In 2020, I was invited to take part in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary exploring outrage culture. In particular, a journal article I had written on the social media scandal of Australian National Rugby League player, Todd Carney, captured on camera urinating into his own mouth in a practice known as 'bubbling' caught the hosts' interest, as part of an episode in their series dedicated to the fallout of this viral moment. I argue that this critical moment in Australia's scandal cycle has something significant to tell us about Australian league males as hero icons.
In June 2014, Australian rugby league player Todd Carney had his contract cancelled with the Cronulla Sharks and received a lifetime ban from the National Rugby League after a photo in which he appears to drink his own urine in a public restroom went viral on social media. This article performs a critical analysis of the image at the centre of the Todd Carney bubbling scandal, as well as discourse surrounding it—on two contrasting forums, SharksForever and JustUsBoys. The analysis uncovers various insights into this particular image and the unspoken codes and unseen homoerotic rituals and bonding boy cultures of Australian team sportsmen and their “mates.” The argument is made that the image itself, along with its widespread publication on social media and construction through discourse, points to the limits of “proper” masculinity and, ultimately, perversion of the expectations placed on league males as heterosexual hero icons.
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in POPULAR COMMUNICATION on 22 April 2016, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/15405702.2016.1173216.
In late June 2014, Australian rugby league1 (league hereafter) five-eighth Todd Carney had his contract terminated by his club, the Cronulla Sharks, and received a lifetime ban from the National Rugby League (NRL) after a photo of him urinating into his own mouth (in a practice labelled “bubbling”) at a urinal in Northies Cronulla Hotel was leaked to social media and went viral. Central to his dismissal was that the act depicted in the photo and circulated on social media brought the game into disrepute (Duhs, 2014, p. 361) and that Carney had a checkered history with the sport.2 Australian rugby league players are no strangers to off-field controversy; league-boys-behaving-badly is a familiar story in the country’s national news cycle (see Masters, 2008). It is not uncommon, for example, to read about league players embroiled by sexual scandal; reports of alcohol-fuelled sexual violence and indecent self-exposure, either in public or via leaked “sexting selfies” (see Gabriel, 2014; Hasinoff, 2013), occur with relative regularity. Carney himself has been no stranger to controversy (see Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014), having had club contracts cancelled on two previous occasions (with the Canberra Raiders in 2008 and with the Sydney Roosters in 2011) for alcohol-related off-field incidents, the first of which involved alleged urination onto a patron at a Canberra nightclub. He also had a previous photo sex scandal (see Williams, 2009).
This article performs a critical analysis of the image at the centre of the Todd Carney bubbling scandal and the discourse surrounding it. I consider the image itself, its signs, and the performance of a distinctly homoerotic sexual self-act. I suggest that the capture by a camera and distribution of the act depicted result in a break from certain accepted reporting modes of Australian culture,3 in particular of rugby league men as sex obsessed, drunken womanisers. Similar to Catharine Lumby’s 1997 analysis of a woman’s sexual agency in a controversial advertisement for a Sydney jewellers,4 this article performs a semiotic reading (see Barthes, 1977) of the Carney image in question and discourse on fan fora, as well as official statements surrounding it, to argue that what makes this image confronting, even “vulgar” in some reports (see Chammas, Walter, & Powell, 2014), is not only distaste of the act itself but also the making public of who performs it. Once public, the image poses an affront to the heterocentrist sign of the male rugby league player. I also examine the various insights the public distribution and vilification of this particular image offers us into the unspoken codes and unseen homoerotic rituals and bonding boy cultures of Australian team sportsmen and their “mates,” as well as how this image has been constructed as distinctly homosexual by some, supported by discussion on the gay internet forum JustUsBoys. Comparing the discourse on this gay forum with that produced by league fans (on SharksForever), I argue for the value of considering the discourse that emerged in the critical moment following the controversy from two very different perspectives and agendas (sporting and sexual to name just two), and use this discourse to support my reading of the Carney image. Revealed by this reading, and the scandal more broadly, are the limits of “proper” masculinity and the tenuous line between homosocial and homoerotic practices within a hypermasculinised sport like rugby league.
