Saturday, December 30, 2006

Queer As Folk A Double Edged Sword of Queer Representations on American Television

In December of 2000, the Showtime premium cable network rocked American television with the US adaptation of the UK television program Queer as Folk (Russel T. Davies, 2000 - 2005). The show was by far the most aggressive and comprehensive representation of the queer community on television to date, moving queer characters from the roles of best friends, and supporting characters into the narrative focus. It was not the first time queer characters had been represented on television, but it was the first time that a television show attempted to chronicle the lives of characters almost exclusively queer.

While it never received mainstream critical acclaim, most gay critics hailed the show as a groundbreaking voice for the queer community. Queer audiences could finally tune into a program that would act as a reflection of their own lives, their struggles and the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. Unquestionably, the show marked a new era in cable television with the advancement of queer imagery but it wasn’t immune to criticisms, even from within the queer community.

The frank and graphic depiction of sex and language, inclusion of stereotypical depictions of the queer community, lack of diversity within the show’s cast and oversimplification of queer issues would over the course of the five years of the program drew some criticism. The power and benefit of the show act as a double edged sword between positive queer presence and potentially reinforcing negative queer imagery.

At almost two hours long, the first episode not only established the characters the show would follow, but the controversial manner in which it would do it. Cradled in the safety of cable television, the show was less limited on its language use, ability to deal with sexually explicit material and full nudity of characters. In fact, the show was one of the most sexually explicit series on broadcast television with an appeal to mass audience. Initially, the targeted audience was queer (mostly gay men) but after the first few episodes, an un expected audience began to tune in: married heterosexual women. Perhaps the reason for this unintended demographic is the fact that the show’s nudity turned Laura Mulvey’s male gaze back on itself; reversing the typical female object of the male gaze, by instead turning the gaze onto men.

Whereas in the typical narrative structure the women are the focus of the sexual attention and the men are there to interact with the sexual female, withQAF the exact opposite is true. The women are represented as more “home bodies” and hyper feminine and the men as hyper masculine sexual beings. For example, the first time we see the lesbian characters Mel (Michelle Clune) and Lindsay (Thea Gill) it is right after Lindsay has given birth to their son Gus, but the male characters are each introduced in the confines of Babylon surrounded by men in a sexual context. Over the course of the series, Mel and Lindsay’s sexuality would be explored but given the fact that the cast was overwhelmingly male (of the seven main characters only two are womyn) the structure of the show lends itself to the over representation of male sexuality and the marginalization of the female.

However, the concentration of male sexuality, while simultaneously suppressing the female, isn’t just problematic in the representations of gender. It also acts as a potential reinforcement of the stereotype that gay men are more sexually promiscuous than womyn. Mel and Lindsay in their relationship have their indiscretions, but the male characters, particularly Brian (Gale Harold) and Emmett (Peter Paige) and Justin (Randy Harrison), are far more active. The first episode of the first season starts with a voice over by Mike (Hal Sparks) saying point blank “The thing you have to understand is that, it is all about sex” framing both the episode and the series which begins and ends in Babylon, a hotbed of male sexual prowess. However, the same could be said about a wide range of other television programs.

For example, Sex in the City (Darren Star, 1998-2004) features a cast of women whose sexual nature is anything but chaste. It could be argued that both shows do represent an aspect of their perspective communities, there are plenty of gay men and straight women who are sex-obsessed in the real world. However, because of the lack of other programs featuring queer characters shows like Queer as Folk do end up carrying more of an assumed representation than those like Sex in The City. The television landscape is full of programs depicting the lives of straight characters and with that comes a diversity of representation. When you only have one show, it tends to carry more socio-significance.

It could also be argued that the series lacks the depiction of diversity within the queer community. All the principle cast members are young, attractive and affluent. Surrounding the principal cast, there are flashes of socio-economic diversity but not in the core. Given that this single program has the potential to speak for the entire queer community, the stereotypical depiction of queer men and womyn as attractive and affluent potentially reinforces the idea that the queer community lacks the diversity found in the straight community.
Of course nothing could be further from reality, but the fact is that those are two of the stereotypes and myths that surround the queer community. In fact, other shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (David Collins, 2003 - ) also work to reinforce the idea that (particularly queer men) are young, affluent and beauty conscious and that somehow we are there to “dress the world’s windows”.

While Queer as Folk can be seen as problematic, any criticism should be carefully considered. Knowing that the very nature of the series is already breaking new ground, the use of a race, class and socio-economically neutral cast allows the show’s writers to appeal to the larger audience. Also, over the course of the series, different factions of the queer community are depicted in various plot lines and issues that face the characters, so they are not without representation. By doing so, they were able to bring into focus ideas and conflicts most members of the queer community face. In fact, perhaps the one thing the series did the best was to weave controversial issues into the text of the show.

