a credit to your ... whatever
You know, I always feel sorry for minorities who come to media attention. Somehow, it always becomes incumbent upon them to be a Credit. A Credit to their Race, A Credit to their Gender, A Credit to Their ... Whatever.
Being A Credit is best seen with film and television, of course. Visible media tend to throw people into sharp relief, whether they want it or not. If you're a reporter, or a writer, or -- to a much lesser extent these days -- a recording artist of some sort, it's always been easier to avoid this trap. In some ways, it's easier to control the image of you that people see.
For example, blacks, both on screen and off, were and, to some extent have always been, expected to Be A Credit. Granted, what that meant changed over the years. At first, in the early days of film and television, all it meant was being there, being visible at all. (You kind of have to feel sorry for the actors who played Amos and Andy on that series. On the one hand, there they were, leading their show, doing things that most blacks couldn't even think of dreaming about. On the other hand, they were reviled for the sorts of roles that they were. But I digress.) Later, when simple visibility, noticeability could be taken more for granted, Being A Credit meant taking roles that were positive, ennobling. Being A Credit also meant acting in a certain way in your private life, always dignified, always fulfilling certain expectations. One of the paragons of Credit, for example, was Sidney Poitier; all of his roles have that dignity, a certain gravity, a certain ultimate nobility. And he was considered to be a Credit off-screen as well ... right up to the moment he married that white woman in 1976. (Interracial marriage not being a credit to anyone, you see.) Diahann Carroll was A Credit when she took the role of Julia in the television series of the same name; black professional women (Julia was a nurse) being completely nonexistant on television at the time, and that being one of the first -- if not THE first -- series built around a black female lead. Bill Cosby was A Credit as the first black man with a lead role in the series I Spy; he had the comic lines, what there were of them, to be sure, but he wasn't the buffoon.
I'm sure that the same issues obtain for Latinos and Asians, but I haven't done the analysis. I'll get back to you on that. As far as Native Americans go, once Westerns fell out of vogue -- and once people started realizing that depicting them always as the Evil Savages was neither accurate nor fair or reasonable -- they fell out of visibility; they'd have to come up several notches just to achieve noticeability these days. Partly a function of numbers, as well, but it seems that there must be something else at work for so pronounced and profound an invisibility as this. But I digress.)
Of course, these days, Being A Credit is both more and less difficult. People are demanding that their public figures act like role models, and the public figures just don't want it. (The older folk think of it as a lack of social responsibility, no doubt. The younger folk consider it trying to live their lives for themselves.) The roles for ethnic minorities are more varied, but at the same time, more concentrated in a lower end that was considerably less visible in the media in earlier days -- gangbangers and drug dealers and the like.
And now, of course, it's the gays' turn. Finally, we're visible! You can see us in the media! Hallelujah!
Well ... sort of.
The problem of becoming visible is, of course, that people are actually watching. And judging. And those who feel that they should deliver their opinions ... do. (Not excluding myself, of course.)
First, you have the explosion of sitcoms and dramas featuring gays on television. At the moment, there are really two that everyone's looking at. How Creditable are they?
First, Will and Grace. Will is almost perfect, exactly what the haut trendoisie would want the media gay to be. He's got taste and style, and he's not at all effeminate and he's got a life and friends and he's celibate and ... well, OK, that last one is a bit of a problem, really, for the gay haut trendoisie, the opinion-makers. Except for that, he'd be perfect. (And for that part of middle America that's thoroughgoingly uncomfortable with any sexual aspects of gay life, he is perfect. Creditworthiness achieved through celibacy!) Of course, the other part of the problem is that Eric McCormack is relentlessly yet sometimes apologetically straight. It's hard to follow through on the Credit in the Media/Credit in Real Life aspects when only half-credit is actually there. (Although let it be said that, if you can be said to have a role model/Credit as a straight man playing a gay man, he fulfills that role admirably; he's been agitating publicly for two years for Will to get a long-term boyfriend.) Jack, on the other hand ... the haut trendoisie are appalled by him. He's flamboyant, he's desperately queeny, he's intolerant and opinionated ... and, of course, we all know someone like him. We love them, but we don't want Such People to be our public image. It's not Creditworthy. Sean Hayes, of course, completes the Lack of Credit side by refusing dogmatically to discuss his public life or sexuality (he believes in privacy, imagine!); it's impossible to Be A Credit without exposing the Creditworthy sides of your own life, you see.
Second, Queer as Folk. Much has been written aabout how it's the first show to focus on gay life. Of course, the problem is, whose gay life? Most gay men don't live like that. (We'll ignore the lesbians on the show, since the show does an admirable job of ignoring them for us.) However, the surprisingly extravagant party lifestyle would not necessarily make the show unCreditworthy in and of itself. The show depicts men who have busy, if not necessarily full, lives: well-funded, sexual and promiscuous and ... well, that's the problem right there. To Be A Proper Credit, you must find your One True Love and CLEAVE ... or else be celibate, if you're gay. And, of course, as for the real life aspect, most of the actors are straight, and declaim that fact LOUDLY! Peter Paige and Randy Harriman, the gay actors, also declaim, if not necessarily quite as emphatically. Of course, again, they can only get half-credit; the Creditworthy life (which ought to count for more, somehow) is matched with promiscuous and UnCreditworthy characters. (Although, frankly, I'd have thought that either character would be a pretty good role model for young or confused gay men. But then, I'm not an opinionmaker or trend setter.)
