Saturday, June 12, 2010

Glee, Dawson's Creek, and Representing Queer Teens

Before I begin this post, so I don't backtrack every single sentence I write, I need to begin with a disclaimer. I understand the issues of me writing about representing gay male teens and do not want to depend on stereotypes myself. What I take issue with here is how certain shows, while perhaps making important advances in bringing queer issues to mainstream television, often depend on one specific stereotype for all gay male characters. When I comment on Dawson's Creek, the problem I have is not that the gay male characters do not follow stereotypical gay male characteristics (in fact I think it's awesome the show does not depict all gay men as being shoe and attention obsessed)but rather, refusing to depict queer men as anything other than stereotypical heternormative football-playing men while blatantly despising those who break from heteronormativity makes the show appear homophobic. I remember reading somewhere that DC was the first show to air two men kissing on mainstream television so I do recognize that the writers may have felt a need to almost "ease" the audience into a gay relationship. Once again, I do not feel that all gay men need to be represented as "different" but there are many reasons I feel that DC is actually homophobic that I will explain. At the same time, however, I have a problem when Glee takes the completely opposite direction. Other than Rachel's dads who barely make an appearance in the show, Kurt is the show's only gay male character (its only queer character, male or female, as a fact). The writers of this show have decided to represent him only as an attention-starved, fashion-obsessed, "honorary girl." I am not trying to claim that I can speak for all gay men, but only pointing out the problems with shows relying on single stereotypes.

Ok, so first of all there is Jack. Jack is introduced in Season 2 of DC as a somewhat clumsy and introverted character who develops an interest in Joey. They begin dating and there is an episode that centers on Joey needing to draw a nude male for art class. In class there is a model and afterwards, when Joey is working on the shading, Jack spills coffee on her sketch and then offers to pose for her so she can redraw the sketch. While he is posing for her, he gets "excited," and while they never explicitly say he gets hard/erect/a boner that is essentially what happens. Later on, he is forced to read a poem in class which he has written about another guy and begins crying because he is embarrassed. At first when he is asked by his close friends if he is gay, he argues that he is not and he does not know why he wrote a poem about a guy. Soon after, he comes out, despite Joey's attempts to "prove" him straight by kissing him in public. There are some interesting discussions that follow, including his father's initial homophobia. This plot development also allows for Jenn's grandmother's character to become more understanding when a Christian friend says that Jack is hated by god for being gay, and she comes to his defense and says that nobody has any right to judge Jack and that, instead, he needs friends more than ever for support as the homophobic community reacts negatively to him coming out. In an episode that soon follows, Joey comes to terms with her ex being gay and meets another gay guy and immediately tries to set them up. Jack gets angry that she assumes that just because he is gay he has to like the first gay guy she meets after they break up. This is something shows such as Grey's Anatomy refuses to acknowledge. The three open lesbian characters in the show have all dated one another with the assumption that all lesbians must be attracted to one another. In Grey's Anatomy, lesbians cannot be friends with one another, they can only have sex and date simply due to being in the same location.

BUT BACK TO DAWSON'S CREEK. Jack eventually discovers that he is good at football and joins the high school football team. He is then interviewed by a local news show and from this follows discussions about him not "seeming gay." The episode that this was first brought up in I was actually impressed with initially. Even a show like Will & Grace depicts most gay men as narcissistic with a love for shoe shopping and tight shirts. Sex and the City is even more guilty of this, with gay men being nothing more than secondary characters and fashion accessories. Jack makes it onto the football team without dancing to a Beyonce song, and if my memory serves me well, there is not a single moment that he goes shopping with a girl to tell her how to dress. Somehow though, when Pacey borrows Jack's clothes he is labeled as gay and his boss tells him to stop dressing like a gay man.

AND THEN THERE'S TOBY. When Jenn is forced to do community service, she meets Toby, a queer activist who volunteers in his spare time. He tells her when the next meeting for his organization/club is, Jenn shows up and brings Jack with her. Jack expresses his disgust for gay men who meet up for such groups and says they are "too gay" for him. It is only when Toby is beaten up for being gay that Jack realizes that just maybe there is a need for such activist groups. I'm not entirely sure what Jack means by "too gay," because Toby still embodies pretty much all heteronormative male stereotypes other than openly fighting for tolerance and acceptance (and you don't even see much of that other than a couple of meetings in a coffee shop). Prior to Toby there was Ethan whom Jack kind of dated on a camping trip. While I really do think it's great that the gay males in this show are not reduced to stereotypes, I also feel that the show did this because it was too scared to show anyone who breaks from heteronormativity. Even though DC may have been the first to show two men kissing on mainstream television, it still could only hint at Jack having sex. Guys were seen leaving his room at times, but never was there a scene with Jack and another guy in bed. With the other characters, the writers had no problem showing a man and a woman taking off each others' clothes and making out, but with Jack, they refused to go beyond a kiss.

