My friend Adam Goldman created a very successful web series last year called The Outs, featuring a collection of 20-somethings trying to find themselves in Brooklyn. I mean that in the emotional sense, not that most episodes featured characters struggling to orient themselves after the Empire State Building had shifted out of view (a common NYC problem). Recently he posted an article on Facebook from Aura Bogado over at The Nation critical of the hit NetFlix Original series Orange is the New Black, which got me thinking also about gay people in media.
In "White is the New White," Ms. Bogado brings up extremely valid points about people of color portrayed as background characters in their own stories with white people in the foreground. As a gay person, I am quite familiar with this concept, not just in fictional roles but at the nexus of reality and reality TV. If one more over-processed middle aged lady shouts, "I love my gays," as if we are human accessories, I am going to lose it. Yes, we gay men have traditionally had an idolizing love for powerful yet deeply flawed women, but Bravo TV has turned our Mommie Dearest obsession into a raison d'etre through their numerous modern interpretations of Imitation of Life. And it is just as glamorously icky as the old Lana Turner hit of the 1950s.
When it comes to OITNB, on the surface, members of the LGBT community have little to complain about. And I admit I am a fan. But here we are faced with an old stereotype too: the tired trope of prison as a hotbed of homosexual activity. Lesbians have rarely been shown in mainstream media outside the context of killers and evil seductresses, and the women in prison story line is a well-worn rut of lesbian pulp fiction. It is important to have our stories told, and to not discourage those in media to bother trying, but we should stand with critics like Ms. Bogado in asking for a fresh angle. The fish out of water perspective used in OITNB is a classic device for a reason, but it is also lazy writing, especially to minorities for whom this is the primary way their experience is shown.
Yasmin Nair over at In These Times strikes at the popular show from another angle with her feature "White Chick Behind Bars." Here Ms. Nair zeroes in on the broad issue of class. Where Piper Kerman may see her book as an indictment of prison conditions, the show's DNA owes much to the public fascination around Martha Stewart's brief stint behind bars. Increasingly as a society we are more divided by economic status than almost anything else. As the very middle of the middle class hollows out, Americans plane away in opposite directions, both financially and ideologically. And while this has had adverse effects for minorities of color, it has been an odd boost for the LGBT community.
TV pundits have marveled at how quickly attitudes toward gay people have changed, especially as other social issues have idled in neutral for years, but in our highly moral society, the LGBT community has never been seen as saddled with that greatest of sins: the sin of poverty. However, even as the diversely well-to-do Supreme Court ruled in favor of their gorgeous, wealthy contemporary Edie Windsor, the DOMA ruling has left more economically disadvantaged and rural gay people right where they were. In OITNB, preppy Blue State Piper is more at odds with her impoverished Red State white counterpart than she is with any ethnic minority. Ultimately, poverty, both temporarily visited on Piper and permanently inflicted on Pennsatucky, is the real villain of the piece.
We are all trying to find ourselves (in society at large and in some recognizable form in media). For generations, minorities have made their own media out of necessity. With the availability of technology and new funding sources, that tradition continues for people like Adam Goldman and others to tell our stories in new, interesting ways. But, as all of us move deeper into the mainstream, the way we are portrayed there is all the more important. Yes, compared to others, some of us do have a very plush seat at the table (even if it is at the right hand of the "Real" Housewives), but we can all do better.