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99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

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Filed under Defining Gender, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Pop Culture

Candace Bushnell: A Word.

A few months ago, I was hitting stride on a treadmill when I heard those pumped up intro beats, knowing what came next was “Camera One…Stand by Billy, Camera Two…Stand by, Kit.” Access Hollywood, providing me with a constant stream of fodder, was starting. Kit would be interviewing Candace Bushnell, well known as, obviously, the writer of Sex and the City. I had forgotten about this interview, which took place in April, until I heard a phrase yesterday that mimicked something Bushnell said on the show. In this interview, while describing her beloved characters, she said that Miranda “was, you know, this feminist, and had decided that she hated men…”

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Ok. Hold the phone. This woman created a global business empire based on the story of four women who, despite ostensibly having careers that allowed them to maintain very comfortable lives in the most expensive city in the U.S., seemed to spend precious little time doing things other than obsessing over the men, or potential men, in their lives. Should we give her props for her business acumen? I’m not sure, because I’m less certain it has to do with her business savvy as much as it has to do with capitalizing on women’s socialized insecurities by creating characters who are constantly in the pursuit of the elusive perfect partner, and riddled with anxiety about whether or not they’ll find him.

But this post isn’t about Sex and the City – it’s about what feminism actually means. Perhaps Bushnell misspoke; regardless, the idea that feminism means hating the XYs is still out there.

So, I feel an obligation here to clear some things up. Feminism does not mean hating men. Feminism advocates the equal opportunity, accessibility, treatment of and rights of men and women. Equal access to quality education. Equal pay for the same jobs, equal access to mentors of both sexes. The same consideration for jobs without being discounted out of fear that they may be too ‘emotional’ or because they may one day have children. Health care and insurance that doesn’t consider being a woman in and of itself to be a pre-existing condition. The respect and assurance that women who decide they cannot carry a baby to term have legitimate reasons for making this decision and did not come to the conclusion lightly. It’s about being judged for your competency and skill set and not for the size of your breasts or the size of your waist or the symmetry of your face. It’s about understanding the importance of positively brilliant, incisive female leaders to inspire young girls the same way brilliant, incisive male leaders inspire young boys – and how each gender can inspire and educate children of opposite genders, and that it is important to do so.

Most importantly, feminism is about eliminating gender stereotypes for both men and women – ensuring that both sexes are not limited by archaic expectations to which their biology previously would have held them predisposed, and encouraging the individuality that flourished regardless of their reproductive organs. It was about not assigning specific behaviors to people based on these organs, and instead proclaiming that while differences in that regard allow us to procreate, they are not responsible for determining or limiting our capabilities. That’s what feminism has always been, first, second, or third wave; despite many attempts that have been made to brand it otherwise. Not all feminists are women – plenty of men are, too. Breaking down the gender stereotypes that have penned in both sexes for decades is important for everyone. The historical patriarchy created a supposed male ideal that was painfully constricting and costly for men as well, forcing them into binding roles of hyper-masculinity that emphasized sexual, financial, political, and social power positions – roles that shouldn’t be monopolized by a gender for moral and practical reasons. I can be a feminist and have what are deemed “feminine” characteristics. But as a feminist, I also think that a man can have “feminine” characteristics. I can also be a feminist and have “masculine” characteristics. What’s important is that characteristics don’t need to be coded as exclusively feminine or exclusively masculine, that they don’t need to dictate people to act accordingly, and that the characteristics or behaviors don’t exist for the purpose of ostensibly “improving” one’s natural self. It’s about not defining oneself in relation to another, but in relation to oneself. Not about figuring out how you should present yourself to a potential partner based on their ideals, but about teaching everyone the importance  of breaking down ideals that were constructed based on assumptions of what each sex should represent. The point of feminism was to point out that objectification negated the true personhood of women, reduced them to commodities of pleasure while not acknowledging and celebrating their self, identity, what made them an individual, what made them unique, what them capable and brilliant. And that equality didn’t mean reducing men to that objectification as well or instead, but rather meant raising the bar of expectation and respect for women. Not hating men. Feminism is for everyone!

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Don’t Pull Me Into Your Crazy

I occasionally (absurdly) wonder if I will run out of things to write about on this blog. And then, I walk out my front door and New York City is able to assuage those concerns by presenting me with something like this:

Courtesy of NBC

Oh, Whitney Cummings. Your brand of comedy has never really been my style (to each her own), but don’t try to drag me into your twisted, coded, gendered division of communication styling.

Many women I know are ninjas in the sense that they juggle multiple responsibilities at work and home – many men as well – successfully and admirably. But by claiming that half the population lacks the communication and conversation skills to express their anger and frustration and instead chooses to plaintively claim calmness while plotting a violent attack against their partner as opposed to saying “actually, I’m not fine, we need to chat about something,” really seems to hammer home that stereotype of women being unpredictable shrill harpies who have no control over their emotions. I smell a setup.

I know this is an ad for her comedy show, but I actually don’t think she’s joking and that’s why I’m a bit troubled. First off, I’m not someone who thinks that just because a woman tells a sexist joke it automatically isn’t actually sexist. I see women who promote negative associations of women, even in what is presented as a comic format, more as trying to utilize and manipulate a standard-fare misogynistic framework – one that’s already firmly in place and is pretty hard to change thanks to years of socialization – for their benefit. Slamming their gender seems like a crass way to get ahead. Not to mention it’s totally unwarranted. Why not challenge these claims with humor instead?

