Friday, December 03, 2004

f (stereotypes) =

This weekend we're taking our students to see TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND. This actually is political, which is why I'm writing about it. It's a risky decision for several reasons, not least of which is homosexuality. TML is full of openly homosexual people and plays that are openly about homosexuality; my class is, to say the least, not. And yet, I think it's a little bit more than it would have been three or four years ago.

The school where I teach--the high school, that is--is an inner-city (in Chicago, that's technically outer city, but what're you gonna do) magnet school in a terrible neighborhood with an entirely black student body. The urban black community in Chicago is not where you go for tolerance of homosexuality. Part of it's that Pentecostal churches are so often the centers of communities, but a former boss of mine, who is black and I believe in the closet (many reasons, longer story--I think he was only in the closet at work, and I think he deliberately dropped hints to me), said something very interesting about it: basically, black men in America have had to work so hard to be recognized as men in the first place that many black communities are reluctant to acknowledge anything that could put that status at risk.

So here are my high-school students, trying to prove themselves as young, intelligent, black men and women. One girl--one of my favorite people, for all her difficulties--has written a play in which there is a gay character, but he appears in a sequence about the negative results of a broken home, i.e. the daughter gets into trouble at school, one son is in therapy, one son started dealing drugs, one son is gay. At one point, one of the girls in our class--a deeply smart ninth-grader--was reading that role, and she made it extremely swishy, mocking, etc. The boys who have read it actually take it seriously, and yet my favorite male student, a wonderful wonderful guy (who wants to be a brain surgeon, but joined our acting and playwriting class because he needs to have a backup career), has recently been seen doing the "swishy" character when he's just messing around. Not the swishy character in the play, just recreationally swishy. I'm confident that he isn't gay, but what I feel like picking apart here is the function of the "swishy" stereotype, and, by extension, of stereotypes in general.

In this day and age, The Gay Man is white, extremely well-off, has a heart of gold and an excellent sense of style. The runaway success of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY can't really be entirely urban--I find it hard to believe that its audience is composed only of people who already know guys like that. I went to a high school more tolerant than most--we actually had the occasional openly gay student, one of whom is now an inordinately famous fashion designer--but while I was in high school it was relatively rare for the homosexuality of actual people we knew, rather than homosexuality in the abstract, to be discussed up front. Not that it didn't happen (a tenth-grade teacher came out to us, among other things), but it didn't spend the same amount of time on the table even as it does in the urban, black, basically homophobic community where I teach now. From the first scenes our kids wrote, gay was mentioned--not supported or explored necessarily, but in most cases not mocked either. The success of openly gay celebrities and pop-cultural phenomenons (openly as opposed either to closeted or to undiscussed, as it so often was in the '50s or '60s) may have finally done what it has to do.

I'm not really getting to my point here, I just keep getting distracted. Back to QUEER EYE, which, while a guilty pleasure, for some time offended me--while people laud its bearing homosexuality into the mainstream, didn't they *realize* that it's perpetuating all this bullshit about homosexuals, you can only be properly gay with a certain level of disposable income how ridiculous is THAT, bla bla bla etcetera. You've heard it all before, probably from me. But now I'm wondering . . . what were the suburbanites who watch it religiously, enojying Karson even if they're kind of making fun of him, going to get *any* information about the fact that homosexuals live and function in a social world, if not from seeing a few stereotypical flaming people? Might it be preferable for my students, living in communities that in some cases will ignore homosexuality with incredible willpower, to be able to use stereotypes as a way of bringing the concept into their lives, one way or another?

Maybe homophobic people *need* to keep gay people in a form that's safe for them to talk about. Which is where QUEER EYE and other stereotypes come in. You have to forge one path through the forest, 'cause otherwise nobody's ever going to see the trees a-tall. Even if on this path they see limited and relatively uniform trees, and there are a massive shitpile of other trees in the forest that they've yet to see, at least they can understand some basics about what trees, you know, look like. And maybe then they'll choose to explore off the path, make a few new paths, and maybe they won't. But ultimately, I might sooner have had 'em see a tree at all.

Then, of course, there's the part where they come in with axes. But that can't actually said to be caused by their exposure to a certain kind of tree. This metaphor gets a little silly here, and I can't take this one any further tonight. I 'unno. Thinking about it.


At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sez Milligan:

Entirely by coincidence, I read this post shortly after allowing a friend here to get AVENUE Q's "Everybody's A Little Bit Racist" stuck in my head for a long weekend of battling a cold. Which will, I desperately hope, be all cleared up before next week's globe-trotting adventure. But I digress.