As part of my critical analysis of the Carney image and surrounding discourse, I employ semiotics and textual analysis in the cultural studies tradition. My semiotic reading of the image is influenced by Roland Barthes’s use of image semiotics. However, as Barthes notes, “all images are polysemous”(1977, p. 274). Underlying their signifiers is implied “a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others” (Barthes, 1977, p. 274). Therefore, textual analysis of fan reactions to the controversy, official statements from the NRL and other sporting parties, and commentary in select news items is employed to support my reading.
Barthes (1972) argues that texts comprise a complex set of discursive strategies situated in a particular cultural context. Within this Barthesian tradition, textual analysis goes beyond manifest content, considering the underlying ideological and cultural assumptions of a text; in doing so, the researcher strategically selects and presents aspects of the analysed text as evidence for the overall argument (Fursich, 2009, p. 240). I use this tradition in nominating certain signs within the Carney image. I also use select comments posted to fan forums in the critical moment following the spread of the image across social media and those reported in the press to demonstrate the significance of these signs.
The comments analysed in this study are drawn from two contrasting online forums, SharksForever and JustUsBoys. SharksForever caters to fans of the Cronulla Sharks NRL club and includes a “Todd Carney” thread (now archived as part of its “Past Players” forum).5 My analysis of discourse on this forum is concentrated on the day that the controversy broke (29 June 2014), beginning with a post that morning (“Will this bloke ever learn?” [#4889]), continuing that after- noon with the news that “Carney’s sacked” (#4936), and discussion that evening of the fairness of the decision. This timeframe was selected to confine my analysis to the “critical moment” when the controversy first broke and when Carney’s future and the authenticity of image was still in question, which made for telling speculation on the forum about Carney and the act depicted.
JustUsBoys is a gay pornography website with a large community who participate on its forums to discuss a range of gay-related issues. Comments from two relevant threads that appear on the “Male Celebrity News & Gossip” forum are used here, namely, “A new fad from Aussie-Land”6 (New Fad hereafter) and “Todd Carney pissing into his own mouth!!!”7 (Carney Pissing hereafter). Comments are selected from the day the news broke and the few days following, allowing consideration of the legacy of the image for gay viewers. The discourse on these two forums are useful in positioning the Carney image in terms of certain environments that might allow bubbling to take place (SharksForever) and in illustrating the decidedly homoerotic connotations of urine play
Terms of self-urination: Bubbling, fountain, urolangia, watersports
Little scholarship exists on those who interact with urine (beyond the field of medicine and the usefulness of urine therapies). There is no scholarship, for example, that seeks to understand the process in a representational sense, except within art criticism. Mention that is made of urination onto oneself or others tends to be framed as part of a rubric that merely mentions urolangia (erotic interest in urine) and related colloquial terms such as “watersports,” “golden showers,” and “piss play.” Such terms connote “the eroticization of urinating on oneself or others” (Edelman, 2015, p. 153) and are presented as part of a range of kinks (other practices mentioned include “gagging,” “fisting,” and “coprophilia”); again, this tends to relate to a certain health discourse, such as whether urine play can function as an indicator for increased risk of HIV transmission among gay men (see Prestage et al., 2009, p. 726). Other work seeks to quantify those with an “interest” in urine within the context of sex work (see Prestage, Jin, Bavinton, & Hurley, 2014) and casual sex (Downing & Schrimshaw, 2014), both of which carry certain implications, such as that an interest in urine is necessarily subversive, perhaps even abnormal and comparable with illegal practices such as bestiality (see Beetz, 2004, p. 17).8 In the absence of scholarship on the relationship between urine and subjectivity, in particular as a form of “play,” here I rely on the photographer’s own construction of the act in which Carney interacts with his own urine, as well as one existing piece of scholarship that frames the Carney image within an art context.
