When it hit theaters this summer, “Bruno” got the gay community talking – and not just about all of its overt male nudity. Though the film was arguably pro-gay, given its satirical take on American homophobia, many in the LGBT community were horrified by its over-the-top personification of gay stereotypes. And in truth, despite possibly good intentions, Bruno did occasionally cross the line. But I’m not convinced that Sacha Baron Cohen’s gay caricature, however offensive, really had an impact on the way in which the mainstream straight population views gay men.
After all, gays are everywhere these days. In addition to their greater visibility in today’s more open society, gay men are becoming increasingly present in popular film and television. Scads of sitcoms and feature films expose viewers to what being gay is all about. That is, of course, if being gay means being fashion-obsessed, effeminate, gossipy and irrepressibly horny. Critics of “Bruno” are kidding themselves if they don’t see these stereotypes in perhaps less explicit terms all over film and television.
Such objectification isn’t really new to show business. In another era, an audience might have laughed at a white actor in blackface acting how white society expected a black man to act. White people, who may never have had any meaningful experience with blacks, gleaned all their knowledge of black life through these images. But African Americans had a distinct culture during times of oppression to give them some sense of self, and gay adolescents have no such heritage granted to them at birth. This vacancy leaves them devoid of a model for self-expression apart from what they see on television as how a gay man is supposed to act.
I realize now that such hackneyed expectations were probably the hardest part for me in accepting that I was gay. My uber-progressive parents, though probably less than thrilled, were totally accepting of my sexuality when I told them. And everyone in high school sort of figured that I was gay, so coming out wasn’t exactly a challenge. My only real problem with my sexuality was the inadequacy it made me feel for being a bad dancer and having merely average fashion sense. I obsessed over feeling that I was something other than what gay guys are supposed to be, and in many ways, I tried to change myself. It’s ironic, I suppose, that in an attempt to embrace what I was, I sought only to emulate others.
But since I’ve seen through the fallacy that I have to look a certain way or like certain music to be a respectable gay man, I’ve grown more frustrated by the way the entertainment industry illustrates gays. It seems that whenever there’s a gay character in a blockbuster movie, he’s always the empathetic best friend or chic shopping buddy of a female protagonist in some sort of romantic quandary.
In television, it’s much of the same. Even on HBO, which is generally considered “gay-friendly,” the same skewed archetypes peep through all over the place. Airing “Angels in America” and “The Laramie Project” in addition to adding gay subplots to virtually every original series has revolutionized the way that gay identity is addressed in entertainment. But in shows like “Entourage,” “True Blood” and (most notably) “Sex and the City,” pigeonholing of the gay male as an oversexed materialist abounds. It’s terrific that each series features gay roles, but is it so much to ask that a sitcom highlight a gay character who is not a decorator, fashionista, or sexaholic?
There are, to be sure, examples of seemingly “normal” gay characters here and there. ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters” comes to mind for featuring complex gay roles while avoiding clichés. During its run on HBO, “Six Feet Under” organically explored the emotions and intricacies of a committed gay couple. And who could forget the decidedly un-stereotypical “Brokeback Mountain”?
But for the most part, Hollywood’s representation of gay men is pretty two-dimensional. It’s time for writers and producers to incorporate more multifaceted gay personae into their shows. “Bruno” was uncomfortable for audiences because we are so inundated by flamboyant gay depictions in the media that viewers weren’t consistently able to understand the film’s big joke. Adding new gay themes would add freshness to tired plotlines, and would help straight and even gay people view gay life more favorably.
Matthew Green can be reached at email@example.com.