hey, anyone noticed that television is kind of weird about gay men?

Oct 28, 2013 22:12

This is something that I think about a fair amount, but various media/fandom developments of the last few weeks have brought it to the front of my mind. The first half of this post is about ~stuff generally; the second half is specific to how it's apparently the Dean/Cas week of our ~cycle in Supernatural fandom.

(A quick note about language: because I'm talking about what most people, most of the time think about media depictions of men who, in some way or another, challenge heteronormativity. Usually, those men will identify/be identified as "gay," and so I've used that where it seems appropriate. I've also used "bisexual" and "queer" where they seemed more apt. I don't really think I have a handle on if or how trans* issues fit into this, and as far as I know I'm only talking about cisgender characters, so I've stayed away from trans* issues in this post.)

For people not in The Vampire Diaries fandom, Rebekah Mikaelson was an extremely popular supporting character on TVD and is now a regular on the spinoff The Originals. The TVD season premiere a couple of weeks ago took everyone by surprise when Rebekah, who was a part of numerous happily fanon femslash ships but had never seemed more likely to be canonically queer than any other character who wasn’t already, kissed another woman onscreen. This wasn’t a woman we knew, so it wasn’t any shipper victory, and there were all kinds of ways the moment was Problematic™(Bex is a vampire, there was a guy in bed with them watching and smirking, &c), and theoretically there’s been enough progress with representation of sexual attraction between women that it’s less of a ~thing than it used to be. One wouldn’t know any of that, though, from the way fandom hit the roof in surprised jubilation when OMFG REBEKAH KISSED A GIRL!!!

If there are extraterrestrial life forms, they located Earth on 10.3.2013, when they heard our unified cry of GET IT, GIRL, GET IT!

"I work, bitches."
My point is that snarking all over some variation on the theme of “oh, YEAH RIGHT, like The CW would suddenly reveal that a starring character is bisexual” is no longer an argument. The CW would do that, which we know because it has done exactly that. And yet, this is an assertion that I see all over the bimonthly Destiel kerfuffles. Now, it’s possible that TVD fandom is significantly more awesome progressive than Supernatural fandom. SPN’s a little bit country, TVD is more than a little ‘80s glam rock. But Occam’s razor suggests we go with the answer that doesn’t involve untestable, generalized guesswork when there’s an obvious answer staring us in the face: that it’s different for men.

Willa Paskin at Slate recently argued that right now, gay men on mainstream television are pretty much sexless compared to queer women. This is something I’ve noticed as well, and there are numerous potential contributing factors at play, eg:
But in service of making that very valid point, Paskin left out one of my own current favorite television couples, Cyrus Beene and James Novak on ABC’s Scandal. It’s easy to be a radikewl and roll one’s eyes about, OF COURSE powerful white wealthy gay men are the face of queerness on network television, but Paskin’s point is that they very much aren’t: women in relationships with other women are roughly as varied as being women on television allows them to be, while non-straight men seem to have a long set of unspoken expectations attached to their representation.

James and Cyrus are radical in their utter normalcy. They’re exactly as couple-y as any other couple on the show, just as likely to pick domestic spats as they are to get busy when laying in bed in their pajamas. Cyrus is one of the most important characters in the narrative and, in-universe, one of the most important people in the world; James is a deeply compelling supporting character. They are as comfortable with their gender presentation as any man on television - Cyrus being largely conventionally masculine and James being a good deal less so.

image Click to view

THE GAY AGENDA. if embed fails

And oh, good God, they are radical in that they are just as reprehensible as everyone else on Scandal, and Cyrus in particular is a good deal worse, and he feels just as free to be horrible to James as he does to the world at large. Not because they’re Tragic Queers, but because they’re normal people in a tragic world.

This is great news. Gay men do not have to earn the right to be publicly acknowledged by being good, healthy, super-“normal” people. Men who challenge heteronormative expectations do not have to meet some straight comfort quotient to be ~allowed on television. Righteous Motherfucker In Residence Jordan Gavaris (Felix Dawkins on the glorious Orphan Black) breaks it down better than I possibly could:

image Click to view

(link: http://youtu.be/_1bLQIv79QA)

You cannot collectively, as a society, decide that you are only going to represent one part of a minority. It’s like saying you have represented black people on television because you aired an episode of The Cosbys. That is not true. Just like you cannot put an episode of Modern Family on and say that you’ve represented the LGBT community. That’s unfair. It’s exclusionary. It’s irresponsible. [crowd goes wild] Where they have a great job, well-adjusted parents, and maybe a surrogate or adopted child. When was that the only way you could represent gay people?

