Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More Gray: A Follow-Up

There are certain things this blog is, and isn’t.  I hesitate calling it “my blog,” not because I don’t wish to take ownership for my writings, but because referring to it as such implies that I can just post whatever I want here and use it as some kind of clumsy megaphone with which to broadcast my point of view.

I’m not comfortable with that approach.  So, there are certain things I choose for this blog to be, and that shape usually defines itself in looking at creative choice in popular media.  Every once in a while, I get the fleeting fascination with the mingling of pop culture and social culture, which has influenced my previous two posts. 

But above anything, this blog is a place for thought.  Whether it be critique, appreciation, or pointing out problematic issues in pop culture - in the category of fiction, or current events - it is a space for thought.  This blog is not my megaphone.  It is a place of consideration.

As such, I have a few things I want to follow up on, in light of the comments and reception I’ve witnessed in response to my most recent post.  I don’t wish to be an individual who presents an opinion and all those who disagree are promptly shuffled to the side.  Especially on the topic of my recent writing - the discussion is interesting, and pertinent, and many arguments are valid, and deserve to be talked about.  Shall we?

First things first: I do realize I inadvertently made Dianna Agron seem like some sort of enlightened prophet moving us into a better future, and, well… I didn’t mean to.  This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a piece: searching for a proper conclusion renders me a bit too grandiose.  Honestly, I wanted to leave Dianna out for most of the discussion, simply because talking so much about the reality of a public figure, and someone I don’t know, doesn’t jive with the modus operandi of this blog.  But, Dianna’s actions link directly back to her, and it’s perhaps naive to try and separate them entirely. 

That being said, most of this follow-up will have little to do with her.  Let the record stand that I don’t actually have a mini-shrine set up in worship of Dianna Agron, but that I respect her.  She’s human.  She seems to have her heart in the right place.  This works for me.  Holding her to any other standard is not something I'm personally comfortable with.

Now, I do want to address a few things involving the phrase “doesn’t matter” and cultural identity.  I stated repeatedly that definitions of sexuality, gender, and race shouldn’t matter.  I confess that unless you already agree with the implications of that general statement, that the word choice is not specific in its meaning.  Cultural identity is important, obviously, especially in how an individual chooses to embrace it as part of… well, his or her identity.  Identity is important.  But forcing identity on others, and providing differentiated treatment based on that identity?  It becomes an issue.

I also stated that the concept of community should fade away, when in reality I feel similarly about community as I do identity.  Community will never truly go away, and that is 100% not a problem.  Humanity is community; it’s natural to look at those around you and say, “Hey, you and I and all these other people are similar; let’s band together in unity of our similarity.”  Community gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of identity.  Community is comfort, and denying anyone that opportunity is problematic.  (It probably also makes you an asshole.)

But community can also turn sour, and people grouping up can lead to an “us versus them” mentality in environments where difference between communities isn’t accepted and embraced.  In the name of community, hate can be spat, wars fought, and trespasses committed.  So how do we keep all the good parts of community and ditch the bad? 

I don’t have the answers.  I’m not an expert on social change.  I don’t have a crystal ball that says what the future will be like.  I have to imagine that as old generations die, we can replace prejudice with something better.  Something that looks more like equality.

Which leads me to my next point - there is a difference between equality and sameness, and poor word choice indicated I believed otherwise.  Equality can happen amongst difference, and honestly that’s probably the best scenario.  I’m not promoting homogeneity, or trying to deny how individuals choose to represent themselves.  Difference exists.  Diversity exists.  And trying to stamp that out is not okay.

But at the same time, I choose to believe that some things are universal.  Someone facetiously responded in comment that I probably believe in the virtue of “colo(u)r blind,” which raises an interesting question.  My background of knowledge lies largely in storytelling and fictional media, where it’s a constant struggle to represent diversity and difference in a fair and inclusive way.  Frankly, putting diversity on our TV and movie screens is an upward battle.  And so when I watch a movie or TV show, I think, “How would this piece of fiction be different if everybody in it weren’t white, straight, Christian, or otherwise shuffling into the ‘norms’ of our society?” 

When faced with that creative choice, as a storyteller, there’s two options: a) write a story about characters who can be related to regardless of their gender, race, or sexuality, or b) write a story where the gender, race, or sexuality of the characters has bearing on their decisions on the events that happen to them within the span of the timeline.

