Monday, January 31, 2011
Men On... 2.0?: Black Gay Men on TV
I read this article on TheRoot by Michael Arceneaux (which is one of my favorite website) and was disturbed. As many people know, much of my scholarly work centers on the limited representations and constructions of black gay men on television. But this article bugged me, not because the author is wrong, but because he selectively chose which information to include and which to delete.
His gripe is that there is a revolution happening on television in terms of gay characters appearance and acceptance on TV but that black gay men have not been/are not a part of that revolution. And he rightly points out that these representations are disproportionately white. No arguments so far. Where he goes off the rails (for me) is in his selection of Antoine Dodson (of "Hide Yo Kids" fame) and Lawrence Washington (from The Real Housewives of Atlanta). While perhaps his selection of these two celetoids (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant Chris Rojek who defines it roughly as a person who acquires short, intense bursts of media attention) speaks to their omnipresence in media he is remiss in recognizing that the Entertainment Weekly article DID mention Calvin from Greek who is an out black gay man, former president of his fraternity, has an interest in sports and has been written such that he has relationships (albeit with white men) that include kissing and sometimes the implication that there was same sex sexual intercourse.
Also conveniently missing from this analysis is the gang from Noah's Arc. Are they not gay representations (or at least not the "right" gay representations)? Are the only "approved" (by whom?) ways that black gay men on television can be represented is as ultra masculine like Keith Charles on Six Feet Under? What about Carter Heywood from Spin City? Why is he missing from this analysis? He is certainly the father of the movement whereby gay black men on TV began subscribing to what Evelyn Higginbotham calls a politics of respectability.
We have to get beyond this notion of positive and negative when it comes to representations of black gay men in media. These terms are entirely subjective. Whose positive? Who's negative? I often say to a friend of mine that nuance is dead and this article speaks to that notion loud and clear. If we subscribe to Charles Cooley's notion that TV is a place we turn to in order to see ourselves reflected, then for someone, these representation are grounded in their truth. Do some of these representations rely on stereotypes? Of course they do, but stereotypes are grounded in a truth, perhaps not yours or mine, but someone's truth. It's extraordinarily facile to dismiss black gay characters because they fail to conform to the ways in which we construct what black gayness (or gayness, generally for that matter) is or is not.
I can't argue that we still need to search for the black gay men on TV, but the notion that all we have to pick from are the caricatures of gayness that harken back to the days of Men On... from In Living Color is a bit disingenuous. We still have a long way to go, (the same is true for many televisual groups including lesbians, who are as invisible on TV as black gay men), but we have more choices than Arceneaux asserts.