Phobias around Superman’s questionable sexuality suggests that queers simply aren’t welcome as dominate figures in the mainstream media. We might be visible in a film about HIV/AIDS, musical theater, or the quirky hijinks of a straight woman pal – You know, films about “our issues.” Should, though, the topic be centered on national security, war, or even old fashioned super-heroics, queers need not apply. Unless discussing the best way to redecorate your living room, queer folk are best quarantined on some remote reservation for the criminally fabulous. Warner Brothers and Singer stopped just short of promising that Superman Returns promotes compulsory heterosexuality as the most natural and attractive of choices.
Of course, the funny bit in all of this is that the fervor around Superman suggests just how easily his character lends itself to queer interpretations. The overreaction and assertions of his exclusive woman-loving ways only brought into light the many ways that mild-mannered Clark Kent leads quite a queer existence (which Dorian has been having much fun pointing out in his blog).
I have never been a heterosexual man, but I don’t imagine that many of them opt for spandex and long flowing capes (even if we think they should). Superman’s muscles and allegedly titan package illicit the queer gaze. He lives a double life, hiding most of his activities from his perennial suffering girlfriend. The boy also has some serious daddy issues.
What’s missed in all of these discussions are the ways that queer folk have long been playing with the media and tweaking it to match our sensibilities. The reaction against having an openly gay director for Superman ignores the ways that queers have both produced (Singer hardly is the first gay director in Hollywood, kiddies) and/or reinterpreted existing images to meet our own needs.
Popular media icons like Superman invite queer readings. By queer I don’t just mean the modern identities of gay/lesbian (though those are critical to queering the media), but all types of subversive gender and sexual practices that challenge the dominant vision of heteronormativity. Examples? I might have a few:
Superman: 1950s Television Show
Back in the day, a breakfast cereal sponsored the Superman television show. At this time, most advertisers expected the shows’ stars to push their product (talk about the ultimate product placement!). The network, however, deemed it inappropriate to show Clark Kent eating breakfast with Lois Lane lest the audience think that they had spent the previous night in a carnal embrace. The solution? Clark happily served his morning flakes to Jimmy Olsen. Lois, the old spinster, apparently wept bitter tears as she ate cold cereal alone in her apartment.
The network never imagined that the audience might ask, “Just how did Jimmy end up at Clark’s apartment for such an early morning snack?” Now, I am not saying for sure that Jimmy rode Superman like a sweaty bullet train the previous night, but can you say for sure that he didn’t?
The Golden Girls
Few people can dispute the massive gay male following of this 1980s sitcom. Now that it runs ad nauseam on Lifetime Network, an entirely new generation of gay men have adopted it.
The premise of the show, in case you have spent the past twenty years in an isolated jungle tending to the poor, centered on four older women living in one house. Most of their day’s activities involved sitting around eating cheesecake and discussing their sex lives. In took little time for a group of New York drag queens to do the obvious by adopting the scripts and bring their own version of the show to the stage.
What made the show queer? Well, for starters, gay men served as many of the show’s writers. Moreover, the four women rejected conventional assumptions about sex, aging, and friendship. They did not exist as parts of permanent heterosexual couples. Rather, they all dated often. Blanche, especially, defended the positive experience of having sex with somebody for no other reason than being physically attracted to each other.
The Golden Girls’ living situation also suggested some type of Geritol based commune. On more than one occasion, the four women referred to each other as “family,” even irking their biological relatives by doing so.
Ken [Formerly of Barbie and Ken]
Mattel monitors the image of their flagship toy, Barbie, more viciously than the Department of Homeland Security wiretaps U.S. citizens’ phones. You can imagine their trauma when everyone from Dan Savage to People magazine asked “Has Ken Come Out?” in 1993. In that year, Mattel launched a new version of Barbie’s boyfriend. In this incarnation, known as Earring Magic Ken, the doll came with streaked hair, an earring, black hip-hugger jeans, a mesh shirt, and a lavender vest. To complete his look, Ken tossed on (what appeared to most awake observers as) a cockring dangling from his necklace.
Mattel quickly disavowed any queer reading of Ken. Gay men, in contrast, flocked to the stores to snap up the doll.
Mattel’s media relations director declared any queering of Ken was “outrageous” when cultural studies professor Ann DuCille interviewed her the following year. Mattel further explained away Ken’s cock ring as “adults putting their perceptions on something intended for children.” The problem being, of course, that children did not design Earring Magic Ken.
