Archive for the ‘Trash Culture Wars’ Category

Shades of Gay

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

jonathanknight

Jonathan Knight of New Kids on the Block is the latest celebrity to come out as gay. Sort of.

I don’t mean he’s sort of gay. Rather, he sort of came out. In his own words, he was already out and has been for twenty years - he’s just never talked about it publicly. In a note on the NKOTB fan site, Knight said, “I have lived my life very openly and have never hidden the fact that I am gay!” This explains the confusion when former pop star Tiffany casually referenced his sexuality on a talk show, thinking that the whole world already knew something that was previously only a confirmed certainty within Knight’s social circle.

Of course, until the recent NKOTB comeback, Knight was out of the spotlight; he was working as a real estate developer in Massachusetts. It’s easier to keep your private life private when no-one is looking in your direction. Knight is not a celebrity who came out as gay, but a gay man who came out as a celebrity.

Even so, Knight is not unique. It used to be that if you were famous and gay, you kept your sexuality a secret, and any questions about your love life were answered with lies. ’50s teen idol Tab Hunter ‘dated’ Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds at the studios’ arrangement so that stories about his homosexuality would not destroy his career, and most gay actors since have followed the same course.

In more recent years a second option emerged; gay celebrities could come out on the cover of People magazine (or similar) and have their love lives reported on the same as any other public figure. Stephen Fry used to be an outlier; now we have Neil Patrick Harris acknowledging his husband and kids at an awards show. These celebrities need neither lie nor evade.

Now, in addition to those in the closet and those bursting out of it, we are seeing the emergence of a two new types of gay celebrity. The first is those who, like Knight, neither deny nor proclaim their sexuality. White Collar star Matthew Bomer seems to be a fine example of the type. He is often photograped wearing a wedding ring, but both he and his employers deflect any questions about his sexuality without issuing denials. Says Bomer; “the other people in my life didn’t necessarily choose to be in the spotlight.” And echoing Jonathan Knight, he adds, “Anyone who knows me, knows me”.

matthewbomering

Bomer is not alone. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s sexuality has long been an open secret. Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto has reportedly refused to get himself a fake girlfriend. British actor Ben Wishaw belongs to the ‘I don’t like labels’ school, telling one interviewer, “I’d prefer to let the work do the speaking” - though he did not correct another interviewer who suggested that he was straight.

Journalists now face an interesting new challenge in deciding how to talk about these people, who are neither in the closet nor proclaiming themselves on tabloid covers. Straight people do not have to declare themselves straight in order to be written about as straight. So is it outing to talk about a gay person in the same way? Can the papers describe Anderson Cooper’s boyfriend as his boyfriend? (One newspaper recently upgraded the man in question from ‘friend’ to ‘companion’.) If the common view is that same-sex relationships are neither shameful nor abnormal, newspapers should be able to talk about Cooper’s boyfriend or Bomer’s husband without the authorisation of an ‘I am gay’ headline. If we accept that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, there can be no such thing as ‘outing’ for anyone who has come to terms with their own identity.

There is value in the coming out story. Every time someone like Ricky Martin adds his name to the ranks of the out and the proud, it changes the world a little bit for the better, and makes life a little easier for the next generation. Yet there may be even more value in not having a coming out story, if we can treat gay celebrities and their relationships as normally as everyone else’s. If they want to keep their private life private, that should be an option regardless of sexuality - but the fact of one’s sexuality should not be treated as one’s ‘private life’, because that perpetuates the idea that homosexuality is shameful. Celebrities who want to keep their partners and kids out of the spotlight to not pretend that their partners and kids do not exist.

So, ‘privately out, publicly silent’ is the new, third type of gay celebrity. The fourth is much bolder; the celebrity who has always been out.

scottevans

Adam Lambert almost fits into this category. He avoided saying what everyone already knew for much longer than made sense, but he never hid who he was. Glee’s Chris Colfer and X-Factor’s Joe McElderry just about fit; they did have to ‘come out’, but teenagers get a lot more leeway; they have to first come out to themselves. But Britain’s Russell Tovey belongs firmly in the ‘always out’ camp - he acknowledged his sexuality the first time the question was asked. Soap actor Scott Evans (above) was outed as ‘Chris Evans’s gay brother’ before anyone saw him as an actor in his own right, and he insists he would never have hidden who he was. Swimmer Matthew Mitcham, singer Jake Shears, and actor Cheyenne Jackson are all as far from the closet as a person can be.

Yet these are not household names. Lambert’s fame was manufactured by a reality show. Colfer enjoys a rare synergy of bringing the right talents to the right story at the right time. None of these people have established a replicable path to success for an openly gay performer or athlete.

We have not yet established just how accepting and tolerant the majority audience is prepared to be, though I’m sure that today is better than yesterday. It may take a few of those ‘out from the start’ celebrities to break into the big time before some of those ‘out in my own life’ guys are courageous enough to walk down a red carpet with their partner on their arm.

Two Boys, One Cup

Monday, December 13th, 2010

vanityfair-soccer

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has said that gay football fans attending the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 “should refrain from any sexual activities” in the country, because same-sex sexual activity in Qatar is punishable by up to five years in prison. Judging by the reports on Sky News, Blatter found this very amusing.

It’s disappointing that the World Cup should go to a country where gay sex is still illegal, but international sporting events have been to much dirtier places than Qatar - most famously the Olympics in Berlin 1936. The idealist in me says that these plum events should be withheld from countries that refuse to meet basic standards in respect to civil rights, but sports have never been quite that sporting.

I assumed that this wasn’t the first time gay sex has been illegal in a host country, given that the tournament is eighty years old, so I cross-referenced two Wikipedia lists to see when this happened before - LGBT rights by country and FIFA World Cup hosts.

The next two hosts, Brazil and Russia, are in the clear. The same goes for the last several hosts, South Africa, Germany, South Korea, Japan and France. The last host country where gay sex was illegal was actually the United States of America in 1994. Sodomy was still illegal in fully half the 50 states in 1994; four of the tournament’s nine stadia were in states where gay sex was illegal. Why should FIFA take a moral position on this now, when the leader of the free world only deigned to join the 20th century in the 21st century?

