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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Outing and 'positive images' in Hollywood

A speech last week arguing for an end to anti-LGBT stereotypes by a Hollywood studio leader has received much attention. Amy Pascal, chair of Sony Pictures, said:
Old stereotypes still exist. The most benign stereotypes would have a gay kid believe that they will end up being the asexual, witty best friend of the pretty girl, or a drag queen, or a swishy hairdresser. The list goes on.

Of course, there are great images, too, like the family in The Kids Are All Right. The way the boy in Perks of Being a Wallflower and the middle-aged man in Hotel Marigold and the 75-year-old man in Beginners come out to a better, richer, more fulfilled life. It’s treated as a celebration.
I hated The Kids Are All Right. I hated the people depicted, just the worst sort of self-absorbed Californian liberals, I hated the dialogue, but what I most hated was how they treated the help, the Hispanic gardener, something which received no comment in any review I saw. So, one persons 'positive image' is anothers waste of time and money.

Pascal led off by citing The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo's seminal history of gay representation at the movies. Tellingly, Pascal referred to the documentary, not the book.

Russo's book is about how representation was there right from the beginning of cinema, if you knew where to look. But in the later years Celluloid Closet shows how so much of this became relentlessly negative. This is hardly surprising. Just as is happening now in Africa, increasing gay visibility in the United States at that time created a backlash.

I thought of this time when reading Richard Smith's take on Pascal's speech:
It's a bit simplistic and resurrects a rather tired 80s argument about "positive images" in popular culture. Haven't we got over this by now?
During those 'tired' 80s and well into the 90s, Hollywood representation became a leading gay political issue. This was the time of the AIDS crisis, of Act-Up civil disobedience, and of a movement challenging Hollywood on the streets. There were protests at the Oscars, twice. Location filming was disturbed.

The power of the culture to impact facts on the ground is self-evident now, when we see something like the Vice President of the United States citing TV show Will and Grace for why he changed his view on marriage.

Actor Wilson Cruz, who starred on cult classic TV series My So-Called Life in the 1990s, explained on Melissa Harris Perry:
We cannot overstate how powerful that is when someone walks through a story and experiences a life on their television screens in their home. They really understood who we are as a people. So now they're voters. Now they're legislators and running the country. So story is important because we get into the heart and the mind of people.
Back then the power of the culture was self-evident too, if only to some, and that was because the negativity was relentless. Something like William Friedkin's Cruising can now be looked at by bleeding-edge film-maker James Franco as a sexy artefact to be examined. Back then it was yet another movie in which gay people receive their just desserts: death. Both that and the now seen as camp Basic Instinct, made 12 years after Cruising, attracted demonstrations when they were being filmed.

'Inning' Jodie Foster

When Jodie Foster 'came out' in January, none of the coverage mentioned that she had been 'outed' way back in 1991, let alone examined why.

Multi-Oscar winning (including for Foster) The Silence Of The Lambs had what was widely described as an anti-gay (now understood as transphobic) character, the serial killer Buffalo Bill. The American gay writer and broadcaster Michaelangelo Signorile writes in his book about 'outing', Queer In America, that he asked questions of Foster about the controversy because he thought her sexuality, known to Signorile and well known in Hollywood, was relevant. This follows the same logic as to why you might ask the black actors specific questions about Django Unchained, they have a perspective a white actor likely lacks.

It was reported at the time that people in cinemas were screaming 'Kill the faggot' during the Buffalo Bill scenes, so it wasn't some minor point of obscure film criticism involved but a possibly extremely damaging representation, one which evidently had repercussions outside a cinema. Larry Kramer was among those yelling about this (at Vito Russo's eulogy). Protesters invaded the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Director Jonathan Demme later said that although he defended his film at the time he went on to understand the issue of problematic representation of gay people. Foster, or maybe her agents, did not respond to Signorile, who subsequently wrote about the episode -- 'outing' her -- in a column. This was highly controversial, particularly with feminists who saw her and Clarice Starling as a female role model. And, of course, absolutely no journalists reported on the episode or asked her about it. In fact I don't think she has ever been asked about it.

What Signorile explains in the book was actually going on was an active conspiracy by the mainstream media to 'in' Foster, to say that this one aspect of her life was 'off limits' despite its obvious relevance to a news story. I can't think of too many other cases where the media would say 'that is private' and deliberately, and collectively, decide to not ask perfectly relevant questions of a public figure.

The one case, from recollection of the book, that Signorile examines, where he thought public discussion of a 'hidden' aspect of a public figure might cause real harm is illness. But being a lesbian is not being ill and what harm would be caused in Foster's specific case by asking uncomfortable questions? Possibly it might cause harm -- someone deeply closeted might kill themselves for example -- but as a general rule what makes someone's sexuality totally off limits for discussion with a public figure?

From what I hear on the issue of 'outing' it is argued that it is her sex life that should be considered private -- but it is her lesbian identity, not her sex life, which is relevant to something like the Silence Of The Lambs controversy. Saying it is about her sex life says more about those arguing this than those who would write straightforwardly about something which is actually well-known about a public figure, as Foster's lesbian identity was.

Signorile documents the backlash -- Foster became the "poster child" for the anti-outers in the early 1990s -- and when something generates quite the amount of vitriol as outing did then, and still does, shouldn't we be asking why so many are so vociferously concerned to defend the integrity of the closet under the fig leaf of 'privacy'?

This, I think, throws another light on "a rather tired 80s argument about "positive images" in popular culture". The culture may have more gay representation In Toto (The Kids Are All Right, bleurgh) but the number of 'out' stars remains defiantly low. And we have created a bizarre ritual around 'coming out' shown in the Jodie Foster episode this year as well as that of Anderson Cooper.

"Haven't we got over this by now?" Apparently not.

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