It often seems that some of my best blogger thoughts are posted in the response threads at Geoff Klock's blog. So I'm going to refashion one of them and post it here. (Geoff: It's not a proprietary thing - I'd just like to be able to access it on my own blog, labeled so that I can easily find it if I need to.)
The article Geoff posted was from Slate, and expressed a powerful anxiety that the writer, Matt Feeney, felt toward the habit of audiences and critics to label as homoerotic those "films that offer idealized portraits of heroic masculinity." Feeney's argument immediately begs the question, though it's a good one and a question that probably needs to be asked more often in popular writing - what does "homoerotic" mean, anyway? It's clear from Feeney's usage - and made all the more clear by his not-so-subtly-homophobic closing sentence - that homoerotic here is simply a synonym for gay, even though it's also perhaps suggestive of some higher aesthetic aim.
But homoeroticism and homosexuality should not collapse so easily into one another. Eve Sedgwick, in "Between Men", writes that “[f]or a man to be a man’s man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being ‘interested in men", and it's this thin line that Feeney can't make sense of. According to Sedgwick, while terms like homosocial, homosexual, and homoerotic have phonic and linguistic similarities, they can't be substituted for one another. The ease with which they're mistaken for one another is explicable, to be sure - they're different points on the same continuum, Sedgwick argues - but such mistakes are expressive of a tremendous loss of meaning and create some serious confusion. A quick example: the act of celebratory ass-slapping in sports is certainly expressive of homosociality, and they may even have a certain homoerotic element, but there is certainly nothing necessarily homosexual about it. Collapsing these 'invisible, carefully blurred' boundaries also restricts our ability to be precise in our own speech. Another brief example: Because these boundaries exist, tenuous as they may be, I can say "Jude Law is hot" without actually meaning "I would like to fuck Jude Law." But according to the logic that Feeney appears to employ in the article, to say one would be to necessarily imply the other. Some room for negotiation is clearly required.
I may, in fact, be giving those critics that Feeney is responding to a bit too much credit. It's entirely likely that their usage of homoerotic is equally crude and is derived mostly - if not entirely - from the Athenian historical record regarding the sexual practices of Spartan soldiers. Which isn't to say that they're wrong to note that "300" is homoerotic, but rather that they're right for the wrong reasons. (I'm also tempted to write something about Feeney's unwillingness to allow audiences to construct their own meanings - even when those meanings may be radically opposed to authorial or directorial intention - but that would seem like overkill, wouldn't it?)