Straight people don’t care about gay stuff. At least this is the general impression I get. Yet, I have to be inundated with and am demanded to care about movies, TV shows, music, art work, and news with hetero-centric focus. It’s a double standard expressed by a character in my favorite movie last year. He makes the ironic and funny, yet true point that people will praise and welcome art work with images of war, violence, poverty, etc. but anything with gay sex, and it is immediately taboo and shunned. LGBT material has been placed in a small niche market in pretty much every media form. Especially as a writer and reader of fiction, my hope is for a transition where it will be accepted in to the main cadre of the respective format (i.e. a well written and layered book classified as gay literature will be seen as good literature in general, and accepted as such within the literary community.) With the buzz of Oscar season, recently I’ve been thinking more about the discrepancy and gap in movies. Straights can find themselves represented in film easily. The majority are made for you. If you give Brokeback Mountain as a counter-example, I will throttle you. It’s more difficult for us gays. They’re either these cheesy, campy romps often a nudge-and-wink parody of a mainstream non gay movie but with cheeky exploitative stereotypes or seedy underground films that are essentially softcore porn under the veil of being edgy (look no further than 90% of the selection in the Netflix Gay and Lesbian section, like this one or this one) The similarity between these two categories is awful acting, fake dialogue, and no real characters. The third category is the Hollywood movie pre-packaged for a safe portrayal to cater to heteros — don’t want to push their limits too much! — that is an opportunistic way for a straight actor to be lauded for playing gay while gay actors themselves struggle getting roles, and new actors in the biz are forced to remain closeted (think A Single Man and Milk, both of which I like but still take issue with). A number of great counter-examples are out there though. I watched a good deal of LGBT movies in the past year — many of which occupy the realm of the gay genre and haven’t gained much audience outside of gay people, which is why I feel the need to share my top 3 (note these are movies I saw for the first time last year, not necessarily with a 2011 release date but made within the last 10 years):
3. Strapped (2010) rating: 9/10 – Some may find this plot a little gimmicky and unrealistic, but it worked for me. If you suspend your disbelief enough, it may for you. A young gay hustler — don’t walk away yet!, I know you may be thinking “Again?!” or “Typical,” but I beg you to look past this routinely used character type — finds himself in an apartment complex after a trick. But, he can’t seem to find his way out, as the complex becomes almost maze-like. On his journey to find the exit, he encounters about 5 different types of gay men. I like the way this one is structured in arcs, each exchange a different act in itself. I also like how it plays on stereotypes but then breaks them by peeling back the layers to reveal authentic people.
2. Red Without Blue (2007) rating: 9/10, instant streaming on Netflix – An excellent documentary. I could’ve picked a great political one exploring aspects of the struggle for gay rights, because there are many out there, but I chose this one because of the personal quality of it. It’s about one family –specially two twins, Mark and Alex Farley. They grew up in the typical fake cookie-cutter nuclear family, but in the onset of their parents’ divorce, they both came out. The film explores their struggles: Mark’s depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, Alex’s identity as transgender in her transition to become Claire, the way their parents handle their sexuality, and the connection that both of them have to one another despite their recent decision to live apart. I also picked this one because it not only explores gay issues, but gender and identity overall.
1. Weekend (2011) rating: 10/10, instant streaming on Netflix – Real, raw, and honest, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is now my favorite LGBT film, and beyond that, my favorite movie period of 2011, and definitely my favorite love story in the past 5 years. The review over at Slate can probably do a better job outlining for you, but I’ll give you the basics if you don’t want to read the whole thing (also a bit of a spoiler alert in their review). It’s main character is Russell, an average, ordinary gay guy in Nottingham. Haigh’s aim was to depict gay culture in Nottingham specifically, so it has a regional flare, but this depiction will easily resonate with any gay community in a city. We’re put in to his POV immediately — please note this, Darren Aronofsky as an example of how to effectively follow your main character with a shaky cam shot without giving the unsettling feeling that we’re stalking them as viewers — as he goes to a gathering at his straight friends’ place (a sequence shot in a way that’s coated with the very real feeling of outsidership as a gay man). He leaves early and heads to a local gay club, where he meets Glen. What starts as a one night stand slowly becomes something more neither of them wants to admit. Glen is an artist and records Russell as part of a project he’s working on, the catalyst for a gradual weekend long exploration they go on with each other. Their conversations address the gay struggle in one of the most apt and contemporary ways I’ve seen. Glen is a bit of a radical who is angered by oppression and thinks gay marriage is conformist to heteronormative power structures, whereas Russell is shy, sweet, and is looking for a monogamous relationship eventually. I see myself and my outlook in both. It embraces the tropes of romance dramas in a self-aware way, but turns them on their head by breathing new life in to them within a gay love story. What is so refreshing about this movie is the intense attention to the specifics of character and what it’s like to connect with someone, whether gay or straight, providing a gleaming, novel view of what love can be. (Advice: may want to turn on subtitles at times. We’re dealing with British low talking mumblers, here)
I’m hoping with movies like Weekend, gay cinema is headed in a great new direction, and maybe it has to be the indie scene to break the barriers. In his recent Salon review of Keep the Lights On, an upcoming similar film which currently made the Sundance rounds, Andrew O’hehir predicts something comparable to New Queer Cinema of the early 90’s, except hopefully a turn away from that to something more expansive, something that resonates not just with the LGBT genre, but with open movie goers willing to experience another perspective than their own and discover the reason for the differences while identifying with the similaries of a shared human existence. And, in the end realize a good movie is a good movie. Also, if I can sit through Katherine Heigle trying to find a boyfriend while being a bridesmaid for the 34th time, Micky Rourk trying to date a stripper, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt going through a break up set to the tunes of The Smiths, or Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhal screw and sit around naked while she’s dying, you can sit through a gay sex scene.