Going back beyond 1994, we find that Colombia and West Germany both legalised gay sex five years before they hosted the World Cup, and Spain did so three years before it hosted. The last country to fail this test was… England, in 1966. England and Wales legalised sodomy in 1967. (Scotland and Northern Ireland followed in 1981 and 1982.) And with that realisation,  any moral superiority I might have felt over the Yanks is diminished.

Chile failed the test in 1962, and didn’t legalise gay sex until 1999. The first host, Uruguay, failed in 1930, but legalised gay sex in 1934. So Qatar joins an ignominious list with four others; Uruguay, Chile, England and the USA. Qatar still has twelve years to get off this list, but I’m not optimistic. Qatar is one of about eighty countries that still has laws against gay sex, and it’s a Muslim country, so within its region it’s still well in the majority. It was one of the first Arab countries to give women the vote, and it only did that in 1999.

I won’t pretend that the legality of gay sex was ever a consideration in giving the World Cup to Qatar. I only wish that it had been. I suppose I can take some solace that a journalist asked the question at all. That’s a sign of how things have changed since Uruguay in 1930. Maybe one day gay rights will be the sort of issue that determines a country’s right to sit at the big boy table. It will help a great deal when countries like the US and the UK can boast that they offer full equality.

Music Music Music (Video)

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

I feel like music videos have a renewed cultural importance these days, because watching short videos of all kinds has become a major way for people to entertain themselves, especially when they should be working. When I was a kid I had to tune in to The Chart Show on ITV every weekend in the vague hope of catching a good music video, and I was frequently disappointed. Now good music videos find you, because people want to share the videos that they’ve enjoyed.

So after years of MTV-imposed exile, music videos have a renewed presence in the Zeitgeist. Just as plants make their berries look extra delicious so that passing birds will propagate their seeds, so videos need to resonate with their audience to ensure that they go viral. For that reason, music videos may be a better barometer of our culture today than they ever were before. (It does also help if the music is good.)

One trend I’ve noticed in recent music videos is that there’s an increasing presence of gayness. I don’t mean the gay sensibility or the camp aesthetic that have informed pop musicians for as long as there have been pop musicians; I mean actual gayness. I mean same-sex relationships.

It’s not unprecedented, of course. Christina Aguilera showed boys kissing in the video for Beautiful more than seven years ago, and even she was not the first. But Aguilera’s video was edited on most TV broadcasts, and fear of having their music kept off our screens steered most artists away from exploring gay relationships in their videos. Now we live in a world where Cee-Lo Green’s video for Fuck You has had over 25 million views on YouTube; the old rules no longer apply.

Our Friends the Divas

As Christina’s example suggests, one place where there’s always a chance of some man-on-man action is in videos by modern pop divas, who know which side their bread is buttered. If the gays don’t love you, you’re nothing.

Examples from the past few months include videos from Pink (Raise Your Glass), Kylie Minogue (All The Lovers), and even sometime opportunist homophobe Katy Perry (Firework). If there isn’t a gay kiss in the videos for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way next year, I will eat a goat.

Of course, these videos have also been edited or blurred somewhere in the world, but the censors are less relevant every day.

The Gay Artist

Interestingly, I don’t remember seeing any gay relationships explored in videos by The Scissor Sisters or Adam Lambert, the foremost chart-troubling gay disco acts of our age, possibly because it’s tougher for actual gays to push the envelope. Only Nixon could go to China. Only a tiny straight Australian woman can writhe on a rising tower of omnisexual orgiastic naked bodies in the middle of the street.

The first Idol winner, Will Young, has been making music videos for the best part of a decade, and his videos are usually tremendous short films - but they’re never gay love stories, at least not explicitly. It took four albums before Young dared to even mention a male lust object in a song.

But Will Young is part of the old system, the big music label system, which still runs scared from the idea of teen girls ripping posters off their walls in horror at the idea of their favourite singer batting for the other team. It’s now easier and easier for small label artists - or no label artists - to make and circulate videos that don’t play by those rules.

One example is gay musician Tom Goss’s video for Lover, about a man waiting for news about his soldier boyfriend, and featuring real soldiers discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Another example is Ice Cream Truck by gay rapper Cazwell, which became a viral hit this summer precisely because of its risqué uber-gay go-go boy response to booty-shaking R’n'B videos. I should warn you now that it’s not entirely safe-for-work.

The Shameless Tease

Then there is Robbie Williams, who has never been afraid to flirt with the myth  (probably) of his own gayness. This year, in his reunion with Gary Barlow, he crossed a Rubicon of gayness with his Brokeback Mountain-themed video, full of lingering looks, bromantic shirtlessness and homosensual tension. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and there’s certainly no kissing, but for any straight (probably) male major recording artist to make a video like this feels like a watershed moment.

The Dream

When is a music video not a music video? This clip from Glee wasn’t made as a video, but it served the same purpose. It was released a week before the episode aired, and spread like wildfire across gay blogs and entertainment blogs. As a result the show’s 113th single (113th!) became its biggest seller, even outperforming its very first single.

This is a slightly bigger deal than you might think. The video shows one gay teen serenading another gay teen with a song about love, skintight jeans and going all the way, and the core of the song’s appeal - besides the delightful harmonies of the Tufts Beelzebubs - is singer Darren Criss’s flirtatious enthusiasm and Chris Colfer’s bashful, enchanted reactions. This single didn’t scrape its way to the top in spite of the video’s gayness. It distinguished itself from a crowded field because of its gayness.

The Sweet Love Story That Is Older Than The Sea

I thought Glee’s Teenage Dream would be the peak of the year, gay-musically speaking, but the last week has brought something that might be even better into my life.

