Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Representation Without Representation

Someone using the screen name "Jean" posted a very strange comment on a Youtube video recently.  The video was a clip from the current season of Will and Grace, and numerous viewers remarked that Sean Hayes, who plays Jack in gym togs in this episode, was more muscular than they'd realized.

Some of the comments were foolish -- it's Youtube, after all -- such as "Those arms belong to a top for sure" and "Where was Jack's husband tonight I like him in those tight clothes".  Then someone complained: "This show was funny but it didnt help at all with breaking stereotypical mentalities. If anything, it perpetuated them."  Jean seconded the complaint, referring to Jack as a "stereotypical flamer."  This sort of thing is a sore point with me, and I remarked, "Stereotypes are people too. There's nothing wrong with being a 'stereotypical flamer,' but there's plenty wrong with attacking them."

Jean replied:
When someone acts in an insultingly stereotypical manner, do you think that's helpful to the community they are seen to "represent"? I don't think so. Isn't the whole point of being gay that you're a MAN who is attracted to MEN -- not ridiculous imitation women? If a gay man sounds like and acts like a woman, why bother? Isn't it easier to just settle for a real woman instead? There are plenty to choose from..... And just what exactly is "plenty wrong" with saying so? When there are so few gay men portrayed on TV (unless of course they're dying of AIDS or have just been gaybashed!), don't you find it insulting that most of what's on there is a cartoonish mockery of what being gay means? Nowadays, there are lesbians in nearly every show -- and nowhere do they seem to be depicted in such stereotypical terms. In fact, my lesbian friends snicker at the "lipstick lesbians" they see all over, with the big hair, the long nails, and the gobs of make-up -- because the shows' producers know that clueless straight guys (who evidently haven't thought it through properly) will somehow think they're hot. 
Wow!  I haven't encountered this particular flavor of homophobic bigotry in some time: so many cliches, so much stupidity, packed into a few sentences.

I suppose that Will and Grace constituted some sort of gay "representation" when it first aired twenty years ago.  But even that was mainly in the realm of broadcast television.  There had been a good number of gay and lesbian characters on cable TV by the time W&G appeared.  Perhaps not enough?  I don't know what would be enough, but we are a minority after all.  But one thing I noticed even in the late 90s was that gay people who complained about a lack of gay characters on television were ignorant of many of the gay characters who'd already appeared by then.  I knew, ironically, although I watch very little television, because I'd read about them in gay media.  I also knew that despite all the caterwauling I heard about "stereotypes," most of those characters were vetted by GLAAD for respectability and gender normativity, usually to the point of evacuating them of any human interest at all.  Like some other cliches I've noticed, this one seemed to me to be more parroting of folkore people had heard, intended to express belonging, than an informed opinion.

So: Jack.  Before I ever actually saw the show (thanks to DVDs borrowed from the public library), I'd heard gay men bitching about him.  Jack's supposedly offensive stereotypicality, along with Will's supposed sexlessness, were recurring complaints.  Will, I found, was getting more action than people said, but then so was Jack.  I'm not sure why it would have been such a bad thing if Will hadn't been dating, because gay men have been writing at least semi-humorously about their inability to get a date for gay male audiences long before Will and Grace came along.  It's a hook to hang jokes on.  I suspect, from their discourse generally, that many of the gay men who complained that Will was sexless wouldn't have been satisfied with anything but on-screen penetration; lots of luck getting that on broadcast TV!

The same is true of Jack, who is a big ol' queen all right, but he's also a great character, sympathetic despite his many lovingly dwelt-on flaws.  It's also true of Karen, a divine monster who would be just as intolerable in real life as Jack, Will and Grace would be.  (Is Karen "representative" of rich, alcoholic pansexual women?)  Jack and Karen get the best lines, which are often the cruelest -- because comedy is cruel.  (Remember Mel Brooks' dictum that if I get a paper cut it's a tragedy, but if you fall into an open sewer and die it's comedy?)  Will and Grace took cliches and stereotypes and made great entertainment out of them.

And now we have many more LGBTQ+ characters, situations, and programs on television and the Internet, so Jean's claim that "there are so few gay men portrayed on TV" is laughable.  She'd have a better case if this were 1989, but it isn't.  And if you want to yammer about stereotypes, RuPaul's Drag Race seems a better target than Will and Grace.

As for that stuff about " If a gay man sounds like and acts like a woman, why bother? Isn't it easier to just settle for a real woman instead? There are plenty to choose from....", I have to confess that I've said such things myself -- back in the 70s.  I was younger and hadn't thought as much then, and I was also repeating gay folklore that I'd heard, even from flamingly effeminate gay men.  But I now think it's bullshit.  First, Jack doesn't sound or act "like a woman," he sounds and acts like a certain variety of gay man.  Second, many people -- male and female -- find such men attractive and desirable.  Many straight men want to be penetrated by them, in fact.  The effeminate man is often demonized, but that's because he's so desirable, probably desired by those who demonize him.  Few effeminate gay men have as much energy, joy in life, and wit as Jack does -- but the same is true of masculine gay (or straight) men.

Jean's animadversions against "lipstick lesbians" are strange.  If she's upset about gay stereotypes, shouldn't she denounce butch dykes instead of feminine lesbians?  It's not even clear whether she's talking about TV characters or women in the allegedly real world; by this point she seems to be writing on autopilot, embodying the stereotype of a depressingly insecure gay person (or "ally"?) who thinks only of how gays will look to straights.

But whether or not you're attracted by Jack or by Sean Hayes, such men exist, they are human beings, and vilifying them as Jean did in this comment is vile.  She may not like them, and she doesn't have to fuck them, but she has to share the world with them.  Media are another matter, but compared to what was available when I was young, I think we have a very wide range of images to respond to.  There will always be room for more, of course, but I'm more interested now in quality than in quantity.