Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bugs Bunny Made Me Gay

(I began this post a couple of months ago, then left it in Draft-mode limbo. Rather than rewrite it completely to bring it up to date -- the Blogger update is old news now, for instance, and some of the bugs have been fixed -- I'm finishing it and posting it without a lot of changes to what I originally wrote.)

So I was just going to jump in and do a quick post on something that had caught my attention (which I'll get to in a moment), but I discovered that Blogger had picked this moment to dump its New Look on me.  It took me ten minutes just to find my way past the help screens to the posting page.  (The autosave feature is great too -- it's noticeably slower than it was in the previous version.)  Thanks, Blogger, you've made my day!

But here's what I meant to write about.  Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams posted yesterday that FOX News's Bill "Loofah" O'Reilly is up in arms over Glee, grappling
with the terrible, terrible paradox that while “Glee” may have some merits, it also sends the message “that alternative lifestyles for children may be positive.” And then, oh no, he showed a clip of the character Unique performing a KC and the Sunshine Band song in a dress and heels. O’Reilly, who is terribly concerned that America’s youth “might go out and experiment with this stuff,” next welcomed Carlson, along with Judge Jeanine Pirro, for an old-fashioned round of pearl-clutching. “Here we go again,” said [Gretchen] Carlson, “pandering to .3 percent of the American population that consider themselves transgender. Now I get to explain this to my 8-year-old, if I just wanted to watch a nice family show with some nice music?”
As Williams pointed out, it's perfectly legitimate for a parent not to let her 8-year-old watch Glee in the first place: "I think it’s too racy for her – and I question any high and mighty moralizer who thinks it’s just 'a nice family show with some nice music.'"  She adds quickly that her "daughter knows that there are gay and lesbian and transgender people in the world – she even knows gay and lesbian and transgender people! And yes, sometimes it’s confusing for kids to get their heads around identity and sexual orientation."  Hell, adults also find gender, identity and sexual orientation confusing -- a good many posts right here on This Is So Gay are about that confusion.

But here's what I wanted to get at: cross-dressing is a time-honored, even ancient feature of popular entertainment.  Classic Warner Brothers cartoons featured cross-dressing regularly, and what could be more mainstream than Lucy and Desi?  (That was also a prime-time program that I watched regularly in its day; I don't remember the "Auntie Mildred" scene, but I almost certainly saw it.)  Or William Powell?  Or White Christmas?  Or The Flintstones?  It's true that drag has a different function in such cases than it usually does on Glee, but I don't think that eight-year-olds subject their entertainment to very searching analysis.  Bugs Bunny usually cross-dresses to fool his antagonists, but at least once he dressed Elmer Fudd up as a hot babe.

Did any of this, and much more, induce me to "go out and experiment with this stuff"?  (Wingnut please!  I think anyone who's going to "experiment" with cross-dressing will stay in rather than go out.)  When I was about five, I tried on my mother's shoes, as I tried on my father's at some point.  They didn't fit, and that was that for me.  I was never interested in women's clothes, which seemed too flimsy (as they were supposed to be); stage makeup in high school taught me that I didn't like having grease on my face.  As an adult, after I came out, I once tried on a dress, but not for long: I didn't feel covered by it, and never looked back after I got my pants back on.  If I'm a girl at heart (as the conventional scientific wisdom has it), she's a dyke.

More seriously (and yes, I recognize that O'Reilly probably didn't mean "go out" literally -- that's the trouble, he was channeling cliches, not thinking), so what if some kids did "experiment" with cross-dressing, whether they were inspired by Glee or by Bugs Bunny?  (Bugs is a much better role model, to my mind.)  In many, probably most cases, the "experiment" will fail.  Kids try on many roles, identities, images, costumes in their lives, and most don't take.  We have no idea why some do and others don't.

