This is going to appear an incredibly petty rant about a movie which came out a decade ago, but it is one of those niggly irritations that this blog was set up to throw out into cyberspace. I will include the usual points that I am not gay, so probably in no position to comment on a 'gay' movie (well, in theory, defining it as that is one of my problems with the movie), though I count among my friends three male gay couples and among colleagues two lesbians, so it is not an environment totally alien to me. In addition, when I also make the point as when anyone says that someone from the 21st century USA cannot write about life in say 17th century BCE Egypt or 18th century India or when/where/whatever, that in fact everyone has the right to comment on any time period or any culture. You may dispute that what they say is accurate or worthwhile, but you have no right to stop them making those comments if they so choose.
So, with all of that out of the way, we turn to today's topic. In 1997 the movie 'In and Out' directed by Frank Oz was released. It features a school teacher played by Kevin Kline who is about to get married to another teacher played by Joan Cusack. A former student of Kline's character is receiving an award on television and names Kline's character as being a gay inspiration for him. This in part mimics the acceptance speech by Tom Hanks in 1994 when he referred to a classmate and a school coach as gay. In 'In and Out' there is supposedly comedy in the fact that Kline's character is put under siege by family, friends and the media questioning his sexuality. This is obviously a big thing in small town America, especially for a teacher in a country where many areas condemn homosexuality as sinful. By the end of the movie Kline's character decides that he is in fact gay the way his former student has said. Now, this hardly seems a strong basis for humour, but that is not my gripe with the film.
What angers me so much about this movie is how Kline's character comes to see that he is gay. It has nothing to do with any attraction for men or for the male body. In fact, it is apparent that he is attracted to a woman, his fiancee. The only basis for him being gay is that he likes to listen to musicals and the movies of Barbara Streisand. Now, I know that liking both of these things is often something that gay men enjoy, but to say that doing so automatically makes you gay is only the kind of assumption that the distorted mentality of backwater America could make. Kline's character has no interest in oiled male bodies or wearing leather chaps and yet we also 'know' that these are things gay men love. A gay journalist played by Tom Selleck in the movie (who ironically shaved off his moustache which many commentators felt made him 'look gay' for the part) kisses Kline in the movie, a scene which was controversial, but in fact indicates that actually Kline's character has minimal physical interest in men. So, by the end of the movie, Kline's character, has apparently discovered his true gay sexuality, whereas in fact, all that he has really found out is that he likes movies and music that many gay (and many straight) people like and that maybe his fiancee is more his friend than his lover. This does not make him gay.
This brings me to the key problem with the movie and with the USA's views of being gay. Being gay has nothing to do with what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what films you watch, even how you cut your hair or what food you eat. Being gay, if you were unaware of the fact, is about being sexually attracted to people of the same sex as you (and to a far greater extent than to people of the opposite sex; being bisexual seems to be beyond the scope of Hollywood films). So all that Kline's character does in the film is come 'out' to his tastes in popular culture, not his sexuality. All of us are on a continuum in terms of our sexuality, some people are 95%:5% straight or gay, many people are 70%:30% in their attraction for women or men but never behave in homosexual way, whereas others at that level are bisexual. People may be gay or straight on different days of the week or at different times of their life, some people never alter, some people change their sexual orientation a great deal. However, the definition of being gay, comes from who you are sexually aroused by, nothing else. So, for a movie to pretend that sexual orientation begins and ends with what movies you watch or what music you listen to, distorts the average person's view of such things as badly as any bigoted fundamentalist and this is why this rather unassuming movie angers me so much.
P.P. 12/03/2010: This distortion in US productions that feels that being gay is simply about effeminate clothing choices seems to persist. Living in a hotel I do a lot of channel surfing to pass the time and so encountered the US television series 'Glee'. The series is about a musical performance group at an American high school. As with the series 'Fame' in the 1980s, it has had success with music from the programme entering the charts. The episode I watched was apparently a renowned one. I must say it did make me laugh but I could not tolerate too much of it. The programme interestingly combines 'issues' such as teenage pregnancy and coming out as gay with regular jolly, upbeat musical interludes. Anyway, in this episode a young gay character is both in the eponymous glee club and becomes a kicker on the American football team. This school's football team is useless and to raise their cameraderie the character has them learn a dance routine to Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' (in my view one of her poorest, the lyric 'if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it' is particuarly poor, objectifying women to an 'it' or suggesting that men who want to get married to a woman should have her labia pierced at their expense!). The team perform this routine during a break in the match and so disconcert their opponents that they win. The gay character uses it in his run-up to the winning kick.
Anyway, after the match when his father is so proud that he has won the match, the character comes out as gay. His father's response is that he had known this from the age of eight when his son asked for 'a pair of sensible heels' for a birthday present. Yet again, the assumption that tranvestitism = gay persists. Most gay men are not transvestites, some are uber-masculine in clothing and behaviour; most transvestites are in fact straight. This is an all too convenient coding for US media to use even a generation after Harvey Milk's assasination. For anyone who does not realise, being gay means loving men and wanting sexual interaction with them, it does not mean liking feminine clothing, movies or songs. I would insist that any writer/director/producer going to work on a series, especially for/about young people should watch 'My So-Called Life' (1994-5). Though this US series which launched Clare Danes's career, had some magic realism elements (give your new shoes to angels, people) it portrayed 'issues' far more realistically than you see elsewhere. I am not saying 'Glee' should be heavy, I am just saying it should avoid repeating misleading portrayals. Of course, the UK series 'Skins' (2007- now) would give an even better view of how to show young people on television, very far away from 'Glee'.