It is important to note first that the term “bubbling,” describing the act depicted in the Carney image, is not used by Carney himself or the person who captured the image, Mick Robinson. Rather, bubbling is employed in media reporting of the Carney image as a means by which the act can be inscribed with a certain social media “photo fad” (see Shifman, 2013) dimension. This is evidenced by the JustUsBoys thread title “A new fad from Aussie-Land” that discusses Carney, as well as media reports in outlets such as Vice that predate the controversy and connect bubbling with Australian skater culture (Vice Staff, 2014). A term used by those responsible for the image is “fountain,” as named by Robinson9 and noted by a participant on JustUsBoys, who writes, “He calls it the Fountain apparently. [. . .] impressive stream” (Carney Pissing, #3). Robinson’s description of the fountain is considered in more detail later in the article; however, here it is useful in connecting the image with how it has been reframed by one scholar, in this case for purposes of artistic consideration.
A productive parallel emerges between Robinson’s descriptor of Carney’s drinking of his urine as a fountain and the 1917 Marcel Duchamp “readymade” of the same name. Duchamp’s Fountain is a sculptural work that repurposes a urinal as an “ironic riposte to the levelling of taste” (Butler, 2014, p. 25). Bruce Nauman followed up the work with his 1966 Self-Portrait as a Fountain, a photograph that depicts a young male replicating with his own mouth the water flow of a drinking fountain (or “bubbler,” as such an apparatus is known in Australia). Rex Butler reads Nauman’s work as attempting “somehow to inhabit Duchamp,” to “make equivalent if not quite yet the spectator and the artwork then at least the artist and the artwork” (2014, p. 25). He nominates the Carney image as the latest work to engage with the challenge posed by Duchamp and the most successful so far. Butler invites a re-reading of the image itself as a “work” and a form of performance piece captured by the digital camera and exhibited via the largest gallery available— social media. In what Butler describes as “footballer Todd Carney’s spectacular selfie,” the suggestion is made that through the image Carney “completes Nauman’s project”:
producing an entirely self-referential perpetual motion machine, in which what goes out also comes in, with the spectator pissing into their own mouth in actually becoming the urinal. Looking is pissing is being looked at is being pissed on with the work of contemporary art. (2014, p. 25)
The project of re-conceptualisation that Butler undertakes in viewing the Carney image as a responsive artefact/artwork is similar to the project of cultural studies, in particular textual analysis. As Richard Johnson explains, within the cultural studies tradition, “the aim is to decentre ‘the text’ as an object of study” so as to focus on the “subjective or cultural forms which it realises and makes available” (1986–1987, p. 62).10 Therefore, as part of de-centring the Carney image from its dominant discursive definition, namely, as evidence of threatening disrepute on the NRL, I suggest that it contains not only its artistic potential as a form of critique but also inescapable homoerotic significations as stated plainly by a JustUsBoys commenter: “It all seems pretty gay to me” (New Fad, #25). I argue that such realisation of homoerotic potential makes available certain anxieties about the hegemonic male icon and an underlying view that what is performed is an act of symbolic self- violence. (This is a point congruent with Toby Miller’s 2001 Sportsex, which considers homoerotic potentialities uniquely applicable to masculine sport.) Such a reading is made intelligible by the key signs in the work, such as the public bathroom in which the act is performed. The homoerotic implications of which Butler seems to appreciate, as he writes: “[It is] as though we were all pissing or even masturbating upon each other in Todd Carney’s toilet cubicle” (2014, p. 26).
An act of symbolic self-violence in a most masculine sport
Rugby league is synonymous with many forms of violence: physical, sexual, and symbolic. In their study of the sport’s place in Australian society from the 1970s to the 1990s, Brett Hutchins and Janine Mikosza (1998) describe rugby league, with its “positively sanctioned violence,” as the nation’s “‘flag-carrier’ of masculinity” (p. 246). The pair’s study, which is an exercise in “historical sociology,”11 concludes that the violence inherent in the sport functions as a “cultural exemplar of hegemonic masculinity” (p. 250).12 A similar conclusion can be drawn from the Carney image since it is the record of an on-field violent act—a gash on Carney’s left cheek that serves as immediate “anchorage” (see Barthes, 1977) between the blurry photo of a young Caucasian male drinking his own urine and a well- known footballer. Carney’s sleeve tattoo also confirms his identity while affirming Carney as a masculine symbol, as full-length tattoos on arms that large often do (see Tom, 1997, p. 73).
