From the Vaults

(This paper was written in early 2010. I love it madly, but decided not to try to publish it because of my own feelings on outing. Now that everyone discussed is out of the closet, I thought I'd share it. Forgive the footnotes if they're wonky!)

Blogging the Glass Closet:
Celebrity, New Media, and the Assumption of Unasserted Gay Identity

In March 2010, on the day that Ricky Martin announced that he is gay, celebrity/media blog ran an article entitled "10 People Who Need to Finally Come Out of the Closet."1 The article makes light of Martin's announcement, making the assertion that his sexual identity was so well known as to be understood by the majority of the public, rendering his announcement overdue. It goes on to state that "he's not the only public figure still hiding -- unsuccessfully -- in the glass closet."2 The position that Gawker asserts is that gay identity is a static truth that needs to be revealed, and that refusing to publicly acknowledge that identity in the face of the "general public"'s understanding of one's sexuality is disingenuous. "These people really need to come out because it is so painfully obvious to the world that they are gay," Gawker argues, "and if they finally announce it, we're probably going to be laughing at them." The article also discusses the reasons that these public figures owe their audiences an admission of homosexuality, citing the need for successful gay action heroes, gay journalists, and gay media moguls. Gawker simultaneously argues that the public figures are deluding themselves by not acknowledging that the public has "figured them out" and places the onus on them to perform a public duty, making the assertion of gay identity a political responsibility for these figures, most of whom are not active in the realm of politics. Gay identity in this discourse functions as an easily recognized inherent quality, a political stance, and a component of a mature and integrated persona.

This project is an attempt to synthesize a theory of the way in which new media, particularly gossip media, both reflect and construct notions of gay identity in their coverage of celebrities, and hold celebrities accountable for not conforming to the particular medium's standards of the presentation of a public identity.

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that:
Foucault among other historians locates in about the nineteenth century a shift in European thought from viewing same-sex sexuality as a matter of prohibited and isolated genital acts (acts to which, in that view, anyone might be liable who did not have their appetites in general under close control) to viewing it as a function of stable definitions of identity (so that one's personality structure might mark one as a homosexual, even, perhaps, in the absence of an genital activity at all. (Sedgwick 83)
A fundamental assumption of all the texts that are discussed in this paper is one that Sedgwick articulates, that homosexuality is what one is which can often be proven by outsiders observing what one does and how one acts. In this discourse, gay identity is real whether or not it is publicly asserted, but the lack of public assertion functions as a troubling factor, allowing the media to create a conversation on the way in which it feels it is silenced by the celebrities' refusal to articulate what the media sees as inherent and understood. Gay identity becomes the most important part of the way that the medium interacts with the public figure, with the implication that this is due to the frustration that the medium feels at the inability to categorize.

I will look at the specific ways in which this is argued in reference to three public figures primarily on three specific blogs. This discussion sometimes moves from an internet space to more mainstream media, but the freedom of the internet3 and the way in which blogs function allows for more pointed commentary than that in which traditional media can engage. First, I will look at CNN journalist Anderson Cooper's coverage on Gawker, then Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir's coverage on sports blog (also owned by Gawker Media), and finally White Collar actor Matthew Bomer's coverage on gay news/media blog The different venues offer different takes on the way in which they assert a gay identity for the subject, but all of them discuss homosexuality as a salient, if not the most salient, aspect of the way in which the celebrity interacts with the public and crafts his persona.

In this paper, I do not seek to make claims as to the truth of the assertions of any of the media outlets but rather to call attention to the ways in which the discussion itself can be read as function of a "colonizing" discourse, to use Judith Butler's terms (Butler 308). The ways in which homosexuality is read in these texts rely on a sense of homosexuality as something that can always be delineated and understood and have an underlying assumption that the taxonomic categorization of people into identity categories is both liberatory and desirable. Butler argues that "identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of the very oppression." She continues, "to propose that the invocation of identity is always a risk does not imply that resistance to it is always or only symptomatic of a self-inflicted homophobia" (308). In discussing how gay identity is framed in these texts, this paper's standpoint is that the resistance of the label of "gay" may have multiple personal and wider political rationales, but the personal choice to avoid a sexual identity label, as all three of these subjects do, is, I would argue, not the choice that needs to be investigated. Rather, it is the media's resistance to their refusal to identify that needs to be interrogated.

