A few years ago I attended a panel on gay rights issues hosted by NYU Law. The President of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was among the panelists. He was most intrigued by a question I asked about the social arc of gays in the media. I used portrayals of blacks as an analogy. In television, we went from the offensive Amos ‘n’ Andy (on radio first) to The Jeffersons to The Cosby Show to Bernie Mac.
I’m oversimplifying, ruling out Roots and Julia, for example, but basically one could interpret the representation of blacks as lead characters on American television (sitcoms) as racist, then a sort of separate but equal, then white-washed (white-normative?) with Cos, then perhaps more authentic. I say ‘perhaps’ because I’m not black; but Bernie seemed more real to me, more reflective of the middle class black people I knew then. My point of tracing this interpretive arc was to ask if it was analogous to representations of gays; does society, and therefore media as social constructs, follow this sort of path from prejudice/fear of the other to normativity to authenticity? (This is not a linear process. See Reality Television.)
Of course, these terms are terribly tricky. Take authenticity. For example, The L Word is enjoyable, but laughable in terms of realism. One could argue all those straight women playing lesbians on the show are analogous to black face/ minstrelsy. I would not go that far, especially since gender and sexuality construction is qualitatively different from racial identity formation. But I would take The L Word over Will and Grace (funny show) if I had to choose which one better represents “my people.” Lesbian drama, anyone? And there’s another problem with my question about media representation and social arcs: defining an entire group of people is a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a television show.
This gets to why I respectfully declined when the GLAAD Pres basically offered me a job after the talk. I do not agree with the element of control or attempts to control media on the part of GLAAD and organizations like the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC). I’d rather celebrate those media that do offer fair representations and discourse on marginalized communities (Let’s hear it for Bitch magazine, for starters!) Don’t get me wrong, GLAAD knows how to fete great media (e.g. their annual awards). But when I think about studies like the one recently announced by the NHMC, I get a little angry. The study found:
Media contribute to negative stereotypes. (I am SHOCKED, shocked.)
What a fucking waste of research money. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said. Let’s spend more money on solutions and more complex understandings of social problems. I am even more disturbed by the underlying goal in these studies, the subtext of suppression seeping through the data points. Censorship is seldom the answer. (I’m only persuaded by arguments involving children). Create media, people. Speak, knit, roll on the floor, occupy, code, dance, turn nouns into verbs, semaphore until your heart explodes. Do it because you have to do it; do it because you have the freedom to do it. Culture is what we make it, not how we break it.