When I read that something called The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop will open in downtown L.A. this spring I was surprised on four counts.
- That we’ve come so far that someone has decided to be ridiculous enough to think they could open up a business called The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop and make any money.
- That someone had determined this name wouldn’t offend a significant group of people, perhaps some of them even homosexuals.
- That there were already TWO existing and hugely popular Big Gay Ice Cream Shops in New York (the first one opened two and a half years ago), which were spawned by its mobile forerunner, the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, and that they were all created by not one but TWO…Big Gay Men.
- That I – a smaller but probably just as big of heart gay man – didn’t know about any of this and initially thought it was all just one big dumb, and questionably borderline, gag.
So much for my hipness factor.
This all raises a much broader question – what is a stereotype these days and do you marginalize yourself or the particular group of people you belong to by embracing, portraying and perhaps even BEING (or condemning?) the stereotype?
1. A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.
2. One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.
Are the two owners of The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop stereotypically gay? Well, in some ways not at all. They are very successful, independent entrepreneurs who started a business from ground zero simply by selling ice cream out of a food truck and in just a few years they have three stores in the two biggest cities in the U.S. and are making lots and lots of money. Clearly, that is a rarity these days.
Yet in some ways they are totally stereotypical – two middle aged homosexuals with a self-professed campy dream who are snide and funny and have a penchant for the eighties TV show The Golden Girls. Not only that, but GG star Bea Arthur is their store mascot (along with a unicorn) and one of their offerings is indeed named The Bea Arthur – an ice cream cone with vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche and crushed ‘nilla wafers.
Not to mention this side note: Each frozen delight they serve is spotlighted on their website by an array of customers holding up or eating a particular item. From a sociological standpoint I was particularly intrigued by the two prepubescent boys holding up two cups of ice cream called The Gobbler (pumpkin butter and maple syrup or apple butter and bourbon butterscotch, pie pieces and whipped cream).
Uh…two young boys holding up creamy products advertising menu items from The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop? If this were the Bible Belt (or even Orange County) there would at best be lawsuits and neighborhood outcries and at worst…well, I don’t want to go there.
Perhaps it’s evidence of how far we’ve come that people’s minds do not “go to that place” of stereotype anymore – meaning somehow connecting anything gay –centric or owned by gay men with the abuse or indoctrination of young boys. (Perhaps?!) When I was growing up – not all that long ago – this would NEVER EVER EVER have been possible. And I am still ambulatory, have my eyesight (sort of), and am able to roller skate.
How much diversity do you see within your life, the lives of those within your minority group or how you’re represented in the media and how much is enough? (Note: Everybody at some point feels as if they are in some kind of minority, even if they’re in the majority). If you’re gay do you proudly proclaim you love Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler in your off hours as a hairdresser, but only at times when you’re not redecorating your apartment or cruising for men clad in leather chaps? Or what about the flip side of the problem, posed by a young African American comedian I saw some decades ago (but whose name I can’t recall, darn it!). He claimed to have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever (and he didn’t) yet had to embarrassingly prove it to disbelieving people who insisted he demonstrate because a rhythmless Black man didn’t seem humanly possible to them.
One supposes stereotypes do cut both ways – some traits you’d prefer to have (or do have), others you are a bit embarrassed to have (but why?) and still others are a perceived exaggeration of traits attributed to ALL people of your tribe you don’t want anything to do with.
This issue becomes a little more difficult for writers and other artists when representing those minority groups and problematic for audiences who are the spectators. Just what is your obligation to your crew (or to other peoples’ crews?) Do you have to go out of your way to find a gay guy that doesn’t like Judy (NOTE: I do love her and for some reason most of us do call her Judy) or not show gay men continuously searching for sex? After all, aren’t most guys – gay AND straight – continually searching for sex, at least in the back of their minds?
The premiere of HBO’s new half hour show about gay men in San Francisco, Looking, presents exactly this challenge. Starring the very amiable and charming Jonathan Groff, the show seems to consist mostly of a subset of a subset of gay men – urban guys who are mostly dark haired, with varying degrees of facial beards (except for Mr. Groff’s nubile young guy) who mostly look for sex. It is only in-between that they do a variety or artistic jobs or work as waiters. Stereotypical? Well, most certainly. But all of it or just in certain parts? And are the characters really stereotypes or just merely post-modern representations of people who, as a given, are a lot more than just that (Sex in the City, anyone?). Well, I for one am not quite sure yet.
By the end of the episode, I – a gay man who has lived some sort of existence in various shades of stereotype – felt as if I had absolutely nothing in common with these guys – nor did I ever. For one thing, they were much freer than I ever was sexually when I was younger and for another, their friendships and relationships felt so flighty and superficial that I probably would have ran away from them rather than to want to touch them or even gravitate anywhere near them. (Note: Or perhaps bitch about their superficiality behind their backs, which makes me another form of gay stereotype, sorry to say).
