How Popular Queer Culture Puts Us Back into the Closet

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Finding a place for myself within the queer community has not been as much an immediate acceptance as it has been a journey, one widely influenced by the binary ideas portrayed in mainstream media. Growing up as a transgender youth identifying as queer, ideas of gender expression and roles influenced my identity from a very early age. Although my parents were a heterosexual couple, I grew up with popular queer media such as the L Word and other programs involved with Showtime, HBO and LogoTV. These sources did not often involve transgender individuals, and almost never portrayed gender expression along a spectrum, instead labeling characters as either masculine or feminine. As a youth I had failed to recognize that my already very limited selection of role models were projecting the same stereotypes that initially oppressed the LGBTQ community. The heterosexual gaze of queer media through mediums such as movies and television continue to perpetuate a stereotypical representation of the LGBTQ community in order to generate profit.

Queer media has only recently made it’s way into popular culture. In 2000, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman broadcasted Queer as Folk, the first hour long American drama television series portraying the lives of gay men and women. The series, originally starting in the United Kingdom a year before, followed five gay men and one lesbian couple in what would be perceived as their everyday lives. Where gay culture had previously been represented as non-sexual, essentially platonic relationships (such as in Will and Grace), the show unapologetically showed gay men having realistic gay sex. It approaches non-traditional types of relationships and sexual activity such as polyamory, public sex, underage sex, prostitution and kink in an attempt to reveal the true sex lives of the gay male community. Many of the actors from the show even came out as gay or bisexual during their acting careers. Along with the unapologetically sexual approach to the show, it succeeded in showing some of the realistic struggles within the queer community, such as drug abuse, unsafe sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases and the effects of homophobia.

Despite the non-compromising approach to sexual activity, the show is binary as far as it’s portrayal of individual characters. The entire cast appear to be younger, white and affluent with only one minor crew member of color who made a two episode appearance. In this way, the show intentionally fails to depict the diversity of the gay community, adhering to the commercial demands of television by creating an image only suitable for a majorly affluent white audience.

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The Queer Representation in Film and Television article from MediaSmarts concludes that the profit-motivation relationship in television “relies on generating long term advertising money for investors, which means that networks and advertisers are generally looking for programs with as wide appeal as possible. This model may be the greatest hurdle to any minority group gaining widespread and fair exposure on television.” Because of this, Queer as Folk had to limit it’s spectrum in order to gain a larger audience, otherwise threatening to become too controversial to grow in popularity.

Most of the characters in the show are depicted through definitive gender roles, correlating ideas of power in relationship with masculinity, and making the major function of more femininely portrayed characters as sexual objects. While the original audience of the show was intended to be for queer men, it eventually relied on an even larger audience, heterosexual married women. The show gained popularity by focusing primarily on the sexual behavior of the male characters, confining their identities and limiting the complexity in character development which are usually present in shows starring heterosexual characters. In this way, the sexually defined identities of the characters continues to affirm the stigma relating to promiscuity and recklessness which drives more subtle, underlying homophobia. In contrast, the lesbian couple are limited in the expression of sexual behavior toward one another, usually shown in a non-romantic light and eventually relying on one of the more “masculine” gay characters as a sperm donor. In this contrast of masculine versus feminine, masculinity is defined as power and success where femininity represents submissiveness and lack of influence within the community.

The critically acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain, released in 2005 and based off of the short story by Annie Proulx, also correlates masculinity with importance or power in the context of relationships. Brokeback Mountain follows the story of two young western cowboys who are hired by a contractor to work herding sheep together in the mountains of Wyoming, where they find sexual intimacy with one another. Neither men had previous homosexual relationships before meeting one another, and due to the timing of their relationship being from 1963 to 1983 could not pursue a future together as it would have been socially unacceptable to do so.

Although the movie is about the story of the two men together, it most closely follows Ennis, who is portrayed as the more masculine of the two characters. Displayed on the movie cover, he is placed in front of Jack. Both men are played by well known straight white actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall, who are popular sexual figures in the film industry.

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There are many differences in portrayal of the character development and the relationship of the men between the short story and film adaptation. Jack is represented as the more effeminate of the two men and also the instigator of the initial sexual activity in the film. This character has been interpreted in conservative eyes as the perverse homosexual who taints an otherwise heterosexual man. This idea is exemplified in the initial sex scene, where Jack seems to aggressively pressure Ennis into engaging in sexual activity. Ennis is portrayed as giving in on the basis of sexual need, even then engaging in a non-intimate way and claiming the next day that it was only a one time deal. However, when the men did continue to give in to their desires, the film misrepresents the joy of the men’s relationship by using what seems like a biblical reference of a bloodied lamb after a thunderstorm to represent shame for their continued activities. The short story adaptation left this scene out and instead empathized empowerment with their continued intimacy.

