'That Ain't Right!'
The news, television, and films all reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with even the hint of homosexuality.
Tim Hardaway hates me. That's OK. I'm not that crazy about him, either.
The former NBA All-Star's declaration that he is homophobic has been framed as a brave statement that reflects an attitude prevalent in professional sports, and Hardaway gets points for his honesty, however bigoted his personal testimony may be. If only he had stopped with "I hate gay people."
But Hardaway had to blather on, observing, "It (homosexuality) shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." (As if the United States was a separate entity from the world.) It is this part of Hardaway's statement that gay activists rightfully found most troubling, as young fans may see it as a call to violence to rid the world (and the United States) of those pesky fags and dykes. In a society where violence against homosexuals is rampant, any implication of a call for the eradication of the gay population serves to reinforce the warped perspectives of those who perpetuate such violence. "If my man Hardaway says they shouldn't be here, I'm gonna do my part to see that they aren't."
Let me emphasize that nothing in Hardaway's comments called for violence against or genocide of homosexuals. And Hardaway has apologized for his comments, calling his own choice of words a "hate crime". ("I Don't Have a Hate Bone in My Body", 22 February 2007, Sports.espn) Still, his statements will likely be interpreted as a call for violence by those who are already prone to such behavior. His remarks fall into that general category of hidden persuasion; those things which serve to motivate others to act or believe in a certain way without the explicit expression of the desired outcome. Such hidden persuasion is dangerous, as in this case, it leads to increased homophobia and creates a mindset of prejudice in children.
Which leads us to the other homophobic media controversy of the last month: Snickers. The now-famous ad for the candy bar has been yanked from television, but it has been replayed so frequently on news programs and over the internet that it has a life of its own. For those who missed it (where have you been?), the ad features two mechanics working on a car. One unwraps a Snickers bar and pops the phallic symbol into his mouth, gently chewing his way down the candy. Unable to resist the creamy nougat, the other mechanic bites the other end of the bar and begins chewing until finally the two men are lip-locked at the center of the bar. EWWWW, GROSS! In a desperate attempt to reestablish their heterosexuality, the men begin ripping out their chest hair.
Just as Hardaway never explicitly called for violence against gays, the Snickers ad never explicitly condemns homosexuality. Still, it is clear that nothing could be worse for these two heterosexual men than the perception of homosexual behavior. And Snickers' on-line website for the ad, now taken down, heightens the anti-gay message. One feature of the site shows alternate endings to the ads: in one, the two men guzzle down motor oil until they become ill, while another shows the two men fighting -- one man beats the other with a wrench, then has the hood of a car slammed shut on his head. A second feature of the website shows the disgusted reactions of members of the Bears and the Colts to the kiss, with one player declaring, "That ain't right!"
Gay advocates were quick to condemn both the website and the televised version of the ad. Judy Sheppard, Executive Director of the Matthew Sheppard Foundation, expressed dismay with the inclusion of professional football players who serve as role models for many youth. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation President Neil Guiliano said, "Mars, Inc., needs to apologize for the deplorable actions of its Snickers brand, immediately pull the 'Wrench' ad and the offensive NFL players clips from its Web site, and hold those within the company and at its ad agency publicly accountable for promoting anti-gay prejudice and violence." Guiliano also noted that GLAAD had been contacted before the airing of the ad with a request to view and analyze the ad, which they agreed to do, but the request was quickly withdrawn ("GLAAD, Matthew Shepard Foundation Condemn Anti-Gay Snickers® Campaign", 5 February 2007).
For many heterosexuals in mainstream America, the gay protests seem overblown: "Those hypersensitive homosexuals are getting worked up over nothing. Again. Don't they have a sense of humor?" Anybody who's been to a gay bar drag show knows that we do, in fact, have a sense of humor and that we can take a joke at our own expense. The offense of the Snickers ad lies not in its humor, but in its premise that homosexuality is so revolting that serious injury is a preferred reaction to being identified as gay. Like Hardaway's comments, the message in the Snickers ad is also a form of hidden persuasion. And Snickers is not alone in putting out an ad that not-so-subtly presents the hint of homosexuality as disgusting. Consider these ads, featured on the gay advertising website, The Commercial Closet:
A 2000 Heineken ad features two men watching football. One returns from the kitchen with two fresh beers; when he hands one of the beers off to his friend, their hands touch suggestively. Both men leap to opposite ends of the couch and begin talking about the game's cheerleaders.
Holiday Inn's 2006 ad shows two men relaxing in the hotel's hot tub after a busy day at a conference. When a third colleague joins them, he sits too close to one of the men, who makes a show of moving away. The mood shifts from relaxed to tense.
In 2001, DirectTV ran an ad in which Tennessee Titan Jason Kearse swats the DirectTV installer on the butt in typical "good job" football fashion after the installer finishes setting up Kearse's satellite system. The installer looks horrified and dashes from Kearse's home.
In a 2002 Citibank commercial, an elderly man impulsively hugs the young man who helps him change a flat tire. Cars driving by honk and people yell at the two men 'caught' in the nonromantic embrace.
An Australian ad for Cosmopolitan, released in 1997, shows a young man having dinner with his girlfriend's family. The girlfriend is playing "footsy" with him under the table. When she excuses herself to go the kitchen, her mother takes over playing footsy with him. After mom heads off to the kitchen, dad begins a game of footsy with him. Although the young man seems to find it acceptable for his girlfriend's mother to come on to him, he is horrified that her father would.