Carney is marked in blood by the field and able to be identified because of it. While these signs serve as indisputable photographic evidence of him having been there and performed the act, I suggest that much of the controversy stems from potential fetish elements of the image. This is a point that seems obvious to participants on JustUsBoys. On the “Todd Carney pissing into his own mouth !!!” thread, comment 2 notes, “I actually thought of putting it under fetishes.” Comment 7 states, “he’s not the only athlete with a kinky habit.” While on “A new fad from Aussie-Land” the first reply challenges the original post’s claim that “Aussie bogans have got a new fad called Bubbling” by writing, “I’m fairly certain water-sports is a fetish.”
Correlation between the Carney image and fetish or any form of sexual act is largely absent from the SharksForever forum, however. Some suggest the image is a work of Photoshop trickery—“Its fake. ****in relax” (#4890), “it is fake same photo did the rounds years ago in the uk with a english soccer player” (#4892)—while others defend it as nothing more than drunken stupidity, and some label it an act that is routine in certain situations, as will be examined later. One exception is the comment: “He’s been caught pissing on a bloke before. Seems to have a thing for it” (#5393). However, generally sexual implication is absent, and when mention is made of the visibility of Carney’s penis—“Hey, at least we got to see carneys shlong” (#5351)—such a gesture is swiftly rebuked as out of place: “sex pest” (#5356). This point of difference between the two forums demonstrates the value of considering the discourse that emerged in the critical moment in the unfolding of the controversy from two very different perspectives and agendas (sporting and sexual to name just two).
As a sign himself, Carney possesses the “archetypal heterosexual male body,” and his sport offers the ideal medium through which that body can be portrayed (Drummond, 2011, p. 103). Murray Drummond makes the point that notions of “being” and “doing” are useful in understanding the heterosexual male body (Drummond, 2011, p. 103; also see Connell, 1983). In particular, these notions help us to understand what the archetypal heterosexual male body is “supposed” to look like and what masculinised acts it is “supposed” to engage in (2011, p. 103). This speaks to the challenge posed by the Carney image, as evidence of a body that “looks” archetypal and yet “engages” in a nonmasculinised act. Fetishistic elements of the image sexualise the act being performed, challenging a certain archetype of maleness and a generally more accepted image of the league male as being violent in a masculine sense. That reporting on the image breaks from usual, more forgiving treatment of league males who engage in violent masculine acts off the field is a point that veteran Australian journalist Peter FitzSimons (2015) seems to be making in January 2015 as he reflects on the incident and its resultant disciplinary action six months on:
I hold no brief for Todd Carney at all [. . . .] But the pissing in his mouth thing? I wish he wouldn’t do that. You wish he wouldn’t do that. But ultimately it really is none of our damn business. More troubling is that while this victimless activity gets instant dismissal from the NRL, rugby league players who bash women can expect a quick suspension and then forgiveness. By all means, rugby league must rid itself of those who just don’t get it, but can it start with women bashers, assaulters, drug cheats, match fixers and then get to feral idiocy?
As one fan writes on the SharksForever forum without the need for hindsight:
Who cares if it’s real or fake people do stupid **** all the time. Ill let him drink my piss if he keeps getting 3 try assists and a try every game. [. . .] Oh so when Todd Carney does it it’s “disgraceful” and “career-ending” but when Bear Grylls does it it’s “Thursday nights on SBS.” (#4896)
Gestured to in the above comment is the situated significance of Carney as a sign that connotes a sport (rugby league), of the act of self-urination as somehow corrupting the value of that sport (its family- friendly image, for instance), and the absurdity of this logic given Carney’s star performance. The point about the creation of family-friendly perceptions of elite sportsmen links onanism (the erotic use of genitalia for purposes other than reproduction) to a discourse of self-pollution and homoeroticism, traces of which can be found in the analysed discourse. The above comment also points out the hypocrisy in elite sport of privileging a certain sanitised image of its players over their raw talent, and the skills they bring to the game—of valuing how men “appear” and the impact of certain “victimless behaviours” that shape that appearance rather than how they “perform.” As one fan writes, “Surely you can [not] shoot down a bloke, who has trained almost every day of his adult life to become one of the best five eights in the game over 1 silly photo. No criminal act behind it, no one got hurt” (#4910).