In the five years that Queer as Folk was on the air, they tackled some incredibly controversial and critical topics that impact the daily lives of queer Americans. It dealt with same-sex marriage, adoption, hate crimes, disease, drug abuse, discrimination, cures for homosexuality, ability for professional athletes to be open about their queerness, representations in media, just to name a few. From the very beginning the show sought to break ground and explore the possibilities of representing the queer community. The expectation that any one text can create a full and complete picture of the world is not only unrealistic but unfair.

Of course any television program, film or advertisement should seek to be inclusive. However, with the factioning of society it is nearly impossible to include every aspect of every community. Particularly when you remember that each program is a commodity in itself that must be sold to a network and continue to draw an audience. The sensitive writers and creators try to do what they can to include as many voices as possible, and the beauty of television is that they don’t have one forty five minute episode to do it in, but several in a season.

The struggle with representation is particularly difficult in a series like Queer as Folk because it represents a community that is under represented in the mass media landscape. Thus, it has the potential of being seen as the definitive representation of the entire queer community, a vision that is problematic at best. Because it exists one step outside of the “normalcy” of the white-heterosexual-Christian-male model it is subject to requirements that other television series, which exist within the model, don’t have to adhere to and that is when the real problems set in. A show like Queer as Folk couldn’t possibly hope to represent the whole queer community any more than Sex and The City could hope to represent the entire straight community, nor should it be seen as such.

In fact, in the realm of media criticism, when we look at television, film and advertisements and question why they don’t feature more diversity, the question should be directed back at our society with equal veracity. Mass media is not just a reflection of society, it is a construct of it as well. Meaning, if media lacks diversity, perhaps it is because we as a culture don’t want diversity. It is no coincidence that most television programs feature white, affluent and attractive characters. They do so because we as a society crave it, and because we have succumbed to the superiority of the ideas they represent.

If we as a society could manage to come together and collectively reject the mass media portrait of our lives then I am sure the media landscape would become even more inclusive. The challenge is overcoming the factioning of our media with niche programming and incorporating those ideas into the mass media fabric. It would be a great day when queer audiences can turn on their television and see their lives being played out on screen like their straight counterparts, not relegated to pay television but on national broadcast television where others might also see and begin to understand in primetime America.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Women Filmmakers: Voices From the Dark

A quick glance at the titles playing at the local megaplex reveals a lot about the modern Hollywood machine. Often the titles are sequels to previous box office hits with filmmakers hoping to ride the successes of “chapter one” to another mega box office hit. Others are based on novels and the few “original” ideas are only loosely reworked variations of other films. The films tend to feature work from a relatively small pool of actors (both men and women) and tell stories that the studios hope will bring the biggest box office receipts.

Looking at the names behind the titles on the marquees exposes the reality that the already limited stories are being told by an even more limited body of professionals, mostly white men. The films tend to have large budgets and are expected to be neutral enough to draw a large audience and as such, don’t tend to feature voices from cultural minorities seeking to challenge anglo-western patriarchal dominated cultural norms. These films speak to and reinforce imperialistic ideologies by relying on cultural stereotypes and prejudices to marginalize minority voices while reinforcing the superiority of the ideas expressed (McCabe 77). The films produced within the Hollywood machine are seen by millions of people worldwide and by default become our most familiar ambassadors to other lands.

The films in this vein combine to create billions of dollars a year in profits for the studios that produce them. The box office success of these films results in a form of economic democracy, with the pop culture audience voting for the films they enjoy by paying $10 and the industry makes more films like it, further perpetuating the cycle of films that fail to challenge the spectators and creators imperialistic ideals.

Instead, the films from subjugated and minority voices exist into the realm of film festivals and independent theatrical release. Very few of these films are given the attention, marketing and wide distribution that their more culturally neutral counterparts take for granted largely because it is just assumed that the audiences won’t be there to support the films financially. Of course there are exceptions (Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Lost in Translation grossed $106,454,000 in worldwide receipts ) but the vast majority of the films fail to gain the box office success of the other films.

Recently, I had the opportunity to screen three documentary films sharing a common theme, made by women directors. The films all centered on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, specifically how the women in the two warring nations are working to bring an end to the violence. Each from its own perspective, the films approach the issue with passion and conviction, but not with the intent to provide answers. Instead, the filmmakers work to raise a dialogue between the two sides of the issue.