Both are valid.  The first one is perhaps more prescriptive, and more idealistic, perhaps foolishly so.  The second is probably more realistic, and more true to what people’s actual experiences are in a constructed world.  And it begs the question: should life imitate art, or should art imitate life?  The first example that pops into my head, of course, is Burt Hummel from Glee.  Burt Hummel is a blue-collar single dad in small-town Ohio, whose son is openly gay.  They have little in common.  The realistic portrayal would perhaps be to choose for Burt to be disapproving of his son.  Or, there's the choice for Burt to be accepting of his son, despite the fact that it may be an abnormality.

There’s no easy answer to this question.  Personally, I tend to support the choice for a character like Burt to be supporting, because he is a character on a hit show on a major network with some serious visibility.  I see more value in providing a fictional example of an accepting father that may communicate the idea that even though Burt and Kurt are wildly different, they love each other and accept each other for who they are.  It’s a pretty solid message.

In many pieces of fiction, it stops there.  The difference isn’t acknowledged.  And that’s problematic as well, and more indicative of homogenization, and “sameness” as opposed to “equality.”  For me, it seems best to tell stories that are about universal emotions - humanity - without losing the cultural context entirely.  In continuing the example, Kurt and Burt don’t ignore their differences.  The narrative presents the reality of Kurt and Burt’s situation, without letting it defeat their relationship, and honestly it’s perhaps the wisest approach when it comes to portraying cultural identity in fiction: different, but equal.

Or, there’s the question of author.  Steven Spielberg, a Jewish man, was selected to direct the film adaptation of The Color Purple, written by Alice Walker, an African-American woman.  The book deals explicitly with gender and race, historically embedded in the context of 1930s Georgia.  It raised the question: can a Jewish man effectively tell that story?  It’s logical to be skeptical - what does Steven Spielberg know about being a black woman in post-Depression Georgia?  Even Alice Walker had reservations, but apparently shelved them after seeing E.T. and the treatment Spielberg gave the alien as a minority character of sorts.

It’s an interesting discussion.  Is Spielberg fundamentally unable to tell a story about an existence he knows nothing about?  Is it condescending for a storyteller from a different contextual identity to presume to tell the story of another contextual identity?  Or are there enough universal truths in any context to allow any human to relate to them in some way?

These are, of course, just musings.  Basically, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to handling identity and equality when it’s complicated with the construction of a privileged world, especially where the privileged people are more often than not in charge of the media being produced.  But I wanted to open up to more of this gray area, considering the point of my previous post was that it’s usually not helpful to reduce something to black and white.  And beyond that, we are still living in black-and-white world, so it begs the question: when can we start to mix the two together?  Is there a "right time" to abandon the constructs that are still standing?  Or do we have to keep kicking at the foundation until it gives out?  And do we build new constructs in its place?  I don't know.  It's a fascinating discussion, though.

To those who took any issue with my last post, and would like me to be more informed with different points of view, feel free to link any good reads in the comments.  I’d love to check them out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Born This Gray: Dianna Agron, Social Construct, and Proactive Social Revolution

My little corner of the internet has developed into a place where people repeatedly ask me the question, “What are your thoughts?”  It’s lovely and flattering, and has conditioned me to ask myself the very question with most input I receive - from the media in particular, and where creative choice intersects with intention, and breeds meaning and message.

And then there’s Glee.  The article that originally defined this blog was the reaction to the GQ spread in October of 2010, examining the sexist message that resulted from the choices involved in the shoot.  So when Glee and the representations of social identity cross paths, I usually have to ask myself:

“What are my thoughts?”

And then I take to the internet where I presume that people will actually give a crap.  So here we are!

But let’s back up.  Saturday night, Dianna Agron donned a “likes girls” shirt for her performance in “Born This Way,” instead of her usual “Lucy Caboosey” fare. 

Now.  This is a choice.  It means something.  (Personally, I thought she might have grown tired of wearing “Lucy Caboosey” because it was such an ass-backwards plot device for her character… but, alas.  Can’t be proved.)

No, most of the internet spent the night speculating Dianna’s sexuality, which, on the internet, has long been under a microscope in search for clues in either direction on the Kinsey Scale.  Then, this morning, Ms. Agron explained her choice.  In sum: wearing the shirt was an expression of the freedom to make a statement, in a show of support to the GLBT community.  She highlighted the importance of universal acceptance and love, and also negated the original assumption from wearing the shirt: she herself is not gay. 