Like Robbie Williams, Cosmo Jarvis is (apparently) a straight singer with a gay-themed video. As with the Glee clip, Jarvis has created buzz by showcasing a same-sex relationship. Like Cazwell, he made the video on the cheap, without major label support. And like Kylie, he put some gay kissing in there.

But Jarvis has gone one further than any of them, because his Gay Pirates is a whole gay love story in song. It sounds like a cheeky sea shanty, but it has something to say about homophobia, and it’s surprisingly sweet, sad and tender.

Gay Pirates has scored almost 90,000 hits on YouTube in just over a week. That’s not bad for a singer you’d probably never heard of.

The internet has led to the democratisation of creation. We don’t need MTV any more, and our media consumption is no longer constrained by conservative standards. In among the Kylie flash mobs and the videos of waxed twinks lip-syncing to Miley Cyrus, there is room in our media for gays to fall in love. If these are videos that people want to share, then maybe one day they actually will stop blurring out the kisses on TV.

As Cosmo Jarvis sings; “We deserve much better than we’ve had”.

Mr Right: Conservatives Go Gay

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

An entertainingly graceless bitch-fight is playing out in a little corner of the American right that you probably don’t pay much attention to. It began when gay conservative group GOProud announced that Ann Coulter was headlining their ‘HomoCon‘ event. GOProud chair Christopher Barron boasted of the event, “The gay left has done their best to take all the fun out of politics, with their endless list of boycotts and protests. Homocon is going to be our annual effort to counter the ‘no fun police’ on the left.”

ann-coulter

Ann Coulter, you may remember, was what we had to rile against before Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck eclipsed her relevance. Sadly for Coulter, her involvement with this event led to her being dropped by another, WorldNetDaily’s Taking America Back National Conference. (How far back they plan to take America is not clear, as American history does not have a Middle Ages.) WorldNetDaily was aghast at Coulter’s participation in HomoCon, accusing her of “legitimizing” sodomy and same-sex marriage.

There is an exquisite irony in these conservatives boycotting Coulter for her involvement in an event that advertises itself as an alternative to left-wing boycotts and protests. GOProud is getting a first hand taste of the hate and intolerance that the left is fighting against when protestors like Dan Choi chain themselves to the White House fence - a protest that GOProud’s Barron sneered at.

Still, GOProud are consistent in their do-nothing attitude to gay rights. Earlier this year they held an event at the San Diego Manchester Grand Hyatt, owned by Proposition 8 supporter Doug Manchester, thus stepping across the picket line at an ongoing boycott of that hotel. GOProud believe in letting other people do the ‘no fun’ stuff like trying to advance their rights, while they get drunk lining the pockets of the bigot who wants to take their rights away.

The contretemps between GOProud and WorldNetDaily is noteworthy for a few other reasons. Coulter’s response to WorldNetDaily was to say that she “speak[s] to a lot of groups and do[es] not endorse them” - in other words, she’s not necessarily on GOProud’s side, but she will take their money. She also called out WorldNetDaily for their absurd birtherism - the site has been nicknamed WingNutDaily - which gives us an idea of how far out on the fringe these people are. Even on the right, only the nuttiest of nuts are ready to attack the conservative gays in this way.

The American  right’s views on homosexuality are shifting just as the American electorate’s views are shifting. Several high profile conservatives have come out in favour of gay marriage, including Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and Bill O’Reilly. Even freshly minted pseudo-televangelist Glenn Beck concedes that opposing gay marriage is not a fight worth having. One of the two lawyers that tore down Proposition 8 was George W Bush’s former solicitor general, Ted Olson, who brilliantly framed the conservative case for gay marriage. Even the judge who overturned Prop 8 was a conservative, nominated by Reagan and the elder Bush.

The arguments against gay marriage, gay rights, and even homosexuality in general, are grounded in religion and ignorance, not in politics. Gay rights fit perfectly with the small government/personal liberty philosophies of the right. This week Steve Schmidt, the former campaign manager for John McCain, became the latest conservative to argue in support of gay marriage, suggesting that marriage promotes social stability. In his view, gay marriage is a family value.

Then there’s former RNC chair Ken Mehlman, a loathsome hypocrite who helped devise the party’s anti-gay strategy while keeping his own homosexuality under wraps. He can never make amends for his atrocious behaviour, but he is now another high profile advocate for equality. Then again, Mehlman claims that gays should have voted Republican in support of the right’s anti-Jihadist stance, so there may be depths to his ignorance yet to be tapped.

None of these conservatives are running for public office, of course, so they can safely move to the left of Barack Obama on gay issues. We’re still waiting for a conservative heavyweight to face the electorate on a marriage equality platform. Even so, same-sex marriage might never again be the wedge issue that it was in the 2000 election. No wonder the wingnuts at WorldNetDaily are so upset.

While gay rights may ultimately fit the conservative narrative, it seems that even right-wingers can’t quite stop themselves thinking of civil rights as a left-wing issue. Look at the inadvertant revelation in their odious HomoCon flyer, in which they refer to Ann Coulter as “the right wing Judy Garland”. The implication is that Judy Garland belongs to the left. Garland was a lifelong Democrat, yes, but she was not a political figure; she was and is the definitive gay icon. Giving her up to the left is a tacit admission that gay culture and gay rights are firmly established as the province of the left. By invoking Ann Coulter as their icon, GOProud have knocked over their queen.

Hot Blooded: True Blood’s ‘Barrage of Homosexuality’

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I do not particularly care for Anna Paquin’s nipples.

annapaquinWork-safe Anna Paquin (nipples not pictured)

But we’ll get to that later. Recently, a man who plays some kind of sport for some American sports team or other tweeted, “Caught up on True Blood. Not a fan of how they get u hooked with the 1st 2 seasons then bring on a barrage of homosexuality.”

Management must have clamped down on him in a hurry, because he quickly apologised, but the incident was enough to prompt Zap2It to ask if it was possible to be a fan of True Blood and a homophobe. (Though they used the term ‘anti gay’, which is the sensitive way that homophobes would like us to refer to their homophobia, because it’s so prejudiced to call them homophobes.)

