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July 22, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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They’re Here, They’re Queer, Tune In

Queer people are having an alright year – marriage equality is quite the achievement. Part of the marriage bill’s wide acceptance and support among non-queers came from the fact that popular culture now features a wide cast of relatively ‘normal’ queer people. That’s probably a good thing – but are we getting an accurate picture of queerness? Or just a benignly inoffensive one?

Slowly, things are getting better for queer people. At the very least, you (hopefully) aren’t going to be lynched for your sexual proclivities (in this country, anyway). This progress, which is plainly quite marvellous, owes some of its success to popular culture. According to Nielsen, the American broadcast-aggregation company, 2012 saw 24 per cent of prime-time broadcasting in the United States including LGBT-inclusive content. A similar figure isn’t readily available for content produced in New Zealand, but much of our programming is outsourced anyway. The gays are on TV! Hide your children accordingly. What may not be immediately apparent, however, is that those dude-loving dudes you see on the TV are usually polished, manufactured products designed to navigate the minefield of potential upset that has accumulated over time by both the gay community and those who aren’t that fond of them. Sure, our screens are a little more diverse these days, but they’re diverse in a particular way.

In an article produced for Salient by Duncan McLachlan and Cam Price in the aftermath of the passing of the marriage-equality bill, Green Party MP and gay-rights activist Kevin Hague says that “people like Cameron and Mitchell from Modern Family have done us an enormous service in providing a model of a gay couple who are just like everyone else”. In the most important ways this is true – gone are the days when the establishment saw all gay men as potential paedophiles and inverts (unless, of course, you live in Uganda or Russia or much of the Arab world or any number of other places). For those queer people who lived through a time where they found themselves entirely absent from popular culture except as sassy best friends or bitchy hairdressers or murderous transvestites (“It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”), seeing out gay characters appearing regularly on television and film must be quite remarkable. The gays of the modern mainstream cultural landscape aren’t just the kind of gays who were notionally closeted but pretty damn gay à la Liberace. Now, we can actually see men kissing men and women kissing women along with everyone else.

Dr Anita Brady, a lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University, says that while “I would agree with Kevin Hague… it’s a particular version of gayness. Depictions on television like Modern Family or The New Normal… are part of the general social milieu that affects change, but it is a particular form of gayness that gets to attain that sort of credibility.” If Modern Family is making a statement, it is doing so by chasing the same flavour of ‘normality’ that denied the validity of non-heterosexual relationships and people in the past. You, too, can be a part of the mainstream, the show says, if you behave like us. Of course, Modern Family is hardly an insidious tool for assimilation. While irreproachably admirable in many ways, the gay-rights movement in its current epoch holds, or has held, a set of essentially conservative goals as its most dear: marriage, adoption and service in the military (although this last one isn’t a cause for concern in New Zealand). Most people understand the potential for change that popular culture wields, but what is perhaps less apparent is the homogenising way it goes about propagating change: by making the previously unthinkable palatable for the masses. Brady says that some academics have argued that the normative depictions of gay life seen in shows like Modern Family and The New Normal are the result of this. “The marriage-equality campaign, for strategic purposes, does this. It is a particular sort of gayness that gets to be acceptable.”

Before we go on any further, it is worth noting that discussing queer people as a single cohesive population is a little silly. For one, as a single unit of analysis queer people aren’t terribly well understood by anyone, least of all themselves. What’s more, within the broadly defined world of the queer, there isn’t a consensus about what the parameters of that label are. The LGBT spectrum is a concise way of organising a complex variety of identifications, and while fostering a supportive community between them is prudent, the relationships between the disparate aspects of the community aren’t always positive. Gay people, for instance, have always been prominent in exercising a certain level of influence over the culture we consume. There isn’t any reason to think, however, that a conventionally gendered gay man or lesbian woman is in any way accredited with an understanding of transgender people (which is seemingly a common mistake). In this way, it’s tricky to discuss ‘queer’ people in popular culture when in truth, the material that the conversation will be comprised of will largely include only gay men and lesbian women. They’re the ones we can watch on TV, after all. We haven’t yet carved out spaces in popular culture for queer people who fall outside of that narrow scope. While it would be lovely to talk about LGBT people in popular culture, we can only really talk about the L and the G. It’s a pity.

For this reason, LGBT-inclusive content can be both remarkably inclusive and progressive, while at the same time offering a thin and meagre view of the multitude of queer people out there. Brady says that while shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word, which serve up rare depictions of queer life with an almost militant fervour that is unlikely to be seen again, are “well aware of their place in history”, they still manage to depict a particular sort of gay life. Or, as Brady puts it, “there are a lot of glamorous lesbians on The L Word.” On the other end of the scale, shows like Happy Endings exert so much energy in trying to prove that their gay characters aren’t stereotypes that it almost seems like they’re sort-of missing the point. In one episode, slovenly Max is described as a “straight dude who likes dudes”. Which isn’t true. Like, at all. He’s a dude who likes dudes and also eats a lot of junk and doesn’t exercise (I empathise entirely).

This desire to grasp for the normal, whatever that is, might also relate to a pervasive but shallowly understood sense of internalised misogyny among some gay men – where the feminine is understood as pandering to an effete stereotype which is a source of great shame. is a handy catalogue of this phenomenon being manifested in the environment of digital hook-ups. When a gay dude sternly instructs potential sex partners to “not be gay”, you know something slightly sinister is going on. This is not to say that the queer storylines found in television aren’t wonderful in their own way, or incredibly important to some people, because they are. It’s just that when there seems to be a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ we don’t get a whole lot of variety.

