Do We Need a Gay Rights Saving Time?
Kathleen Battles / Oakland University
As we went through our annual ode to inanity, daylight savings time, I was feeling extra cranky about the loss of a precious hour of my beauty sleep. Yet, lately, I’ve been feeling robbed of about 10 years when it comes to the representations of gays and lesbians on television. I know what some of you are thinking: certainly things are better now! Not only are there queer characters, but a growing number of gay and lesbian celebrities populate the television world. Yet, several recent incidents leave me feeling angry. In negotiating the complicated terrain of queer visibility on television there remains a remarkable tendency to equate queerness with deviancy in a manner that reinforces the most central tenant of heteronormalization. The assertion of deviance is evident in the positioning of queer performances of self, and in straight performances of heterosexual fantasies of queerness as exemplified by the containment of Danny Noriega on American Idol and locker room applause for Ben Affleck’s appearance in late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s “I’m F*ing Ben Affleck” video.
While American Idol has featured any number of gay contestants over the years, they have largely kept their identity under wraps.1 Then came Danny Noriega – young, confident, and unabashedly queer. His performance of queerness involved an unrelenting dose of “in your face” attitude. In his three weeks as contestant, Noriega faced contradictory attempts to both celebrate and discipline his queer performance of self.
For the first week’s ’50s theme, Danny “selected” the Elvis Presley classic, “Jailhouse Rock.” 2 (Someone at AI must have had a sense of humor to send him out with the song in the first place.) In his pre-performance video package, he declares his intention to bring his swagger and attitude to stage, using his best queer body language. Dressed in low rise jeans, shirt and tie, Danny works himself up into a sweat parading around stage. Does he sing the song well? Who knows, that really is beside the point on American Idol. The more important question is how will the judges respond. While Randy and Paula are mostly positive in their comments, acerbic judge Simon Cowell issued his judgement: “verging on grotesque”.
Of course Simon is known for his cruel remarks to contestants, but certainly the term “grotesque” has a special register, not merely dismissing the performance for its lack of quality, but for associating Noriega himself with the monstrous. Within the context of many seasons of homophobic banter between Simon and metro-sexual host, Ryan Seacrest (whose own sexuality is a frequent source of media speculation), the accusation takes on extra weight. Noriega himself seems somewhat unfazed by the accusation, but Seacrest in the post performance interview, presses him, reiterating the word no less than three times.
Danny sang the restrained ballad, “Superstar,” for his second performance with more earnestness than swagger, and Simon likewise exercised restraint in his comments. But when the swagger returned for Danny’s performance of gay dance club anthem, “Tainted Love,” during eighties week, so did the negative remarks. Whether it was Simon’s comments, the quality of Danny’s musical performance, or the queerness of his performance of self, this would mark his last week on the program. As a crushed Noriega stood on the stage for that weekly commodified spectacle of pain and shame known as the “elimination,” host Ryan Seacrest applauded him as “one our most courageous performers ever,” an obvious reference to Noriega’s unapologetic queerness. While one might call any American Idol contestant brave for living through the truly horrific group medley numbers, here Noriega’s bravery is highlighted in a way that suggests that his queerness is potentially shameful.
If Noriega’s performance of self necessitated discipline, Ben Affleck’s performance of playground stereotypes about gay men was met with good humored applause. The video performance of “I’m F*ing Ben Affleck,” was produced as Kimmel’s comedic one up ante to his girlfriend, comedienne Sara Silverman’s video birthday present, “I’m F*ing Matt Damon.” Silverman’s video joke was a reference to Kimmel’s conclusion of each episode of his late night talk show program, a joke that he had to bump Matt Damon. Damon appeared in the video with Silverman.
Kimmel’s response features Affleck, a long time friend and collaborator of Damon, and an all star cast who perform an musical celebration of Affleck and Kimmel’s “love,” as a satire of the “save the world” songs. The video is performed with just enough of that – we know this wrong, but we don’t really mean it, and after all it is funny – attitude to render it immune to criticism. Like post feminist humor that denigrates women with a wink and a nod, here we have a post gay rights humor that seemingly insulates it from critical inspection.
Yet, it is less the stereotypes that bother me (though they do – but hey, I don’t want to be accused of being uncool), than an interview with Affleck that appeared in Entertainment Weekly soon after its television and Internet debut. While delivered in a tongue and cheek style similar to the video itself, the interview more thoroughly draws a connection between queerness and deviancy. When the interviewer asked Affleck what compensation he received for the “courage you showed,” he responded “They paid me in humiliation.” Having entered the terrain of deviancy, the interview continued, with Affleck alternatively asserting that he “just committed to it,” when asked about the origin of the “bold pairing,” and that he “couldn’t really do it half speed,” when asked about “the tight outfits” and “toe-painting.”