One reader replied that he/she was “using the fast-forward button more and more as the shows morphs into nothing but a gay porn fest”. Another objected to the gay storylines “because in some instances they are pointless and obviously just added fluff on this show”. Another said, “Whenever there is any gay sex scenes (which is often) I switch channels for a minute or two”.

Apparently I’m watching the family edition of True Blood, because I’ve missed the gay porn fest. The guy who says there are often gay sex scenes, and who changes the channel whenever he sees one, has been changing the channel a little prematurely, because thus far - in three seasons of the show - there has been only one all-male sex scene. One. I rather doubt this fellow was changing channels at the first glimpse of Sapphism. In bigot maths, one gay sex scene is ‘often’.

For the record, that one sex scene - between vampires Eric and Talbot - was very obviously edited down to as few seconds as possible, and it ended with a literal ‘penetration = death’ metaphor. It was not a positive sex scene. So the number of romantic male-male sex scenes in three years of True Blood? Zero.

The scene certainly was not fluff; one character seduced another so that he could get close enough to kill him, as revenge for the murder of his family. In any other show, the introduction of gay sex as an entrée to death-by-phallus would set off alarm bells about the show’s attitude to homosexuality.

True Blood gets more of the benefit of the doubt than other shows, because it has a gay showrunner in Alan Ball, a positive central gay character in Lafayette, and a generous attitude to the display of male flesh, as epitomised by Ryan Kwanten’s Jason Stackhouse (though that’s probably meant to serve the show’s huge female audience rather than the gays). Even so, the show is not as gay-friendly as most people tend to believe.

It’s true that the show has got a lot gayer this season, but it still approaches the subject with a dainty touch that it doesn’t apply to other sexual relationships. Lafayette has been living like a monk for two seasons. Now that he finally has a boyfriend, the pair of them seem to be the only couple in the show to do their canoodling off-screen. They spend an astonishing amount of time lounging around indoors with their clothes on.

billsam

There was also Sam’s dream about Bill, of course. People who drink vampire blood sometimes have sex dreams about the vampire. We know that Lafayette had these dreams about Eric, but we never saw it. Sam’s dream about Bill was hilariously porny in tone, but the characters didn’t even touch, let alone kiss. Finally, the latest episode showed the gay villain of the season in bed with a rent boy - but there was no sex scene, only another violent penetrative death.

Then there was the relationship between Eric and Godric in season two. This was an intense loving relationship between two men, but it was never presented as sexual, even though similar relationships have been, especially when they involved two women - Maryann and Daphne; Sophie-Anne and Hadley; even Pam and Yvetta. The same season showed an entire town engaging in Bacchanalian orgies, but it was all inexplicably heterosexual.

As the orgies suggest, True Blood is a shameless show. It is not shy about straight sex or nudity, either male or female. Nor does it skirt around the existence of gay characters or gay relationships. It’s just a little coy, and a little evasive, about showing male-male relationships off with the same salacious indulgence. True Blood is a gay-friendly show - one of the most gay-friendly shows I’ve ever seen - and I don’t mean to hold it to a higher standard than lesser shows, but it’s so revealing that even this show applies a double standard. When audiences accuse the show of becoming “gay porn”, it’s easy to understand why.

The reader who couldn’t tell the difference between ‘once’ and ‘often’ also said of the gay sex scenes; “As a straight man it is hard for me to watch a male sex scene. It repulses me.”

Sir; I have seen more of Anna Paquin’s nipples than I have ever wanted to see, and it does not please me in the least. However, I assume that you rather enjoy it, so I’m prepared to put up with it as a kindness to my fellow man. Maybe you could show me the same generosity?

Let’s Hear It For the Bi

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Update: See end of entry.

Quick, name a current bisexual celebrity. You have until the other end of this picture to think of one.

duncanjames

Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da-da-dum. Time’s up. Who did you think of? Was it Megan Fox? Anna Paquin? Angelina Jolie? Ooh, ooh; Lady Gaga? Lindsay Lohan? Was it Drew Barrymore? Pink?

I’m willing to guess that you probably didn’t think of Duncan James, even though that’s his picture you just scrolled past, either because you’ve never heard of him, or because you wouldn’t recognise him even if he was standing right in front of you.

You may have spotted the pattern in all those other names I mentioned, all of whom are self-identified bisexuals. Most famous bisexuals are women. It may in fact be the case that more bisexuals in the general population are women -  it’s a common enough assertion that female sexuality is more fluid than male - but even so, male bisexuals do exist, and a good male bisexual is hard to find. In terms of current celebrities, Duncan James is about as famous as it gets.

Sure, there are actors who came out late in life, or who were outed post-mortem - Brando, Clift, Olivier, Dean - and there is a handful of musicians who have sort-of come out as bisexual, but have also sort-of come out as ‘rejecting all labels’ - David Bowie, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mika. It’s easier to come out if your identity hinges on being ‘alternative’, or if you’re, well, dead. Male bisexuals are otherwise fairly invisible, and it’s not hugely difficult to work out why this might be. It’s harder for guys in the public eye. People are generally more accepting of bisexual women.

On the one hand, the idea of women who like boys and girls has huge value in a pop culture dominated by the tastes of straight men. Female bisexuality is titillating, so it’s credible and cool. On the other hand, any guy who comes out as bisexual is usually labelled ‘gay and in denial’, and guys who sleep with both men and women aren’t considered trendy; they’re considered a health risk, and banned from giving blood in otherwise civilised countries.

It’s therefore rather big news that Tom Hardy came out today, especially because of what he came out as.

tomhardy

Hardy is a rising star. He’s not a big name yet, but his role as Eames, the slightly swishy forger in the movie Inception, has already elevated him above his usual world of BBC dramas and low budget British indies. He’s the star of the remake of Mad Max (and let’s face it, that’s pretty well timed given the state of the former Mad Max), and just this week he landed an action/romance role in McG’s forthcoming spy comedy, This Means War, opposite Chris Pine.