Worth acknowledging here are the larger patterns and problems that my argument partici- pates in, particularly, how the Carney controversy touches on important and well-developed issues around technology, privacy, and moral regulation, for example, the role of the camera phone; Vice’s article on bubbling, which represents a fascination with cultural margins and a certain proclivity for “webby” phenomena; and onto running themes of victimlessness and privacy and questions of moral clauses in athletes’ contracts. The case study intersects here with literature (see Greenwood & Young, 1980; also see Newburn, 1992) on shifts in the 1960s and 1970s in moral regulation (of sexuality in particular), whereby a limited but significant domain of freedom for once-problematic practices arose, provided that these remained private, invisible, and victimless, without threatening offense against the “moral contract.”
Violence, and its connection with rugby league in the Australian context, exists on and off the field. The violence associated with the sport off the field is one that also incorporates a sexual element, for it is here, at the sidelines and during the nightlife, that women are permitted. Gender violence and rugby league is an object of study that has attracted particular media, industry, and academy attention in Australia in recent decades. Following media reports of allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by rugby league players in the mid-2000s (see Mewett & Toffoletti, 2008; Toffoletti, 2007), the NRL began investing in education programs for players teaching about ethical sexual behaviour (see Albury, Carmody, Evers, & Lumby, 2011; Dimitrov, 2008, who examines fan advocacy campaigns against sexual assault in football) and attitudes (see Waterhouse-Watson, 2007) toward women. While allegations of assault and rape by footballers continue to appear in the Australian media with concerning regularity (see Nurka, 2013; Waterhouse-Watson, 2012), what is intriguing about the controversy surrounding the Carney image is not only the absence of a womanfrom the “sex” scandal, as a “victimless crime,” but the decidedly homoerotic overtones of the image, of a well-formed man, scarred and hardened by brute masculine force, with his penis exposed and held at a public urinal, consuming his own excrement while a “mate” watches on and documents it.
A key observation that emerges from the contrasting discursive contexts of SharksForever and JustUsBoys are the antics and subterfuges whereby heterosexual men perform thinly veiled quasi- sexual actions for their male mates (Carney for Robinson in this case). The work of Mark Simpson (1994, 2002) and Steven Zeeland (1993, 1996) is useful in reflecting on the queer phenomena of heterosexual men performing actions that are both redolent of homoeroticism yet overtly not-gay at the same time. The Carney image also has unescapably “beat” (see Dalton, 2012) connotations that challenge the iconography of hegemonic maleness and, more to the point, the somewhat sanitised role model status that Carney-as-NRL-elite was contractually bound to uphold. As one fan notes on the SharksForever forum:
Some say it is harmless but that is not the point—it is inappropriate behaviour. He is being paid unbelievable money for his skills and that money comes with conditions including being a role model in the public eye especially for young kids—and families. . . (#4925)
Jeffrey O. Segrave’s (1993) work on sport as a cultural hero-system bears relevance here, particularly in light of certain industry statements, such as by Cronulla Sharks Chief Executive Officer Steve Noyce, which reflects standard contractual expectations of athletes:
When Todd was first signed to the Sharks he was made well aware of his responsibilities both on and off the field, to himself, the club and to the game in general, however the photograph that appeared last night on social media does not meet the values and standards the club is looking to uphold and take into the future. (Cronulla–Sutherland Sharks, 2014; also see NRL, 2014 for a statement from NRL Chief Operating Officer Jim Doyle)
It is a sentiment shared by some members on the SharksForever forum, as one writes in response to the comment “What law did he break?” (#4902): “Nothing to do with laws” (#4903). “It bring the game and our club into disrepute” (#4906).
