Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dear Billy/Asher/Seth, I am Sorry

The month of September has proved to be particularly deadly for queer teens.  First Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself in his grandmother's barn, prompting gay journalist Dan Savage to kickstart a video campaign aimed at preventing teen suicides by telling teens that "it gets better" after middle/high school.  Unfortunately, Billy's death was shortly followed by the deaths of Asher Brown, 13, who shot himself, and now Seth Walsh who hung himself on a tree, was found and brought to the hospital, and died Tuesday after 9 days on life support.  For my job at the Queer Resource Center, an undergrad student and I compile a weekly newsletter.  I put him on the task of writing a blurb about Asher Brown (this was earlier today, before the news of Seth came out) and he came across the above image.  The image struck me; my heart sank.  I have been invested in the issue of queer teen suicides and have began publicizing the It Gets Better project so that students in Claremont can participate, but watching the motivational videos, and seeing photographs of the dead teens smiling on the news articles was a stark contrast to a huge picture of a noose.  When the student showed me the flier, he looked up at me expectantly, he was excited about what he found and was seeking approval.  I sort of glanced at him and said he could go ahead and attach the file to the newsletter and walked away.  Why didn't I get as excited as him?  It wasn't until later that I decided to re-look up the picture in the comfort of my home that I realized what made me so uncomfortable.  Had I forgotten that my father had committed suicide by hanging?  I wasn't old enough to understand yet, but knowing that my mother found him in the garage still brings a very vivid image into my mind when I am triggered, which I am realizing I am.  I am interested in suicide because my life has been affected by it and I truly feel for the families who go through that pain, particularly in cases that are preventable, such as bullying.  

Something that has always been hard for me about Christianity and Christian values is that suicide, like "homosexuality" is a sin.  If for only these two reasons, I know and have known that the Christian value system and my own are starkly different.  It pains me still to hear anyone use this rhetoric, even though I don't believe it.  For example, I very much disliked the film Wristcutters for portraying people who committed suicide as being in purgatory/hell.  The huge difference between my father and queer teen suicides is that he was not "driven" to suicide, he was simply depressed.  The youth that are depressed and die as a result of harassment are in hell in life, and see death as a more pleasant alternative.  Those responsible are not 2 or 3 kids you can name from school, but a homophobic and hateful society of parents, administrators, students, and community members who punish difference; they are complicit in murder.  

As a post-script to this blog, 18 year old Tyler Clementi, another queer teen, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.  That makes 4 this month.  I suspect that the beginning of a new school year is one of the hardest times for young queer students, and hope that we have seen the end of this string of violence.

As a post-post script to this blog, a fifth and final queer suicide happened before September ended.  

Raymond Chase, 19, hung himself in his dorm room at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island September 29.  September is now over and I can only hope that October does not bring us anymore of these deaths.  

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Searching for QWOC on Reality TV: a Time-Suck at the Least

Some people consider reality television a version of cinema vérité or “truthful cinema.” Others dispute this, arguing that it is casted and staged, while others argue that some reality shows are “realer” than others and some more technologically advanced and creatively designed. As Queersighted blogger Dave White’s “film-nerd husband” said in regards to the newest season of Project Runway: “Are the Maysles in charge now?" Now, discussing cinema vérité as “real” and “reality” TV as manipulated creates a problematic as all documentaries are manipulated in a variety of ways, but if there is such thing as a scale of reality then there is certainly a lot of wiggle room for both documentary film and reality television.

A fun and depressing study of television, cinema, advertisements, and magazines is to look for commonly underrepresented people: fat people, Black people, queers, especially lesbians and transmen, Latin@s, Asians/Asian Americans, women in nontraditional roles, etc. Dr. Alexandra Juhasz has more recently begun the scholarly study of YouTube and shared this student-made video on Black representation on YouTube. Check it out.

Blacks on YouTube

Zulema Griffin
Much in the vein of VannaBlack4u’s search for Blacks on YouTube, I would like to do a quick rundown of reality TV in search of queer women of color. Because there is a much more noticeable lack than plentitude of QWOC on reality TV I would like to mention a few shows that have queers or women of color. We all know that Bravo was the home of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as well as TV specials about lesbians and gays such as Great Things About Being Queer, and Out of the Closet. But in my scrutinous search for lesbian women among the gay man/straight woman constancy in Project Runway I came across some interesting information. For one thing, it turns out that in season 4 there was a white lesbian model names Marie Salter. Secondly, remember Zulema Griffin from Season 2? Her character arc ended after she shocked her colleagues by stealing another designer’s model (sweetheart fashion professor Nick Verreos) just to get herself and the model eliminated in that episode. Well, it turns out that throughout the show she was an out lesbian with a partner but that information was completely edited out and she was portrayed as a single woman. I managed to reach behind the Tim Gunns and Michael Kors’ to reach a QWOC but unfortunately only the few of us looking can find her.