Today, Hardy is quoted in the Daily Mail as admitting that he has had sex with men. The matter-of-fact manner of his revelation is extraordinary. When asked if he’s had same-sex experiences, he said; “Of course I have. I’m an actor for fuck’s sake”.

Hardy may have outed most of Hollywood with that admission, but he didn’t exactly come out as bisexual. He came out as someone who used to experiment with same-sex relationships, and he says that these relationships don’t “do it” for him any more. This is perhaps an unprecedented statement for a young, good-looking actor courting leading man roles in Hollywood blockbusters. He just confronted the unsuspecting mainstream multiplex audience with the notion of male sexual fluidity!

It helps that Hardy is quirky, of course. He’s British; he has tattoos; he’s a self-confessed recovering alcoholic and crack addict. He was never going to be Zac Efron. Hardy also has a fiancée, and a son, and an ex-wife - none of which prove straightness, but, taken in concert with his frankness, would seem to indicate that he’s not a gay man in denial. He can’t easily be dismissed.

So, this is kind of a big deal.

It’s not the biggest deal.One day, an actor of the calibre of ’80s-era Tom Cruise will come out as gay, and it will not destroy his career, and that will be the big leap forward - and it may happen ten years from now, or it may happen tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re likely to see incremental steps towards that level of acceptance, and Tom Hardy’s admission is one of those small steps. Tom Hardy can be the action hero, and the sex symbol, and he can unabashedly admit to a little youthful experimentation. Tom Hardy just changed the world a little bit.

Update: Commenter Ásta has pointed out that the interview with Hardy was given last year - a fact that has been omitted in most of the coverage. It’s possible that Hardy wouldn’t give the same interview today, and it will be interesting to see if he distances himself from it while he courts the mainstream.

Beyond that, the full interview adds more detail, but it doesn’t change what we know. Hardy isn’t interested in guys today, but he did experiment in his youth. “To me it just doesn’t compute now; I’m into my 30s and it doesn’t do it for me and I’m done experimenting”. Male sexual fluidity, especially expressed as frankly as this, is perhaps what the bigots fear the most.

The Gay Menace

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The above video is from the National Organization for Marriage - the same whiny hate group that gained some notoriety for its support of anti-gay ballot propositions like Proposition 8, but which is perhaps better known for its hilariously awful Gathering Storm ad. (”The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong, and I am afraid.”)  The group is currently touring the US, spreading their gospel of intolerance.

The video tells the harrowing story of a mother who was bullied by marriage equality advocates at a NOM event in Albany. Bullied! First, they blocked her view of the event. And then they set her on fire.

Sorry, typo; first they blocked her view of the event, and then only some of them were considerate enough to turn around when she wanted to breastfeed her baby.

This was a happening so heinous that NOM felt it was worth making a video about it. “Gay marriage protesters” bullying and intimidating a “mother with young kids”. And at a peaceful rally, no less. Spot all the manipulations there; first you should be outraged that they were gay (well, ‘gay marriage protesters’, but you know where the emphasis is here), and then we’re told that the woman was a mother - mothers are always good - and that she had her kids with her - sweet innocent babes who have never harmed anyone, poor souls! And it was a peaceful rally; no-one tried to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants all day.

nomprotest1

Of course, the marriage equality protesters were also peaceful. They did not threaten anyone. They did not push, provoke, or abuse anyone - if they had, you can be sure NOM would have said so. The video makes it quite clear that they simply stood still and refused to move. They played by the same rule book as NOM, yet what NOM was doing was peaceful and what the marriage equality side was doing was ‘bullying’.

(Should they have looked away when the lady breast-fed her child? I’m sure I would have, but no-one is obliged to look away if you breastfeed in a public place.)

The point of this video is to paint NOM and their supporters as victims. This is their favourite role to play; long-suffering martyr guardians of traditional values trying to preserve their way of life against the deviant infidel. This was also their position in the Proposition 8 trial, the verdict for which should come in any day.

Yet when it comes to showing the world the face of their oppressor, the best they can manage is some people obstructing a woman’s view in a park - oh, and someone gave their tour bus a flat tyre. They know they can’t prove that gay marriage invalidates or weakens their own marriages or their families. They know that it won’t corrupt their children or destroy their churches. They know that it won’t do anything worse than offer some stability to people they don’t like. So they show you people with umbrellas, standing in a park, and ask you to be afraid.

Contrast that to what organisations like NOM are doing to gay people in the US. They’re demonising them, spreading lies about them, damaging and marginalising their families, driving up their tax bills, taking their rights away and keeping them from enjoying equality. Clearly they are the bullies, but their best cover for this is to try to convince you that they’re the victims.

Here’s another video from another NOM event. This is the voice of the National Organization for Marriage. This is as coherent as it gets. See if it makes sense to you.

On the subject of incomprehensible right wing protests; it’s San Diego Comic Con week again, and this year the show may receive a visit from the grand wizard of all bigots, the Lady Gaga of hate, Mr Fred Phelps himself. His Westboro Baptist Church is expected to be at the convention centre at 1:15pm on Thursday because - and I swear, this is their given reason - comics are full of false idols.

Obviously these are trivial-minded, sensationalist, publicity-hungry people. I rather doubt they believe in anything other than the importance of their own celebrity. Even so, the horrific ideas that they promote are dangerous - though they probably make far more converts against them than for them.

Counter-protests are likely - my favourite is the proposal for Glee fans to assemble to sing ‘Hate On Me‘ - but the best idea came from comic writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction and their GodLovesBatman initiative. They intend to donate $100 to AIDS research if the Phelps clan makes their scheduled 45 minute appearance, and more if they stick around longer. You can read all about it here, and you can make a pledge of your own. I will happily match their $100 pledge.

