Media and Identities: Gay, Black and Invisible?

I put this together a couple of years ago to help students who were struggling with the, then new, MEST 3 – Identities question. Today I would have thrown in the films Moonlight and Tangerine for good measure. I still think it is useful but now I would add some key sociological support in the form of Tajfel and Turner (in-group and out-group status), Stryker (identity salience), Althusser (interpolation) and Marcuse (identity formation, limitation and false needs). I will put something together to cover these people and their ideas soon.

This is a response to an exam question. I set myself the tough task of looking at a highly marginalised and under-represented group. Hopefully this will give you some ideas as to how to search for your own case-study group and go beyond mainstream representations to look at self-representation and new media forms.

Oh, and by the way. There are a lot of pictures with this one because if you are dealing with a group of people who are being marginalised and under-represented – well then it’s time to represent!

Oh and I would definitely link to Cecile Emeke’s “Strolling U.K.”, Episode 11.

Mainstream media is a powerful influence on the construction of an individual’s identity. Use your case study to explore the impact of the media in the construction of identities. (48 marks)

Assessment in the exam is made of:

  • Evaluation
  • Wider contexts: Debates/issues and concepts (representation, audience, ideology)/theory
  • Examples

Gay black men are noticeably absent, or highly marginalised, in the representations of mainstream broadcasters therefore the effects of mainstream media are either negative or marginal and alternative media sources become much more important for the construction of identity. There appears to be a double marginalising effect in that mainstream black male representations are usually subject to the stereotyping forces identified by Dyer (shaped by powerful others/producers) and follow the representational rules identified by Medhurst which make them a shorthand for heterosexual hyper-masculinity (a good example would be 50 Cent). Gay male representation follows a similar trajectory that leads to a similar set of stereotypical representations so that popular U.S. T.V. series such as Will and Grace may feature gay characters but they are uniformly white and middle class.

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Will and Grace: To quote the John Oliver show “whiter than a yeti fighting Tilda Swinton in a snowstorm.”

To compound the problem a study of the few mainstream Hollywood representations of gay black characters show that they are relegated to bit parts and comic turns. In such cases they are used to symbolically annihilate black, gay identity through ridicule (Gerbner). In Zoolander (2001) Nathan Lee Graham, who plays Will Ferrell’s assistant, Todd, is played, in accordance with Craig’s observations, for laughs as a powerless, subservient camp character. It is hinted at that there is a sado-masochistic element to their relationship in a scene where Ferrell’s Mugatu berates Todd for bringing him a substandard latte. Todd can be contrasted in this with Tyson Beckford who acts as Derek Zoolander’s corner-man during the “walk-off” scene. Beckford, playing himself, is a powerful character (although one whose presence is an interesting note compared to Stiller who he is supposed to be below in looks and status) whereas Todd is the opposite.

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Regressive symbolic annihilation: The character of Todd in Zoolander (2001). By the way this is not representing!

In Easy A (2010) one of the film’s jokes is that the gay character, Brandon, runs off with a black guy (the set-up is that Olive has based her rebellion on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Brandon lives out the plot of Huckleberry Finn). Brandon’s new squeeze does not get a chance to speak in the movie but is merely a presence for a few seconds. There has been criticism of this from some quarters (notably queerblackfeminist.blogspot.co.uk) who sees this as regressive in a film which features only one other character of colour (a receptionist). The unnamed black lover does however get to break two Hollywood taboos. Firstly there is the depiction of an interracial relationship (still surprisingly rare in the U.S. and still a controversial subject) and secondly he gives his boyfriend a cuddle which breaks the taboo of allowing a gay character scope to depict any romantic/physical interactions.

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Easy A (2010): Silent and fleeting. About as far as Hollywood was prepared to go in 2010. Still not representing!

In the U.K. the 1991 Isaac Julian film Young Soul Rebels depicts the interracial gay relationship of the black protagonist in a story about racism and homophobia in late 70s London. The film reflects the concerns of the director (who is both black and gay) and is notable for, what Kobena Mercer, sees as introducing more varied set of representations to audiences. With British cinema ploughing a period drama/middle-class rom-com/urban crime furrow over the last two decades the mainstream and broadcast space for gay black representation has been extremely small or non-existent.

