Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Look, an update!: Gay ladies onscreen

So, November’s over.

This means I once again have the free time to continue enlightening y’all about Jesus, pop culture, and the kyriarchy. Don’t all thank me at once. I’m sure you’ve been waiting, breath bated, for my opinion on two particular developments in lesbitainment (which is a word I just made up, and will never use again) (unless I do).

Lip Service

Ah, Lip Service. For six glorious weeks you brought the sunshine of trashy goodness into my life. This is a show about lesbians. Did you get that? Lesbians. Gay ladies. Dykes. I hope you got that, because if you weren’t aware of that going in then you might have found it difficult to keep up with.

I jest, of course. The characters on Lip Service are LADIES who sleep with LADIES, and beyond that there’s not much else. In all six hours of it, there was nary a scene that was not directly about or driven by the lesbianity*. The only threads of story that weren’t about gayness were the job hunt of aspiring actress Tess and Shanealike Frankie’s quest to uncover her true identity, and to be honest both of those plot strands were secondary to the relationship dramas in both characters’ lives. Tess is hooking up with a minor TV presenter who’s afraid of being outed; Frankie is hoping to win back Cat, the ex whose heart she broke, but Cat has just met the wonderful, gorgeous, amazing, beautiful police detective Sam, and she would have to be a TOTAL MUPPET to give that tedious Frankie even a minute of her time, and – I’m sorry, is my ship showing?

If all that sounds ridiculously soapy, that’s because it is. The show is about 50% OMG DYKE DRAMA, 50% blatant lesbian wish fulfilment, complete with extremely steamy sex scenes (leading me to coin a word: fantrashtic). Arguably, this is very reductive: everything these characters do relates directly to the fact that they are gay, whereas in, for example, my life maybe 5% of the things I do relate directly to being gay (though perhaps more if I’m in a relationship...). However, television is by nature reductive. I also don’t spend 95% of my time hanging out with my five best friends, but in a sitcom called Friends nobody questions that. And it’s possible that we need this single-minded focus on the gayness in order to counteract the extremely heterosexual television environment; a sense of identity is often forged most strongly by the feeling of being a tiny minority standing against the mainstream.

*Aside: in Bizarro World where everything’s backward, I guess I would be complaining about the portrayal of men in Lip Service, since their entire characters either (a) revolve around the ladies or (b) consist of being of raging A-hole; luckily, centuries of systemic oppression don’t reverse like that, so HA HA nobody cares. And actually I quite liked sweet little Ed and party monster Jay. It’s nice to see some straight dudes and gay ladies hanging out together in TVland, and if the dudes are hitting on the ladies, well, it happens. For a while my group of friends perforce included a Barney Stinson type who firmly believed that his magic wand was more powerful than the Scarf of Sexual Preference (actual quote, from our first conversation: “I’ve turned 3 lesbians in my time”, and oh, how disappointed he was to learn that some of the ladies are immune to his almighty d00dliness).

The Kids Are All Right

If Lip Service is all about gay ladies and their particular gay lady issues, The Kids Are All Right goes to the other extreme. I watched the film with certain reservations, knowing I would be subjected to the tedious trope of, well, some dude’s magic wand being more powerful than the Scarf of Sexual Preference, but that turned out not to be the problem I expected it to be. The story isn’t about sexuality (fluidity, whatever) at all; it’s about a middle-aged couple whose marriage is flagging. I freely admit that my judgment might have been colored by my fury at the pisspoor projection of the screening I saw, but I found the movie pretty boring.

Here’s a little thought experiment: change the sex of Annette Bening’s character. Swap her out for, I dunno, Chris Noth or somebody. Nothing else about the film is different, is it? It’s still the story of a marriage where both partners have gotten so comfortable that they take each other for granted, and Julianne Moore’s character enjoys the feeling of being wanted again; it’s still the story of a rich, white, suburban family being a little dysfunctional. While I admire the total normalization of same-sex parents, it is just not an interesting story to me.

We’re eleven years past American Beauty. We’re centuries into the kyriarchy. Rich, white, suburban families do not need their stories told anymore. I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another rich, white, suburban family being dysfunctional onscreen. I want to hear the stories of people who have historically been othered, people who have interesting new stories to tell. The Kids Are All Right offers a picture of two lesbians – people who have historically been othered and marginalized – who have become a part of the mainstream. It tells mainstream America, “Look! The ‘gay lifestyle’ is no different than the straight one”, and in the process turns what is on paper a new story into a story we’ve heard a thousand times before.

The fact is, not everyone in a marginalized group wants or is able to become a part of the mainstream like that, and that doesn’t make their lives or stories any less valid. Art and culture can open our minds to people that live fundamentally different lives than we do, and sometimes that entails overemphasizing the difference; but then again, sometimes it involves minimizing it. I guess there’s a place for both the Lip Services and the The Kids Are All Rights of this world.

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