Fortunately, it’s not the only way you can represent gay people. Unfortunately, it does seem to be the only way most media is willing to represent gay men.

This is a problem.

Passengers will observe that we’ve arrived at Dysfunction Junction, and from here we’ll be taking the express route to Supernatural, with spoilers through all aired episodes.

Seeing as the show picked up just about when and where Angel: the Series left off, it had from the beginning a lot of subtextual queer elements. It’s worth pointing out that SPN, a narrative that deals in roughly comparable tropes to the ones detailed in that AtS post from almost exactly ten years ago except for how SPN has featured openly gay characters, is considered to be frustratingly retrograde rather than progressive relative to the broader media context. That is a remarkable turnaround.

Still, subtext. Yes. Sam more metaphorically, what with his running off to California in order to pursue an alternative lifestyle his father tried to keep him away from and his multiple taboo sexual relationships,* and Dean…well.

Pictured: Heterosexuality.
gifset source: mmichigo.tumblr.com

Most of the ~drama tends to revolve around Dean/Cas, and particularly around Dean. There’s a large part of fandom that, as part of their framework for understanding Dean, consider him someone who experiences same-gender attraction and exhibits a pattern of behavior that is highly consistent with active repression of that attraction. And then there’s another part of fandom which just as strongly believes he IS NOT IS NOT IS NOT! (Like, I legitimately cannot recall stumbling across an argument that didn’t boil down to NUH-UH!) Probably my position is clear, but I shall explain. I’m going to be pretty quick with this, because I am sure this has been written better and more insightfully in dozens of other places but I don’t feel like looking because 98% of Dean-related excuse-making woobifying “analysis” makes me want to weep and then die, so. Here goes.

The DEAN IS SO STR8!!! insistence strikes me as coming from the unconscious conditioning of the Acceptable Gay Male Character, as discussed above. That is to say, no bisexuals, ofc. But also, that a character who challenges the hetero default is supposed to either be introduced as The Gay Character, or perhaps they’re in the minority that’ll get a Very Special Episode/Mini-Arc where their Very Special Coming-Out Story will happen in a way that’s hermetically sealed off from everything else about them (which the vast majority of fandom will quickly begin to consider irrelevant) because acknowledgement that the experience of being queer in a homophobic, gender-policing society actually has an effect on people besides alignment with “identity politics” has an unacceptable Straight Comfort Quotient. And you know, I think it’s the combination of those things that really hacks people off about Dean. Regardless of whether or not Dean ends up as a canonically queer character, he will have been very consistently characterized as someone whose struggle with anxious hypermasculinity (of which heterosexuality is necessary but not sufficient) is one of the defining features of his life. Now, gender =/=sexual orientation, ofc. But for a lot of people, there is significant overlap.

“But…but…girls!” is not a persuasive argument for two reasons, one philosophical and the other in terms of characteriaztion.

(1) oh, my god, don't make me do this.

(2) Dean’s sexual attitudes toward and interactions with women strike me as being…not disingenuous or entirely affected, but heavily influenced by his overall masculinity performance. I don’t think he dislikes sex with women, any more than I think he dislikes the classic rock or the leather coat or even the booze. I think he likes all that stuff just fine, but with a learned and practiced type of enthusiasm. Rock music is high-energy and has comforting associations for him, but left to his own devices he gravitates toward softer, smoother stuff, power ballads and Cold War crooners. His clothes are practical and his jacket armor, but he gets childishly happy over the chance to dress in pretty much any other way. He self-medicates with alcohol, searching for an ever-more-elusive baseline, but purchasing alcohol never actively pleases him in the way cooking a decent meal seems to do. And that’s how his encounters with women strike me. It’s not I don’t believe that sexual attraction is an incentive, but that it strikes me as less of an incentive than the fact that casual sex is a way he can fulfill the masculinity imperative while also allowing himself to get his emotional need for connection and vulnerability met in a way that he can’t if he’s to live up to the ~manliness standard.