Ironically, the Phelps clan will also be also be protesting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego on the same day, because Al Gore is appearing there. As long-time readers will know, the hotel has been the subject of ongoing protests and boycotts by gay rights activists because its owner was a major donor to Proposition 8, though the comic industry has seemingly never participated in that protest. Doug Manchester claims to have repented, and pledged money to support civil unions, which is rather like claiming to renounce racism and demonstrating your sincerity by paying for blacks-only drinks fountains.

Airbender: The Mickey Rooney Club

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

M Night Shyamalan’s new movie, The Last Airbender, is not getting much praise from critics or from audiences. As of this writing, it’s averaging 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, 20/100 on Metacritic, and a 4.7/10 user rating on IMDB. Those are seriously awful notices; even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had ratings of 20%, 35/100 and 6/10 respectively. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra scored 35%, 32 and 5.8. Even Sex & The City 2 fared better.

The movie will probably perform well at the box office this weekend, even up against the titan of a new Twilight movie. It should even make its money back in the long run, and I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of sequels. Even so, Last Airbender will be hailed as one of cinema’s great critical turkeys, alongside Oliver Stone’s Alexander (15%/39/5.4), Halle Berry’s Catwoman (10%/27/3.2%), and John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth (still worse than Airbender, at 3%/9/2.3).

airbenderlogo

This critical floppage is The Last Airbender’s second claim to infamy. I talked about its first back in one of my first posts to this blog back in January of last year. The Last Airbender is based on the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, set in a fantasy world that draws heavily on Asian culture. None of the characters in the series are Caucasian, but all of the actors picked to play the four central roles were Caucasian. Fans were inevitably outraged, and they protested, and one of those four key roles - that of the main villain - was re-cast with an Anglo-Indian actor. This did little to quell the protests.

I don’t know to what extent the movie’s critical drubbing is informed by disgust at the cast whitewashing - it’s mentioned in many reviews, but the movie seems to struggle under a weight of other problems, including soulless performances and forced 3-D. At the very least, I suspect the race controversy preconditioned critics to be unsympathetic to the movie’s flaws, and served to ensure that many of the cartoon’s fans - who ought to be the movie’s greatest cheerleaders - would be its loudest opponents. This video from ReelzChannel shows people dressed as characters from the cartoon lining up to say that the movie “sucked”. (Fans can be notoriously critical of adaptations of their favourite works during production, but they usually come around when they actually see the movie, if it has any redeeming qualities at all.)

Shyamalan responded to the race controversy in an interview published at IndieMoviesOnline, opening with a familiar gambit; “As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it.”

This is the minority author as the sole arbiter of minority identity. Last time we heard that response, it was from Torchwood writer Russell T Davies on the subject of Ianto’s death on that show, and that time it was even less elegantly expressed; “We’re talking about issues in my entire life here, not just one small television program. … [Critics] should simply grow up, do some research, and stop riding on a bandwagon that they actually don’t know anything about.”

Never mind that critics of Davies were often gay, and critics of Shyamalan have often been Asian; because Davies is gay and Shyamalan is of Asian-American, it is the audience’s ‘misunderstanding’ that’s to blame, and no reflection on the author or director’s insensitivity.

shyamalan

Shyamalan’s justifications don’t improve thereafter. He insists that the villainous character recast from white to brown is “the actual hero of the series”. Last time I wrote about Avatar: The Last Airbender, I admitted that I hadn’t seen the show. Now I have, and I loved it - I would say it is easily one of the best TV shows of the ’00s - and unless Shyamalan has changed the story radically, I know which roles the characters play.

When he says, “They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect”, he’s being disingenuous. Fans of the show know which characters are the villains, and it happens that all the major villains in the movie are dark-skinned, though all the dark-skinned characters are not villains. Some of the villains do go on journeys towards heroism, and ultimately commit some of the most heroic acts in the story, but they can’t steal the title of ‘hero’ from the guy that kids know is the hero; the one whose role is to save the world.

The second justification? “What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid.” Ringer is the white actor picked to play the Tibetan-looking lead character. Judging by reviews, there are in fact other actors in the world who could have played Aang at least as well. Shyamalan’s hyperbole is not a convincing defence.

Third justification: There are four tribes in the series. Shyamalan cast three of them as non-Caucasian and one as Caucasian, so his world is one-quarter Caucasian, which he considers very fair and balanced. Of course, one of those tribes is extinct in the series, so his world is really one-third Caucasian. Eithier way, the real world is less than one-fifth Caucasian, so Shyamalan gave white folks an upgrade. More crucially, his defence here is that he cast the background characters as non-Caucasian. As a response to the criticism that he made the three heroic leads Caucasian, it’s hopeless. Aang should appear Asian; Katana and Sokka (below) should appear Inuit. All three are played by white Americans.

katarasokkaWhite People.

Shyamalan also says, “The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time.” Well, that’s nonsense; I doubt there’s an ethnicity you can name that James Bond hasn’t run through a crowd of.

Fourth: “The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion.” Here, Shyamalan has a point, sort of. Avatar isn’t anime, but it is influenced by Japanese animation, and the simplicity of character design in animation - and in line drawing in general - does allow people to see themselves in characters regardless of ethnicity. They can say that a character is ‘just like me’, and pretend to be him or her in the playground.

Movies don’t allow for that sort of ambiguity, so Shyamalan had to pick a side - and he picked white kids. This was a movie that kids from non-white ethnicities rightly thought they would be able to own, to identify with without having to reach for it, and Shyamalan chose to take that gift away from them and give it to the white kids. Non-white kids have long had to look for heroes they can identify with regardless of skin colour, because they’re not being served and they don’t have a choice. White kids, it seems, will never be asked to stretch themselves in that way.

Shyamalan also says, “If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.”

This is not right at all, but it’s a common enough trap, and one that I’ve fallen into myself in the past, before learning more about anime and manga. Because drawings are easy to identify with, we tend to see the familiar elements and ignore the unfamiliar ones. Many people have said that the lead character, Aang, ‘looks white’. His skin is pale and his eyes are wide.

lastairbendercastNon-White People.

