I am (not) a Bear

My (dis)identification with a gay subculture

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Koala bear (who’s clearly Super Extra). Photo by Shu xin on Unsplash

One of my favorite purchases of the last year is a light-grey t-shirt (from Shane Ruff’s studio Burlyshirts) depicting an image of a bear in silhouette and the phrase “Ceci n’est pas un Ours” (French for “This is not a Bear.”)

The words and font borrow heavily from the famous 1929 oil painting “The Treachery of Images” by Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte (1898–1967). The painting depicts a brown and black tobacco pipe over a short sentence that reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe.”)

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Burlyshirts, “Ceci n’est pas un Ours” t-shirt. Photo by Mack Sturgis
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René Magritte, “The Treachery of Images,” 1929, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Magritte’s painting is famous for demonstrating a fundamental principle of structural linguistics: that there is an arbitrary relationship between material objects and the words and images used to represent them.

The painted image of a pipe is not the same as a physical pipe, just as the four-letter English word “p-i-p-e” bears no necessary relationship to either an image of a pipe or the physical object (if only because other languages use different words for this object.)

Our awareness of this fundamental principle of linguistics is triggered in Magritte’s painting by the word “ceci” (in English, “this”), which could refer to the painting’s image of a pipe, its painted word “pipe,” the entire painting, or even, self-referentially, to the word “ceci” itself. The noun that the pronoun “ceci” stands in for is unclear and the ambiguity this creates causes the painting’s meaning to become elusive. It remains permanently unsettled; always out of reach; ultimately unknowable.

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Vintage child’s vocabulary flash card

This trait of Magritte’s painting has always amused me, a feeling only enhanced in light of its deceptively-straightforward composition. A painted object over a short descriptive text, against a depthless, monochrome background resembles a flash card from an elementary school vocabulary deck, a learning tool so strongly associated with certainty, definition, and knowledge. Formally, the painting implies clarity but, upon further consideration, that clarity is quickly muddied. Images are treacherous indeed!

There’s something decidedly queer about the painting’s intentional ambiguity; about its refusal to be what we expect or want it to be. About the conflict between its apparently declarative form and the unanswered questions it raises. (The gay French philosopher Michel Foucault must have thought so too. He wrote an entire book about it). Perhaps that’s why Shane Ruff chose Magritte’s painting as the basis for a t-shirt marketed to “bears.”

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Bears (in their natural habitat). Do NOT feed!

For those who don’t know, “bears” are that subset of larger, hairier gay men (and the men who admire them) who cultivate a community of body positivity, self-acceptance, and unabashed playfulness.

The term “bear” has spawned related terms such as “cubs” (younger bears); “wolves” (sexually aggressive men); “otters” (leaner, hairy men); “polar bears” (older bears), etc. Burlyshirts caters to this (and related) markets of gay men with t-shirts that make clever use of sexually-suggestive words such as “wood,” “head,” and “load.” (You can fill in the rest…)

But that only partially explains my fondness for the “Ceci n’est pas un Ours” t-shirt.

In contrast to the opacity of the shirt’s text, the shirt taken as whole functions like a secret decoder ring that helps make ‘invisible’ gay men visible. With the recent resurgence of male facial hair, it can be hard to distinguish the gay bears from the random ‘beardos,’ and the “Ceci n’est pas un Ours” t-shirt helpfully sorts them out. It’s like a gay dog-whistle that requires a bit of specialized knowledge — about fine art, language, and bears — to be understood. Those familiar with the history of images immediately recognize the shirt’s cultural appropriation of Magritte’s painting, and the playful extension of the painting’s linguistic indeterminacy into the realm of gay male popular culture.

It’s like an analog version of the “nearby” feature in geolocation-based gay dating/hook-up apps (Scruff, Grindr, etc.) The t-shirt helps me identify my people (and identify me to them). To some others, I’m sure it’s thoroughly puzzling.

The uncertainty elicited by the shirt’s apparently-straightforward declaration (“THIS! Right here! This is a bear!”) echoes my own ambivalence about my body, and my relationship to “bears” and “bear culture” more generally.

In the past few decades, an increasing number of gay men have felt free to express their preference for larger, furrier male bodies — the kind that are rarely celebrated in gay male social spaces and cultural representations. The “bear community” emerged long after I came out and, even though I’m a hirsute ‘man of size’ who’s often called a bear, I’ve never identified as one or actively participated in bear community. And I long ago internalized a sense of shame and embarrassment about my weight, belly, and back hair. This causes me to struggle to accept my body and other men’s attraction to it.

Everyone wants to feel attractive and be loved but, when others find you attractive for qualities you don’t appreciate in yourself, accepting their affections can require some emotional gymnastics.

The “Ceci n’est pas un Ours” t-shirt also subtly refuses uninvited interpellations of me as “a bear.” Although queer people keep having to learn this lesson, the distinction between surface and substance has been central to our experience, at least as long as we have been managing different public and private versions of ourselves.

The very metaphor of “the closet” and subsequent calls for lesbians and gay men to “come out” as a political act is predicated on this distinction between public perception and private reality. More recently, transgender people have been pointing to the damage that can be done when we erroneously assume someone’s gender (and use inaccurate pronouns) based on their physical appearance. How people look, who they are, and how they identify may not be the same thing (duh!)

Similarly, naming every large, furry guy a “bear,” without first determining if he considers himself one, can recruit him to a role or identity that may not reflect his self-perception.

Having someone else re-frame your sense of self with a single word, even when that word is intended to express attraction or desire, can feel disorienting, even coercive.

I also like the subtle gender ambiguity of the t-shirt and how it reflects the gay bears it references. The French noun for bear (“l’ours”) is masculine, and thus takes the masculine form of the indefinite article “un” (meaning “a” or “an” in English). (By contrast, the French noun for pipe [“la pipe”] is feminine and takes the feminine article “une.”) In other words, in French, bears — both male and female — are linguistically gendered masculine.

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A French ‘bear’…

Yet, anyone remotely familiar with gay bears knows that, while they might favor a rough-hewn masculine appearance, their gender identities and expressions can be all over the map. They may not be, at all, “un Ours.” The contrast between their masculine appearance and any (potentially) feminine gender expression might be jarring, then delightful and amusing, as bears’ subversion of gender stereotypes and expectations becomes apparent.

Whether they know it or not, gay bears are part of a longtime gay male project that expands what it means to be masculine and “a man.”

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Gender-bending gay bear

Similarly, when I wear my “Ceci n’est pas un Ours” t-shirt to the gym, especially when jamming to pop divas between heavy sets, I’m simultaneously identifying and dis-identifying as a “bear.” I like the possibility that I might be unsettling some (gay) gymbro’s assumptions about me based on my physical size and facial hair. I delight in actively undermining the hetero-normative expectation that everyone’s gender presentation have some transparent relationship to their biological sex and sexual orientation. I take pleasure in sowing uncertainty all around me, self-consciously rejecting simplistic categorizations, and insisting on being seen as a person and not a stereotype.

Because I am (not) a bear.

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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

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Associate Professor — Gender & Sexuality Studies (U. Ill. Springfield)

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