Of course, as a television show this is both entertainment and a fantasy. Do we bridle that the rich and powerful Grayson family on Revenge distort patriarchal relationships or that Nurse Jackie is an all-too ridiculous take on people who work in hospitals? Probably not. But mostly because there have been hundreds of hospital centered shows with other images (St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, even General Hospital) and thousands of rich, screwed up, primarily heterosexually oriented families on nighttime time soaps (Dynasty, Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives – gay sensibility though they all were – and do not make me get into the latter).
But how many television series almost solely about gay men have there really been? (Hint: You can count them on less than one hand). That puts an unjust burden on the creators of Looking and it’s an unfair one for a dramatist whose only real job is to tell a story the way it happened or happens in his or her mind. Dallas Buyers Club, the current historical drama about a straight man with AIDS in the 1980s, was criticized for its narrow focus on its homophobic lead character – a straight guy with AIDS who subverts the status quo and sells unapproved drugs that prolong his life and the lives of others (mostly gay men) – because it leaves out all the simultaneous other proactive steps hundreds of gay groups across the country took at the time in getting their own illegal drugs and protesting the government in other ways that prolonged their own lives.
Yet the sad truth is that a narrow focus is sometimes needed in order to maximize dramatic impact in narrative work. And if you reject that notion entirely consider this question: What IS that writer to do – not write roles in stories that will likely win its two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the male acting Oscars this year? (Uh, not a chance of that). Just what is the obligation to history, realism and representation when you want to create a satisfying and dramatic story, or live a satisfying, if not at times dramatic, life.
Members of most minority groups would probably answer it this way — don’t give YOURSELF majority status in our overall story when you were really a minority. Don’t leave our real stories out, don’t represent us as one or two stereotypes and DO NOT act as if you’re doing us a favor by merely showing us onscreen at all or say that we’re classically “oversensitive” for complaining at all. Does that mean we don’t make films like Philadelphia, Gentleman’s Agreement or Schindler’s List anymore? Okay, now my head is really spinning – all dizzying gay man clichés be damned.
In the case of Looking its creators and lead actor are openly gay and are working for HBO –a network that pretty much allows talent to do almost anything they please. So one can assume they are telling this story from a personal POV (which is all any writer can really do) and letting the chips fall where they may. Yet is that enough or do they (or you, or I?) need to think about being more inclusive, less stereotypical, and overall more universal when writing about ourselves and the rest of our group/crew/tribe or….? It’s the tricky challenge of all this.
I teach my students the more specific you are about a character the more universal you will be. But if all your characters are of a rarefied subset group of still another group subset and not varied enough – well, their behavior might be real or true to life for you but could easily bore the hell out of everyone else. I mean, no one’s real life is consistently THAT interesting over the long periods of time that a television series represents. Not even Oprah’s – trust me, it isn’t. You only think it is because of the wide variety of people we’ve gotten to see her talking to.
I learned this the hard way many years ago as a young reporter and then-movie publicist attending one too many red carpet events. I don’t even know when I finally knew I’d had it but perhaps it was when I was a guest at the premiere of A Few Good Men – one of the most lavish affairs I ever remember attending. It was at the ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel, there was a full orchestra, great food and Tom and Nicole were right next to me and everyone else, holding hands and walking from table to table along with all of the other stars and most of Hollywood. At one time this would be dazzling, exciting, unplugged and unleashed fun and decadence. Yet after so many of these it felt like being the plus one at the wedding of your much richer and more desirable cousin in whose shadow you had always stood in at a time when you were finally ready to be the movie star of your own life. It looked good and on the surface it would tell a great story but when you really thought about the people and everything that was going on, there was not much there there.
In short, it bore no relation to your truth. Though this might be different for those who were a part of the film, or fans who very much enjoyed what these people had made and were just happy to be invited to whatever party was being thrown. Maybe part of the mission in life is to create your own party – a thought that might sound stereotypical but in reality an action that you can make original and appealing to a lot more people than yourself if you work it the right way.
** Special Chair Note: This week we will begin listing each blog by subject matter with a corresponding and stylish post-it note on the left hand side of the page. They will then be archived by that category for easier future access. For your convenience, our beloved Holly Van Buren – editor, photo chooser, and caption writer extraordinaire, has gone back and archived every blog (yes, that’s all 165!) under one of six categories. Just click on the subject links at the top of the page you are interested in and you will be able to read your favorite posts from the past (Thanks Holly!). Also, remember to click on the title of each week’s post at the top of the page (e.g. Stereotype Sundae) – in order to access that week’s song!