Making jokes about women’s supposedly untameable roller-coaster emotional lives is nothing new – comedians have been doing it for years. But what’s interesting to look at is how these jokes are then translated into real criticism of women – particularly ambitious women. Look at Hillary Clinton. Throughout the course of her campaign for Presidency, she was lambasted constantly for being “too emotional” or not emotional enough, supposedly indicating an inability to not be swayed by a hormonal response or showing a disconnect from the people. These claims were used to call into question her ability to lead the country. These irrelevant and sexist charged assessments and provocations, remarkably, took center stage of her coverage and entirely overlooked her phenomenal qualifications and understanding of both domestic and foreign policy. Even after being appointed to a position of such eminence as Secretary of State, some critics just can’t stop. The photo of the Cabinet in the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound was seen as another snapshot of Clinton supposedly having an emotional reaction to a situation that the men ostensibly handled “stoically.”

I’m inclined, because of this, to not so much see the ‘Whitney’ ads as funny or new but as pulling out some tired insults used against women and packaging them as funny and new because a woman herself is making the jab. Whitney’s presentation as one of the gang, going in on the old-boy jokes, actually makes it seem as though these old stereotypes are nothing, that they don’t really mean anything, that women agree we’re so hard to get along with, and unpredictable, and might burst into tears or bite your head off at any given moment! When in fact we know that isn’t the case, and that these adjectives and descriptions have and can cause women to be seen as inferior, less capable, and unable to manage. Reiterating them in a comedic setup doesn’t actually challenge but reinforces them. Perhaps her show will be different than what the ad suggests, only time will tell. I’m sure good comedians can find other things to joke about than women’s emotional lives.

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A Bunny’s Return

“The Playboy Club,” a show debuting on NBC’s fall lineup has had its fair share of publicity. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the show for moral reasons, Troy Patterson’s thinly veiled assault on Maureen Dowd’s coverage of the show, in which he quotes Amber Heard – the show’s leading Bunny – as saying “what’s wrong with being sexy? Why is that subservient?” Even NPR covered the show’s bizarre claim that it was empowering for women because, as Hefner says, “a bunny could be anything they wanted;” an odd claim since the identity of a bunny was scripted with a hard line and came with a hefty set of rules and guidelines.

One of those rules that Gloria Steinem revealed in her great expose “A Bunny’s Tale” about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, was STI examinations and a physical. This logically leads one to the assumption that the bunnies were expected, encouraged, or even forced to engage in sexual relationships with the clients under the identity of Bunny – why else require a waitress to get an STI test? This is where my first retort to Ms. Heard’s bafflingly short-sighted comment comes into play. The Bunnies have to get tested so they don’t infect the men – what about the men infecting the Bunnies? Were they swabbed upon entrance to the club to ensure that they weren’t putting the waitresses at risk? It seems they were excused because they were funneling money into the pockets of Hefner, and this is a perfect example of why Ms. Heard is serving above all else. Catering to the whims of the customers with the most money without protection or regard for the workers doesn’t make it seem like those workers are so empowered after all. Seems more like they’re at risk.

Ms. Steinem had a great response to the show, in which she said: “It normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” She has hopes that it will be boycotted, and I fully share in Ms. Steinem’s vision of what the show projects. Normalization of unhealthy behaviors and images is a primary topic of my blog. Despite it taking place 50 years ago, witnessing the power dynamic between the bunnies and the customers reinforces how damaging those scripted gender roles truly are – and for viewers who still think those gender roles should remain as scripted, this show and the participants’ comments that it’s all just fun and games helps to serve their ideal. Why would we want to bring back – even as a source of entertainment – the vision of a reality that restrained women from being seen in their workplace as anything more than a decoration? Beyond that, this show isn’t even an attempt at parody, it’s an attempt to glorify this world that Ms. Steinem points out resulted in “women…[telling] me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”

There are also serious flaws with the idea that these roles were empowering for the women simply because the men were told “not to touch” the bunnies. This creates the false notion that the best way for a woman to maintain a position of power is to withhold sex. The bunnies could have had this “power” which was limited to withholding sexual pleasure while in a sexual pleasure palace taken away from them easily, through direct assault or coerced sexual relationships that they felt they needed to engage in given their role as servers. Withholding something is not in and of itself an act of positive power but one of passivity masquerading as control – which can easily yield to the money these customers had. An act of positive power would be intellect, a skill set, developed talent, cultivated life experiences leading to the fully fleshed out self not entirely composed of a sexuality and not reliant on the financing – whether in tips or in marriage – of men. True power exists when the reliance on others or threat of others ceases to exist. This isn’t to say that sexuality isn’t a part of an identity, I most certainly think it is. However, the bunnies – infantilized, presented as reward, reduced to the image of a cuddly baby rabbit – are not actually presented (in this show, and in Ms. Steinem’s brilliant ‘A Bunny’s Tale’) as women who have a deep understanding of their sexuality and identity. The power in sexuality lies in one’s ability to articulate what their sexual needs and wants are, to respect those of others, and to communicate with partners. That is what prevents one partner from feeling or being subservient to the other – something The Playboy Club doesn’t seem to promote.

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