I’ve decided I pretty much am the Disappointing Gay Best Friend (aka Tyler Coates). I even spent last night, Friday, ordering in pad thai and watching Netflix. Although, I didn’t have an overly enthusiastic straight best female friend egging me on to go to Connections (Louisville’s gay club) with her and pigeonholing me into a narrow cookie cutter caricature for her own amusement to fill some type of void in her life. Lizz (my roommate) was here, although she had a low key evening with some rented videos herself. Luckily, she doesn’t fit that bill. These videos have been making their way around the blogrolls. I’m a little late to jump on it here, as usual. There has also been a Salon article. Even though in an Advocate interview, Mikala Bierma, the “hag” of the video claims the intention was in no way a response to the Sassy Gay Friend series, I can’t help but see it as a contrast, along with many other commenters. I don’t really have any new insights or fresh material to expound on. These videos resonate with me as a gay man. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in social situations where women demand I fit this role, or think that I somehow will. The encounters range from subtle hints and comments to outright belligerence. Example:
Flashback to my senior year of college in good ole’ small town Murray, Kentucky. It was Halloween. As usual, I had grand ideas for a costume but then got lazy, and none of them ever materialized into a killer Oh-My-God-I-Love-Your-Costume stunner. I think that year I thought about being a Smurf instead of a Michael Holladay in a green flannel shirt and jeans. My friend Jessie and I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and drank at a friend’s house. No big plans. However, we came back to her place, since her roommates were throwing a party. A good friend of mine was there, and some of her friends were visiting (I’m leaving out names here, just in case, in the off chance anyone involved in this event may actually stumble upon this blog, they won’t be embarrassed. I like to pretend my readership extends beyond my work friends and sister. Thanks, guys. Oh, and you better be reading this too, Alex!). Her friends were a couple from her home town. She introduced me to them. When the female half of the couple deduced I was gay, she flipped out. She bombarded me with hugs and kept saying, “I love this guy!” Throughout the night, she would come to my side, clutch her arm around mine, turn, and announce to anyone in earshot, “Look at us! We’re just like Will and Grace! You’re just like… what’s his name? Jack!? Or is it Will? I love this guy!” In a conversation with her boyfriend, he spoke of nothing else but how cool he was with gay people. Gee, thanks. I gathered that he was doing this to comfort himself, because I could detect a level of threat he felt about his girlfriend hugging and kissing all over another man. These people were from Chicago, not a small town in Kentucky or Indiana. My good friend graciously apologized to me, and of course I take no offense from her, told her so, and I said that I understood. I’m not sure that I do, though. Maybe a part of me does.
I said I didn’t have much more to contribute to the conversation of the sassy and fierce gay stereotype and “fag hags,” but I do have some thoughts. I think it’s interesting how these videos portray a distinct stereotype, not in the gay man, but in the “fag hag.” Some hardcore feminists tend to criticize the misogyny of gay men, but this unintentionally explores underlying homophobic attitudes women can have toward gay men when they think they’re being accepting. I don’t blame them, because they are inculcated with limited ideas of gay men from the media. See Will and Grace and the exhausted triteness it’s built around. That’s not to say that female supporters of gay rights should go unappreciated. The gay rights movement owes a great deal to women. Straight female advocates help bring gay men into the mainstream. However, I question the consequences this has had, and they’re demonstrated in these two video series. In his Salon article from a few years ago on the subject, Thomas Rogers notes how gay visibility in the 90’s and early 2000 in the media directly links to a strong female presence: “It was no coincidence that the first wave of gay male TV characters shared most of their screen time with straight women — it made us palatable to mainstream America.” He then quotes Justine Pimlott, director of the documentary “Fag Hags: Women Who Love Gay Men,” in which she explains, “‘It was celebrating the feminine side of gay men, not about going into the bar scene,’ says Pimlott. ‘It disarmed their potential threat.'” I’ve always felt we must move beyond this safe celibate image in the mainstream. I also like how he addresses the marked difference between genuine friendships gay men have with women and the expectations of women who know nothing about gay culture, women who claim they’re just dying to go to Connections for the first time with you and then cringe two hours later when two men are kissing on MTV. There was my good friend at that party, and then there was her friend who embarrassed me, and mostly herself. We are not Lady Gaga’s pretty pink poodle accessories, or any woman’s for that matter.
I would be remiss not sharing that many of my good friends — some of my best friends — are women. This isn’t because I can help them pick out curtains or go scarf shopping with them or help them with their make up, none of which any woman would want me to do, believe me. It’s not much different from the reasons I’m friends with straight men. I don’t consider anyone my “hag.” I consider them friends who are people I share a connection with, and I know they regard me the same way.
Apparently Glee had a “very special” and “heart-wrenching” episode this past week. I wasn’t going to write about it, because I don’t care too much about the show, but with the number of blogs I’ve read opening it up for discussion in a boom of comments and with my interest in gay representation in stories as both a gay man and lover of fiction writing, I feel compelled to weigh in. I didn’t see the episode. I can’t stand Glee after giving it many shots last year. Its status as a sing-a-long for adults aside, it tends to be a pretty heavily male-centric show and leaves its characters in the respective pigeonholes set up for them. I wouldn’t have that much of a problem, since most shows on TV tend to do this, especially teen dramas, but many of its viewers claim the show is breaking new barriers for acceptance and tolerance. The creator himself even has this high opinion of his own show. I’m sorry, but simply depicting minorities on TV isn’t groundbreaking if they merely fit into the molds made for them. It’s just not. These depictions are actually an affront to these minority groups.