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Saturday, October 13, 2018

October 13-14, 2018: American Gay Studies: Pop Culture Representations

[October 11th marks the 30th annual National Coming Out Day, an important occasion in the unfolding story of gay rights in America. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of figures and stories from the history of gay rights, leading up to this special weekend post on gay identities in American popular culture!]
On three iconic late 1990s pop culture texts that in different ways continue to echo into our 21st century moment.
1)      Ellen: In April 1997, Ellen was just another successful Seinfeld-inspired sitcom in its fourth season, featuring a talented young stand-up comedian (Ellen DeGeneres) surrounded by a group of kooky but lovable friends (the show was called These Friends of Mine for the first season). But in that month, both the show’s main character and Ellen herself came out as gay (to Oprah Winfrey in both cases), and the landscape of television was changed forever (DeGeneres was the first openly lesbian actress playing an openly lesbian character on TV). Despite backlash, the show remained on the air for another season, although ABC’s parent company Disney did significantly dial back its promotion which likely contributed to the show’s 1998 cancellation. But Ellen was not absent from TV for long (she starred in another short-lived sitcom in 2001 and in 2003 launched her hugely popular and ongoing talk show), and indeed for two decades has been one of the most consistently prominent and beloved gay cultural icons. I don’t know that any single figure has moved gay identities into the American pop cultural and social mainstream more than DeGeneres, and that started with her show’s 1997 coming out episode.
2)      Will and Grace: Just over a year after that pivotal Ellen episode aired, NBC debuted the first major network sitcom to include gay protagonists from the outset, Will and Grace. In the course of its eight-season run, Will and Grace would become one of the early 21st century’s most popular and acclaimed shows: from 2001 to 2005 it was the highest-rated sitcom among adults 18-49; and it received 16 Primetime Emmys among 83 nominations, to cite two ways to measure such success. But I would argue that the show’s most striking feature was its relative lack of controversy—again, less than 18 months earlier Ellen’s coming out episode had garnered a great deal of backlash and criticism from conservative circles; whereas with Will and Grace such criticism, while present, was negligible and didn’t seem to affect the show’s promotion or popularity in the slightest. And that trend only continued when the show returned for a 2017-18 9th season (with early renewal for 10th and 11th ones), as the return has been popular but seemingly without much affect on the cultural zeitgeist. If so, that’s a reflection of how much the show helped changed the conversation around pop culture representations of gay Americans.
3)      Boys Don’t Cry: 1998 also saw the release on an award-winning documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, which detailed the tragic life and brutal 1993 rape and murder of a transgender young man in Nebraska. Filmmaker Kimberly Peirce (herself a prominent gay artist) had been working on a screenplay about Teena since reading a 1994 Village Voice piece about him, and the documentary spurred her to make that story into a feature film, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Starring Hilary Swank as Brandon, Chloë Sevingy as his girlfriend Lana Tisdel, and Peter Sarsgaard as his eventual killer John Lotter, the film offers a sometimes melodramatic and romanticized but mostly gritty and realistic depiction of Teena’s life, love, and death. I’ll admit that when I saw the film in theaters I had never heard the term transgender and would never have known to apply it to Teena; in that way, the film itself can be seen as having helped move us toward more communal conversation about this American community. Yet as this 2016 student protest of the film illustrates, and as the recent controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s plan to play transgender man Dante Gill drives home, that conversation has changed significantly since the late 1990s. Cultural representations such as Ellen’s and Will and Grace might still resonante, but we’re not in nearly the same place as we were two decades ago, and that’s a fraught but vital fact.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of gay identities or stories you’d highlight?

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