Do you believe gay and lesbian individuals are fairly represented in contemporary pop culture? Are there certain programs you find more successful at representing gays and lesbians? What about less successful, stereotypical, or damaging representations?
I believe that gay and lesbian individuals are represented in contemporary pop culture in the same way that they are experienced socially, and vice versa. If anything, the greater concentration of gay and gay-friendly writers in Hollywood means that more gay-themed stories make it under the wire. On the other hand, a savvy creator of Hollywood product knows that reaching a greater audience means including these themes in a way that won't be outright ignored by the majority of Americans. Often this results in facile or overly stereotypical representations of gays and lesbians, but just as often it produces an effect of more relaxed and personally understandable relatibility.
Harvey Milk said something like "They only need to know one," speaking of breaking down the social barriers and strictures on gay Americans; the most successful television and film representations of gay and lesbian Americans manage to create this sympathetic feeling without stooping to buffoonish or stereotypical cartoons -- or infantilizing the representations in question -- in this pursuit.
The latter is, I think, the major question we need to ask ourselves today as a culture: why are gay men in particular so typically neutered and rendered childlike in our cultural representations of them, and how does this interact with the behavior of real living gay men? The answers, and if necessary solutions, would I believe go further in creating tolerance and acceptance for gay men and women, as well as those of nontypical or unorthodox gender.
Have you seen an evolution in the representation of gays and lesbians in popular film and television?
I definitely think this is an ongoing project, but you can see a pretty heavy line separating the pre-Ellen (the talk show particularly), pre-Will & Grace trends in gay representation, and what came after that in our popular culture. I think Ellen and Rosie O'Donnell -- in representing themselves through the talk show medium, without any scripted storyline or plot points to get across, in a daily format that brought them into America's homes every single morning -- did more on their shows (and Rosie later on The View) than any other experiment in recent popular culture. Those two comforting, funny, self-deprecating, real portrayals of lesbian women have had long-term effects on the representation of gays and lesbians in other contexts; they are the very definition of "you only need to know one."
Another turning point in America would be the return to sexualized gay characters, like those on The L Word, Queer As Folk or Brothers & Sisters, who manage to retain stable, healthy same-sex relationships that manage to be palatable and relatable without the Bowdlerization or stereotypical shallowness of their earlier Will & Grace counterparts. Portraying sexually aware and healthy gay men and women is a huge part of overcoming the next phase in gay acceptance, which I see as a willingness to accept the fact that sexual identity includes -- or should include -- the willingness to involve oneself actively in sexual and romantic relationships. I see this evolution happening now, and I think it problematizes the infantilization of gays and lesbians in a healthy way for our culture.
Do you believe a correlation exists between gay and lesbian representation and mainstream Americas tolerance level for gays and lesbians?
I certainly do, but I think the qualities and traits of the portrayals themselves are more important than the mere fact of them. There have been representations of gays and lesbians in pop culture since comics and radio were invented -- were they helpful or harmful? I think the trap, for gays of the last few decades, is being so hungry for representation that any sort will do.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy did an admirable job in redeeming itself for what was essentially an unrealistic and stereotypical view of gays as Happy Homemaking Fairies playing second-fiddle to the true romance between men and women -- what would you say to a show in which stereotypical Asian students are brought in to teach white people calculus or organic chemistry? -- but, as with Ellen and Rosie, there are certain lines that cannot be crossed in that context.
The Fab Four barely have interior lives, and though their jeans are tight and they are very beautiful for the most part, it's hard to believe they have sex or home lives with partners like you and me. That's the danger of representing them as contingent on the lives of straight couples -- or, in the case of the daytime lesbians, as one-on-one friends with no more emotional or off-stage life than Martha Stewart. Difference being, Martha's ivory-tower Queen archetype is a choice she's made, while being a sexless daytime lesbian shooting rubber toys at the audience, or dancing goofily and alone, is the best of a limited number of options.
I believe that diversity is always good. However, to be content with quantity and not quality of these representations, and thus to condition ourselves to the more comfortable roles they create in society, is to walk a dangerous path. Social conditioning exists in order to rub off our rough edges and make us fit in better, and so I think a lot of us go along with the infantilizing Queer Eye or sexless Clay Aiken archetype, perhaps unconsciously, because our societal experiences have taught us that it's better to hide the adult, sexual parts of ourselves. A show that plays into those stereotypes -- Jack McFarlane comes to mind -- conditions straight and gay people alike to expect that behavior, while shoving all the messier and more abruptly sexual parts of ourselves aside.
Concerning "Brokeback Mountain" - how do you rate the film, as a film?
Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful, lyrical and literary film. The acting is first-rate, the emotions are unsettlingly relatable, it's visually stunning from the first moment, the characters are real and believable (to a detrimental degree in some cases!) and it accomplishes two very important things: First, rather than "just knowing one," we get to know two. They are both incredibly flawed and incredibly beautiful characters, who fatal faults lead to their destruction in a way that has little or nothing to do with sexuality. But at the same time, the sexual and romantic content of the film is unapologetic, starkly real, and travels the entire landscape of love and desire over the course of the film.
