Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Beyond Brokeback

I made a post earlier saying, tongue-in-cheek, that gay people politicize life simply by living. Perhaps I wasn't so far off, really - in this society, in this world, the issue of gays and their place in our society, even putting aside institutional questions like marriage, is unavoidably on some level political, which is why I feel no conflict is presented between the theme of this blog and my writing about gay issues here. I do wish it were the case that such a conflict existed, but that perfect world, alas, is not here yet.

That being said, here's my question - whither gays in our entertainment media? It's something I think about a lot, actually, mostly because I can't avoid it - overt and meretritious portrayals of unbounded heterosexuality are so common that I still wonder how anyone could accuse any gay person of "flaunting" their sexuality. Maybe you just don't notice it if you're of the hetero persuasion - I can tell you that gay people notice it, and we certainly notice our lack of unobjectionable portrayals in movies, on television, in books, etc. I'm not condemning any well-intentioned straight person who doesn't completely understand the feelings of isolation that this sort of thing can cause, since I don't think anyone who's not gay could really understand. But much as we all love to take shots at it, we do live in and with our pop culture, and to have to struggle to find representation in it is a very uniquely lonely experience, the lack of which those who don't have to experience it take for granted.

To put it another way, institutionalized gay marriage is nice and all, but just because our law says we have a place in society doesn't necessarily mean that's the reality presented.

A fantastic article talks about the life of gay-themed media after Brokeback Mountain.

"Before Brokeback Mountain, most gay-themed entertainment projects do I put this charitably?

They were crap.

Portrayals of gay characters on television have alternated between outrageous, usually offensive stereotypes, and noble victims meant to transmit some preachy message to the apparently completely heterosexual audience. In books, we've had an endless stream of self-hating gay men who screw their friends and mess up their lives with irresponsible sex and indiscriminate drug use.

And movies? Don't get me started."

(Mr. Hartinger mentions among the body of decent gay-themed work the "Silent Empire" series of books by Steven Harper. I'm guessing that's not our current prime minister writing under an ingenious psuedonym. He also mentions Buffy, admittedly a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine.)

(Addendum: Check out this article as well.)

But as someone who has shared Hartinger's frustration, I can attest to the truth of that assessment. Yes, the vast majority of gay-themed work is utter, utter crap. Badly written, poorly acted, and abysmally produced. And most of which does nothing but perpetuate the very worst stereotypes that the gay rights movement has spent decades trying to debunk. I think "Queer as Folk" is probably one of the worst offenders, since it masquerades as a "progressive" work while simultaneously confirming to any uninformed straight person (or, perhaps more dangerously, uninformed gay kid) watching it the most ridiculous stereotypes perpetuated about us. (I have a love-hate relationship with that show - it does have a certain dark humour that I appreciate.) And like the writer, I too often "settle" for lower quality work simply to see myself represented on-screen.

It's changing - at least I'd like to hope it is. Obviously I'd like to see more stories like Brokeback told, since quite frankly they haven't been told before - and those that have certainly haven't been beaten to death for the past several centuries; they just chronologically have not yet had the time to be, since it only recently became acceptable to start telling these kinds of stories.

But more than that, so much more than that, what I'd like to be able to see is an honest portrayal of gay characters within film, television and print which are not explicitly "gay-themed." For all its beauty and brilliance, Brokeback Mountain was, unavoidably, a "gay movie." It was advertised, promoted, discussed, (condemned,) and billed as such. Even in works where they are portrayed positively and without resorting to overused stereotypes, gay characters are still often used to make a "point." As powerful a movie as Brokeback was, the "point" of it can still be summarized as a social commentary on the impact of homophobia, both on the lives of the two gay men, and on their families.

One of the reasons my aforementioned not-so-guilty pleasure was so revolutionary was that the character of Willow was not, first and foremost, gay. She was first and foremost an independent, stand-alone character, within a television series not explicitly designed to be "gay-themed," who happened to fall in love with a woman; and my issues with the general portrayal of her "turning gay" notwithstanding, the only time they even became remotely "preachy" about her sexuality was in the episode where the came out to her ex-boyfriend, and even in that episode the general point about "bigotry" was made by having a human character deal with his bigotry towards non-humans. (The kind of metaphor you can regularly get away with in a fantasy-horror-action-comedy-drama.) In other words, her point was not to make a point, it was to grow and develop along with the rest of the cast. (Creator Joss Whedon's short-lived Firefly also featured a bisexual character named Inara, who was also a developed and complex character independent of her sexual orientation.)

It seems that these deeper portrayals of gay (or just non-straight) characters are more common to females than to males. This list tells the story for me. The females seem to have more depth than the males, who are often jokes, stereotypes, thematic-plot devices, or twisted villains whose sexuality is an additional way to make them seem depraved (or some combination of the four.) I think the most notable exception on television today would be Andrew Van De Kamp, the rebellious son of one of the Desperate Housewives, though he's a less than stellar individual himself. (Not that I'm saying for a second that gay characters ought to be angels.) Comic books actually seem a bit further ahead of the game, featuring male and female character of non-heterosexual orientations, with screen portrayals of the characters often conveniently leaving out these facts. Okay, so I haven't seen Constantine, but I somehow get the feeling that they probably left out the title character's bisexuality from the final cut of the movie. (And of course, the Japanese seem both further ahead and a bit stunted on this front at the same time - but it's such a different culture that I'm not even going to discuss it here.)

Basically, all I really want to see is a decent amount of representation. I mean, by the most conservative estimates about 2-3% of the population is gay (I think it's higher than that, especially factoring in bisexuals, for whom no real statistics exist.) I'd say more like 5% for homosexuals alone. Would it be particularly out of line to suggest that maybe 5% of the principle characters in our popular media have such inclinations? At present, it's not even close to that. (I'd be surprised at 1%.)

Something doesn't need to be "the next Brokeback" (which the movie industry, of course, is rapidly searching to create, or re-create as it were) to have gay characters. In fact, it could go significantly beyond Brockback by simply presenting a character or two who, incidentally, just happen to be gay.


At 4/26/2006 1:04 p.m., Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

I agree COMPLETELY. I wrote a similar article about this too, about a year ago.

With THE MATADOR and KISS KISS BANG BANG, there are a few more examples since then.

Thanks for the nice words!

At 4/26/2006 1:37 p.m., Blogger Clear Grit said...

You're very welcome.

Yeah, The Matador was fantastic. I was a bit disappointed they left out the explicit reference to his sexuality, though. Haven't seen KKBB.

At 4/26/2006 3:11 p.m., Blogger John Lennard said...


I completely agree with you. Hollywood, an ostensibly "liberal" and "progressive" institution (for lack of a better term) sure does have a funny way of perpetuating stereotypes, particularly re: gays and lesbians. Like you, I wish there were more films, TV shows, etc., that would portray us realistically. I personally thought Brokeback was excellent. A touching story, very human and genuine. Have you ever seen the movie C.R.A.Z.Y.? It's the French Canadian film that swept the Genies a few weeks ago. Check it out if you haven't, I think you'd enjoy it.


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