And there are countless other examples of ads, both televised and in print, which feature similar homophobic themes. But it isn't just advertising that is guilty of presenting the idea that homosexual behavior is to be considered 'revolting'. Film is guilty, as well. The newly released Wild Hogs and 2004's Without a Paddle both draw humor from the homosexual implications of men camping. In the case of Without a Paddle, one character notes he would rather die than sleep with his buddies, although sharing sleeping space would allow the guys to share body heat and prevent them from freezing to death. How funny is that? Pierce Brosnan and Woody Harrelson grow visibly uncomfortable at having to rub sun lotion on one another's backs in After the Sunset, despite the logical advantages of applying the lotion. Even the children's film Chicken Little gets in a jab, transforming its angry butch female character into a sweet dainty dress-wearer by film's end.
Far more prevalent than depictions of uneasiness with homosexuality in films are insults based on gays or gay behavior. In Cheaper by the Dozen 2, the worst thing one of the girls can think to call her sister is "butch", while the comedy Just Friends features the running joke "Raise your hand if your brothers' a homo!" The 2004 film Employee of the Month (not to be confused with the Dane Cook film of the same name) has Steve Zahn's character launching into an anti-gay rant, describing oral sex between men as "chowing down on some other guys' wrinkled Mr. Lincoln."
Still, there are films which depict gay and lesbian characters in a positive light, but, according to The Advocate's Mike Goodridge, the Motion Picture Association of America, which gives films their ratings, doesn't make it easy to see them. Goodridge points to the case of The Rules of Attraction, which was given an NC-17 rating for a fantasy sequence in which two fully clothed men make out. Likewise, the lesbian themed Better Than Chocolate had to fight to get a lower rating of R. ("Does MPAA = Most Parents are Anti-gay?", 21 January 2003)
The MPAA has also given NC-17 ratings to films featuring gay / lesbian scenes or themes such as L.I.E., Bad Education, Where the Truth Lies, and Bent. This rating forces the film makers to edit out the "offensive" gay material or risk low box-office receipts, as NC-17 films tend to do poorly at the box office and are not carried by many film rental outlets such as Blockbuster. In contrast, Without a Paddle and Getting Played, about three women seducing strangers and filming the episodes, received PG-13 ratings, while American Pie, featuring a teenager having sex with a pie, Eurotrip, which features an Amsterdam sex shop, and The Great American Snuff Film, about the sexual thrills of a serial-killer sadist, all had no trouble getting R ratings. The implication is that it is more acceptable for your children to watch a film featuring men getting off to the brutal murder of women than it is to watch a film featuring two clothed men making out.
Fortunately, television has progressed to the point where there are multiple positive depictions of gay and lesbian characters, courtesy of such shows as The L Word,, The Class,, Brothers and Sisters, and the soap operas As the World Turns and All My Children. Still, television has a way to go. On a recent episode of How I Met Your Mother, the character of Marshall was ridiculed for a male/male friendship that involved such questionable activities as going to brunch and attending a Broadway musical. When Desperate Housewives introduced the character of a pedophile, the show made the character gay, despite the fact that most pedophiles are straight.
GLAAD reports that there are currently only nine gay or lesbian recurring characters on primetime network programs, although more can be found on cable shows. Unless the show is sci-fi or fantasy themed. The Star Trek franchise has been frequently criticized for its exclusion of gay and lesbian characters, and similar shows follow the lead of the sci-fi trailblazer. Battlestar Galactica, The 4400, Andromeda, Farscape, SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, The X-Files, Firefly, Charmed, Supernatural, Eureka, Babylon 5, Roswell, Mutant X - none has featured a recurring gay or lesbian character. Only Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Who can be lauded for their inclusion of such characters (the lesbian Willow and bisexual Captain Jack). In the future and outer space, homosexuality doesn't exist, although all other sexual proclivities apparently do.
Reality television and non-fiction programs are much more likely to feature negative gay language and portrayals. For instance, the Bravo reality show The Real Housewives of Orange County showed two fighting brothers hurling gay slurs at one another. Bravo agreed that the language used was too insulting to be featured in its ads for the episode, and eventually cut it, but they kept the insults in the final cut of the episode.
The macho world of sports programming is understandably more prone to feature gay slurs. During a broadcast of an Iowa - Northern Illinois football game, announcer Brian Kinchen discussed the way one player was "caressing" the football, concluding "That's kinda gay." Similarly, Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Joey Porter was shown in a post-game interview commenting on a late hit by the Cleveland Brown's Kellen Winslow. Porter's explanation for Winslow's offense was "He's a fag. That's what fags do." Fortunately, both Kinchen and Porter were reprimanded for their choice of words, by ESPN and the NFL respectively.
As I mentioned, there are positive portrayals of LGBT individuals and relationships in films and on television, but those can easily be avoided by those who most need to be exposed to a balanced view. News headlines are not so easily avoided, so the dominant images are Ann Coulter, Isaiah Washington, and Tim Hardaway's homophobia. The apologies these three offered were buried, while their offensive remarks were lead stories. The same is true of advertising - the offensive gets frequent play, while the objective gets buried. There is a wealth of gay-friendly ads in the market, but they typically are not placed in markets intended for general audiences. Orbitz recently ran an ad featuring a lesbian couple, but they ad ran mostly during gay-friendly programs such as Project Runway. Viewers are much more likely to see the awkward men of the Holiday Inn ad.
Nonetheless, these ads, as well as the "amusing" homophobic scenes and language in the news, television, and films, run successfully because they resonate with many viewers. As Karen Walker used to say on Will and Grace, "It's funny because it's true." Unfortunately, some viewers share Hardaway's sentiments and they would feel the same horror as the men in the Snickers ad and the sentiment expressed in Without a Paddle should they find themselves in similar situations. And as long as the media image is one-sided, they'll continue to feel that their viewpoint is a justifiable one.