Many have speculated that this Ken emerged as a subversion from within Mattel’s corporate hive-mind. Given the money invested in Barbie, it’s hard to believe that nobody at Mattel mentioned that the new Ken seemed, well, kinda gay. I, for one, would find it hard to believe that gay men aren’t behind-the-scenes in at least part of Barbie’s production. It would be easy to imagine them having a good laugh launching the new doll with sex paraphanalia. Then again, as DuCille points out, perhaps there is something more interesting at play if Mattel attempted to make Ken “hip” and “cool” and ended up with “gay.”
Really, though, Ken had shown his queer inclinations long before he started wearing sex toys as an accessory. Let’s face it, he spent an awfully long time dating Barbie without ever pushing her to get married. Some might attribute this to Ken’s horrific Hemingway crotch (which draws into question the practicality of his cock ring). I think, though, Ken liked the boys. He gladly went shopping with Barbie and wore almost as much pink as she did. Barbie recently dumped Ken, perhaps finally acknowledging the truth to herself.
Remember, Ken, better latent than never.
We can read the entire witch world as decidedly queer in this sitcom. Of course, we all remember our discussion of Uncle Arthur (GayProf will include that post on your midterm exam). Queerness in Bewitched, though, didn’t just imply same-sex desire through Arthur’s flaming personality. Rather, all of the witches expressly rejected the conformity of domestic, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
The producers of the t.v. show continuously implied that witches’ long term relationships were more open than
The witches flaunted domestic conventions and named Samantha a traitor for giving into Darrin’s demands to live in suburbia. All of the witches and warlocks showed indifference to winning Darrin or anybody’s else approval for the way they lived their lives. On almost every show, one of Samantha’s relatives declared her home a prison or, if in a more polite mood, a drudge.
Of course, the show did not intend to celebrate the witches’ nonconformity. Instead, it used them to illustrate Samantha and Darrin’s wedded bliss. The witches’ world suggested the possibility of queer lives and sexual freedom, but it came as a mixed message. They were, after all, witches.
This type of freedom seemed much like the queer readings of the X-Men movies (coincidentally (wink-wink), Bryan Sanger directed the first two). In that case, queer folk got the uncomfortable label of “mutants.” These types of images gave us freedom and power, but also presented the dangers of sexuality run amok. Queerness in these forms existed only on the fringe of society, among a group of secret outcasts.
Almost sixty years before the Queer Eye guys appeared on the scene, Mr. Belvedere showed boring, monotonous straight people that they could improve their lives by adding a bit of queerness (Yes, Belvedere’s first film incarnation, Sitting Pretty (1948), inspired the uninspired television show of the 1980s).
In the Belvedere films, the
Within minutes of answering an advertisement for a live-in nanny position, Belvedere showed himself to be fussy, condescending, and theatrical. Why should it come as a surprise that Maureen O’Hara hired him on-the-spot?
Belvedere’s idiosyncratic approach to life quickly made the household run better. Either oblivious or unconcerned, Belvedere never responded to the gossip that quickly spread about a man doing “women’s work” as a nanny. Instead, he showed the family, and ultimately the entire town, just how much better off they are to have a
Mr. Belevdere exists as the protype for the gay Mammy figure. He never fell short of quick wit or a bitchy comment. In a formula that would become a constant in the second-half of the twentieth century, Belevedere’s queer sexuality and gender would be tolerated as long as it served the needs of the heterosexual family. Moreover, the most we knew of his own sexual interests came only in being told that he “never married [a woman].”
All of these types of queer images, of course, kept queer sexuality under wraps. Mr. Belevedere put his libido on the back burner while he helped the really important people in society, the child-producing heterosexuals.
At the same time, though, these types of queer images also allowed young queer folk opportunities to fantaize. They allowed us to dream about creating a life that did not focus on newly-built suburban houses and whiny children clinging to our pants. After all, Mr. Belvedere left suburbia and his needy heteros behind once he became a famous author (writing a book, incidently, that mocked the hetero hyprocrisy that surrounded him).
These types of queer images offered an opportunity to see individuals who rejected monogamous heterosexual marriage and got to have fun. Neither Belvedere nor Blanche took the judgements of those around them seriously.
None of these characters or scenarios offered direct validation of same-sex desire. Queer images like these, though, offered an escape from the doldrums of traditional hetero marriage and the masochism of trying to be something we were not. We are constantly drawn to these types of images because they hint, if only coyly, at sexual liberation.