I recently caught the documentary Bear Nation at a gay and lesbian film festival. It’s about the international community of ‘bears’ – heavy gay gentlemen, generally furry – but also about their fans and about how they relate to other gay men.The topic fascinated me because of the idea of a subculture within a subculture and because I was interested to see how it would frame the generally very lookist gay scene and the bears’ place in it. Also, I am a fan of Kevin Smith’s podcast Smodcast and a few of those shows featured director Malcolm Ingram (a gay bear himself). For Bear Nation, Malcolm did interviews with bears and admirers and visited various places where bears gather, including a bear convention.
When it comes to the interviews, my feeling is that he got in too close with the camera, to the point where the (literal) closeness gets claustrophobic. I assume he was trying to make the conversations feel intimate and personal, but having the camera right up to someone’s face is mostly just distracting, especially when the face is then blown up to cinema screen size. A bit disappointing was the lack of depth to the documentary: a selection of men within the scene air their opinion and we follow some of them ‘in the wild’, but an outside perspective is pretty much lacking and the documentary seems to be cheerleading the bear scene, rather than giving an in-depth analysis of it. The fact that being heavily overweight could be detrimental to your health, for instance, is pretty much ignored. As is the story of how the really heavy bears got into that shape. Was it a conscious choice, a rejection of the norm or a different idea of beauty? Did it just happen to them and is it now a question of self-acceptance and owning it? However, there are a few contrary thoughts – such as: why are we segregating ourselves and turning away others, when that is exactly what we dislike about other parts of the gay scene? But the overall tone is one of collected opinions, rather than any overarching conclusion.
Several of the bears who are interviewed, have a strong view of the ‘mainstream’ gays, in particular with regards to the ones who are obsessed with cultivating muscle and showing it off. Though the bear scene is said to be more accepting of everyone, appearance not being an issue, there seems to be a combination of bitterness and envy when it comes to gym bunnies who cling to the traditional ideal of the buff or lean and defined male. A few of the interviewees see those guys as girly by definition, not really manly like a great big bear. The documentary registers this opinion but doesn’t point out the lack of logic behind it: there is no correlation between muscles and masculinity, but a big belly doesn’t make someone masculine either, in and of itself. There are bears on display within the documentary who by their existence disprove this ‘bear = inherently masculine’ theory. (Note that femininity is seen as a bad thing here.) Though there is pride connected to being a bear, you still wonder by the end of the documentary if the subculture is primarily based on that pride or based on rejection by the gay mainstream.
I can’t really say I learnt anything new from Bear Nation. I was hoping for a sharper discussion between (especially) gym bunnies and bears, both sides making arguments and pointing out the flaws in each other’s worldview. As it stands, it’s just about interesting enough to stick with, even though some of the points it makes get repetitive and it struggles to fill its 87 minutes. But it is nice to have someone put an often neglected subculture center stage, even if the only real conclusion is somewhat obvious: everyone deserves to love and be loved, regardless of – literally – the shape they’re in.