Historically, one of the first lines of attack for what we could term the liberal gay and lesbian movement in combating prejudice in the mainstream was targeting stereotypes in the media. And one of the most vigorously and consistently attacked stereotypes was the presentation of queer men as effeminate.
Those of us around at that time will remember the disgust directed at Jack from Will and Grace. Before him there was Jody of Soap, Harvey Fierstein and Scott Capurro’s characters in Mrs. Doubtfire, and Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s characters in The Birdcage. Conversely, any gay character who isn’t femme is lauded for breaking stereotypes (as if masculinity weren’t itself a stereotype of men).
The reductio ad absurdum came when the boys of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were accused of incarnating gay stereotypes. One of them in particular (I forget which one) reacted with irritation, because he wasn’t asked to portray any stereotype at all, but was simply being himself. Attacks on Johnny Weir have cut out the middleman altogether: he’s not even an actor – he’s an athlete – but he’s accused of perpetuating a stereotype just by existing and being famous while femme. (Interestingly, this was before he was ever out as gay — who’s perpetuating a stereotype now?)
I’ve never felt that this was a coincidence. After all, there were a lot of more harmful stereotypes to take on: gay men as tragic figures who always ended up dead by the end of the picture, or gay men as serial killers, for example, both of which were amply documented in the classic The Celluloid Closet. There was a reason why our community spent so much time and energy inveighing against the portrayal of, in the end, a harmless difference as opposed to depictions of misery and criminality: effeminacy is viscerally hated, both by straights and by queer men. (A more ample post on the latter subject will come later.)
It would be easy to dismiss this whole go-round as just yet more femme-hating posturing on the part of some assimilationist macho queers. And I think that’s true part of the time, especially when people in the public eye are attacked for being themselves, or characters in queer-created media are attacked for accurately portraying people in our community.
But it remains the case that in many situations, the characters are stereotypical. They’re not created as an honest portrayal of a real human being. Their effeminacy isn’t a character trait, it’s shorthand for Hello, here is a gay man. In many cases, the character’s effeminacy and/or his thus-depicted homosexuality is simply being played for laughs. Or (especially in recent years) as fan-service for nonqueer female fans. (More on this later too.)
It’s right to condemn stereotypical portrayals. Even where the subject matter of the stereotype is harmless, such portrayals make it clear that privileged characters get to be fully fledged human beings with characters and motivations while oppressed characters are tokens at best and scenery at worst. The writer has not bothered to actually get to know any queer men, in this case, to the extent of being able to portray us in any reasonable way.
How can we understand this in a way that allows us to fight off all stereotyped portrayals, without trashing either real-life femme men or fully rounded, honestly portrayed femme male characters? I was musing about this, and I think the right way to conceptualize it is as a form of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation takes place when a privileged group takes elements of an oppressed culture and uses them as it sees fit, without regard to their importance in the oppressed culture, often deforming them beyond recognition or distorting reality to the point of making the appropriated cultural practice take the place of the authentic one.
The existence of femme men, and the use of femme postures as a signifier for homosexuality even by queer men who aren’t usually femme, is an element found in our culture, and has been for ages. It belongs to queer men’s culture, even the culture of queer men who aren’t femme themselves. And naturally, when skilled queer artists portray femme men, the result is often beautiful and honest. (Some of my favourites are those in Harvey Fierstein’s various plays, most famously Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy, and those in Robert Patrick’s dramatic cycle Untold Decades.) We exist and we are entitled to be depicted in culture.
But when people who aren’t queer men use aspects of queer men’s femme presentations (often grossly distorted – the ridiculous and transmisogynistic conflation of femme and female transsexuality in the character of Jody in the 1970s sitcom Soap comes to mind) to mock queer men in general (including femme ones), I think we can speak of them appropriating this from our culture, and using our own heritage to attack us.
Sadly, the lives of us queer femme men are used by a misogynist, transmisogynist, cissexist, and heterosexist society as weapons with which to attack queers in general. The fault does not lie with us, but with the overculture misusing images of our lives as it misuses images of the lives of so many, in order to perpetuate all these abuses.
The sin is not depicting a phenomenon – queer men who are femme – that really exists. The sin is appropriating images of femme queer men, distorting our realities to their own ends, and often using us as a weapon against our own community. This allows us to say why the portrayals are offensive without trashing real-life femme men and their sensitive and accurate depictions in works of art.