After spending nearly twenty years apart, both men agree to go back to “Brokeback”, the only term referred to throughout the movie as a symbol of freedom from the social constructs that confine them to the conservative Wyoming lifestyle, and is one of the only long term emotional states of being they shared together. During this last encounter, they engage in an argument represented differently in the film adaptation than the short story. In Christian Draz’ critique on Brokeback Mountain, he addresses the difference in conflict between the versions,

“In the story, when Jack cries out in frustration, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” Ennis mutely, shockingly, collapses to his knees, his legs buckling beneath the unbearable weight of the thought that Jack might actually leave him. In the movie, however, Ennis howls, “Then why don’t you?! Why don’t you let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this. I’m nothin’. I’m nowhere.” These words are wrong in so many ways! This self-pitying outburst from the man who has always gotten by on next to nothing? Whose motto has been, “if you can’t fix it, you got a stand it”? … This refutes their mutual hunger, turns Jack into a predator, Ennis into a victim, and their passion into a kind of prison. Worse still, it dangerously suggests that one man can turn another man into a homosexual, literally queering his hope for heterosexual happiness.”

The film creates the opposite effect of the short story meaning by correlating tragedy to giving in to homosexual desires, leaving what could be a normal life behind. Ennis, the more masculinized character, is exempt in part from the critique received by conservative reviewers because he is viewed as having been coerced into sexuality on the part of the more effeminate, queer man. Homosexuality then creates a representation in popular media of imprisonment and failure that can be avoided. While the original short story by Annie Proulx is not represented in popular media, the positive messages on empowerment she meant to present to society were lost in it’s film adaptation which visualized homosexuality as a lifestyle filled with sorrow and shame.

Perceptions of gender roles relating to power are affirmed even in shows such as Ru-Paul’s Drag Race, which are intended to provide a more diverse perspective on aspects under-represented in popular culture within the queer community such as gender identity, sexuality, size, class, race and ethnicity. The activist, actor and drag artist Ru-Paul hosts the reality television show starring drag queens as contestants. These contestants are carefully picked with the intention of having a diverse cast with queens of each status competing in each season. In the show, queens have to use their drag skills to endure challenges in which they prove their drag abilities to Ru-Paul among several other celebrity judges.

The show itself was intended for a queer audience, as it showed on LogoTV, however it also tended to have a large heterosexual female audience as well. The contestants were judged through a gender conforming lens not uncommon in fashion shows such as America’s Next Top Model, which reinforce ideas of external beauty as the only way to be successful as a femininely identified person. When queens did not fit into these particular qualities of what Ru-Paul viewed as ideal drag, they were not able to succeed in the show. Those who express their drag performance in a way which challenges the oppressive standards originally set for women are thus viewed as offensive and shunned from their community. One example is the drag queen Milk, who often times creatively questioned ideas of masculinity and femininity through her performances. After Milk chose Ru-Paul out of drag as the selection of her favorite Ru-Paul costume, she immediately ended up losing the competition. Some other criticisms of the show question whether RuPaul tends to disregards comedic or campy queens, singularly focusing on fashion as her standard for success.

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Despite the nature of the show intending to be a form of activism which spreads awareness and eliminates binary thinking, there has been much controversy after a mini-challenge on the show titled “Female or She-male,” where contestants were asked to identify whether a photo showed a cisgender woman or a former contestant (drag queen) after viewing cropped portions of photos. This has major implications against gender variant and transgender individuals as well as continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes for drag queens.

While Ru-Paul’s Drag Race plays an influential role in challenging the expression of the LGBTQ community in mainstream media, RuPaul uses derogatory terms and binary ways of talking about the community in order to utilize humor or entertainment and gain popular view. Ru utilizes popular culture figures as judges to rate queens in order to gain popularity and viewers from the non-LGBTQ community which served as a bridge between many different cultures. However, this conformity to the demands of heterosexual media continues to perpetuate stereotypical representations of gender identity and sexuality throughout the queer community.

Because the commercial demands of television still majorly adhere to the heterosexual white community, queer media has to censor its portrayal of the queer community to fit the binary lens which maintains the power status. By limiting the exposure of controversial messages realistic in the queer community, those who fit outside of the popularized images feel pressured to conform in order to feel accepted. Although the increased popular queer media has created a bridge in awareness regarding parts of the community, it still affirms and approves of oppressive notions which keep these same communities in the closet. If queer media were to discard the heterosexual lens which limits us to binary terms, it would lead to empowerment and the deterioration of the invisible barriers which oppress the LGBTQ population.

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Works Cited

Bayly, Michael J. “The Wild Reed.” Weblog post. : Christian Draz’s Critique of “Brokeback Mountain” N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2015.

Jenkins, Sarah Tucker. “Hegemonic “Realness”? An Intersectional Feminist Analysis of RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Thesis. The Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, 2013. (n.d.): n. pag. Hegemonic “Realness”? An Intersectional Feminist Analysis of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Web. 25 May 2015.

“Queer Representation in Film and Television.” Queer Representation in Film and Television. MediaSmarts, n.d. Web. 25 May 2015

Brokeback Mountain Movie Cover. Digital image. Ia.media-imdb.com. N.p., n.d. Web.
Garcia, Luis-Manuel. Loren Granic, Gregory Alexander of A Club Called Rhonda. Digital image. An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture. N.p., 28 Jan. 2014. Web.
Milk as Rupaul. Digital image. Businessnewsdaily.com. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/images/i/000/005/629/i02/milk-as-rupaul.png?1396618317&gt;.
Queer as Folk. Digital image. Frontiers Media. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.frontiersmedia.com/Pics/Features/11895_queer_as_folk_01.jpg&gt;.
Trainspotting Movie Quote. Digital image. Imoviequotes.com. N.p., n.d. Web.
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