I also want to draw a distinction between the interaction of the media and public figures that I am discussing here and what is generally discussed in discourses of outing queer people for political purposes. In Queer in America, Michelangelo Signorile articulates his thought processes when deciding whether or not to out public figures:
Here were gay [media figures] faced with the most devastating crisis ever to affect their community, who rarely reported on the government's negligent response to AIDS. Of course, this helped preserve their closets... At the same time they gave space to homophobic entertainers... Doesn't that relationship imply collusion and hypocrisy, and aren't collusion and hypocrisy newsworthy? (Signorile 72).
Signorile's outing of public figures, both media and political, took place in the context of political urgency due to the AIDS epidemic. Similarly, Kirby Dick's 2009 film Outrage, which outed political figures, specifically targeted only politicians that regularly campaigned against gay rights, and detailed the anti-gay voting records of all of its subjects onscreen, although Signorile argues that "to out only for [reasons of political hypocrisy] is to make the revelation of homosexuality into a punishment" (77).
By contrast, none of the three public figures covered in this paper present themselves as heterosexual or campaign for anti-gay causes, and often align themselves with queer people or events (Anderson Cooper anchored CNN's New Year's Eve broadcast with Kathy Griffin and Lance Bass, both of whom have a connection to queerness in the public discourse4 ; Johnny Weir is frequently seen at gay rights fundraisers and gay-themed events5 .) The urgency that the media feels for them to assert a gay identity is not due to clear political harm they are causing to gay people, but rather to a sense that their ambiguity does a disservice to the community and makes people uncomfortable.

In which I ignore quals for a second to talk about my diss.

Slowly collecting links for dissertating. I figured I should post them:

Delicious archive.

There is so much One Direction, but that's because they're mid-Beatlemania right now. What I really need is to go back through the Rolling Stone archive and find all the stories on all the other bands.

And I still don't know where I'm going to put the One Direction chapter. Because the entire dissertation is about the role of American whiteness and masculinity in the formation of American boy bands, and they're just there, being British and wildly popular and homosocial as hell, and I'm kind of like, "could you not mess with my argument?"

Also, I appear to have fallen for their ridiculous faces, which is useful in terms of maintaining enough interest to write, but detrimental in that I want to sit down with my niece and say, "Isn't Harry the cutest?"

On Black Women, Teen TV, and Fantasy Space

When I hit puberty, I was Jezebel. The world made it pretty clear that any black girl with big breasts must be up for anything. In high school, as I got older and fatter, I became Mammy, ready to lend a maternal ear to anyone. Then I went to college, started studying the media, and became Sapphire, perpetually angry about something. None of these things were me, but I realized that people wanted to be able to more easily categorize my existence, and they were just using the tools they had. I grew up going to predominantly white schools, watched mostly mainstream white TV, and lived in a white world. Outside of my home and church, everything I was exposed to was reductive when it came to race. And as a kid (and adult) who loved television, I became inured to the fact that I was rarely going to see anything that challenged those stereotypes.

This all changed when my brother had kids, and I realized that one of the things I wanted for them was to have no expectation that the stories they consumed would portray them as an amusing accessory for the main characters. My nieces are now twelve years old, and their environment is a lot like mine was. They never say it directly, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they want to listen to what their friends listen to, and watch what their friends watch, and still find a way to see themselves in what they’re consuming.

One of their favorite TV shows is Glee.  We have this thing where whenever we watch it, and the characters Sam and Mercedes (who are white and black, respectively) interact, I tend to say, "You know why [x happened]? Because they're in love."  We're big dorks, so they put up with me doing it.  But they're constantly talking about how it's their favorite couple on Glee, and they're more emotionally invested in it than I’ve seen them be about anything else on TV.

