy. The problem is that we assume feminine men are bottoms in the first place. The all-consuming need to conform to archetypes punishes every gay man -- why is it that, thousands of years on from Ancient Greece, we still bow to a heteronormative ideal of a masculine top and feminine bottom? This is a mimicry of the biological determinism that once dominated academic thought and has since been invalidated by queer theory -- its lingering presence harms us and fuels transphobia. Sexual roles don’t need to be associated with body type. Why would we automatically assume that a slender young man wants to take a dick? The assumption that one’s gendered social characteristics determine one’s sexual position is a toxic heuristic, and an immortal absurdity. We don’t need to think in binaries. The daddy-twink dyad is not unidirectional in its oppression either. The toxic masculinity it seeks to impose on the straight-passing male is traumatising for him too.

"Sexual roles don’t need to be associated with body type. Why would we automatically assume that a slender young man wants to take a dick?"

Most crucially, the existence of this dyad assumes only two types of bodies. The skinny, feminine, white male and the muscular masculine white male. All other types of bodies are erased completely from the sexual pantheon. As countless Twitter users echoed in outrage yesterday: “It’s always been the age of the twink” -- what they mean is that even though the twink body has been oppressed for its femininity, it has at least been acknowledged. So many other types of gay bodies exist that are erased by the glorification of the twink -- fat bodies, black bodies, old bodies. If it is indeed the age of some new liberation for the twink, the trundling forward of this new form of worship is a bus under which every other type of body is thrown. Even more common than femmephobia on Grindr is the racism, the fatphobia, and the ageism. It’s not just “no fems”, it’s “no fats, no fems, no Asians, no-one over 30”. Grindr even gives options to filter by ethnicity, weight and body type. The result is that countless gay men are left crippled with feelings of inadequacy precisely because they’re not twinks, because they don’t live up to that constructed body ideal. The consequences of this shame is far-reaching -- just look at rates of eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidality in gay men. Even skinny effeminate gay men who do live up to the ideal are forced to wonder when they’ll “age out” -- under the paradigm of the twink, humans apparently have sell-by dates.

Philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the oppression of sexuality never died. Though it appeared to evaporate after Victorian times, to be replaced by a highly sexualised culture, this new culture was in fact just a mutation of the same old regulation of the body. Oppression, Foucault said, disguises itself. This has never been more evident than in the alleged dawning of the Age of the Twink -- glorification of the twink ideal simultaneously oppresses those who embody it, and everybody else who doesn’t.

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This article originally appeared on i-D UK.