Returning, then, to Modern Family, it is easy to see why the inclusion of Cameron and Mitchell—gay dads with a Vietnamese baby—is a step in the right direction. It has very little to do with them being “just like everyone else”, because they aren’t. Cameron in particular is a confection with wrists so limp they might fall off, and once upon a time he might have received a barrage of criticism from a community terrified that they were understood in terms of a single pervasive stereotype. Today, however, there is more of an understanding that queer people are of a more diverse mix. Cameron’s brand of flamboyant hysteria doesn’t preclude other, different depictions of life as a gay man. The retention of his camp tics is a nice reminder that the way people live their lives can’t be ‘outdated’. When someone’s withering criticism of a particularly fey character is that they are so-o-o 1980s, what they really mean is, “We’ve found new, assimilatory ways of fitting in! You’re letting the team down!” A stereotype shouldn’t represent an entire community, but that shouldn’t preclude those people from representation in the media either.

A very modern symptom of this process of normalisation of queerness in popular culture is that ideas of equality are now more or less commodified. Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ is an easily digestible anthem for gay marriage. Brady notes that “there is a history of popular music of songs with a political message,” pointing to songs like ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials. Macklemore’s ideology isn’t necessarily suspect, but the fact that non-queer people are able to spin such huge successes out of queer struggles is slightly galling, and reinforces the idea that certain types of queerness are deemed more worthy of promotion than others. This is especially so, considering that artists who are actually queer are confined to their own, sub-mainstream spaces (unless you’re Elton John, but Elton John’s genre is realistically best labelled Elton John anyway). Rappers like Mykki Blanco and Le1f are interrogated routinely by the musical press over what they think of being queer artists. The gloriously gender-fluid Blanco (or Michael Quattlebaum) expresses her angst about this succinctly and deliciously in 2012’s ‘Wavvy’: “What the fuck I gotta prove to a room full of dudes / who ain’t listening to my words ‘cause they staring at my shoes.”

In those rare instances where queer artists discuss queer issues or present themselves in an atypical way, we apparently find it rather difficult to see them as anything other than as a queer thing. Conversely, Katy Perry told a whole legion of young people that if they felt like plastic bags it was okay because she does too sometimes. Well bully for her, but she’s white and conventionally attractive and heterosexual, and in the music video for ‘Firework’, an array of people with ‘abnormalities’ are paraded across the screen, like cancer patients, children with abusive fathers, a larger woman, a teen mother and a gay kid. As she stares vacantly at the camera in a very expensive-looking dress, it isn’t totally clear what she has in common with any of these people, and while empathy is a trait we should all aspire to, in this case it does seem suspect. While taking shots at Perry might seem a bit silly, that song received enough playtime for its success to be galling. Reducing the identities of entire communities to one of victimhood to shill a record is douchey. She’s not alone. Even Ke$ha got on the equality-anthem bandwagon ‘cos we r who we r. It is sad that the only musicians who achieve mainstream success while discussing issues relating to queer people in their work aren’t queer themselves. Listen to Blanco. She’s really neat.

Similarly, the idea of the ‘pink dollar’ means that LGBT communities are recognised as a viable economic market of their own. The Financial Times estimated in May of this year that there were (very approximately) 400 million self-identifying LGBT people globally, and that they have a combined spending power of US$3 trillion. It behoves producers of entertainment to include material that attracts those customers, while at the same time balancing their inclusion with the need for the product to have mass appeal. This might be why there are so many goddamn gay lawyers on television. Brady says that “Will & Grace got away with a gay lawyer-ish type, so the next show to come around says it will do something similar because it now knows what the risk is.” While this is true, it means that queer people are disproportionately represented on screen as being wealthy and educated and white. At one point this image was backed up somewhat by statistical evidence, but that hasn’t been the case for some time. As early as 1998, a study by the University of Massachusetts warned of the inaccuracies in this belief. Gay people, it turns out, are not really any more likely to be more well-off than anyone else.

Even when work is produced that does attempt to explore queers on the fringes of society, they often succumb to the need to attract a certain kind of attention. Works like Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica seem like they use a version of the transgender as a vehicle for edgy, powerful performances by their (non-trans) leads. Hilary Swank and Felicity Huffman both excel in those films, but it does make one wonder whether a transgender performer was ever considered for the parts.

When unfairly asked which depictions of gay people on screen she finds successful, Brady isn’t totally sure. After all, it’s a silly question. You can’t show a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ sort of gay person, because there isn’t a correct way of being gay or trans* or bisexual or of just being a person, really. Brady does, however, have a few tentative answers. The first, surprisingly, is Glee. Brady points out that it is unusual for having not only such a large number of recurring gay characters, but that for having gays of “different stripes”. Alternately, Omar Little from The Wire is “interesting”. Interesting – that’s probably the way to go.

Agitating for change is tricky, and it makes sense to distil the collective identities of marginalised people into something identifiable for the purposes of organisation. In the case of things queer, however, this distillation looks pretty monochrome right now. On a case-by-case basis, it isn’t all that bad. In fact, a lot of the things we’ve looked at are pretty neat. As a whole, though, it can be sort of icky. Diversity doesn’t mean uniformly inoffensive characters – it means interesting ones. It’s good that there are queers are on TV, and it’s great that everyone can get married now, but if we’re using popular culture to educate those who aren’t in the queer know we should probably be putting some more colourful, less lawyer-y vibes out there.

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