I think the beauty of the film can be traced to its classic motifs and structure, and the performances, while the excitement of it arises from the open-eyed treatment of its characters in as unromanticized, honest and compassionate a way as one could hope for any romance. I think the thing that sets Brokeback apart is that there is no subtext in its treatment of gay men, homosexuality or any other part of itself. It doesn't resort to a clear-the-decks trope of bisexuality, doesn't play into stereotypes or tropes, and yet we can easily sympathize with the characters no matter our own identity.
A major part of this is, I think, the attention paid to the other characters in the film: a great deal of queer cinema -- which Brokeback is not -- reduces its heterosexual characters to bit players and stereotypes as a way of foregrounding its gay characters, and that's not the case here. It's an equal dance between four very strong and indelible characters, whose separate tragedies amount to being in the wrong places at the wrong times, and falling in love. That's pretty much classic from Homer onwards.
Why do you think "Brokeback Mountain" gained the media attention it received? Was it warranted?
Pop culture media will always focus on high-profile gay stories, because much of the Hollywood press -- and infrastructure itself -- are made up of gay and gay-friendly people. Ang Lee is a well-respected, high profile director, who delivers beauty (at the least) every time. The story of the making of the film is a brilliant pitch in and of itself: blockbuster filmmaker develops a lesser literary short story by a woman known for quiet, often rural lapidary creations. You say "Gay Cowboy Romance," you've managed to intrigue pretty much every kind of person.
I don't know if the media attention was really all that centered on the quality of the film -- I'd be hard-pressed to say that the media attention even focused on the meaning of the film's existence beyond anything but the most facile, quasi-activist bumpersticker platitudes -- but either way it was awesome, and if all that jabber brought viewers to it, hopefully they learned something. About film, about love, about sex and gayness, and of course about themselves.
What do you think the legacy of "Brokeback Mountain" will be within popular culture - has it ushered in a new area of increased gay and lesbian story-telling, or was it a fluke, a lone "success" story?
More than anything, I would like to see the next large step take place in a world past the '70s stereotypes (drag, promiscuity, drug use, angst) we see in many of these stories. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist was a brilliant and lovely film whose central cast included three gay teen characters playing against most, if not all, of the usual stereotypes we usually associate with gay representation -- and even when certain well-trod ground was brought up, it managed to tell the joke or story in a way that definitely suggested a post-modern wink attached.
I always thought, in the late '90s, that the Blair Witch phenomenon was pretty worthless. Good movie, but not a doorbuster because it couldn't be repeated. The gimmick of that film can be reinterpreted, and can inspire other post-structuralist approaches to film, but the central throughline is a one-shot pony (unless you consider the most important narrative point to be the marketing for the film, which has been repeated every way imaginable and pretty much was created by that movie). So my question about classics has always been, "Is this repeatable?" For Brokeback Mountain, I think the answer is not only Yes, but that it absolutely must be.
If you're looking for the future of gays in cinema, you're looking at the stories of the next generation: Nick & Norah, even Brothers & Sisters take pains to portray gay characters as part of a larger world, in which the defining moment is not Stonewall or AIDS but Cobain's death, Clinton's and Bush's presidencies, the Iraq War. I think we're continuing to see our cultural references mesh and recombine in a way that wouldn't have made sense in the '70s.
For every exclusionist "Project Rungay" reference there are just as many ad hoc measures taken culturally -- such as the brief metrosexuality and Riot Grrl trends -- in which neither "culture" is absorbing parts of the "other," per se: just enjoying the same things without preferencing sexuality and sexual identity as a more significant difference than any other. Brokeback did it, and that is, I think the vector it will perpetrate. And that's the greatest legacy I can think of, frankly. To be not only viewed as adults, but to somehow cross the line of the Other are the two things that gays and lesbians must accomplish in the next decade, and it's going to take everybody to get there.
...the defining moment is not Stonewall or AIDS but Cobain's death, Clinton's and Bush's presidencies, the Iraq War. I think we're continuing to see our cultural references mesh and recombine in a way that wouldn't have made sense in the '70s.
That is such an important point in general: it's seen in "-Wave Feminism" discussions everywhere. What so often seems to happen is that horrible sense that if you weren't around for *this* moment, then you can't really have an authentic experience. Which is, of course, bullshit. It's really just the experience of being a freshman all over again and having upperclassmen sigh about how all the stuff that happened last year - *that* was when things were real/cool/important. But you weren't here then, so sucks to be you.
Or to put it another way, it's the endlessly repeated Boomer question, "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" Speaking personally, I was still an ova, and my mother and father had barely met. But there's a certain kind of Boomer who can't get over the fact that time didn't stop THEN. Um. Okay. Sorry you've decided that the archetypical moment of human connection happened in 1963 and you're consequently missing out on everything since, but don't piss on everyone else's experience.