Monday, January 23, 2006
by Wayne Besen
When a gay friend found out that NBC was canceling Will & Grace he was ecstatic. He derisively called the show "Will & Disgrace" and compared it to a minstrel show because the effeminate homosexual "Jack," played by Sean Hayes, is consistently the butt of jokes. He is right that Jack is often the punch line, but I think historically this sitcom will go down as a knockout success for the gay community.
Will & Grace isn't perfect, but it came along at the perfect time and bailed gay America out of potential primetime disaster. Ellen had recently come out and her show quickly collapsed. Many critics blamed the gay content for its demise, and even lesbian activist Chastity Bono told Daily Variety that "Ellen" was "too gay."
There was a real danger that the lesson network executives might have taken from Ellen was that mainstream audiences would not accept gay lead characters. Into this political and cultural minefield stepped Will & Grace. Thankfully, it was timely, unquestionably funny and proved that largely straight audiences can embrace gay subject matter. Where would we be today without this show rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Ellen?
Nonetheless, Will's (Eric McCormack) moribund sex life continues to irritate gay people. The man is obviously attractive and successful, yet he fritters away his Saturday nights with Grace (Debra Messing), whining about men he would surely get, if he would just lose her. I'll be the first to admit that I'd like to see the last episode (May 18) end with the perennially frustrated Will cruising a seedy leather bar and leaving at 3am in a drunken stupor with a shirtless and tattooed guy named Spike.
The pragmatist in me, however, realizes that explicit sexuality isn't what this show is about. Will & Grace introduced gay people to millions of Americans and brought us into their living rooms. Instead of deriding Will & Grace, the gay community owes David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the show's co-creators and executive producers, a debt of gratitude. They made it possible for the networks to take gay-themed shows seriously.
While criticisms of the show are valid, they also are made in a vacuum, which overlooks the historical time period of the show. It seems programming that features minorities always begins with stereotypes, before the group branches out to more complex archetypes.
Let's remember that before Denzel Washington could become a superstar, America had to endure less threatening African Americans such as Jimmie Walker, who played JJ on the sitcom Good Times, and liked to mindlessly shout "Dynamite" in his Chicago housing project.
In a similar fashion, the gay characters in Will & Grace ingratiated themselves with Americans who were otherwise fearful of homosexuality. This has led to increasing cultural comfort and opened the door for more realistic portrayals of gays and lesbians.
For example, Desperate Housewives, a phenomenally popular sitcom particularly beloved in the so-called Red States, has a complex gay teenage character. On NBC's Book of Daniel, the preacher has a gay son. And, of course, the remarkable success of Brokeback Mountain will only lead to more gay-themed shows.
Still, there is a long way to go before gay people are afforded equality in Hollywood. ABC television network recently cancelled the reality series "Welcome to the Neighborhood," where neighbors got to choose from competing families to see who would be invited to move into a subdivision.
After a gay couple with children was selected, the show was mysteriously pulled. ABC claims that the gay winners had nothing to do with their decision. Yet, critics point out that the network was wooing Evangelical Christians to support their wildly profitable "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Sadly, "Welcome to the Neighborhood" was exactly what America needs to see. Even Jim Stewart, who in an early episode said, "I would not tolerate a homosexual couple moving into this neighborhood" came around. It turns out that he had a gay son and the show helped him reconcile the strained relationship.
"I'd say to ABC, 'Start showing this right now,' " Mr. Stewart told The New York Times. "It has a message that needs to be heard by everyone."
The lesson of the unseen ABC reality show highlights the reason Will & Grace was so instrumental: Once you allow gay families into your living room, they are inevitably accepted into the neighborhood of shared humanity.
Will & Grace may be past its prime, but it did set the stage for a primetime line-up that includes ever-evolving gay shows and characters.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
by Wayne Besen
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a gay professional basketball player for the Utah Jazz. He desperately wanted to come out of the closet, but feared reprisals and career suicide. The man relayed to me the great difficulty of having an active social life in conservative Utah. As a gigantic, well-known black man in lilywhite Mormon Country, it wasn't as if could slip into a gay bar unnoticed.
There were teammates who were aware of his sexual orientation and accepted him. Still, he was forced to live a painful double life of secrecy that led to extraordinary loneliness. In essence, the Utah Jazz locker room became this man's Brokeback Mountain.
I mention this heart-wrenching story because Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller has canceled plans to show Brokeback Mountain in his suburban Salt Lake City movie chain. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Holly Mullen reported that Miller had told a local radio station that he had intended to show the movie.
"It's something that I have to let the market speak to some degree," Miller told the radio station KCPW-FM just hours before the theater nixed the film. "I don't think I'm qualified to be the community censor."
So, imagine the surprise of moviegoers when they reached the box office and found an offensive note taped to the ticket window: "There has been a change in booking and we will not be showing Brokeback Mountain. We apologize for any inconvenience.
"It is abundantly clear that Miller pulled Brokeback as the result of a last minute right wing pressure campaign. Instead of treating viewers like adults and letting them decide whether to see the movie, he buckled to Utah's infamous neo-Puritan lobby.
"I just think (pulling the show) tells the young people, especially, that maybe there is something wrong with this show," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum.The right wing busybodies often claim that they speak for 'the people.' They position themselves as martyrs that heroically stand up to the liberal elites.
However, Mullen points out that Brokeback Mountain is showing on two screens at the independent Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, and the theater's take for the week was 12th-highest nationwide.
It turns out the true elitists are the censors at Eagle Forum who believe they should decide what movies Utah citizens can see. Clearly, if people are allowed to make their own choices free from blue-nosed censors, they flock to this award-winning movie.