Another strange gay-erasing edit on Project Runway was the budding romance between Daniel Feld and Wesley Nault as documented by blogger Allison Kilkenny who chocked it up to homophobia. I am pretty sure most people consider Bravo a gay male TV station rather than queer or LGBT, but there is no denying that Top Chef has had its share of lesbian contestants, Preeti Mistry and Ashley Merriman of season 2, Lisa Fernandes and her partner Jennifer Biesty of season 4 and Jamie Lauren of season 5 were all “out” and Jennifer and Lisa’s relationship was a storyline rather than being erased.

Tila Tequila and the cast of a Shot of Love
My research on the subject of QWOC on reality TV is largely based on my consumption of advertisements and certain shows and on the advice of my Facebook network. No one knows reality TV better than my hometown friends and student colleagues in the media studies department, and they made to sure to point out that VH1’s dating shows are “pretty diverse”. Since they have more dating shows than Pandora radio has commercials (zing!) I will only mention a few.  Flavor of Love actually has women of color as contestants, and a Shot of Love with Tila Tequila featured a queer woman of color as the bachelorette who dated both straight men and gay women. I’m not sure if anyone has seen Bad Girls Club on Oxygen but it also features lesbian and bisexual women, mainly in party and club-scene environments. Brandi, Kayleigh, and Flo (from different seasons, not sure which as I do not watch this show) were out as lesbian and bi and Cordelia, a straight girl, suddenly becomes jealous of a female housemate’s boyfriend. According to commenter BAngieB, Cordelia acts “the way the fake-gay girls act on TV” adding that “If Tila Tequila is a lesbian, I'm a sparkly unicorn.” This brings up the oh-so-relevant point of “fanwhoreism” and lesbians as titillating ratings increasers. Can we ever forget the awkward Sandra Bullock/Scarlett Johannson or Madonna/Brittney Spears kisses? But there is a difference between gay characters played by straight actors, the contrived celebrity kiss, reality shows about queers, and reality shows that feature queer and questioning characters. Often the queer or LGBT communities shame questioners, saying they are just following a trend, and straight people and separatists pressure bisexual or queer individuals into “picking a team/side.” Therefore I will say that many people look down on New Jersey Housewife Danielle Staub who has of-late been insinuating that she is lesbian and Tila Tequila who has recently been self-identifying as lesbian rather than bisexual. For an example of bisexual pressure, see this clip from Bad Girls Club which unfortunately ends in violence.

Bad Girls Club Flo and Amber fight

The Cast of the Real L Word:
Tracy is to the far left and Rose is in the wine colored tank
I would like to briefly mention that Logo TV has brought us such queer goodies as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Gimme Sugar (QWOC!!!) and Transamerican Love Story, but unless you have access to more than basic cable (which I don’t) looking for QWOC is harder. VH1 and Logo also paired up for a dating show called Can’t Get a Date in which contestants represented a variety of sexualities. The Real World and America’s Next Top Model have brought us a few gay, bisexual and transwomen, some being QWOC, but I would like to end with The Real L Word (which is being called a “docu-series” by the way) as it shows lesbian relationships rather than just featuring gay characters and some of them are actually WOC! So Rose is supposed to have been the inspiration for Papi in the L Word which makes sense because both Papi and Rose have no depth and seem pointless. She is billed as a “sexy Latina” and a “flirtatious firecracker” (um exploitation much?) while Tracy is never discussed as a WOC but speaks to her mom in Spanish. And whether Sara (a love interest of Whitney’s, and she rolls the “r” every time!) is a WOC is a mystery to me, as well as Natalie, Rose’s girlfriend who is either a white girl who dresses a little on the chola side or a bleached blonde WOC. So yes, there is QWOC representation, in moderation and sporadically, on reality television, but you really have to look and within that small pool there are other issues such as butch/femme/genderqueer diversity, size and class diversity and as is always at issue in reality TV, a lack of self-awareness, reflection and critical (in this case queer) thought.

Espie Hernandez, 16.  One of the filmmakers of Mariposa
But I would like to end on a positive note. Reality television is made by rich people. Even the lesbian and gay producers such as Ilene Chaiken and the boys over at Bravo are upper crust. And as hard as it is to look for QWOC on reality television, I urge readers to look elsewhere. There are amazing QWOC filmmakers out there, whole organizations and film festivals devoted to them in fact. One notable group is the South Central based collective ImMEDIAte Justice which mentors and helps young QWOC to empower themselves to make films. One such film was shown at the Human Rights Watch film festival last year and is definitely worth a watch. This is an example of a community strengthening itself from within, placing tools in the hands of those without access and allowing young QWOC to become autoethnographers rather than only to-be-looked-at. The film is called Mariposa. See for yourself!