To put it in the crassest economish terms, Dean’s attraction to women is, psychologically, a low-cost and moderate-to-high-reward behavior. Even the performative leering toward and about women he doesn’t have any expectation of sleeping with has a decent risk/reward tradeoff, because it brings him the comfort of being part of his tough guy persona, and is one of the tools by which he gets people from whom he needs information or resources to underestimate him, or even be charmed by him. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since “flirting”/catcalling isn’t about attraction, it’s about power.) He gets a lot out of acting like a ladies’ man, whether or not he is one. Conversely, the attraction to men that we see pop up from time to time is extremely high-cost to him just to acknowledge, because it challenges a ton of the Be A Man lessons he internalized even more forcefully than most boys in American culture. Actually pursuing same-sex sex would carry all of those psychological costs, on top of the risks that a still-homophobic society piles onto GBQ men. So whether or not sleeping with men would be as high or higher in reward as sleeping with women…is something that I don’t think we know about Dean, or for that matter, something I don’t think Dean knows about Dean.

That is to say, Dean pings me hard. But I was still taken by surprise, toward the end of S8, when Dean started pinging people in-universe.

CHARLIE: What about Castiel? He seems helpful. And dreamy. *gives him the same look you give your little cousin when you’re making sure they have your phone number in case they ever want to talk about STUFF or WHATEVER*

So yeah. I do think that this is permeating the narrative itself. I have also felt lately like the show has more….is it too pretentious to say “queer sensibility”? A little queer flavor. (See here for a S8-focus analysis along these lines.) And not just in the more visible stuff like Charlie/Glinda and the couple in Sacrifice, but in smaller, more subtle things. Like OKAY YES THERE WERE PROBLEMS WITH 8x15 but I want to look at a relatively unimportant side character. Philippe’s story is all about someone who’s in a small, tight-knit, marginalized community, which isn’t shown as inherently wrong, but living on the margin makes him vulnerable to partner abuse from a powerful, controlling member of the community who’s more able to pass for “normal.” This is noticeably solid for a side character in a one-shot episode, the kind of thing that wouldn’t occur to someone who doesn’t think about queer stories but would be very little effort coming from someone who does.

And I think this is, again, not the central or controlling part of the broader mytharc or phase of our leads’ development. This is a world where the old order’s been shattered, and there’s a chance to build something new, something better, something less precarious and violent, and more honest and sustainable. That will definitely have an impact on the characters’ day-to-day self-presentation, and particularly their relationship to their masculinities.

Look, none of this weakens my conviction that Dean is a world-class shithead, but that has no bearing on whether or not he deserves to be locked into the toxic waste dump of anxious hegemonic masculinity, because nobody does. If the character does manage to stop destroying himself and abusing everyone around him in his endless chest-beating Manliness™, that will be a compelling character arc; if a part of that happens to be him coming to conscious acknowledgement of sexual attraction to men as well as women, great! If it doesn’t, fine, but years and years of queerbaiting will be a pretty harsh mark against the show.

(And what if he really hasn’t been into men for the ten years we’ve known him and that becomes part of his life now? SO FUCKING WHAT?! People’s identities and experiences don’t have to be totally static in order to be valid. People’s lives can’t be static. This isn’t some fucking Monopoly grudge match where you have to call the racecar first and then stay the racecar for the whole game. Be the racecar! Be the thimble! Be whatever you gotta be! Just don't go around snatching other people's tokens unless they freely and unambigously agree to an exchange! METAPHOR.)

Supernatural is not just a show about male characters, it is a show about masculinity. And on some culturally conditioned subconscious level, we think it is okay to have a show about masculinity, even to include some very specific vulnerabilities that function to uphold that masculinity, as long as the basic underpinnings of that masculinity remain mostly unquestioned. (Dean gets a little more leeway - both from the audience and in his own mind - because of his weirdly gendered domineering of Sam, as pushing around other men is A-1 Manliness™.) And I think this fandom anxiety strikes right at the crux of the issue, of what have we been watching all this time? Are we actually brave enough to pull out the keystone known as “compulsory heterosexuality” and deconstruct the whole masculinity project?

