I first caught wind of this show about a week or so ago on Yahoo, as it was plastered all over the background of the TV listings section as a promotion for this new show premiering on Sundance. While I've yet to see the show, some things about its marketing struck me as a little, well, off.
Let me start off by saying that, though I haven't actually seen the show, I know enough about it to know that it's just not for me. But this isn't as much about the content of the show as it is the marketing. I've felt the same way about a lot of other "hit" shows like Glee and Mad Men, but when I actually try to watch an episode, I find that my gut feelings were pretty spot on.
The premise of this show is to follow the lives of four women whose best friends and sometimes love interests are men who happen to be gay. But this is not the spin the producers are putting on it. From the sparkling pink and purple backdrop and the images of scantily clad, ultra-groomed fashonistas on the website, I can plainly see they have something very different in mind.
Now, as a person who has self-identified as gay since the age of 13, I see nothing wrong with people openly embracing the gay identity. I love being gay. I love rainbows and I go to as many Pride events as I can each year. I frequent gay blogs, keep up on queer community news, and I like to think I'm relatively active in "the community" (the concept of which is an entirely separate thread). It's a lot more than a same-sex attraction, and being gay can mean very different things for different people. I am the last person to tell someone how they can or cannot express their sense of identity, and I'm fully aware that these men were willing participants in the show. I'm not even saying that they are wrong to do so, or that image they are presenting is inauthentic.
But this isn't really about Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, or the guys who show up on the show. This is about the tendency of mainstream culture to exoticize gay men for entertainment consumption. This is nothing new, as the astute reader will clearly recognize, but it seems like the more acceptance LGBT folks gain in society, the more interested people become in our lives. Of course, being America, we're not satisfied with the mundane.
The problem with the exoticizing of gay men is a complex one, at best. At worst, it's a horrible cluster-fuck of angst, self-abuse, mockery, misogyny, internalized homophobia, and a laundry list of other problems. Never mind the havoc it wreaks on the individual psyches of gay men. This fetishizing only encourages pigeon-holing and simplifying the complexities and uniqueness of individuals in favor of glamorous, sensationalized image of gay life.
For every level image of gay men on television, there are many more who fill this exotic void. Back in the day, it was characters like Martin Mull's Leon on Roseanne, the saucy former boss and then co-owner of the diner Roseanne works at, with his witty quips and his aura of "otherness" in his inability to relate with his down-to-earth, blue collar coworkers/employees. Later, it's Sean Hayes's playful and promiscuous Jack McFarland, a character who can't help but merrily prancing in and out of every scene and embodies all the joyful gaiety of being gay, while simultaneously personifying the antagonizing object of internalized homophobia embodied in a not-so-subtle way by his friend Will. With Queer Eye for the Straight Guy we cemented the idea of gay men as born fashion experts, while America's Next Top Model gave us Miss J. Alexander and Jay Manuel, men who in their own right have achieved great things, but still hold domain over females in their ability to make or break their careers in modeling and, in the end, act as mere props in the boosting of Tyra's ego. Now, we have shows like the A-List taking these exotic images of well-groomed, often well-to-do and privileged gay men who continue to fill this void, and an American audience that still buys into this shallow, two-dimensional image of gay men today.
And this translates into real-world experience. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that people don't blindly consume this sort of media and do carry these ideas into their interactions with gay people in their everyday lives. To the informed, aware television viewer, separating reality from fantasy is easy and the entertainment value of such shows is easily recognized as simply that--entertainment. But for many individuals who are unaware of the subtle messages they are receiving or know no gay individuals, these images often simply reinforce this world view of gay men as something of an exotic bird whose responsibility it is to awe other with their colorful plumage and peculiar behavior, all with a focus on the glamor of such a striking and alien lifestyle.
Speaking from my own personal experience, a lot of people seem to be more interested in having a "gay friend" than actually learning about who I am and what it means to me to be gay. This is usually because of what they have learned about gay people from popular media, their behavior usually reflecting this fact. They expect me to know more about fashion, be free with compliments about their looks if they are female, enjoy shopping, frequent gay clubs, enjoy musicals, among a number of commonly held misconceptions about me. Now, I know it's asking a lot to expect a person to know everything about me, but isn't asking even more when people expect me to fill these stereotypes, especially to fill some sort of diversity void in their life?
I've been there, done that. I've been introduced plenty of times as the gay friend (because that's important--it shows how diverse they are!) I've fielded plenty of questions about being gay (and being bi, and what to refer to a trans individual as, and whether or not I know anyone with AIDS, etc.) I've had way too many girls ask me if I thought their shoes were "fierce" or their purses were "fabulous", two words that almost never pass through my lips, unless I'm talking about lions or one of my favorite shows starring the fabulous Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley (see, now that is plenty appropriate!) And to the credit of these girls, they usually already knew how great they looked, but were only buying into the androcentric system in which women gain standing by seeking the approval of a male, in this case a sexually-unavailable one, who has power over her.
In the end, the interests of producers tend to lie in the money they can make, rather than the reputation of the people they seek to exploit for entertainment value. Thus, it becomes our responsibilities to become teachers, pitting those of us who don't fit these molds against ideas about who we are that, to some, are simply more interesting than the reality of who we are.
I might be gay, but I'm not a fucking hand bag. I'm not your accessory. I'm not two-dimensional. There is more to me than many people ever will know, but if you're going to befriend me, do it because you want me as a friend, not because you think having a gay friend is cool. I'm not here to be your shopping buddy, unless I have money (or I like you a lot/you're buying me something, even if it's just lunch). I'm not here to pay you compliments because you ask for them. I don't spend my time obsessing over my hair or my body because it's something I love to do, but rather because I suffer to some degree from poor body image because of the standard of beauty perpetuated by popular media. I can't hem your skirt or crochet you a stuffed animal because it's an innate skill I'm born with because I'm gay, but because I took the time to learn. If you have a thought that starts off with something like "He'll probably like/know about/want to talk about/care about X because he is gay" then PLEASE rethink your statement before approaching me. And if you get a little flack from me because of this, don't take it personally. It's just very hard when you're left with the task of representing an entire population of people for a very ignorant few.