There are, of course, other gay characters scattered here and there, with more scheduled to appear this coming season. Ellen, no doubt, will become Immediately Creditworthy with her new series (well, up to a point; the character is gay, but it's not discussed, which almost certainly means another celibate). Heaven only knows what will happen with Helen Shaver playing a transsexual in "The Education of Max Bickford," but then Helen is straight herself (but if she keeps playing lesbians and transsexuals, maybe we can just adopt her or make her an Honorary Gay).
And then ... and then there are the reality shows. In some ways, this should be the best of all possible worlds, shouldn't it? After all, these are real people. We know they're really gay. We know that they are or were in various relationships, so we know that they're sexual people and not celibate monks. Being actual real people and being visible in that way should make them automatically Creditworthy, right?
Well, it somehow doesn't seem to work out that way.
Take, for example, Richard Hatch, winner of the first "Survivor". Out and proud gay. Should be a perfect role model, right? Yes, well ... there was that matter of the relentlessly messy personal life that he had before Survivor, and the fact that it's continued to be relentlessly messy after. And, there was the whole nudity thing. Interestingly, the comments on the nudity divided rather interestingly. The mainstream press was alternately amused or appalled by the fact that he was naked at all. The gay press was appalled not by the nakedness, but by the fact that he wasn't buff and toned and yet he STILL dared to expose himself! Egad! Mind, the "bear" subculture of gays has tried to adopt him as a Credit to Beardom, but somehow, it doesn't seem to be taking. Yes, he's hairy, and yes he's not extremely buff ... but he's trying to buff himself up, which blunts his appeal. And yet, since he's got more than one or two gray hairs and doesn't seem to be interested in trying somehow to become younger, trying to become buff doesn't help him with the haut -- who aren't about to forgive him for not being what they wanted in the first place in any event.
More recently, we had Bunky, from "Big Brother 2." Poor Bunky: he never had the chance to be a Credit, even if he'd wanted it. Why? (1) He's not young. (2) He's not buff. (3) He's hairy, everywhere, and he kept taking his shirt off all the time to let people see it. (4) Aspects of his personality -- which, let us admit, were sometimes less than appealing -- were probably only magnified by both the cameras and the claustrophobic nature of the show. To quote someone who seems to be quite serious in most of his criticisms:
Stereotypically, gay men are effeminate and emotionally weak, yet stylish, tasteful and witty. Sadly, Bunky possesses all of those bad qualities and none of the good ones. Add his habit of crying constantly and youíve got a cringe-inducing embarrassment to our community. [...] Why does Bunky show off his potbelly and copious, graying body hair by walking around shirtless 24/7? And why donít the producers force him to wear more clothes? Perhaps that gorilla is the real reason BB2 now airs at 9 p.m. instead of 8. Bunkyís unlined, boyish face is actually quite cute. However, heíll never rise above C-list status with that body fur and those unflattering clothes.
How nice of them to want him to conform to stereotype. How very very special of them. How choice of them to consider that he could achieve "C-list status". How embracing of all the different types of people we have in "our community". How good of them to attribute his presence only to the producer's homophobia (and the potshot they take at the blacks by attributing their presence to racism is even better).
You know, speaking purely for myself, he didn't embarrass me. Far as I was concerned, he was just this guy. In the scattered hour and a half I saw ... well, he didn't speak at all for most of it, but when he did ... no, I will admit, I didn't terribly like him but you know, that's just me and that's just him. Maybe, in a somewhat less fishbowl-like situation, he'd have been someone you'd like to know. Maybe not. Who knows?
But the haut can now be thrilled and delighted, for The Credits to Our Community may be at hand! I'm speaking of course of Joe and Bill, the "life partners" on CBS' The Amazing Race. They are perfectly positioned, at the moment, to become the Official Credits to Our Community. First, they're real people, and not characters, so we can be reasonably certain that They're Really Gay! They're in early middle age, they've been together 14 years, they're "life partners", they have lovely taste as illustrated by our glimpse of their house and their tasteful (identical) clothing and their ... Chihuahua. And since they're "life partners" (did I mention that CBS flashed that credit as their identifier, quite literally, every time they were on screen?), it can be assumed that ... they have SEX! (With each other, I mean.) Everything about them is absolutely tailor made for them to become Our Official Credits. What more can we ask? And at the moment, they're in second place in the competition, so if they can keep doing well, maybe we'll have gay winners we can really be proud of!
A Credit to Our Community!
But I'll bet the haut wish that the cute, young, buff, studly lawyers who don't wear identical clothing were the "life partners" instead.
OK. A small footnote to show how very petty I can be.
I'm sure that Joe and Bill are lovely people. In truth, they seem to be nice guys from what little we've seen of them in one episode.
But, land, they set my teeth on edge. Not because they really probably would be perfect representatives, if that's what people want. I can live with that.
It's the clothes. The clothes make me crazy. So far we've seen, I think, two or three absolutely identical matching outfits on them. It's driving me up a wall already. Frank, one of their competitors in the Frank and Margarita team, said, "Those two are wack. I mean, look at them, with their weird little hats and the identical clothes. What's up with that?" Which pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?
Sorry. Just a bit of truth in advertising. I can be as petty as the haut. (I can be petty about the haut, but that's not at all the same thing.)
© 2001 Iain Jackson, after-words.org