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SXSW Film Review: Bear Nation

review by Riva Lehrer

Up until very recently, many gay people grew up feeling fairly isolated. The phenomena of an easily accessible gay community – and gay identity – really blossomed with the Web. For decades, it took some effort and courage to find one’s fellow queers. Finding, and joining, that community was and is a powerful experience of sudden belonging. It’s painful, therefore, to find that you might still not fit, even in this great rainbow populace.

The documentary film Bear Nation directed by Malcolm Ingram, examines one group that formed a distinct identity in response to rejection from the larger gay community. Gay men are perhaps the only group where males suffer under the same brutal body-consciousness that is foisted on women. The ideal body is generally presented as a highly refined, gym-created, whip-thin, intricately groomed piece of living Greek statuary. Rippling with muscle groups and hairless as marble, these young gods are the dominant image of gayness in our movies, magazines, ads and - of course – in porn. The very concept of gay desire is linked to the beauty of these men. We all know the phrase “he’s too pretty to be straight”.

Bears, as they call themselves, are in general large, heavyset, and very hairy men. Think Burt Reynolds with 40 extra pounds. Or maybe Burl Ives. When these guys enter the gay community they often feel utterly unacceptable. Some of the men in Bear Nation even questioned whether they were really gay, since they bore no resemblance to the approved version. They describe felt shame, confusion, and detachment from their own sexuality, in the very place they had hoped to find freedom. Some were never able to attain the "ideal"; others had no interest in turning into someone they weren’t. The film talks with a wide variety of self-identified "bears" – young, old, white, and men of color. The interview style is very intimate; in fact, one of the small failings of the film is that the interviews are done in such extreme close-up that one can become distracted counting pores.

In parallel with the bears are bear-lovers, men who are attracted to this version of masculinity. Some of them are bears themselves, but others are so-called "twinks" who felt it was forbidden to want to be with a large, warm cuddly guy. They were just as uncomfortable as the bears with the implicit restrictions on how to be gay.

The film takes you to a number of Bear Communities around the US and Europe. We meet men from New York to San Francisco, jumping over to the UK to experience the London tribe. A highlight of the film is the enormous international Bear convention where guys come in from everywhere and take over the hotel for several days. Though the description of what the chambermaids have to deal with afterwards was a bit (sorry, pun alert) hair-raising.

Bear Nation traces the attempt to establish a deeper, and more complex sense of acceptance within the constraints of gay identity. The interviewees describe finding the Bear Community with such happiness and relief. They say that part of being a bear is having a palpable sense of humor, of being more at ease and more able to enjoy life.

One of the most interesting interviews is with Bob Mould, member of Husker Du, Sugar and subsequent bands. His story of a second coming out as a bear after coming out, period, to the musical mainstream is sweet and celebratory.

Unfortunately, this jolly state of affairs also has its problems. In a continuing attempt to find seamless self-reflection, some men have begun to fragment Bear Identity into sub-categories. The film goes on to interview Shaved Bears, Black Bears, Muscle Bears, Indian Bears and other variations on the theme. Members of the subsets express dissatisfaction with the image of the fat, hairy, white-guy norm. A couple of early founders of the community lament the loss of cohesion in the face of individuality.

Lesbian viewers may reflect on forms of oppression that have dogged our own community. We’re not exempt from physical judgment – think of the divide between jocks and granola dykes, of our own adoration of youth, of the struggles around fat oppression, and the divided ethnic enclaves in our cities. One just has to remember the epic battles around the separatist movement to consider just how harshly we can judge each other.

As a whole, “Bear Nation” is a fascinating look at the relationship between group identity, individual truth, and the pleasures and dangers of staking out a space for one’s unique selfhood.

Bear Nation screened at the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival as part of the SXSW Emerging Visions program.

- Riva Lehrer is a Chicago based artist and freelance writer. Her work can be found at http://www.RivaLehrer.com.

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