Whining For and Against Gay-themed TV and Films
We all love to whine, which is a big reason Facebook and Twitter have garnered more than a 1.4-billion users. We whine about morally bankrupt politicians, lousy customer service, and massive traffic jams, and we really love to rage against films and TV shows that disappoint us.
Sometimes the creators of such art forms like to whine back at us, and we’ve heard whining from both sides of the camera in recent months, especially regarding gay themed productions.
Let’s begin with the HBO series Looking, which was cancelled during its second season due to low ratings. Its co-executive producer Andrew Haigh has complained publicly that many gay men—its primary intended audience—were critical of the show without ever watching it.
Haigh told Attitude magazine, “So many people said, ‘I didn’t watch your show, I didn’t like it,’ but they’d admit they barely watched the pilot. So you’re making a judgment on two seasons of a show after watching just five minutes.” He argued that gay viewers turned the show off because of its cruising-oriented sexual content.
“They didn’t like what that said about gay people,” Haigh charged, adding that LGBT people “want representation” in the entertainment media “but only the best of us… If we want true acceptance, then we should be accepted fully” as people “who have emotional baggage and who do find it hard to be gay.”
I agree with Haigh that as LGBT people are more fully represented in the content of film and television programming, we must expect to be depicted as the complex creatures we are—full of warts and flaws as well as virtues. When the soap opera Days of Our Lives developed a major storyline for gay boyfriends and then husbands Sonny and Will, LGBT fans at first rejoiced that daytime broadcasting was highlighting a queer couple. But, after a brief honeymoon, when temptation and infidelity threatened the duo’s happiness, many gay viewers took to Facebook to vent that the boys were being portrayed as no better than the show’s hetero characters.
“Give me a break,” I responded to one particularly disgruntled fan. “It’s a freaking soap opera. How long is anyone going to watch a drama about two happily married guys doing the dishes and burping their baby.”
I also agree with Haigh that people should not criticize a program or film they haven’t seen. In the case of Looking, I watched every episode of both seasons, and I still didn’t like the show—not because the content was so promiscuous but because the characters were boring. Too few of their personalities were empathetic and their stories were mostly stale, predictable, and humorless.
Compare lackluster Looking to the riveting prison series Orange is the New Black. Both hone in on the darker side of their characters’ lives, but the creators of Orange infuse each inmate (and the male prison officials) with redeeming traits and a deft dose of dark humor. A viewer cannot help but care for and about the women despite their criminal histories and tendencies. Who hasn’t fallen in love with Red (Kate Mulgrew), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), and Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), who soars in the second-season finale?
I must admit that I was late in discovering Orange because I feared it would be just another dreary prison drama. It is anything but. Rarely has there been a stronger combination of writing and acting for the small screen. And there is a reason it won several Emmys in the comedy category in 2014 (though the show has been moved to the dramatic category this year.) Even behind bars Orange proves there’s plenty to laugh at.
That’s the nature of life, a mix of highs and lows. And a big reason the characters on Looking failed to intrigue more viewers was not so much their self-absorbed, angst-filled sexual shenanigans, but their utter lack of joy.
A series that walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy with mixed results is Cucumber, which aired on Logo this past spring and was created by Queer as Folk writer Russell T. Davies. Along with its companion show Banana, a sidebar to the main series, Cucumber looks at contemporary gay life through the eyes of queer men and lesbians of two generations.
The oldest man and protagonist Henry Best (Vincent Franklin) and his long-suffering partner Lance (Cyril Nri) struggle to understand and appreciate their relationship. Each episode is filled with uncomfortable situations and unrequited longings, and resounding through the series is an underlying debate as to what constitutes sex versus what constitutes love. In one installment, a horrific crime is so disturbing as to turn many viewers away permanently. Yet, despite the queasiness and a fair amount of sleaze, the characters come off as credible, and their senses of humor provide glimpses of hope that things will often work out okay if not fine. Cucumber is often tough to watch but it is thoughtful and at times very smart.
Another show that has drawn criticism from some in the LGBT community but has a heart of gold is the sitcom Vicious. (Its second season just began on PBS). A senior pair of gay thespians, played by British actors Sir Ian McKellen (Freddie) and Sir Derek Jacobi (Stuart), have lived together grumpily for decades. They bicker and ridicule one another incessantly, dragging their friends and neighbors (especially the handsome young straight lad upstairs) into their frays.
Critics find Freddie and Stuart to be stereotypical old queens, an embarrassment to the way they want gay men to be presented in the media. But this delightful series is one where the show’s opponents are being too pee-cee. Freddie and Stuart deeply love one another, and their old-school ways are as endearing as the writing is sharp and the acting impeccable.
A ‘cis’-pool of distortion?
The most controversy generated by an LGBT-themed story this summer involves the soon-to-be released theatrical film Stonewall, which many people have pledged to boycott based solely on its trailer. (It opens September 25.) Their concern is that of historical accuracy and integrity.
Directed by openly gay Roland Emmerich of Independence Day fame, the big-budget Hollywood movie depicts the birth of the modern gay rights movement with the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969. The film has been long-awaited and its director was even lauded by GLAAD months before its release. But in the minds of some 24,000 people who have signed a petition vowing not to see it, Stonewall changes the facts to make the movie more palatable to a wide and predominantly white audience.
Specifically, the preview clip (with its tagline “Where Pride Began”) depicts the chief protagonist and perhaps the first protester to hurl a projectile as an easy-on-the-eyes blond Caucasian cisgender guy (played by Jeremy Irvine)—a classic all-American boy hero type (even though the actor is English).
There was, of course, no such young white leader at Stonewall when the rioting erupted. There were some white males, but they were back in a crowd led by black and Hispanic drag queens and transgender folks. We know for a fact that two of the leaders of the rebellion against the police raids were Marsha P Johnson, who went on to organize and lead transgender and Act Up groups in New York until 1992 when she was gay-bashed-murdered, and Sylvia Rivera, also a transgender activist and a founder of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance in New York.
So, is Emmerich whitewashing history? Using a fictionalized protagonist is a common device in history-inspired filmmaking. And Emmerich has posted on Facebook that “audiences will see that [the movie] deeply honors the real-life activists who were there.”
The problem is that in a momentous film like this historical accuracy is critical, and the races and gender identities of those involved are crucial. A fair number of us who know what actually transpired those June nights in Greenwich Village are still alive, and to us the trailer for Stonewall is just plain ludicrous. To make the pivotal figure a white kid would be akin to casting Justin Bieber in the role of James Brown in Get On Up.
Because I agree with Andrew Haigh of Looking that one shouldn’t criticize an artist’s work without seeing it, I don’t plan to boycott Stonewall. I plan to rush out to see it. But, as someone who has reported on LBGT issues since that fateful summer—the news service I then edited (College Press Service) had a reporter on the scene at the Stonewall the very first night, I’ll be watching Emmerich’s film with an historian’s eye. And if it doesn’t fairly portray the people who actually made history, I’ll be ready to pounce.