Bear in the City

Like movie director Kevin Smith, I have been told by several of my gay friends that if I ever decided to “switch teams” my dance card would be full because I am, evidently, a “bear,” which is apparently in demand among a certain subset of the gay male community. Now there’s actually a romantic comedy about the subject, which Smith stars in. Here’s the trailer:


Andrew Sullivan may be a bit biased in his review of the movie, since he is not only a bear himself but his husband is in the movie, but he calls it Sex in the City “with back hair and bellies.”

If you want an intro to bear culture, you cannot really beat it. But what struck me about the movie – more than its predecessor – is its mainstream romantic comedy structure. It’s not gay-funny; it’s just funny. And oddly moving. It has characters you actually come to care about a bit; and it’s one of the first movies to explore what marriage equality is doing to gay culture. The cast has some classic comedy actors in it – Kevin Smith, Kathy Najimy, Richard Riehle – and some great dramatic actors in it (marital modesty forbids my gushing any further). At Bear Week here in Provincetown, it was a huge hit. Its Facebook page is here.

Speaking of Bear Week, it’s now arguably the biggest week in Ptown’s summer. When I first wrote about bears in Salon in 2003, it was a nascent sub-sub-culture. It’s now fully matured, its waistline thickening, its chest hair poking aggressively above the collar. And one reason is simply demographic. We are really experiencing the first gay generation to hit their forties and fifties since the AIDS epidemic and the revolution in gay life that has followed. Bears are simply a recognition of this demographic fact – that gay men in middle age really don’t want to stay in Magic Mike shape. It’s exhausting. And unnecessary – because there are all sorts for all kinds of guy.

Which sounds a lot like straight people too, doesn’t it?

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  • roland72

    Grrrawr! I hope it comes out (ha ha) in the UK! I like straight love stories – some of my best friends are straight! – but it’s so nice seeing gay love stories out in the wider world. It’s not that hetero romance leaves me cold, but seeing a story I can identify with just makes me melt inside. Although I’m a bloke, it is just as true with romances between women! I’m a huge gay softie really 🙂

  • mudskipper

    Which sounds a lot like straight people too, doesn’t it?

    Not really. Not to this woman in her 50s. As far as I can tell, there is no subculture of straight men for whom middle-aged greying women with spreading waistlines are in demand.

    There are middle-aged women who fight to keep in Magic Mary shape and do have their admirers. But for those of us who find it too exhausting, there is no subculture of male admirers awaiting.

  • Rip Steakface


    While not nearly as well-known as bears, there are guys out there who like middle-aged women with spreading waistlines. However, my only evidence is anecdotal, so obviously there’s not much there.

  • Wes

    I’m not a part of the gay culture, so I was wondering if they have a term for tall, pale scrawny guys like me.

  • pacal

    Wes asks:

    “I’m not a part of the gay culture, so I was wondering if they have a term for tall, pale scrawny guys like me.”

    The term is twink.

  • No, a twink is a scrawny young gay guy. I don’t know Wes’s age, but simply being pale and scrawny isn’t enough.

    Agree with mudskipper on the “Isn’t this like straight people?” comment. Most straight men make no attempt to reach Magic Mike condition to begin with, and when straight women no longer find it possible to maintain that condition without spending their every waking moment dieting/at the gym (assuming we were ever capable of such in the first place), we sure don’t become desirable sex objects for that very reason.

    But then, I don’t think “bears” become desirable for that reason either. It’s not simply a matter of embracing the normal body changes that come with being an adult…it’s a specific fetish for large, especially hairy guys.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    Speaking as a member of that community….

    Compare two men who, in their day, embodied the male ideal: Tom Selleck in Magnum, P. I., which launched in 1980, and David Hasselhoff in Baywatch, which launched in 1989. At the start of the decade, masculinity was expressed by hirsuitness, having a body that came from an active lifestyle and being in an age bracket consistent with stability and wealth. By the end of the decade, masculinity was expressed by having a lifestyle that allowed one to spend hours in a gym, a shaved body to better show off those muscles, and being in an age bracket where parties and what others thought of you were paramount considerations. As tends to happen, these trends developed among gay men several years before popular culture followed suit.

    Beardom got its start as a backlash. Where the new ideal was youth, some turned to maturity. Where new ideal was a level of perfection that was unatainable by many, some turned to “Fuck it, I’ll have a milkshake.” Where the new ideal tended strongly to look down on anyone who did not meet the standards, some turned to a “live and let live” acceptance. Beardom became a refuge against the new ideals, and its openness brought in many of the subcultures that were made to feel unwelcomed in the new order.

    There is a physical bear ideal: middle aged, body hair, facial hair, the kind of body that would NOT fit into skinny jeans. But the fact is that there is a very wide diversity of people at bear events, in terms of age, body type, hairiness, even gender: when the Bears of San Francisco started admitting women some years ago, there was an uproar in the larger gay community. Among the bears, though, the reaction was mostly, “Woo-hoo, lesbian potlucks! Where does the line start?” In the bigger cities, a lot of gay bars are still effectively segregated; the bear bars generally are not.

    I haven’t seen the movie — it looks like it is still doing the festival circuit. I hope to, though.

    If you are interested in another bear-themed movie, I recommend Cachorro, a 2004 movie from Spain. The story line is a middle-aged gay man ends up with custody of his nephew; grandma (his sister’s husband’s mother) doesn’t think he is an appropriate guardian, and uses his HIV status to get a court order. Funny, dramatic, heartwarming, it has it all.

  • Abby Normal

    Without further introduction, bears frolicking.

    I love this guy’s work.

  • Wes

    No, a twink is a scrawny young gay guy. I don’t know Wes’s age, but simply being pale and scrawny isn’t enough.

    I’m 31. I hope that still counts as young. 🙂