I suggest that the Carney image, when viewed through the rubric of hegemonic masculinity (see Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) and the Australian-rugby-league-player-icon, can be read as an example of sexual, symbolic self-violence (see Bourdieu, 1991). If symbolic violence is “violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity,” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 167) that Carney “is only doing it to himself” (Andrew Johns quoted in Chammas & Powell, 2014) is part of the issue. Even though “he hadn’t hurt anyone, he hasn’t sexually assaulted anyone (besides his own mouth), he hasn’t disrespected anyone” (SharksForever forum, #4907), it would seem that the fact he chooses to degrade himself in this way, to “bring the game [and all it stands for] into disrepute” (Cronulla–Sutherland Sharks, 2014), is the offence. As NRL 360 host Paul Kent explains in the aftermath of the scandal:
Some things are tolerable, some things the club will defend their players on, this was just one they could not find an explanation for. This is just a matter that’s so distasteful to people, just so appalling.13
It is worth noting that the act depicted is constructed via discourse as distasteful in two regards. First, due to its elements of fetish because it is taboo; it is “unclean” to consume urine and the act connotes a distinctly homosexual practice (“watersports”), which is also still taboo, “unclean,” and at odds with a distinctly heterosexual game and culture. Second, the public release of the image breaks from a “mates code.” Both of these regards have something to tell us about the Carney image itself and the controversy surrounding it.
Concerning distaste, much of which seems to relate to the implications of Carney’s body as a fetish, a degree of indignation on the SharksForever forum is evident in the wake of the controversy, as illustrated via quoted comments above. This construction of the “distasteful” act connects with conservative views of homoeroticism as abject. However, also present—in a majority, I should add—is the view that Carney had done nothing wrong and that the act itself was even typical and appropriate in its setting. This final point is evidenced by comments such as, “Let’s be honest, we’ve all tried it” (#5264) as well as suggested gestures of solidarity, which include: “I say we just all start pissing into our mouths at the game” (#4999). Further, the overall discourse on this forum seems to suggest that it is not the act itself that is offensive, but rather the capturing and distribution of it, the “getting caught.” That going public with the release of the image breaks from a certain “mates code,” as demonstrated by comments such as: “Was something funny between mates on the piss together, should never have got past the door out of the shitter” (#5009), and “Who the **** made it public and why aren’t they eating through a straw?” (#4921). Thus, in the following section I frame the environment that might allow the “bubbling” incident to have taken place, drawing on scholarship on homoeroticism in team sports and the “circle jerk.”
Circle jerks and other locker-room antics: Male bonding culture in team sports
The circle jerk is an act of male, group masturbation. It is commonly defined as a homosocial and even “heterosexual” same-sex sexual practice. It is usually discussed as either a “proto-sexual” (Ward, 2008, p. 421) act performed by adolescent boys or a “heroic male competition” where participants seek to outperform other men in feats of orgasm (Mosher, 1979, p. 318). Keeping in mind that masturbation is usually a boy’s first introduction to sex (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948), as a proto-sexual game boys in a circle jerk compete to “ejaculate fastest, farthest and most often” (Gross, 1978, p. 93) Such a game provides opportunities for boys to “receive social praise and reinforcement” from their male peers (Gross, 1978). The proto-sexual connotations of such practices are evident in media commentators’ remarks in the wake of the incident, for example, that a 28-year-old should know better.14 Examining the practice in the context of sport, Peter F. Murphy describes the “circle jerk” as “transforming jerking off or masturbation into a sporting event that has winners and losers,” where “the guy who ejaculates first wins the prize” and “the boy with the largest penis wins a prize too” (2001, p. 66).
Jane Ward examines the act involving adult men, by whom it is seen as “a kind of sex that bolsters, rather than threatens, the heterosexual masculinity of the participants” (2008, p. 421). Patricia Vettel Tom is also interested in adult participation in the act. She examines the circle jerk as it is portrayed in the photographs of Bruce Davidson, arguing that these photographic works, which capture gang life more broadly, blur “lines between rigidly defined heterosexuality and homosexu- ality” (1997, p. 73). She seeks to chart the potential pleasure the men experience from the act, being both spectator of the eroticised male form and narcissist; in the act, she writes, “oscillation between scopophilic desire and gender identification is at play” (1997, p. 73). This invites a reading of Carney and his teammates as brothers-in-arms. What Ward and Tom explore is how a sexual act between men can perform a function other than sex and represent, to the participants at least, an exercise in masculine performance and play, which aligns practices such as circle jerks and urethral feats such as “bubbling” and “fountain-ing” with homosociality (also see Anderson, 2010).
