Monday, March 3, 2014

Homophobia, Hollywood, and the Heartland

NY Times 3-2-14 Strip: Homophobia Handbook
I don't usually watch the Academy Awards.  For one thing, I usually don't get to most of the movies being honored (and I cannot watch extreme violence or brutalization in any form so avoid a lot of the ones that often wind up being nominated).  For another thing, I find the kind of self-congratulatory smugness of awards shows to be eye-rollingly idiotic.  But Ellen DeGeneres's brand of gentle insurrectionist comedy is very appealing and I admire her for living her life unapologetically and with grace.

What was kind of interesting about this year's best picture nominees was their variety.  The usual suspects--violence, greed, violence, Woody Allen, bloviating verbosity, violence--was mitigated by films with important social and/or historical intentions (12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club) or delicacy and seriousness (Philomena and Gravity).  I admit: I have not seen any of these films.  I'm waiting for them to stream on Netflix, although I might have to wait a long time.  The outcome of the voting was, in my mind, entirely predictable:  the Academy would have had to be totally blind, deaf, and mute to fail to see that 12 Years a Slave HAD to win, not just because it was the most acclaimed film of the year, but because of its topic, its cast, its level of commitment to forcing a confrontation between Americans and their shared past.

Hollywood has a lot more trouble depicting gay people honestly and unashamedly.  I think that this has a lot to do with the fact that it is not acceptable to be racist anymore--and there are obvious advantages to embracing the non-white populations because their money spends, too, and they are growing as an internal community of smart, committed professionals in the film industry.  It is still entirely acceptable (I hope not for long) to claim ridiculous and ignorant bigotry against gay people. They can claim a rejection of the "gay lifestyle" on the basis of religion.  Gay people have to reveal themselves to be gay and suffer the consequences of that revelation (vide Ellen DeGeneres herself).  The proclivity of people to engage in smarmy nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor about gay people and women continues unabated and is rarely challenged.  In Hollywood, scriptwriters still tend to include a gay (male) character as the female lead's BFF; if a serious gay role appears in a film, the actor is almost always straight.  Gay actors who are "out" rarely get straight romantic leading roles.

Just as Seinfeld (a tv show I never watched because I am from NYC and it horrified me) was designed to appeal to the "Heartland" that had a) never met a Jewish person, and b) never been to New York City, the tv show Modern Family is similarly designed to appeal to Midwesterners whose presumed contact with gay people is minimal.  Nevertheless, it is more radical by far than the typical presentation of a gay person in a mainstream movie.  And because of that, it has probably done more to "normalize" gay people for the Heartland than any movie.  That should be instructive.

Our political and cultural systems tend to be dominated by the Midwest, even when the population clusters around the edges of the country.  The "Heartland" is noisy--glorifying gun ownership, vilifying liberalism and inclusiveness, claiming the religious high ground while misinterpreting Christian texts with a breathtaking degree of tone-deafness.  If people are unwilling to challenge the worldview of the Heartland, then nothing changes.  It is time for Hollywood to step up and do this.  It is time for Hollywood to accept that gay people are "normal" too--and that gay actors can actually play straight roles or leading gay roles just like straight actors.  It is time to shake up the pervasive patriarchal, sexist paternalism of the Hollywood system.  No:  it is PAST time to do this.

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