To tell the story of my discovery of bears, I’d have to tell the story of my own sexual awakening. Nobody wants that, so I’ll just say that the existence of a subculture of hyper-sexual gay men that seemed to pride self-confidence and community over abs and Madonna was restorative for an undersexed, overweight kid in the Steel Valley. That bears don’t quite fit that narrow-minded bill — plenty of them love Madonna, as we all should — doesn’t change the power of that initial discovery. But it does change one’s perception of a recent episode of Viceland’s Balls Deep, which sent correspondent Thomas Morton to Bear Week in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he came away with a take on bears that celebrates their jubilance and robs them of their sexuality.
When I heard that Vice had sent cameras to Provincetown, my first reaction was fear. Not for me, but for my friend, who had told me, upon returning from his somewhat annual trip to Bear Week, that he’d found himself in, uh, a compromising position in, uh, a room full of people and, uh, there were cameras there. Those fears were unwarranted, because, while footage from that party did make the cut, my friend’s public act of dong appreciation did not.
Make no mistake: I knew plenty of people in the episode. And if I didn’t know them, I knew their faces from the grids of the meat markets we call “dating” apps in 2016. On the show, they were represented fairly and accurately, and were certainly not having sex. As far as I’ve heard, only one of them was embarrassed, filmed half-naked in a pool, the bread in a bear-boy sandwich that smiled brightly as the Vice cameras went by. This was, I’d assume, while Morton was also in the pool, though I can’t be certain if this was before or after he was bear hugged into the air, laughing as it happened.
That Morton laughed is indicative of his vibe throughout: he definitely enjoyed himself, unafraid of interacting with gay men. Hell, Morton voluntarily took part in a New Age body-positivity session that looked like yoga but sounded like meditation and involved Morton and three bears undressing each other and grabbing one another’s dicks as they recited, “This is a place of power, this is a place of life-giving energy, this is about honoring our life-giving power,” before hugging one another.
In fact, Morton’s experience at Bear Week seemed defined mostly by delight, though there was a moment of fear, and possibly disgust. It came while he was being chauffeured by Chicago rapper Big Dipper, who is a bear who raps mostly about bear culture (and is actually good — and very NSFW). The two of them ventured down to the wonderfully named Dick Dock, where, once night falls, all the bears and boys come out to the yard for anonymous, sometimes unprotected sex.
Morton and Dipper were mortified, which, when being filmed, is probably the correct way to act in 2016. But what the documentary fails to acknowledge is that something like the Dick Dock, a place free of judgment, is necessary for younger gay men who grew up in whatever intolerant situation (religion, pure homophobia) they were given in the beautiful Game of Life. Bear Week is a new phenomenon, roughly 16 years old, but Provincetown has been a haven for queer people for more than 50 years. For the sexually repressed, I’m sure the Dick Dock is as essential to their discovery as Provincetown was to generations of people. But this is about more than a dock under which men have sex. It’s about the very premise of the show.
Across all its episodes, Morton is the single constant in Balls Deep, a show meant to explore (or, hm, penetrate) subcultures not typically experienced by most of the population. When he goes to experience a tent revival, the fact that he’s a straight, white, conventionally handsome man does not hinder his experience of that culture. The same could be said of his time on a tugboat, or in the Alaskan wilds, or of his experience of Ramadan. That last one might seem iffy, given that, as far as we can tell, Morton is not a Muslim. However, Morton is free to convert to Islam if he wishes. There’s nothing he can do about the fact that he’s straight, and so he can’t help but experience this subset of gay culture as a tourist.
It feels damaging to say that a cis, straight, white dude can’t accurately observe and document gay culture, because LGBT rights depend on the establishment (white dudes) working with queer activists to better things. And I understand the practical constraints at play here. This is Morton’s show; they can’t just lease a gay reporter to cover one story. But, maybe they shouldn’t have done the segment, then?
Because, really, the strength of the generally very good Balls Deep is Morton’s willingness and desire to participate — to pray, to work the tugboat. He gives up his body to the touch of gay men, sure, but not sexually. And, regardless of all the beer and dancing and yoga and pool time and rapping and seeing old friends, Bear Week is about, more than anything else, sex.
Of course, sending a horny reporter into a gay enclave is an easy way to guarantee some heavy pixelation in post, and Morton was honorably down for observing anything and everything. But the show’s site claims that Morton “gives their lives a try,” not “looks at their lives very closely.” If pure observation was the desired effect, then Vice would have been better off with a behind-the-scenes crew to observe not only the New Age bear yogis but also the age-old bear orgies, blurry or otherwise.
At the end of the episode, Morton talks to the camera, describing bears as living at “the apogee of human pleasure.” He wonders, where does human culture go from here? Will the way of the bears bleed into mainstream culture? Impossible, given that all of the things he documents in this episode — eating, dancing, yoga, artwork, excessive drinking — are already essential parts of culture, gay or otherwise. In leaving out the sex, he eliminates the thing that bonds all of the participants at Bear Week. I can appreciate the effort made to fight stereotypes of promiscuity in gay culture, but going to an event designed to celebrate a unique sexuality, and then ignoring that sexuality, acts to further negate gay culture as a thing that deserves to exist independently of the mainstream. To suggest that it’s nothing more than a guidepost for the rest of the world is just plain wrong.