The song leaves me a bit uncomfortable, because it essentially claims that racial stereotyping is more trouble than it's worth to avoid, as long as it remains confined to the little things, while not bothering to raise the related and perfectly valid question of where we draw the line between stereotypes and demographics. In fact, it rather badly conflates the two categories. For instance (to yank various characters' complaints from the song) no modern psychiatric survey would support the conclusion that Poles are generally stupid, but in certain communities rich in first-generation immigrants it might be reasonable to assume that your Latin-American busboy doesn't speak the best English. And in between, while demographic research could in principle answer the question of how often the typical Pakistani taxi driver showers, I'd be very suprised if much data exists along those lines.

Now here you go pointing out a potential social utility to a certain class of stereotype. Albeit possibly a novel one, since I'm not convinced that it would apply in a pre-mass media environment. Which raises the question, what would you consider the last analogous event, of a previously invisible population emerging into the social consciousness without the attendant difficulties of immigration, assimilation, labor displacement, etc.?

Can you point to the feminist movement as transforming women into a different kind of social actor and thus producing a similar emergent population? One might, and I'd be tempted to point to notions of the bra-burning, man-hating ultra-feminist as the relevant caricature-as-point-of-reference. Although it's generally been my impression that this figure was sketched out by those hostile to the feminist agenda as a deliberate effort to delegitimize the movement. On the third hand, the inverse with regards to "swishiness" is also plausible since, whatever its faults, the "swishy" Gay Man does come across as basically harmless. And "funny but harmless" is an infinitely preferable category to inhabit than "mortal threat to civilization."

Finally, while we're on the subject, just allow me to observe that AVENUE Q does a lovely job of inverting the thematic dynamic that so aggravated you in RENT; it too has a contrived and utterly implausible happy ending, but one which is entirely acceptible given that it's, you know, a play about fuzzy puppet monsters.


At 11:38 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Interesting point, or points, or I guess . . . radiations? That seems right. Interesting radiations. Not as in harmful and carcinogenic, but as in things that radiate out from the original concept. And coincimadentally, I was actually listening to AVENUE Q as I read your comment--even on "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." Go figure. Superkismettastic.

First, as to "'funny but harmless' is an infinitely preferable category to 'mortal threat to civilization.'" I never, in fact, thought of that. That is to say, the dudes on QUEER EYE are never show actually dealing with their own romantic partners--which is to say, actually doing the things that *make them gay men*, since having strong decorating or cooking skills (those two guys are my favorites on the show) doesn't actually do that, being sexually attracted to men and fucking them and/or having relationships with them as a result of said sexual attraction, while neither fucking nor having relationships with women (or at least not *wanting* to do either of the latter) does. And it's all the lying with a man as you would a woman (who the hell are "you," anyhow?) that makes you a mortal threat to civilization. If we as the inadvertent, rather than, you know, advertent, oppressors of society can divest gay men of the sexual threat and leave only the swishiness . . . um . . . more power to us? How/why more power? We think we're succeeding at getting homosexuals into the mainstream but without allowing them to be what is actually homosexual, but we're not aware of that so we don't have to be guilty? Maybe.

Which goes back to what you're saying about "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," methinks. I'm not sure I have the same problems with it that you do, though I am fascinated by the question of where to draw the line between stereotypes and demographics. But either way, if you get to complain about Mexican busboys' not speaking goddamn English, you get to skim over actual American xenophobia, our fundamental lack of acceptance for things that diverge from our culture. (And I think there *is* American culture, contrary to popular rumor--it's got a lot of aspects to it that I don't like, but it's such a ridiculous concept to say that we're an acultural society.)

I'm not sure how analogous the bra-burning man-hating bitch is to the swishy fashion-designing disposable-incomed gay man, mostly for reasons that you already pointed out: few and far between were the feminists who actually endorsed or deliberately lived the stereotype, while the gay men who do so are many.

In the interim, we *did* take our students to see TOO MUCH LIGHT last night, and doing so was a tremendous success, and I'm interested in the conversations we're going to have, particularly about Sharon's three very explicit plays about being a lesbian. They ended up happening in rapid succession, but at exactly the right time in the show for my kids--as in, Sharon had already been established onstage as a person they liked and found amusing and were interested in, and suddenly there she was being a lesbian. I wonder what it must be like to be deeply religious and anti-homosexuality, like my student Tiera (an incredibly smart, talented, sensitive person), and to see and sympathize with someone like that onstage only to find you must dismiss them as a sinner . . . hopefully she'll tell me about it.

Mass media will have to wait for another day.


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