Queers Not Too Proud for Pop-Culture Hand-Outs

I am a proud person, but I have never really considered myself to be “proud” of being trans or genderqueer or queer or femme or disabled. However, I have always been proud of being an activist. I live in a conservative city where even the most “liberal” people are barely recognizable on any “coastal activist” scale. The general concept of community involvement is an HRC sticker on your car and getting drunk at Pride and terms like “privilege,” “ablism,” and “appropriation,” are barely in stock, and we just got them in last year. After 12 years on the activist block, I’m used to my comments about some problematic show or song being accompanied by friends’ groans and eye roles. What I’m not used to is being fed up with it.

Possibly regrettable statement: I am fucking tired of bad politics. Yes, I know I am using a subjective qualifier and using my own ideals to measure “good” and “bad.” And I feel the need to clarify that I know “bad” politics does not equal bad people. I have always striven NOT to be the type of activist who shoves PC crap down people’s throats without taking experience or perspective into account. That method isn’t productive or inclusive. But it may be that my being too curbed has been part of the problem… maybe in my attempts not to be a total social outcast I have let my city down. Or maybe I’m just sick of my friends making fun of me for giving a damn about language and community politics. But in Cincinnati-speak, ‘giving a damn’ is more commonly called ‘over reacting’ or ‘reading too much into things.’ Under this mentality, when I see something fucked up I’m supposed to let it go, banking on someone’s good intentions. Well, good intentions don’t drive revolution and revolution is what our people need.

But not according to folks around here. According to them things are fine, inclusiveness is stupid and weak, and pop-culture is god. If you don’t agree with this you deserve ridicule and rejection. Being ‘gay’ and being a fan of a singing diva or show is nothing new, and perhaps it is this history that has fused the concept of ‘gay pride’ and pop-culture. Recently I told some friends that I personally preferred not to choreograph or perform songs from Glee because I felt hypocritical (I hate Glee) and that I felt the particular requested song, “Baby Its Cold Outside,” to be sexually coercive and problematic. In response, these folks insensitively made fun of me, both for my “PC” comments and for not liking Glee, and then told me that I needed to get over myself. Now, 1) last time I checked rape was always bad and 2) I didn’t say anything negative about the friends themselves, just the show Glee. But these two factors didn’t matter because it wasn’t the political issues that were the problem, it was me “over reacting” about Glee and being “lame” (and yeah, I commented on that word too and got shit for that as well). Apparently an insult to Glee is an attack on “gay” life as we know it, making defense of it needed by whatever means necessary, even if it means emotionally hurting another “gay” person, even if they are your friend. We get so distracted fighting for survival and jumping at scraps of privilege and recognition we don’t even notice when we put down our own to get it.

And at this point I would like to redundantly point out the difference between a personal attack and a political dialogue. Just because I don’t like something you like or agree with something you say / language you use, doesn’t mean I don’t like or respect you as a human being. And I would expect that if someone didn’t like my politics they would recognize the difference between me politically analyzing language and me being an overall terrible person who is out to destroy them and all they love, burning all their hopes of happiness away with a flaming torch of indiscriminate activist fury… but this expectation has not worked out for me as of late.

I guess the obvious reason for all this is that people don’t like to be challenged nor do they like being told that something they like could possibly be bad. Yeah, fucking up sucks. Its embarrassing, I get it. I’m make mistakes all the time! I’ve not checked my privilege, slipped on a word, laughed at a bad joke… and when I see (or am shown) my error I pull myself up, admit it, and apologize – all this without my face catching on fire or some other catastrophic result. (gasp!) Who could guess others could do the same thing, even in the Midwest? But I could be wrong. Maybe the right thing to do is to be a pop-culture drone and lazily let mainstream society spoon feed me my identity in whatever flavor it sees fit. Do people really think that defending Glee or someone like Katy Perry or Ke$ha is helping them? Should we be thankful for celebrities throwing us a bone, even if they hit us in the face with it? (Get your mind out of the sex-club. Politics now, sex later.) Aren’t queers supposed to have something called “pride?” Queer pride is supposed to be an unabashed fight  for our right to be ourselves, not latching onto cultural fads at the whims of sanitized music and TV.