O'Reilly and many other people clearly think that it will be terrible if a boy puts on a frock, a wig, makeup, and heels.  There was a fuss last year about a J. Crew ad involving a five-year-old boy wearing pink nail polish; I thought it was interesting that both the screamers and the supporters tended to assume that the boy was trans, not merely playing with his mom.  I don't see what's terrible about it.  I haven't been following Glee this season, so I don't know anything about Unique's backstory, but I'm not very moved by his apotheosis on the stage. (And girl, please -- there's nothing unique about being either a drag queen or transgendered.  Take this kid to a drag club, and see how "unique" he is.)  For someone like Unique, of course, there's more to it than the stage; I suppose that by appearing onstage "as a woman," he is expressing his inner self, his true being; the applause he receives validates the expression, and by extension validates his true being.  That's another, probably dangerous, mistake: the sadness of the actor alone in his or her dressing room after the show, removing the character and becoming his or her everyday self, is a stereotype of long standing.  If his identity is pinned to stage performance, he's in trouble: performing can only ever be a small part of a performer's life, and actors have often found themselves deeply torn between the persona they present on stage or before the camera, and who they really are.  Unique is a narrative (to use the current jargon) about a trans kid, not any kind of reflection of reality.

The same is true of all those cartoons and comedy sketches I grew up on: they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, meant to imply that homosexuality or transsexuality were okay.  On the contrary, you were supposed to laugh at the absurdity of Bugs or Elmer in drag, and the device had different meanings for each of them.  For Bugs, drag (and the big sloppy kisses he often planted on the faces of male adversaries) cemented his identity as Trickster: Elmer was so dumb he couldn't recognize the boy rabbit beneath the makeup.  For Elmer, drag was humiliating, or put him in a subordinate position next to Bugs, as when he plays the bride to the Hare's groom.  There were plenty of he-she's, girlymen, diesel dykes, passing women, and other sexual nonconformists in those days, and every adult knew about them, but  Production-Code entertainment was forbidden to deal with them.  The fault lay in the Code, not the nonconformists, though we haven't made that much progress since it was dismantled.

Back to Gretchen Carlson's complaint, quoted by Williams.  She claimed that Glee was pandering to the ".3 percent of the population that consider themselves transgender," and what about the children?  I've been hearing variations on this complaint for decades.  First, it's not necessary to go into full clinical detail about transgender, transsexualism, homosexuality, or even heterosexuality when answering young children's questions.  So much of the discussion of sex education has consisted of reassuring parents that little kids usually don't want to know about Reverse Cowgirl or Pearl Necklaces, and that their questions about where babies come from can and should be answered in age-appropriate ways.  An eight-year-old doesn't have to know how to make a baby herself.  Second, though, as they get older, fuller explanations will be necessary, because they're likely to meet sexual nonconformists of various kinds.  Even if the transgendered do constitute 'only' three-tenths of a percent of the population, the transgendered have families and relatives and coworkers: they are known to people other than themselves, and they come from all backgrounds.  The first transsexual I ever met, forty years ago, was a redneck boy from rural southern Indiana who was saving up for his operation; the most recent one was about my age, a highly educated and renowned computer scientist.  You can't avoid trans people simply through Fundamentalist Republican separatism, since it's not impossible that your minister will resign his post at the age of fifty-five to become the woman he always wanted to be; if not him, then it might be his son or daughter.

You don't have to be nonjudgmental in answering your own children's questions.  If your six-year-old asks about the gay male couple down the block, you're completely within your rights to say something like "Well, sometimes men fall in love with each other instead of with a lady -- but we think it's wrong, because God doesn't like it."  You can do the same with religious differences; you don't even have to be accurate about your Episcopalian or Muslim neighbors, though if you aren't, eventually your child will learn on his or her own that Episcopalians don't worship Satan and Muslims don't eat babies for dinner, and you'll have some explaining to do.  Even if you have no moral reasons to tell the truth, there are practical ones.  It's one of the prices we pay for living in a pluralistic society, which allows you to be a Roman Catholic or a conservative evangelical.  You might think you'd be happier if America were less pluralistic, but if it were you wouldn't be free to hold your own beliefs.

The real problem I see is that we still don't have great answers about these matters.  The discourse on transgender is confused and incoherent, probably because our discourse on gender is confused and incoherent.  But it's not such a big problem, because you don't really have to understand why a person is trans to support their quest for being the person they want and need to be.  (Ditto for sexual orientation: it's not at all important why people are gay or straight.  And isn't the multiplicity of religions a bit tricky to explain to kids?)  But "I don't know" are the three scariest words in English to many people, and not just to the people at Fox News.