What I find particularly disturbing is that the right wing does not give a damn about children, nor do they have even the slightest interest in upholding traditional values. They are simply anti-gay and want to see homosexuals disappear from the face of the earth.
How else do you explain the uproar over Brokeback Mountain, while the right remains silent on Miller showing at his theatres, the grisly horror movie Hostel? The Associated Press describes this movie as one "which follows a trio of twenty something guys on a European vacation that begins as an orgy of sex and drugs and descends into brutal, bloody sadism."
Sounds like wholesome fare.
It seems the Neo-Puritans believe that their children are threatened by a beautiful love story involving two men. Yet, they have no problem with a gory movie where an eyeball is pushed out of a woman's eye socket. It is clear that the far right offers nothing of value to real families and has a queer obsession with gay people.
If anything, these fanatical yahoos seem to glorify violence more than your average American. This helps explain why Mel Gibson's psychotic "The Passion of the Christ" was such a hit. Instead of focusing on Jesus' message of love, these pious vigilantes seem to get off on watching their savior get pureed.
Sadly, the people who most need to see Brokeback Mountain are the homophobes who often protest just a bit too much. For example, if the Reverend Lonnie Latham had seen the gay western, it may have helped him come out and avoid an embarrassing scandal.
Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention leader was arrested in Oklahoma City for allegedly propositioning a plainclothes police officer posing as a male prostitute in a cheap motel parking lot.
During my book tour for "Anything But Straight," I had an event in Salt Lake City. I met some wonderful people and partied at a hopping nightclub overflowing with homosexuals. Indeed, it was one of the best looking crowds I had ever seen. I remember joking that it was almost an advantage for a person to be ugly, because one would be considered exotic. Even in the reddest of red states, there are out gay people and they have many allies.
The right wing can stop Brokeback Mountain in isolated theatres run by gutless owners like Larry Miller, but they can't censor reality. With the current momentum and social change fueled by such groundbreaking movies, it is only a matter of time before even a Utah Jazz basketball player can come out of the closet.
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
by Wayne Besen
Giving new meaning to a pyramid scheme, a recent New York Times article discussed how the pharmaceutical industry hires college cheerleaders as its drug representatives.
"They don't ask what the major is," T. Lynn Williamson, a cheering advisor for University of Kentucky, said of the drug companies who turn to the school to find pompom pill pushers.
Of course, the pharmaceutical giants would have us believe it's coincidental that their reps look like runway models. Lambert Amoretti, a spokesperson for Bristol-Myers Squibb said that hiring cheerleaders "has nothing to do with looks, it's the personality."
And all this time I thought it was portly gals, such as Ricky Lake circa Hairspray, who had the great personalities. I guess you learn something new every day.
Not everyone is buying the silly spin.
"There is a saying that you'll never meet an ugly drug rep," The University of Michigan's Dr. Thomas Carli told the Times.
Before we get upset at the pharmaceutical companies, we should look in the mirror. The most important decisions we often make have more to do with the superficial than the serious. For example, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in "Blink," his best selling book, that when it comes to choosing CEOs, the size of the body is more important that that of the brain:
"In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or taller. Among CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more striking, in the general American population, 3.9 percent of adult men are six foot two or taller. Among my CEO sample, almost a third were six foot two or taller."
No wonder why Ross Perot is nuts and Napoleon had a complex! They had to overcome incredible odds. If you apply this to presidential politics it seems that platform shoes matter more than the actual platform. Which just goes to show how inept the Kerry campaign was, with the taller man coming up short.
Unattractive people also have the misfortune of being less memorable. Another Times article points out "the power of a 'distinctive face' often renders actors who possess them paradoxically anonymous. Filmgoers are frequently unable to remember their names, even if they can describe their roles."
On the opposite side of the spectrum, attractive people have to overcome the perception that they are stupid. I call this the Dan Quayle syndrome. "Hey, let's put the hot Midwestern Senator on the ticket who can't spell potato. What a great idea!"
Attractive people also have to deal with sexual impropriety. Sure, they have an easier time getting a foot in the door. Unfortunately, some clients think it's the door to the bedroom. An informal survey conducted by a doctor in Pittsburgh found that 12 out of the 13 medical saleswomen said physicians had sexually harassed them.
The question we must ask, is what will become of these women when their pompoms turn into bonbons and their splits into banana splits? Will sexy gay bartenders be driven to drink and Hooters girls left to bitterly gnaw on wings when they begin to look more like the customers they serve?
If it is okay to hire based on looks, than it is okay to fire? Federal law is silent on the matter of discrimination based on appearance, although a case is winding its way through the courts.
A West Virginia surgeon and lawmaker wants to call off the eye candy and require all drug reps to have science degrees. I'm sure he'll be real popular at the next annual convention!
A new cult movie on Quantum Physics, "What the Bleep Do We Know," suggests that we are programmed to be shallow. (Of course, this is the same movie that interviews Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a quack that says Prozac may "cure" homosexuals.) In vivid detail, the film shows how seeing someone attractive floods our bloodstream with massive amounts of endorphins - the body's version of smack. In a physiological sense, we are junkies and the pharmaceutical companies, wise to our weaknesses, are using hotties and hunks to give us our daily fix.
I revamped my resume this afternoon and had to wonder if my most effective references weren't my personal trainer and hair stylist. In today's world, if an employer calls back and is interested in a second look, you have to take this literally, or at face value, so to speak. And if all else fails, just look at the interviewer and blurt out: "Gooooo Team!!!!!"