I refuse to take what I am given, not because I am greedy or impatient, but because I am realistic. I know that in the real world words hurt. How did our society come to (sort of) learn that other semi-culturally recognized oppressions weren’t ok? We stopped allowing them in our media (sort of). The more we let slide the farther back we slide in the progress we are trying so hard to make. Is this what our proud people have been reduced to? Taking hand outs from celebrities who claim to care about the “gay cause” but don’t care enough to actually live their politics through their language and/or their performance? Yet when real people in our community speak out they are cast out as some sort of heretic. Am I reading too much into things? I think the problem is that too many people don’t read enough into things. If oppression were always out in front where everyone could see it there would be no question of right and wrong, but it isn’t. It hides in words, in TV shows, in songs… There is a big difference between obsessing over every tiny thing without thinking of the source’s experience(s) and recognizing the intricate layers of oppression within comments/products that promote problematic language and politics for the sake of entertainment and false belonging. I think if we were really proud of our community we would want to work hard to make it as inclusive as possible and be active in its growth, not leave it up to pop stars and TV to shape our image. Oppression comes from a lack of challenging the status quo. Yes, it is more work to think, and sometimes you don’t like what you find, but responsibility isn’t always easy or fun. And though I don’t necessarily think of myself as being “proud” to be any of my identities, I think that being able to say “I try my best with every option available to me to help my communities” enables me to be proud of who I am. Sure, I like seeing my identity recognized in media so I take the effort to find work created by queer and trans people for the sake of helping our community instead of those who use it for monetary gain or cool points. No, I can’t laze back and watch it on Fox or hear it on Clear Channel, but I’d rather have the real thing in its rarity than some money-making imitation that makes me feel good about myself at the cost of my own community’s dignity and pride.

xposted AmplifyYourVoice.com

10 comments

  • Beautifully said! This is such a great explanation of this principle. You’re right. Critical reading of things we implicitly endorse (and pay for!) is crucial, and declining to perform songs from Glee hardly qualifies as an overreaction. One of the things that was most damaging about the mess up here was the fact that “you’re being too sensitive” was being used as a blunt instrument to silence both people who were being harmed and those who would stand up for them. It’s our biggest obstacle to creating real change and a safe space. Thanks for addressing it.

  • umm. yeah. we’ve talked about this. I got told that I was being elitist and that anti-opprssion education was a privilege when I criticized Glee (not my friends who watch Glee). the problem there is: there’s a big difference between particular individuals not having access to anti-oppression education and people intentionally choosing not to engage with the (totally valid) critique I’m offering, as well as (duh) the fact that the mass media levies a great amount of influence over how the people that watch it conceptualize the world, and I think that not critiquing it is downright irresponsible. also, the people behind Glee (or any problematic element of pop culture, for that matter) aren’t oppressed because they lack access to info about how to not present things in a fucked up manner– I’m pretty sure they all have the internet, and if they really wanted to do it right, they could fucking google it and start to get an idea of how not to be ableist/transphobic/racist/anti-oppressive in general.

    also, I’m sorry this comment is probably kind of garbled, but I think you know what I mean.

    also also, you will probably like this re folks telling you that you’re being too sensitive / critical / whatever: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

  • Brilliant (as always)

    I just had a similar conversation with my dad about how using the term ‘illegal’ for undocumented workers is needlessly oppressive. The conversation didn’t go very well, (especially since he supports their rights.) I’m still trying to convince him how much language matters.

    I find it interesting that it is us (the minorities and activists) that are censoring ourselves not to offend the the status quo rather than the other way around — as media would have you believe. We’re the ones who have to be diplomatic even though sometimes the attacks against us ARE personal. I am a survivor of queerphobic sexual assault. No one can tell me that it wasn’t personal AND political.

    I’m curious how you feel about “fascist humor.” Say the likes of Jimmy Carr, 4-chan, Lisa Lampenelli, or what have you, in which they play the role of the ‘oppressor’ to such an extreme that it becomes absurd.

    I’m pretty sure you will disagree with me, but I consider the occasional stroll down non-PC lane to be some personal decompression, without which, I think I might actually go crazy. (I know several former UNVs, for example, that have seriously gone off the deep end, and had to be removed from service, after working in the DRC.) The world’s a fucked up place. My psychie can only handle even READING about so much violence before I have to stop and read a romance novel (preferably a steamy one that presents an over idealized version of beautiful gay men).

