Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Taste Test

I've seen this mentioned a couple of times in the past few days. Band of Thebes covered it yesterday. Some comedian published a calendar based on gay male stereotypes, and as a result of many complaints, both Amazon and Barnes and Noble have removed it from their sites. I agree with BoT:
The product is ignorant, unfunny, in bad taste, and steeped in tired stereotypes about effeminate men. It does not libel, defame, spew false facts, or incite violence. At heart, the problem appears to be the silly and mean-spirited attempts at humor are offensive to some people. We are in for a world of trouble if the criteria for removing a product is that some people say it fails their personal taste test. As with the Hide/Seek debacle, I think the best response against offensive work is to make one's case articulately, and shun it, but not censor it.
After all, a lot of material produced by gay men is silly, mean-spirited, unfunny, ignorant, and steeped in tired stereotypes about gay men, whether nelly or butch. Much of this same material is considered to be an integral and precious part of our heritage and culture. If tastelessness were the criterion for removing material from the market, every drag show in America would have to be shut down, along with Mr. International Leather contests. Queer as Folk could never have been cablecast. All the little storefronts in gay neighborhoods displaying t-shirts bearing the legend "This Face Seats Five" would have nothing to sell anymore. The works of Tom of Finland would have to be locked away -- and that would only be the beginning. I've got a little list ... Why, this very blog would at least be hidden behind a warning label that declares it potentially offensive and off-limits to readers under 18.

[P.S. Now that I've seen it, I can add that Ru Paul's Drag Race also is silly, mean-spirited, unfunny, ignorant, and steeped in tired stereotypes about gay men.]

People have such short memories. Just a couple of years ago there was a huge kerfluffle because the Amazon search engine wasn't returning any results for GLBTQ material, except for titles like A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. I'm not sure we ever found out what caused the problem, which was fixed in a few days. But many dark conspiratorial speculations went around: Amazon was hacked! Amazon was capitulating to pressure from antigay organizations! Amazon had secretly been antigay all along, but now it had revealed its sinister true colors! Boycott Amazon!!!!

I expect that now, many of the same people will trot out the same kinds of arguments that they rejected two years ago. Like this person, commenting at BoT:
The calendar has not been censored (no change or editing to it's offensive content). There was a market protest against it being sold in the public market. Good. I'm glad this happened like this. Did you want a calendar using the "n" word etc?
Oh, so much stupid in so little space! I'm a little in awe. First, censorship does not mean only "change or editing to it's offensive content": it also means suppressing material from being sold in the "public market", whether by legislation or publisher's or vendor's fiat. Would the commenter feel the same way if Amazon refused to sell, say, Heather Has Two Mommies after a "market protest"? Second, the proper "market" response to offensive material is not to buy it. You can even speak out against it, as BoT suggested, urging people not to buy it. Attempts at censorship have been known to backfire: I've heard that the banning of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791) made it a bestseller, because people who wouldn't have bothered before wanted to know what they weren't allowed to read. At the very least, censorship allows even the author of tacky, tasteless material to present himself as a martyr, and who wants to give Joe King that kind of status?

"Did you want a calendar using the n word etc?" the commenter asks indignantly, perhaps imagining that she has trumped every possible objection. Perhaps she doesn't realize how much material available on Amazon contains the "n word", especially hiphop music but probably a lot more than that: fiction by black authors, movies by black directors, at the very least. So, no, I didn't want a calendar with the "n word," but if someone wants to produce and sell one, that's their lookout. Depending on who made it, and for what kind of audience, I might denounce it, or I might not pay a lot of attention. A calendar analogous to King's, but deploying similar stereotypes about African-American males, I'd denounce, but I'd be inaudible in the chorus of denunciations it would inspire. A calendar featuring pinups of sculpted "thugs", for a black female or black gay audience, would be another story, even if it referred to them by the "n" word.

Did I want, say, a calendar using the d word? As a spinoff from her long-running comic strip, Alison Bechdel put out several Dykes to Watch Out For calendars in the 80s. I own most of them, along with all her books. The calendars are probably collectible by now. But I find that commenter's remarks offensive; I demand that they be removed from BoT forthwith! And that's not censorship, since no change or editing to it's [sic] offensive content is involved.