On July 16 rapper-turned-actor-turned-entertainment-mogul-and-energy-drink-spokesperson 50 Cent, also known as Curtis Jackson, came out in support of R&B singer Frank Ocean, who had recently revealed on his personal blog that the first great love of his life was another man. Speaking to MTV UK, 50 put his new position as simply as he possibly could: "Anyone that has an issue with Frank Ocean is an idiot."
What was ridiculous about this statement was how nakedly 50 Cent was revealing his own sentiments toward gay people. Sure, his views on homosexuality had been evolving in recent months, keeping in short step behind other rappers, like Jay-Z and T.I., to give late-stage endorsements of President Obama's support for gay marriage ("I'm all for it!" 50 said in another interview at the time), but there was no attempt on Jackson's part to even try to offer an apology for his violently homophobic Twitter feed; no scripted moment or press-friendly effort to offer the impression that he might be concerned for suicidal gay youth after telling his audience, "If you a man and your over 25 and you don't eat pu**y just kill your self damn it. The world will be a better place"; no lame excuse that his derisive "Lol" was actually a statement of irony or something equally thoughtless.
What 50 Cent meant when he said, "Anyone that has an issue with Frank Ocean is an idiot," wasn't that homophobia is an irrational social prejudice. He was saying that for anyone who owns, manages, or speaks for a business (as he does with G-Unit Records and Street King, the aforementioned energy drink), airing your personal opinions about queer people is an idiotic business strategy. In an interview with hip-hop writer Miss Info, he sounds like a real-life version of John Goodman's Colonel Sanders when he discusses the real appeal he finds in gay people:
50 Cent: They can say what they want about it, but ... how about if you say, 'I don't care'? Who is to judge you when there's an audience that's probably one of the strongest audiences -- if you look at Lady Gaga's career -- that says that that's fine?
Miss Info: And you will look crazy if you say that it's not fine.
50 Cent: No, if you say that it's not fine, you're gonna get attacked. You're gonna write apology notices.
It's funny, and sort of sad, that a musician whose cultural relevance has steadily and rapidly declined ever since his first album came out nine years ago couldn't have better handlers to try to make his newfound empathy for sexual minorities seem even a tad heartfelt. But I guess that a man who's so obsessed with making money that he takes dollar bills from interviewers for no reason, being subtle isn't really the point (see: Get Rich or Die Tryin'). The point that mattered to 50 Cent was: Forty years after gay liberation, the realities of 21st-century capitalism are so brutal that they force even its opponents to finally swallow their pride.
The news of 50 Cent's revelation was overshadowed by a story that broke the next day, when Dan Cathy admitted that he was "guilty as charged" for any presumed anti-gay sentiments. With the story still topping headlines three weeks later, it seems fair to say that the Chick-fil-A president and COO was being what 50 Cent would call "an idiot." This was a PR disaster for Cathy's company, the popular fast-food chain Chick-fil-A. Once Cathy metaphorically hung this sociopolitical banner across the entrance of any and every one of his restaurant's locations, something as seemingly simple and impulsive as deciding to eat fast food became a political gesture.
So far, it hasn't done the company much good. Its brand-approval rating has plummeted. Public figures as diverse and far-reaching as children's entertainment franchises and mayors of major cities severed any ties they possibly had with the company. Although the company saw a brief spurt in sales thanks to Mike Huckabee's "National Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," the long-term damage to a company hoping to expand out of its base in conservative Southern states will likely be severe. Business publications like Forbes and The Wall Street Journal expressed concern for the company's future as gay marriage is increasingly accepted as a historical inevitability. As hallowed a source as The Economist cautioned, "Speak low if you speak God."
Chick-fil-A found a predictable legion of political pundits to support its stance, such as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and (who could forget?) Sarah Palin. But what's more interesting is how Chick-fil-A's opponents assembled. Jeff Bezos, just a day after his company, Amazon, reported a massive drop in its second-quarter profits, pledged an enormous amount of his personal funds to defend same-sex marriage in Washington. Gay activist and sex columnist Dan Savage (whose position on the issue was never really ambiguous) tweeted a proposition to design T-shirts reading, "Chick-fil-A-Holes." By the next morning, he was promoting a completed T-shirt design. The shirt is already sold-out.
And so a revolution was born, or at least branded, and smartly so. After all, Dan Savage's legacy within the movement for LGBT rights, ever since he first splattered Rick Santorum's "Google problem" across the Internet's collective imagination, has been showing that queerness could be branded with the same ideological and artistic finesse as any other touchy cultural movement -- defanged to the extent than any of the straight people he often bashfully mentions listen to his show won't be offended, but still transgressive enough to push the right people's buttons.
Any political efforts to respond to Dan Cathy, meanwhile, were all delivered as bungled attempts to stop the restaurant chain's progress into new cities, feeding directly into conservative charges of censorship by an activist liberal regime.
Is eating chicken really a political gesture? Is not eating chicken? Sure, people aren't really "arguing over chicken," as Conor Gaughan suggests. And the First-Amendment defense, as is so often the case in questions of discrimination, is most likely overblown and attenuated. I can accept that, as queer activist and intellectual Judith Butler said in a rare moment of relatable human dialogue, "discourses do actually live in bodies." And discourses live in bodies quite literally when food is involved. With food like Chick-fil-A's, they probably never leave the body, for that matter.
But I'm just as scared that the idleness of this sort of political activism is transforming very real debates into what anthropologist Margot Weiss calls "consumer citizenship." In such a case, she argues in her essay "Gay Shame and BDSM Pride," a "culture of neoliberalism" transforms "citizenship into consumption, rights and family values." Politics therefore retreats "from the public sphere into the domestic, the intimate," and in this "newly privatized setting, it is the relationship within families, structured through consumption, rather than a civic relationship between individuals and the state, that serves as the locus for engagement." So, ultimately, we learn to stop asking the state to do things for us, and instead look to our favorite companies for an increasing amount of moral and political guidance.
This is not to say that Chick-fil-A's avowed moral and political stance is not reprehensible, but I'm alarmed by how quickly a debate about civil rights turns into a question of effective product placement, how quickly purchasing a T-shirt from your favorite gay activist or picking up a sandwich from a drive-through that supports "traditional" families becomes the model of an active and engaged civil society. Let 50 Cent have his homophobia and his struggling music career; appeasing gay people so you can make more money isn't acceptance. It's barely even toleration. Expecting real change to come from financial pressures alone is assuming that our capacity for empathy only extends as far as our wallets.
If the question becomes whether Amazon or Chick-fil-A "wins," as Mike Signorile put it in a recent editorial, then we're already ceding control of our civil rights and social justice concerns to brands to battle them out for us. And maybe that's easier. Maybe corporations really are people. But in the off chance that they're not, maybe people should still fight their own fights.