AND THEN THERE'S DOUG. Doug is Pacey's older brother who is a police officer with a taste for broadway music. Pacey constantly makes fun of with references to the Village People and calls him gay as an insult. Doug always gets angry and at one point when Pacey convinces a woman his brother is gay, Doug holds a gun to Pacey's head until Pacey tells her that Doug is straight. SPOILER ALERT (to those who care): One of the revelations of the final episode is that Jack and Doug are in a relationship. It's one of those moments that fans are supposed to laugh at initially and then take seriously after the first moment this is revealed. Throughout the series there is an effort of all the characters to distance themselves from anything that does not resemble heteronormativity. When Jack's boyfriend, Toby, stops acting like a "dude" his frat brothers convince him to dump Toby. When Toby begins expressing anything like romantic emotions and asking how Jack feels, Jack and his brothers become disgusted and Jack removes himself from the relationship. To be gay is an insult to Doug only because he likes broadway music. The only acceptable gay male in this series is one who takes every effort to conceal his sexuality or anything that makes him different from his straight friends. Anyone who breaks from gender norms is immediately dropped from the show or made fun of. From this perspective, it seems that the writers use only heteronormative masculine stereotypes for the gay men, not out of a desire to fight gay male stereotypes, but rather out of homophobia. Yes, this show broke important grounds but it still limited gay men to one specific model. With a show that had more than one gay character, there was a great opportunity to depict gay men as more than a group of men that are all exactly the same. To tell the truth, this problem was not limited to gay men with the show, girls too were rather limited in character.

And now Glee. This show works has some really good conversations about discrimination and social issues. It also has a lot of other problems that undermine these conversations. Let me make myself clear: I do not believe that queer or straight men (or women) must stick to and follow heteronormative standards. I think Glee is great for promoting tolerance and acceptance for anyone who does not fit these expectations. This is not what I am critiquing. What I do have a problem with, however, is how Glee's writers believe ones sexuality directly alters ones gender and criminal behaviour. In the Madonna episode for which gender discrimination and expectations are addressed, Kurt, the openly gay Glee member, is labeled an "honorary girl." In the Lady Gaga episode, Kurt performs with the girls, while "the guys" do their own performance without him. The episode Kurt comes out to his dad opens with him dancing to and lip synching Beyonce's "Single Ladies/ Put A Ring On It." I think playing around with the gender binary and trying to blur the lines is awesome but I don't think it's so great that it sends the message that because men are attracted to men they cannot be a guy anymore. Similar to Dawson's Creek, this wouldn't be so bad if there were a few different representations of queer men. I know there are a limited number of characters and gender stereotypes are found with all the characters but take a look at the other queer characters of Glee.

Although he has not officially come out, teacher (and former Glee coach) Sandy Ryerson is assumed to be gay or bisexual by the other characters and the majority of Glee fans. And why is this? He stalks Josh Groban, he has a love for theatre and the dramatics, and follows almost every other gay male stereotype. Not only does he stalk Josh Groban, but he also was shown touching a male student inappropriately and then selling pot to high school students after receiving a restraining order. For a show that had a really good scene about why the word "fag" is unacceptable and cruel, I fail to understand why it must fall back on such horrible stereotypes. As I already said, this teacher has not officially come out but when you look to fanpages and character descriptions for the show he is always described as either gay or bisexual.

Once again, I really do think it's great that Glee has a character like Kurt who openly questions gender and heteronormative stereotypes, but gay men in this case are limited to "honorary girls" or pedophiles. It's a tough post to write because I understand I sound like I am contradicting myself. I critique Dawson's Creek for relying too heavily on heteronormative expectations of masculinity for it's male characters and then critique Glee for relying entirely on queer stereotypes for its male characters. Both shows have some great moments and discussions of cultural assumptions about gay men and maybe it's too much to expect any show to depict diverse representations. Female stereotypes (and even straight male stereotypes) still continue to exist in shows, this isn't a problem limited to queer male representations. Even acknowledging this as a universal problem, however, does not make it acceptable. For a show like Glee that openly seeks to address social issues, it must also be critical of itself for continuing these problems. I've heard that in the next season there will be a boyfriend for Kurt and I am interested in seeing how this character is constructed and portrayed. There's also Rachel's dads who we were shown a brief picture of in the pilot episode and who are referred to occasionally. Many of the other characters' parents have minor speaking roles but they have yet to make another appearance. They are discussed as loving parents and their sexuality does not undermine this. They even do not follow the stereotype of being fashion or diva obsessed as demonstrated when Rachel needs a Lady Gaga costume and they put together an outfit with stuffed animals attached to it. This episode would have been a perfect opportunity to actually introduce at least one of them as Rachel searches for her mother and obviously needs someone to talk to about this. I believe that at one point she says she does not bring it up with her dads because she does not want to hurt their feelings, and the show does do a good job demonstrating that they truly love her and are great parents. I hope that they are given some airtime next season and I am interested in seeing if Kurt does get a boyfriend. Once again, I think both Glee and Dawson's Creek created some really good discussions about queer discrimination and stereotypes, but both unfortunately rely on single, universalizing stereotypes that need to be addressed.

And one last thing. What about queer females? Where are the lesbians in either of these shows?

1 comment:

  1. Hopefully, after awhile everyone will get tired of stock characters and we'll see some diversity.

    You said this about Grey's Anatomy:

    "The three open lesbian characters in the show have all dated one another with the assumption that all lesbians must be attracted to one another. In Grey's Anatomy, lesbians cannot be friends with one another, they can only have sex and date simply due to being in the same location."

    I think that's just true of every character on that show. That's one horny hospital!