As Murphy points out, the homoerotic nature of contact sports such as rugby league and wrestling require men to touch each other a lot (and often violently), introducing “yet one more level of male ambivalence about their heterosexuality” (2001, p. 65). Yet these men, particularly league players, are so iconic as hegemonic, masculine symbols that they are above suspicion, provided, that is, that such displays are limited to the field or otherwise closed spaces, such as the locker room (or men’s room). In Toby Miller’s (1995) words:
Sport allows/requires men to watch and dissect other men’s bodies in fetishistic detail. It proffers a legitimate space to gaze on and devour the male form without homosexuality being either alleged or feared. (p. 6)
In other words, it is perfectly legitimate for Carney-as-footballer to allow his mate to witness and even photograph his fetishistic consumption of his own urine and his exposed penis in full view. What is unacceptable is for the resulting image to leave the circle of mates; this violates the code that binds these men and protects such practices from mockery and homosexual suggestion. As suggested by this comment on SharksForever: “If no photo it may be different. It is heresay” (#4906), and telling by Nathan Hindmarsh’s (former player for NRL club Parramatta Eels) comment to Fox Sports on the scandal: “I’d be having words with my mates if they leaked a photo like that.”15 As part of a consideration of the environment in which the image was created, it is also worthwhile to consider the public toilet as a sign in greater detail.
Taking the piss: Bubbling and other urinal games
The public toilet provides a “provision to civilise and prepare for the social world to follow”; hence, abuse or repurpose of this public function, as depicted in the Carney image, problematises such provision (Molotch, 2010, p. 2). While the public toilet facilitates a certain concealment of bodily offense when away from home, it also contains inescapable “public,” gendered, and sexual inflections as well. There are opportunities in these spaces for subversion and exhibition of private and even taboo acts, particularly at the urinal (see Reynolds, 2010; see also Green, Follert, Osterlund, & Paquin, 2010, who consider the subculture of bathrooms).
Urination is the most common and potentially erotic use of the male public toilet. Unlike defecation (which must be locked behind cubicle doors), urination is a homosocial activity where the phallus is handled side-by-side with other men, and at times connected with another phallus via streams of urine clashing in symbolic sword play. Men and boys also engage in “pissing contests,” competing to see whose urine streams can flow farthest and longest.16 Public toilets in places where alcohol is consumed to excess, such as sporting events or pubs and clubs, like where the Carney image was taken, are often places for masculine horseplay, bravado, and jostling. Of course, positioning at the urinal also leaves a man vulnerable to comparison and ridicule based on the appearance and size of his penis. Men who forgo a place at the urinal and opt for the privacy of a stall for the purpose of urination send the message that they have something to hide. Much like in the communal showers of locker rooms, male performance in public toilets often involves a certain amount of exhibitionism and inevitable eroticism, both of which are exhibited in the image.
Testament to the kinds of behaviours and performances of masculinity that take place at the urinal is the advertising image for isotonic sports drink, Maximus, visible on the wall directly in front of Carney’s position at the urinal. This advertisement was also a means by which participants of the SharksForever forum identified the Carney image as legitimate, “as there is a recent advertisement above the urinal” (#4900). The Maximus (Latin for “greatest” or “largest”) advertisement features the drink against a white background with the text (bold and capitalised): “A modest 9 inches. Even when it’s cold,” which taps into the culture of exhibitionism in such settings and the valorisation of penile size among male communities as a measure of masculine worth and sexual attractiveness. The phrase “modest 9 inches” is displayed at eye-level with the urinating male subject, his presumably flaccid penis in hand. The advertisement links the drink with the idea of a larger penis (think balance theory; Heider, 1958); however, the unintended intertexual positioning of the advertisement in the Carney image also invites other readings, such as a male desire to occupy space. In this regard, the advertisement can be read as a playful mocking of manhood symptomatic of a cultural need for men to occupy space and remain expanded in that space —“even when it’s cold”—at all times (see Faludi, 1999), and even for an emasculating gesture. The latter gains credence when you bear in mind the negative self-image many men harbour about their size (penis and muscular form), and that only about 2.5% of men possess a penis that measures an erect size of more than 6.9 inches (Lever, Frederick, & Peplau, 2006, p. 130). If the position of this brand was not clear enough, Maximus Australia used its Facebook page to draw attention to the cameo of its brand in the scandal, bringing its own advertisement into focus and pixelating Carney’s penis, which, despite him tugging on the shaft, falls short of this company’s “modest” 9-inch product.