Then interviewer and interviewee conspire for the classic straight male assertion of his normative heterosexuality. Affleck responded to a compliment by the “Kimmel camp” on his “level of commitment,” stating that “And if people thought I really was gay…hey, that could help. People might ascribe good taste to me, and they might think, ‘Maybe Ben Affleck can cook.’ Or, ‘His home might be well cared for. My home is actually well cared for, but that’s entirely attributable to my wife.” Thanks, Mr. Affleck, for telling us that you don’t mind if people think you are gay while at the same time clearly reminding us that you are not. Any celebrity watcher who would even care that Kimmel and Affleck are f*ing would be well aware that Affleck is married to fellow celebrity, Jennifer Garner.
Of course, none of this is to deny the bravery of Danny Noriega, or any gay person who puts themselves so openly in the public sphere. It is rather to question why, after all this “tele-visibility,” braveness matters are all. This is the crux of the matter. Underneath the assertion of Danny’s bravery by American Idol is the lingering sense that Danny is “brave” for parading his “grotesque” deviancy out there for all the world to see. Ben Affleck is “bold” for “going all the way” in his performance of those very stereotypes which are founded on the idea of deviance. All the nods, winks, swaggering, irony, and campy in-joking cannot hide the fact that all this visibility has not challenged the fundamental logic of a heteronormative society: the essential deviance of queerness. While the commercial logics of television continue to render such visibility good business sense, as many have argued, they don’t guarantee good politics. As long as this notion of deviance continues to remain underneath the surface of these images, the logics of heteronormativity will continue, and the promise of visibility will remain as empty of content as these images are full of loathing. And, to borrow a phrase from the world of celebrity culture, that just leaves me feeling f*ed.
1. Danny Noriega with Rosie O’Donnell
Please feel free to comment.
I think the juxtaposition of the two programs here is fascinating, as is the way that Idol has managed to largely avoid the issue of queer contestants thus far.
You make some excellent points here; I think a similar argument can be made about representations of gay men on ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters,” a series that seems to pat itself on the back for how “progressive” it is when, in my opinion, it is one of the most conservative programs on the air, and one that seems to use its regular gay character in a way not all that different from how “Dynasty” made use of the Steven Carrington character some 25 years ago. I agree with you wholeheartedly that increased visibility does not equate a progressive trend within television.
Thanks Carly and Drew for the comments.
Carly – What is interesting about both shows is how they have these available “moments” so easy to crop into You Tube videos – so that their exposure goes beyond the actual program or official websites.
I can’t believe when I was writing this that I didn’t even think of Clay Aiken – whose sexuality is a constant source of public speculation. The program is interesting in terms of the ways it handles contestants sexuality – which I think for male contestants becomes conflated with their performance of masculinity.
The fine line between “sensitive” male crooner and seeming too “queer” is a fascinating one.
Drew – I have not seen Brothers and Sisters – though your reference to Steven Carrington I think summarizes the situation in a nutshell – are we “returning” to the token gay character whose sexuality is a source of disruption?
I’m also interested in what to make of Sarah Silverman’s “deviance” in speaking (or singing) loudly about “fucking Matt Damon” — is it a postfeminist move, as you perhaps allude, or something different, something that’s outrageous simply because women’s overt, empowered sexuality is still tinged with shame?
I actually was not alluding to Sarah Silverman – it was a more general comment.
But it is an interesting idea – I’m not sure its tinged with shame in her case. It seems that part of her appeal is her lack of shame – but I don’t know enough about her material to state that conclusively. But I’m sure the appeal of the video was precisely a woman speaking so bluntly about “f*ing”.
I think the videos are interesting in the way they play with so many forms of “deviance”- neither Silverman nor Kimmel adhere precisely to normative gender conventions, which is further emphasized by their pairings with Damon and Affleck.
While I would never advocate the criticism of someone’s “queerness” or openness of their sexuality, however I feel that Simon Cowell’s comment was blown out of proportion for the sake of the author’s argument. After hearing Danny Noriega’s performance he called it “verging on grotesque.” Noriega is a brave person for going on the show and being as open and confident as he was. Any person regardless of sexual orientation or race or gender is brave for putting everything out there in from of America, but to be a person who is more often discriminated against is especially brave. Cowell’s comments are hardly ever censored and are almost always offensive to somebody, however he behaves this way with every contestant at one point or another. He wasn’t singling out Noriega, simply his performance.
As far as Jimmy Kimmel and Ben Affleck’s video response to Sarah Silverman, I believe that could be viewed in a more offensive manner than Cowell’s comment. They were further circulating the myths and negative ideologies that the homosexual community has to defend on a day to day basis. On the flip side, I believe that they were poking fun at themselves instead of the gay community. The public knows their day to day celebrity representations and that juxtaposed with their fictitious gay relationship can be view as comedic. They have lives that are the opposite of their video response, that’s why I find it funny at least. It should not be funny at the expense of the gay community.
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