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On U.S. television a more interesting note is struck in Brooklyn Nine-Nine where Terry Crews plays a more archetypical version of the hyper-masculine black male (in early episodes he is not allowed to undertake field-work and is devoted to his wife and two young daughters in a way that removes his power but enhances his status as a family man). Andre Braugher plays the new precinct boss, Captain Holt, without a hint of campness (in fact in the first episode the comic-reveal is his sexuality). The character of Holt fits with Mercer’s concept of varied representations in terms of identity because the depiction is of a gay, black character who is the straight man (in comic terms). American audiences have also seen his husband, briefly, and there are archetypical elements to this representation as Holt does have a relationship but his relationship, like his sexuality, does not define him. What does define him is his stoicism. In Episode 2 (Tagger) he tells Deputy Police Comissioner Podolski, “I’ve been an openly gay cop since 1987, so you’re not the first superior officer to threaten me.” This line resonates with particular elements of the gay audience.

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Andre Braugher playing Captain Holt: Gay character but in comedy terms “the straight man.”

There are few mainstream print media articles which deal with British black, gay identity. The writer, theatre director and filmmaker Topher Campbell wrote an article in the Guardian in 2009 entitled “Black, gay … and invisible” in which he highlighted the problems faced by black, gay individuals from their own communities. His solution to the problem of invisibility and symbolic annihilation is that “visibility is the key to overturning ignorance” and he urged the black, gay community to organize more public events.  This was reinforced in a 2010 interview by Stephanie Merritt for the Observer of the comedian Stephen K. Amos. Amos had only recently come out and made a documentary, Batty Boy, for Channel 4. Merritt reports Amos’ assertion that “the one thing you could hide easily was your sexuality, even if you couldn’t hide your blackness,” which reveals one of the key tensions at work for this group identity. Both examples reflect Bachelor’s identification of representation of sexuality as a problem to be overcome rather than a comfortable state of existence.

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Topher Campbell

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Stephen K. Amos

Black gay self-representation in print is evidenced by the recently launched U.S. magazine The Tenth. This glossy magazine has a fashion focus but, in the first edition, clearly aims to depict marginalised and invisible identities with photo-spreads depicting black ballroom-drag for example. The magazine’s title itself comes from W.E.B. Du Bois, the co-founder of the NAACP, who asserted that a “talented tenth” would, through visible success, elevate the rest of the black community. As such it reaches back into the wider ideologies and politics of black resistance.

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The Tenth Magazine: A niche magazine with a very small, but significant, print run.

Emedia, especially user generated content, offers more spaces for gay black representation and therefore for Mercer’s varied representations. Jacob Kohinoor’s Youtube channel revolves around documenting the Atlanta gay scene and producing a variety of video forms (drama, interview and vlog) which explore the identity issues associated with being black and gay. In one he interviews Jr and asks how he identifies himself, in another he explains, in a scene which feels as if has come directly from a glossy U.S. soap opera – complete with emotional soundtrack, why he is proud of his identity to a female friend. The number of subscribers and views hints that these videos are mostly being consumed at a local level however that is key attraction of web 2.0 content.

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Jacob Kohinoor

The U.K. produced Youtube drama Say My Name has very low production values but has been viewed over 800,000 times. These indicate that the audience has few opportunities to view product like this (unlike Kohinoor’s U.S. efforts). The drama itself revolves, in a social realist manner, around a character denying his relationship which also indicates the current state of British, black sexuality politics and do not reflect Gauntlett’s suggestions that changing tolerances are leading to increased representation.

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Say My Name: YouTube offers a chance for self-representation.

Blogging offers similar space for self-representation and, in America, the National Youth Pride Services blog 50shadesofswag offers space for black men to write about themselves, their experiences and interests. Articles range from coming-out stories, first sexual experiences, articles about models and even birthday greetings to members. Tellingly many of the recent articles (both written and video) have been about first kisses (which demonstrates how this group finds itself excluded form representation of romance, as opposed to sex).

What these examples demonstrate is that, just as Bachelor found, the mainstream media has little influence on the construction of black, gay identity, other than to deny it. It is the new media spaces, opened up through web 2.0 opportunities, that allow archetypical representations which fight the annihilating homophobic forces which wish to represent black masculinity as solely heterosexual.

 

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