Aang does not ‘look white’ if you’re Asian. Anime characters do not look Caucasian if you’re Asian, unless they’re meant to be (in which case they’ll probably have big ugly noses, because that’s how Caucasians are often viewed by Asians).

It’s ignorance and presumption to say, ‘if I can see my race in this character, this character can only be my race’. This video brilliantly (but rather hurriedly) skewers that presumption by pointing out exactly how Anime characters look Asian if you’re Asian. Anime characters have rounded Asian faces and Asian bone structure; their round eyes are an animation convention that doesn’t signify any particular race; and plenty of Asian people are pale-skinned.

Japan does prize pale skin as an aesthetic ideal, but that has nothing to do with aspiring towards a Caucasian look, any moreso than white people getting tans is due to ethnic insecurity in the West. Sailor Moon is not white. Ryu from Street Fighter is not white. Aang is not white.

But Aang is also not Tibetan. None of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are actually Asian, or Indian, or Inuit. Avatar is set in a fantasy world; the characters could look like any ethnicity, so why shouldn’t they be white?

This is the most willfully pig-headed justification anyone could offer for the movie’s casting, and Shyamalan is wise enough not to lean on it, but others have made the case. The setting of the series is explicitly inspired by Asian (and Inuit and Mesoamerican) cultures, from buildings to clothing to calligraphy to iconography to hairstyles to weapons to fighting styles to codes of conduct to matters of faith. This isn’t a secret, and it isn’t disputed, so you would need to make a compelling case to explain why the culture should be heavily Asian but the people should not be. That case has not been made.

The case against making that change is simple; Why take heroes away from minority kids in the West who don’t have a lot of heroes in Western culture that they can aspire to? Why make that change at all? There isn’t even a sound business explanation, as none of the actors cast have any box office cachet. The business argument may simply be that audiences are inherently racist, but that will surprise the makers of the hugely successful new Karate Kid movie, with its black and Chinese leads.

It’s true that sometimes characters in fiction are changed from Caucasian to another race, and few people complain, but the clear difference is between adding to the diversity of our entertainment culture, and taking away from it. Caucasians have little cause to protest the former; non-Caucasians have good cause to agonise over the latter. That pained reaction is exactly what we’ve seen from the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, and the outrage is entirely merited.

A lot of fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will be celebrating the movie’s critical excoriation this weekend, and praying that it under-performs at the box office. Even if the movie meets expectations, the message has been sent that fans and minority groups will not take this sort of thing quietly, and movie studios will do well to show more sensitivity in future. Hopefully the studios and the filmmakers will listen. More likely, they’ll just keep making poor justifications.

Are We Being Served? Gays on TV

Monday, March 15th, 2010

AfterElton has a rundown today of the top 50 gay and bisexual male characters on TV, as voted for by the site’s readers (who are mostly gay men).

I’ll let you go over there to read the list, but I had some observations I wanted to share. The main thing to notice is that the vast majority of these characters debuted in the last decade; 41 of them, in fact. Of those, 28 debuted in the last five years (with a further three debuting before 2005, but coming out after).

gaysontvGlee, Southland, True Blood.

Memories are short, of course, and recent characters are always likely to have an advantage in a popular vote. Controversial early groundbreakers like Mr Humphries and Steven Carrington clearly weren’t popular enough to make the cut, but there is good reason for them to be unpopular. There clearly aren’t a lot of missing characters from before 2000. When AfterElton did the same poll in 2007, they only offered a top 25 - there probably weren’t enough popular gay characters of note to fill a top 50.

There are now, though they come from just 29 shows, of which 19 are still airing (though two of these are on their way out). It’s notable that sister site AfterEllen compiled its own list and had to allow characters from movies to get to a list of 50 gay and bisexual female characters.

Some other breakdowns for your consideration. Only 14 of the characters come from US primetime network TV. Nineteen are from cable shows. There are four from daytime soaps (two couples). Thirteen characters are from outside the US; eight from the UK, four from Germany and one from Canada.

Twelve characters come from soaps, and eleven from three queer dramas - six from Queer as Folk USA, one from the UK original, and four from the short-lived black gay drama Noah’s Arc. Of the remainder, three characters come from sci-fi, five from sitcoms, four from comedy dramas and five from teen dramas.

jackontvTorchwood

Eight of the characters are black, and four of these are from one show aimed at a black gay audience. Two are Latino. Only one is South Asian and none are East Asian. None of the characters identify as bisexual. Captain Jack Harkness is ‘omnisexual’; four characters fell in love with men but didn’t otherwise identify as gay; two are still in denial (Ugly Betty’s Justin and EastEnders’ Syed).

More than half the list is comprised of couples, albeit not always model couples. Only two of the couples come from US primetime shows - Brothers & Sisters and Modern Family, both of which are ensemble shows about extended families with gay members. All the other primetime gays are usually single.

What can we learn from all this? This isn’t a survey of all the gay characters on TV, but it does represent the gay characters that gay audiences actually like, and there is the suggestion of a positive trend here. There appears to have been a rise in positive gay representation on TV in the last few years, thanks to shows like Ugly Betty, Modern Family, Glee and Brothers & Sisters on network, and shows like Caprica, True Blood, United States of Tara and Greek on cable.

But that still isn’t a lot of gays, and that isn’t a lot of shows. Only 24 of these characters are on air now, and at least six of them won’t be by year’s end. (Oliver and Kyle, the gay couple from One Life To Live, who had US TV’s first male/male love scene, have now been dropped from that show.)

willontvThe Gold Standard?

It’s also noteworthy that all the gay characters currently on air are supporting characters in ensemble shows. There hasn’t been a gay leading man on US primetime since Will Truman on Will & Grace, and he was famously sexless for years and years. Outside the US, the only leading man is Captain Jack. Of course, this is not the least bit surprising. That there was ever a Will Truman is the real surprise.