Here's the thing: the black girl on an average U.S. TV show rarely gets a romantic storyline. She's the best friend, and she hangs out in the background making snarky comments, and occasionally they introduce a prop boyfriend who exists to round out the couples.  So the fact that this one show, one that all my nieces’ friends watch, is making this an actual plotline is amazing.  There's a black girl in a love triangle involving two boys who think she's special and talented and worth fighting for, and that tells the audience that she is.

I know how dangerous it is to place your expectations of validation on media products, especially validation through heteronormative romantic success, which is a problematic concept in and of itself. But it’s still the primary way the media tells us that women characters are worthwhile.  I’m extremely ambivalent about this because, problematic or not, I believe that everyone deserves fantasies, and it’s a fantasy that black women are generally denied access to.  

I've noticed that in the past few years I've found myself having to explain to my girls why they never even see anyone on TV with curly hair.  They're aware that the media is telling them that they're not worthwhile and that they don't deserve fantasies starring people who look like them.  So this one storyline has been hugely important to them.  The magic box that sells them stories is actually saying, "Look, there's a big black girl and she doesn't have to look or be just like everyone else to get the same things everyone else has.  She's perfectly fine just the way she is."  And that's good for them.  Hell, that's good for me.

I want my girls to grow up watching a media landscape where people who look like them are considered both important and normal.  I want them to feel like the world actually sees and values them.  I want them to know that their stories are stories worth telling.  And being able to watch this one little storyline on a show they like is helping to communicate that to them.

My interests are mainly in the stories mainstream media sells and how we negotiate their portrayal versus our reality, but it’s extremely important to note that there are options out there that provide different voices.

The Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project is a San Francisco-based group that not only holds film festivals showcasing the work of queer women of color, but provides training to teach them how to tell their own stories.

Voices from the Gaps is a teaching resource from the University of Minnesota that provides essays and reviews of work done by women writers and artists of color. There are interviews with people like Sandra Cisneros and Zadie Smith, and a treasure trove of book reviews.

And, finally, one of my favorite blogs is The Crunk Feminist Collective, a group of writers who come out of the hip hop feminism movement and have insightful critiques on media and current events.

while I'm linking videos...

participate in democracy

Apparently the UK is considering Alternative Voting (or Instant Runoff Voting) which is exciting to me because San Francisco has that kind of voting and it mitigates a lot of that feeling of strategic voting, which never makes anyone happy. But my favorite thing about this is this video:

I promised I wouldn't have a blog full of cat macros, but apparently I was wrong.

responsibility threshold

Still avoiding work. But I have a reason!

This is Why I'll Never Be An Adult. It's like she knows my soul.

TV bingeing

I am not avoiding work. But here's another link: TV Binge by Michael Newman in Flow.

I am guilty of TV bingeing. Newman discusses how serial television becomes better when you binge, because you can see the connections and the flow of the narrative better. But I think non-serialized television shows, like procedurals, also become better. Shows that I would think have no narrative continuity suddenly show themes and storylines that are impossible to follow if you watch once a week, because they are subtle.

My main example of this is Criminal Minds, which has done things like tell the story of one of the main character's drug addiction over two seasons without mentioning it explicitly until one episode in the end of the arc where we see the character at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. A lot of this is due to the acting, where the actor made subtle changes to his demeanor and the other characters reacted to those changes, also subtly, so that it is only clear upon a rewatch of the show as a binge that you even notice all the ways they communicate to the audience that something is wrong.

I've long been a fan of TV over movies, because of the possibility of telling a story over a long period of time, the ability to create character arcs that let the audience bond with the character over years, and the complexity of serialized shows that expect the audience to pay attention and keep up. (Not to mention that if you're an actress over the age of 30, television is going to have a lot more opportunities for you than movies will.) Binges show the best of TV, letting the audience understand the possibility of the medium.

Cable dramas are generally made as serials, so here are some major network shows that become better when you binge:

Criminal Minds
Veronica Mars
the first few seasons of Law and Order

Also, watch Rubicon. That's my tip for the day.