Gayface: Gay Minstrelsy in the 21st Century – Not So Funny? Is It?
“Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.” – From Wikipedia
Gay Minstrelsy: it has always bothered me, but I’ve never been able to put it into any kind of context before. Recently, I was watching an episode of ‘Modern Family’ where Cam, one of the gay characters, is rehabbing a house with his sister-in-law Claire. The actor playing Cam, Eric Stonestreet, is straight and that is not really the problem. It’s more the choices he, his costumers, director(s) and the writers make for this character that are… disturbing, to say the least. (An opinion that is shared by others: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20639744,00.html)
Cam is a former farm boy and, we are led to believe, can play tough when needed. Unfortunately, that part of his personality is rarely depicted. Instead, we are treated to what I can only term as every gay queen cliché in the book, right down to the little pale blue kerchief tied artfully around his neck throughout the above mentioned ‘rehabbing’ episode. What the hell is with the little scarf? I’ve rehabbed a number of houses and never felt the need to wear one while doing so. I have NEVER even met a gay man who wears one. What’s next? A paisley kaftan a’la Endora from ‘Bewitched’ while digging a ditch? Maybe a bejeweled jockstrap while playing touch football at his next high school class reunion? But wait… it gets worse.
Cam is into musical theatre, no, wait, that should be: Cam is WAY into musical theeee-ah-tour! In one episode he plays the understudy for a role in a community theatre production of ‘Cats’. No, we never get to see him in the actual theatre, instead his character ends up stuck in a tree in full costume where he must wait for the fire department to bring him down… because that’s soooooo gay. Funny? Not so much.
As portrayed by the writers and director(s) of the show and Stonestreet, the character frequently minces about, behaving skittishly feminine and easily upset; like a gay stereotype from the 1960’s – all for laughs - laughs that he never earns from me, because I am kind of sickened by this portrayal. And what about the writing? Am I to believe that the character of Cam is being written by a gay man? I very much doubt it, but if it is, then that gay man should really consider the message he’s sending, because it’s offensive. It’s that same ‘message’ that killed (arguably) the recent gay-themed shows ‘The New Normal’ and ‘Partners’. Oh, and writing a script where you send Cam to a dude ranch and throw him on the back of a horse dressed in more leather fringe than Cher? Not helping.
So, I ask… How much longer are gay people going to put up with these types of portrayals? And is promoting these stereotypes all that different from the days of ‘Amos and Andy’?
I’d been thinking about this topic since watching that episode of ‘Modern Family’, and then came across this article at Salon: http://www.salon.com/2013/06/12/stop_praising_straight_actors_for_playing_gay_roles/
While the Salon article focuses on the issue of whether straight actors should depict gay characters, it does bring up the subject of gay minstrelsy and the “entire can of worms about the whole notion of straight-created, gay-themed entertainment”, making the point that “there remains something distinctly hetero-normative about the way so many gay stories are being told.”
I do not agree with the article on its main point. I have no problem with straight actors portraying gay characters (a good actor is a good actor – a gay actor can play straight, so to decry the reverse would be hypocritical, thus rendering their main argument a non-issue). However, haven’t they hit a bulls-eye with that ‘straight-created’ thing? Because if something is gay-themed, but straight-created, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the story told becomes gays as viewed through the ‘distinctly hetero-normative’ filter of how straights perceive gay people? A perception that, while admirable, can only be termed as ‘limited’, because: can you truly know that which you ain’t?
Add to that the fact that those straights bent on bringing gay lives to the masses so rarely get it right. Actually… I struggle to think of a single instance. ‘Brokeback Mountain’? Really? I would argue that the whole ‘gay men’-as-sheep imagery, coupled with the rather Leni Riefenstahl-ish camerawork (an aspect that also sunk the good intentions of ‘Philadelphia’) and the need to make the story so fucking tragic pretty much torpedoed that cowboy-drag movie for me. I was happy that it portrayed gay men as… well, for lack of a more politically correct term, real men, that the film was successful, and that it got straight folks talking. But nuanced subtlety? Not in the cards. To my eyes, it was like a painting by Leonardo da Vinci being rendered using a thick, black permanent marker.
Am I saying that all gay characters should be butch, or (worse) boring? Am I saying that only feminine portrayals of gay men are offensive? Not at all. Here’s my point: these gay characters being brought by satellite into our homes each week? They represent an opportunity to show more than one-side of what it means to be gay. And, as a writer, I believe you do a great disservice to the community, the character, and that opportunity if all you do is serve up the same gay cliché’s that the public has been forced to consider humorous for eons – yes, forced - because that is all they have ever been shown.
Now, shouldn’t I be grateful that there are gay people being portrayed on television and movies? Shouldn’t I be happy for those actors and their success?
No. While I don’t begrudge anyone success and applaud the entertainment community’s many attempts at inclusion, I think that success and inclusion has come at a cost.
But it’s harmless fun. Fun? Questionable. Harmless? You mean like Amos and Andy were harmless? Like Flavor Flav is harmless?
See my point?
But don’t misunderstand me… Gay is not the new Black. Black is still Black. Gay is a whole new ball game… being played in the exact same stadium.
You know who sort-of got it right? Tony Randall in “Love, Sydney”. Yes, Sydney was basically Felix Unger living with a single mother, but the gay thing? It was never brought up, yet was at the heart of the show. You could argue that the character wasn’t really gay because it was never the focus of the show, but… did it need to be? Didn’t that photo on the mantel tell us all we needed to know? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love,_Sidney)
A more recent refreshing portrayal of a gay character? Adam Pally as Max on ‘Happy Endings’ (canceled). Pally’s Max is a sloven, video game/junk food/sports enthusiast, and a breath of fresh air in canon of gays on television. Not so cool? Stephen Guarino as Derrick on the same show: the gang's "offensively stereotypical gay" friend, who loves to bring the "D-R-A-M-A!" Ugh. Oddly enough – Pally is straight. Guarino? Also straight (as in ‘straight to Bath and Beyond’s after Christmas Sale, sweet cheeks!) Uh, yeah, he’s terminally gay (yes, those cliché’s exist for a reason; so this actor can have a career).
What about ‘Will and Grace’? Well, I gave that show a pass. Because the queen-ish (pun intended) character of Jack was portrayed by Sean Hayes, he brought a more balanced, more nuanced and, therefore, more viable portrayal to the small screen.
And the character of Will? Eh. It was harmless: mostly asexual and a bit on-the-nose based on all the black knit crew cut sweaters I saw at the time as worn by the gays working for Target Corporation. Sure, the scripts gave the characters little to do other than spout quips and one-liners in rapid-fire succession, but, hey, as revolutions go, it was a start.
Now we’re beyond that. Way beyond.
The fact is: these clichés have overstayed their welcome and need to be retired. They need to go the way of Al Jolson’s old act, the crows in Disney’s ‘Dumbo’ , and ‘Amos and Andy’.
Use the comments section to share any insights you might have.
It would be SIMPLY FAB-BU-LOUS to hear your thoughts.