In terms of diversity, more gays of colour would be nice, but when there are neither enough gay characters nor enough characters of colour on TV, that seems like a hopelessly optimistic wish. Bisexuality could clearly be a lot better represented - self-identified gays who dabble with women seem more common than self-identified bisexuals, and self-identified straight men who dabble with men are completely unheard of. While we’re on a diversity tip, one might argue that fabulous bitchy comedy gays with an idiosyncratic fashion sense are a little overrepresented, but characters like Greek’s frat jock Calvin and Southland’s bearish cop John Cooper are finally providing some balance in that regard.

The most interesting element of this list is that many of these characters have actually had storylines. To the best of my knowledge, only about a third of the characters have had ‘coming out’ storylines, which is nothing short of a miracle, and very few of them have been violently attacked by homophobes. Remarkably, some of these characters have been involved in love stories. Even more remarkably, some of these characters have been involved in stories that have nothing to do with their sexuality. Soap operas are both the best and worst in this regard; they frequently have coming out and gay-bashing stories, but they’re also more likely to do other things with their gay characters.

We’re approaching level three here, people. Level one is when gay characters appear. Level two is when gay characters appear, do gay storylines, and then disappear. Level three is when gay characters appear, have love interests and do non-gay storylines, and don’t disappear.

Level four is when we stop talking about how extraordinary it is.

What’s Wrong With America’s Military?

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Gay men and women serve openly in the Canadian military. They serve openly in the British military. They serve openly in the Australian military, the Israeli military, the Brazilian military, the Spanish military, the South African military - they serve openly in thirty-one countries around the world. (Thirty-two if you count Russia, where only ‘well adjusted’ homosexuals are allowed to serve, but one hopes that the heterosexual recruits are also ‘well adjusted’.) In all of these countries, from Lithuania to Argentina, the military personnel are disciplined enough to conduct themselves with utmost professionalism.

So what’s wrong with the US military? Why is it so inferior? The US spends more than any other country on its armed forces. It boasts the greatest military strength in the world. It prides itself on being the best in the world. So why is the US military only the 33rd most disciplined?

This is not my judgement, mind you. This is the judgement of the defenders of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, who don’t think the US can be held to meet the expectation set by those other countries. It’s the judgement of California congressman Duncan D Hunter, a former US marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who told NPR that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would be “bad for the cohesiveness and the unity in the military, especially those that are in close combat”. It’s the judgement of Hunter’s colleague ‘Buck’ McKeon, who wants evidence that repeal “would not degrade wartime military readiness”. It’s the judgement of Senator John McCain, who is concerned about the impact of repeal on the “readiness and effectiveness of the military”. It’s a judgement echoed by Bill Kristol, the conservative columnist and star of City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, who is intitimidated by the “organizational complexity” of repeal.

Estonia dealt with the “organizational complexity” of allowing gays the equal right to get shot at in service to their country. Why isn’t the US up to the task? Where is the rigour? Where is the commitment? What’s wrong with the US military?

Crankypants McCain is so unsure of the abilities of the men and women in the forces that he used to serve in that he’s famously flip-flopped on his commitment to follow the military leadership on the policy. Only four years ago, he said, “the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it”. Now that he faces a more conservative tea-bagger opponent in his upcoming Arizona primary, the senator is no longer persuaded by the opinions of either the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael McMullen, or the retired chairman who originated the policy, Colin Powell, both of whom have said, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy’.

Representative Hunter (who is quite the pretty young thing) told Wolf Blitzer that the difference between the US and other countries - countries that the US serves and fights alongside - is that “their military is much smaller than ours, it’s much more specialized”. The US military is too big for cohesion, readiness, effectiveness. That’s why they keep shooting their own allies.

Wolf pointed out that Israel faces some quite significant military challenges of its own. “[B]ut the Israelis have mandatory service,” said Hunter. “So in Israel, it doesn’t matter if you’d like it or not.” So in Israel they have to tolerate gays in the military, and that means… that the problem… just goes away.

To be fair to Rep Hunter, what he’s really saying is that recruits will be scared away if they know there are gays in the military. This didn’t happen in any of these other countries, but maybe Rep Hunter believes that Americans are less patriotic than people in other countries? Maybe Rep Hunter thinks that America isn’t a very good country, and its citizens aren’t proud of it the way that, say, Norwegians are proud of their country? (I think it’s Norway.) Maybe Americans know that their military isn’t very good, so they’re looking for any excuse not to be part of it?

US forces already serve alongside allies that allow gays to serve openly, of course, and Rep Hunter was in Afghanistan with NATO, so he may already have served alongside gay soldiers, but he claims otherwise. “I didn’t run into any open homosexual men or women with … the Brits, Canadians, Germans, French, the other people that I served with over there.” How would he know? Don’t Americans think that all Continentals are a little bit gay? And that Canadian practically means ‘gay American’? But, as I said, Duncan D Hunter is rather pretty, with quite the loveliest blue eyes, and anyway he was in the Marines, so, he’d know.

Except, the policy he seeks to defend is based on the presumption that he wouldn’t know. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell does not bar gay men and women from serving. It just bars them from pursuing or engaging in homosexual behaviour while in service - gays have to remain celibate, on duty or off, in uniform or out of it, from the day they sign up until the day they are discharged.

Gays don’t have to not be gay. Plenty of men and women in the US military are gay, and Rep Hunter served right alongside them in Afghanistan, and he didn’t know. And if the ban were lifted, he still probably wouldn’t know. First of all, he probably wasn’t the most observant guy in the corps. Second, whether gay or straight, you can’t go around shagging your fellow soldiers when you’re on duty. There’s a whole other set of rules against that. As strapping as he is, Rep Hunter had no reason to believe he’d know he was serving alongside homos, unless he thinks they all wear floral camo. Or little pink triangles.

Gays and lesbians serve in the US military today. Having them do so with honesty, honour and integrity should not be a threat to operational efficiency. Not in any military organisation of any worth, anyway. So what’s wrong with America’s military? Why isn’t it as good as Peru’s?

duncan_marines2Duncan D Hunter (right). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Mind If I Do.