Thursday, September 2, 2010

My new addiction: Drop Dead Diva

When my mom and sister, both chick-flick aficionados, told me to check out a new show on Lifetime called Drop Dead Diva I was initially skeptical. Lifetime: Television for Women has not really been my favorite channel over the years as it generally seems to have a bunch of melodramatic made-for-TV movies which sensationalize violence against women. Recently, however, Project Runway, a favorite guilty pleasure of mine, has been exclusively on Lifetime, so maybe the channel wasn’t so bad. DDD piqued my interest when I heard that its storyline follows a skinny white blonde model that dies and returns immediately as what the blogosphere has generally dubbed a “plus size” white brunette lawyer. I am a huge fan of the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait in which Warren Beatty plays a professional football player who comes back immediately as a millionaire that was killed by his wife and her lover. Magical realism and death are always interesting to me: I loved the show Dead Like Me and the movies Death Becomes Her (1992), Chances Are (1989), and even the 2001 remake of Heaven Can Wait starring Chris Rock, Down to Earth. I decided to give the show a go and immediately realized: this show has Margaret Cho in it! Now, feisty Asian assistant trope aside, Margaret Cho’s involvement in anything gives it all sorts of street cred. One of my favorite glory stories is that me and my friends got to be on the opening clips of her movie Beautiful which was filmed in Long Beach, Ca. I’m shouting at the camera: “Long Beach feminists for Cho!” I was pretty pleased that the editors chose to put us in even though we used the F word. Beautiful, like Drop Dead Diva, is about accepting and appreciating beauty that does not necessarily match up with the unreasonable and impossible expectations set by the media. Cho, like the main character of DDD Jane/Deb (Deb being the skinny model inside), had mainly struggled with her weight as a source of negative body image, so being in DDD is really perfect for her. Cho has also notoriously been both an icon and an activist for the LGBT community and openly identifies as queer or bisexual.

A common problem for minority actors is that they recieve jobs based solely on their look, in this case, Brooke Elliot for her size. The show is what some are calling “fat positive,” though terminology such as fat (another important F word), overweight, and plus-sized are often argued as placing thinness as the normal/default. Jane was advertised as a size 16, though there is a great comments section conversation in which many women said she has to be at least a 20. Whatever her actual size, the show is a mix between a courtroom drama and a feel-good reincarnation story which finds ways to mix law, fat positivity and actual facts about weight in every episode, namely Season 1’s “The Dress.” Jane argues in the courtroom that “the average woman is a size 14” and “66.3% of all women are considered overweight by the AMA” in her attempt to make a high-end clothing boutique carry plus sizes. The same episode tackles the very contemporary issue of Girls Gone Wild and consent considering the recent ruling of a Missouri court that basically said that being in a bar is consent even though the woman said she did not want to show her breasts and was then assaulted. (someone pulled her shirt up on camera.)

When Deb first becomes Jane, the rules of immediate reincarnation are set: Jane/Deb has both Jane and Deb’s intellect, but only Deb’s memories. Thus, Deb, whose history is portrayed as an airhead model, receives the brain of a legal theory expert without having to study at all. In the beginning of the show I wondered if it would follow the storyline of Heaven Can Wait. Warren Beatty, after becoming the millionaire, immediately begins training to be a professional football player and eventually plays again. Would Deb/Jane get skinny and become a model again? This question is answered through the initial story of Deb’s old best friend Stacy who pressured Jane to go on a strict diet and exercise regimen. But what Jane eventually does is accept her body and encourage Stacy to do the same. This then became the beginning of the NOW-esque Love Your Body theme that continues throughout the show.

Though I find the show incredibly entertaining, it would be irresponsible not to mention that the cast is largely white, the characters who are not Jane (Brooke Elliot),  Terri (Margaret Cho), or a judge character played by Rosie O'Donnell, are super skinny and that most characters are also upper class. Though there was a fleeting gay assistant character (how’s that for a stereotype), the issue of sexuality has not been much-addressed aside from Jane’s pseudo-virginity in her new body, Kim (Jane’s skinny and catty colleague) and Parker’s (a partner at her firm) promiscuity and Terri’s boisterous man-crazed attitude.   Though the show has its soap-opera type moments, its Legally Blonde meets Warren Beatty storyline and its white heteronormative cast of characters, I think it brings something new to television and is worth a watch.