First, Lilly Rivlin’s film Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace (2006), documents the women working on both sides of the conflict, trying to win peace not through violence, but through dialogue. The film is by and about the women in the movement. Second, Donia Mili’s Uprooted (2006), expresses the internal struggle between violent and non-violent activism in the quest for Palestinian liberation. The film ultimately asks which form of activism is most effecive in bringing about a solution.

Last, Samira Goetschel’s Our Own Private Bin Laden (2005) documented her journey to better understand the myth behind the world’s most notorious terrorist Osama Bin Laden. As an Iranian immigrant to New York City, she was forced to examine her own Middle Eastern identity after the events of September 11th, 2001. Her film challenges the audience to look inside themselves and find their own fears, hatred and prejudices, something she sees as each person’s own private Bin Laden.

Each of these films was produced outside of the Hollywood system and will most likely only screen in the film festival or art house environment, in part because they don’t fit the typical pop culture standards that viewers tend to want to watch. The perception is that films like these will only attract a limited audience and as such, don’t deserve a wide theatrical release. While this may be true, is the lack of mass appeal of films like these the fault of the spectator or the creators?

Take for example North Country (Niki Caro, 2005) a film driven by a female cast chronicling the first class action sexual harassment suit. This film places female characters in a central role and given the lack of films with strong female leads, the story should have brought out the female audience.

However, what seemed to have happed with North Country is what McCabe refers to as the separation between the spectator and the text writing: “Soon revealed in this investigation into cinematic identification and socio-cultural was a gap between feminism and real women, between political ideology and personal experience, between how feminist theory interpreted texts and how actual audiences made use of them” (38). Essentially, feminist films were being made but they couldn’t break through the popular cultural barrier of the dominant ideology of the spectator and get them to watch.

The struggle to overcome the cultural barriers doesn’t only exist in the context of feminist films. Other independent films llike Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room (2004) challenge the anglo-American audience to see the world from a different perspective. By following the media coverage of the beginning of the Iraq war through the lens of the Al Jazeera news network, it provides a perspective that would otherwise be denied to the American audience. The film comes to a head when correspondent Hassan Ibrahim challenges Lt. Josh Rushing to see the war from the point of view of Arab population.

Rushing doesn’t need to agree with the point of view but he has to understand it before he can realize that there is another valid side to the conflict. Lt. Rushing’s epiphany is seen by many to be dangerous because, by seeking to understand the “enemy” they become human, clouding the relationship between combatants. When the issues surrounding war become clouded, then the systems of domination and power that perpetuate the war are threatened. Noujaim asks us, the spectators, to follow Lt. Rushing’s example and begin to break down the barrier between “us” and “them”. The idea of hearing the point of view of the marginalized is undesirable for most of the population and thus films, which express the minority point of view, aren’t popularly received. It is far easier for the mass population to write off the film as radical or unimportant than to actually engage the film in the dialogue it hopes to begin.

The ability of minority or marginalized voices to express themselves isn’t limited to documentary or fact based films. Fictional narrative films can also challenge our worldview when we are asked to step into the perspective of a protagonist, which may not fit the profile we are accustom to. With her film The Woodsman (2004) Nicole Kassell brought to screen the story of Walter (Kevin Bacon) a man convicted of child molestation readjusting to life outside of prison. Few crimes carry an emotional response equal to child molestation and putting the narrative focus on a sympathetic character guilty of the crime is incredibly courageous.

Like the other films mentioned, The Woodsman seeks to challenge our generally accepted worldview and was produced outside the studio system. Also like the other films, its box office receipts were modest, not even reaching $2,000,000. In fact, if you consider the success of the film in box office receipts, the film failed to bring in even the independent viewing audience. Of course box office receipts aren’t the only way to judge the success of a film, but they do seem to indicate something about our modern culture.

It would appear that mass audiences don’t want their ideologies challenged and that even minority voices for some reason fail to come to their own stories. The films which seem to simply entertain or reinforce current ideologies gain popular support and generate millions of dollars in box office receipts. Consider Jackass: Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006) with its near $76 million box office total with $72 million made here in the United State. If the measure of success is coming to the point of drawing mass audience, I for one am glad that the filmmakers discussed in this essay chose instead to break outside of the system and tell stories that challenge our ideologies.

The women filmmakers responsible for these films took risks to bring the stories to life and the distributors echoed the risk by bringing the films to audiences. Perhaps our culture will eventually come to the point where women filmmakers are allowed to tell their stories and be seen by mass audiences without having to sacrifice artistic and cultural integrity. For now, regardless of box office success, courageous women filmmakers will continue to express themselves and bringing their voice to light from darkened theatres.

Works Cited

McCabe, Janet. Femist Film Studies Writing the Woman Into Cinema. Wallflower: Great Britain