The homosocial “play” suggested by the setting and staging of the image is also plain in Mick Robinson’s—the “mate” present and responsible for the photo—summation of the photo’s genesis:
Couple of young blokes out having beers at a popular nightspot. I’ve gone into the toilet, seen Todd there, asked him if he’d ever heard of “the fountain.” He’s gone to do it, he obviously didn’t know I had my phone there, and I’ve snapped a photo of him. The urine actually never went into his mouth.17
And is evident furthermore in Carney’s own account,
It was just a prank. The boys have seen me mucking around doing it before. I didn’t think that there was a photo going to be taken and definitely didn’t think there would be a photo in the public.18
This contradicts Robinson’s course of events, whereby Carney (seemingly) names himself as both agent and practitioner of the act—“the boys have seen me mucking around doing it before.” This final point suggests (as members of the SharksForever forum have pointed out) that this act was not out of the ordinary but rather was part of perfectly acceptable activities between male friends. The only transgres- sion is the making public of an activity meant to be shared only among “mates”(/men), as confirmed by Carney’s agent, David Riolo, who recounts a conversation he had with Robinson, who denies leaking the photo: “My phone got lost [. . .] and that was how the photo got out. It was meant to be a photo between mates.”19 Statements like this align the Carney bubbling incident with discourse surrounding locker- room antics and heterosexual bonding sporting practices such as the circle jerk, as signposted earlier.
By considering the accounts of Carney and Robinson together, what becomes clear is the relationship between the subject of the image and the operator of the camera—of the distance between them, of the need to capture the image in the first place, and of the homoerotic mastery that this act of photography implies (as suggested by Butler’s 2014 reading). This point is not lost on those who discuss the image on the SharksForever forum, some of whom engage with the role of the camera in the construction of controversy and, by implication, how easily lines between homoeroti- cism and hetero-masculinity can become blurred: “could it be just a matter of perspective? The angle of the photo etc.?” (#4909), “Looks to me like a ‘look at this it looks like im drinking it’ picture” (#5004). The resultant implications of which are discussed at JustUsBoys: “Pissing in my own mouth is boring. What I ant [sic] to know is. . . how do I persuade other guys to piss in my mouth?”
In his examination of Australian male initiation rites, Bruno Bettelheim (1954) applies Sigmund Freud’s (1932) views on fire as a symbol of the male libido to support correlation between urination and fire, urine and the phallus, connecting the two “with mutilation of the penis in a healing as well as damaging way” (p. 183). The widespread publication on social media, followed by censored versions within media forums, of the Carney image resulted in a decidedly private act being made public, in a homosocial act between drunken mates being offered up for homosexual suggestion: for “the fountain” to become the “golden shower.” This article performs a critical reading of the image at the centre of the Todd Carney “bubbling” social media scandal and the discourse surrounding it to examine the phenomenon of homoeroticism of (ostensibly) heterosexual men. I argue that by recontextualising an act of fetish from between-mates to between-all, an act that was arguably homosocially appropriate in its original form, comes to be potentially inappropriate in another and, as a result, is swiftly rebuked and the offending subject disciplined by way of an effective exile from Australian rugby league (Carney is now signed with French rugby league club the Catalan Dragons). This article’s analysis of the Todd Carney bubbling image exposes the “bro-codes” and unseen homoerotic rituals and bonding boy cultures of Australian team sportsmen and their mates. But Carney being stripped of his status as a member of the NRL professional elite also reveals how tenuous the lines are between binaries that define the cult of sport and sportsmen in a country like Australia, such as role model/deviant, aspirational male/subject of suspect sexuality, and homosocial/homosexual. The discourse on two discussion forums was also examined, which is useful in positioning the Carney image in terms of certain environments that might allow bubbling to take place (SharksForever) and in illustrating the decidedly homoerotic connotations of urine play (JustUsBoys).