    So here’s my point. Occasionally, laughing about what I care about the most — what I fight for, what I am the most proud of, like mocking even the core of who I am as an activist, keeps me sane. I can’t take myself too seriously.

    That doesn’t mean I stop having those difficult conversations with people (still working on my dad) that language has power. Nor does it mean that I have stopped confronting my own biases and privileges. I mean I know I am warm, safe and full, snuggling with my childhood cat (who incidentally, I fear might up and die at any moment.) How many people in the history of the Earth have been so lucky?

    On a side note, Baby, It’s Cold Outside CREEPS me out. The girl is probably even underage. I *cough* don’t event know what Glee is tho. I’m so old. :(

    Cheers, Have a great holiday! (Hope your solstice was all you hoped it would be and more!)

    • Hi Rachel,
      I really liked your response about us censoring ourselves for the sake of the status quo. Well put! And yeah, totally doesn’t make sense! Are we living for the good of our community or for the good of consumerist stereotypes?

      Yes, I do like “fascist humor” as you call it, which is an interesting turn of phrase. I agree that sometimes we really do need to laugh about it, and sometimes it makes things a little easier. Though I am habitually out of touch with pop culture, I do enjoy the Daily Show or Eddie Izzard or The Office. I think that in the right light humor is an excellent educational tool. I only wish it had a wider effect than it does.

  • Hi Jac,

    I thought I’d weigh in because I’m trans and genderqueer and a radical activist who cares about language, but I’m also a pop culture junkie. First I’d like to say that your post was very insightful and that I agree with it. The thing that bothers me the most is that queers who do like pop culture (like me) will sanction others for not liking it, that is in no way ok. Keep being strong, and don’t give in to liking something just out of pressure!

    What I’d like to add is that I think it is possible to create a really queer appreciation of straight-dominated pop culture (queering pop culture if you like), basically a new way of appreciating it that furthers anti-oppressive goals instead of undermining them. First and foremost is to recognize how oppression in pop culture hurts people and to support those who criticize, are hurt by it, or feel the need to reject it. The second thing is to be willing to criticize even those things that you like. Pop culture, even underground pop culture, even political underground pop culture, ends up being oppressive in many ways, but I think it is possible to like a pop culture item while pointing out its flaws. Just as I might like a TV series but not like certain episodes, I can like a piece of art but criticize aspects of its politics or representation. The key here is that when taking this stance, I must recognize that I have the privilege to enjoy these things. For example, if I like a TV show that includes racism (eg, the mighty boosh), I have the privilege to look past it because I am white, and I need to recognize that. Even if I like a show that includes transphobia (eg, the fullmetal alchemist), an oppression that targets me, I need to recognize that other trans folks might not be able to handle it.

    I don’t think this approach is a cop out. While I deeply appreciate and definitely prefer the anti-oppressive art that we make ourselves, the idea of a separate art bothers me. I don’t want to flat out reject mainstream pop culture in favor of our own art because I don’t want to segregate our art. I want to appreciate the art from our intentionally constructed anti-oppressive culture alongside mainstream art and art from other subcultures. I think by placing Good Asian Drivers next to Missy Elliott, we can help create a culture where both exist in a simultaneous reality, and thus queer pop culture.

    <3Winter

    p.s. I used 'pop culture' and 'art' interchangeably above. All pop culture is art, not all art is pop culture; all squares are rectangles, not all rectangles are squares. :)

  • Hi Winter,
    I think you make an excellent point. It is totally possible, maybe even inevitable, for members of oppressed communities to take enjoyment from pop culture/mainstream media – and also totally ok! And no one is perfect, so yeah, we all like things that aren’t 100% “PC.” That said, I feel everyone must have their limits, and I think many’s limits are too low, which results in inaction and internalized and externalized oppressions. What I find problem with is 1) supporting products that blatantly oppress and exploit 2)excusing these for the sake of ones own entertainment and craving for cultural belonging and 3) placing these pop culture elements in front of one’s own community, even to the point of re-oppressing one’s self and others or judging those who stand up against these “gods” that pop culture has created. So yes, I agree that it isn’t horrible to like pop culture in general, just to treat it like a god at the cost of our own rights and dignity.
    thanks for your insightful comment!

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