Odds as to whether the narrative will answer that with a “yes” are a toss-up. I lean toward thinking it's a little less likely than it is likely, though it's far from implausible. But when the “NUH-UH!” from fandom gets this intense, I think we ought to really ask ourselves why. As a rule, I don’t like to psychoanalyze snapshot opinions. But in terms of overall trends? Implicit bias is a problem. Ingrained stereotypes are a problem. Even if we think we are - even if we regularly make conscious choices to behave as if we are - upstanding pro-equality citizens, we have been socialized to have certain expectations about masculinity, and to make certain normative judgments about sexuality.

So, yeah. Not big enough on Dean to run with the Dean/Cas pack, but tend to I come down on the side of Destiel shippers when this shit goes down. Here are the other things I think every time some new scuffle permeates my dash:
  1. Look, yes, there were people who were out of line last week, and it looks like the PTBs handled that in a way which was less than suave. People on the internet showed their asses, news at 11.
  2. I do get frustrated when people lay into Ackles personally. He didn’t sign up to do Michael freaking Kimmel’s job. Michael Kimmel does Michael Kimmel’s job. Putting anyone on the spot and expecting them to speak with ~erudite grace on something so deep and personal as gender and sexuality is unfair and invasive. Ackles has as much of a responsibility not to be gross as anyone else in the world, but even then (in the event that this is an issue, which….I understand it has arguably been in the past?), I can only imagine how I’d feel having every word I said be scrutinized by the freaking international press, especially if I had purposely chosen a career based on my skill set of saying the shit someone else told me to say.
  3. I’m highly ambivalent with regard to the counter-criticism that Dean/Cas shippers are wrong to feel so strongly because we’re talking about straight female fans and gay male characters. I’m uncomfortable when I see it for two reasons: (1) The assumption that we’re talking about overwhelmingly or even necessarily mostly straight women is, acto all available data about fandom generally, not true. Moreover, it doesn’t mesh with what I’ve anecdotally gathered from vocal Dean/Cas shippers I’ve seen around, many of whom are quite frank about the fact that they like the ship because they’re fans but they feel so strongly about it in part because they are queer fans. Are there plenty of people being gross and appropriate for shipping reasons? Of course. There always are. But imputing that motivation to everyone who feels strongly about it is also pretty gross. Maybe let’s not go around casually invalidating women’s sexual identities? (2) Straight and bi women are, in different ways but more or less to the same extent, targets of the same implicit bias that really motivates so much of the weirdness about compulsory male heterosexuality: that wanting dick means you suck. Women, regardless of placement on whatever sexual spectrum, are not wrong to feel threatened by male NO HOMO-ing.
  4. Wrt fanon slash pairings becoming text: even the stodgy OUAT moved toward making canon a hugely popular fanon pairing when it quietly revealed last week that Mulan’s “true love” is the Princess Aurora. Talk about queering existing texts: Sleeping Beauty has been a victim of the most compulsory of heterosexuality since 1959. It’s different for men, but it shouldn’t be.
*I left my Levee thing out of the text because it’s like, the biggest HOLY WTF SHOW and kind of distracting, but I am having a tough time justifying leaving it out of this post given the way fandom’s radio silence about it makes my skin crawl, so. Cowardly footnote it is. This is an actual argument made by a main character on this show: “Quarantine the deviant and let him die of his strange blood-bourne illness because that’s what he gets for having the kind of sex God doesn’t like.” OH, I SEE.

Note: In the interests of transparency of thought processes, I decided to write this because from my relatively mainstream fandom perspective, men do seem (understandably, even admirably) gunshy in pointing out some specific ways that queer male characters are hamstrung by a lot of masculinity expectations, in consideration of the fact that female fans are (also understandably) not real impressed with anything that sounds like WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ. That said, gay and/or queer identified men, I know this is a conversation which is by and large about y’all, so I hope my respectful intent came through and that this feels like an environment where you can say what you what you want.

to/tvd: rebekah is the mf'ing princess, scandal, masculinity, orphan black, lgbtq, spn: dean what even, sexuality

Previous post Next post