It’s a long essay; there’s a lot to interpret, and a lot of good points, all of which kind leads to being easily distracted from the main idea.  Because there are people out there who are missing the main idea.

And the point is that it doesn’t matter.  Dianna Agron’s sexuality doesn’t matter.  Your sexuality doesn’t matter.  My sexuality doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we are still living in a world where it does. 

Recently, I wrote about feminism under the notion that social revolution first begins with reaction, and must eventually shift to proaction.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, Dianna Agron is being proactive.  And the reason people are getting tangled up in and tripping over her words is because our world is not there yet.  We are still a long ways from equality - and we’re the furthest when it comes to sexuality.  It’s generally ill-advised to compare the disadvantages across gender, race, and sexuality lines, but I feel it’s important to say that in some places there are still laws standing in the way of the marriage of equality and sexual identity.  It’s not just prejudice and stigma.  It is law.  And beyond that, gay people who come out into, or can’t escape from unsupportive and hateful environments are being bullied to the point of suicide.  This is an issue, and one that needs addressing.

As far as I’m concerned, the hubbub that has arisen from Dianna’s actions and commentary is what happens when a transcendent thought is brought into a constructed world.  At the very least, she sparked a discourse.  There are arguments left and right - and many are valid.  And I won’t deny that the consequences of her actions aren’t problem-free.  But what put the problems there are the smudgy fingerprints that color our world, and the constructions that society has built in both origin and reaction.

Many people posit that Dianna’s shirt implied that she herself was gay, and that by clarifying that she is not actually gay makes it seem as though she is presuming to know what it’s like to be gay.  I understand this.  I don’t see how Dianna wearing a shirt that says “likes girls” could send any other message, unexplained, than “likes girls.”  That is the point of “Born This Way” in the show, and in the concert - right down to the wardrobe itself.  Stylistically speaking, you don’t smack big block letters on a blank t-shirt without sending a Big Message.  That is the point.

But Dianna explained.  And words like “disappointed” and “betrayal” get thrown around, because for 12 hours, Dianna Agron seemed to have told the world she was gay.  And then, in a single sentence - amidst one hundred others, it should be said - she told us she doesn’t actually identify as such.  The fact that there is an emotional reaction to this proves to us we are still living in a world where being gay or straight matters.  To those who felt relief at her clarification: please examine why exactly you felt that emotion and ask yourself why you would personally want someone - a stranger, basically - to be straight as opposed to gay. 

To those who felt disappointment at her clarification: I understand that, and I respect that.  I understand that it would be of huge importance to have a young woman in the spotlight announce that she is gay and proud of it in front of the entire world, and that the prospect of that being trounced in an instant is somewhat dismaying.  I understand that gay people being out in a public setting can only benefit the movement, and the gay community.

But, at some point, there should be no “movement,” or “community” - of any kind.  The truth is, we live in a heavily constructed world where certain people experience disadvantages because of the negative implications of minority and privilege.  Because of this, “movement” and “community” had to happen, and I 100% respect that.  But if we ever expect to achieve equality, at some point all constructions have to fall away - or at least fade to the background.  And in this world, hoping Dianna Agron is a lesbian is not terribly different from hoping Dianna Agron is straight.  Because it’s still a world where a person’s sexuality matters.

And the goal cannot be to stay in a world where someone’s sexuality matters.  Where someone’s race matters.  Where someone’s gender matters.  Race, gender, and sexuality can be important parts of someone’s identity, but at the end of the day, they cannot be definitions.  The value of a human being is in his or her humanity. 

The goal is equality.  And if we continue to tirelessly emphasize that we are all different, then we can never truly be the same.  We need to be living in a world where Dianna Agron can love whomever, and so can you.  And to me, that is the point - and Dianna’s point.  Just, love.  Love whomever, as long as you love.  Because anything beyond that doesn’t matter, and shouldn’t.

We are clearly not living in this world yet.  I daresay that notion prompted Dianna’s actions, and it’s ironic that her actions are again reinforcing it.  I don’t presume to believe that we can move into this world overnight.  There are schools of thought that simply have to perish, and hopefully in their stead we can proffer acceptance and tolerance.

But until we are able to live in said world, we are faced with instances such as this one, where we are forced to interact with a heavily-constructed society and examine the implications of the choices made by the people standing in a spotlight.  I don’t think you can disparage Dianna personally for the consequences of her decisions (they are clearly disconnected from her intentions, regardless of any opinion one could construe), but I do think the discourse arising from it ties very strongly into the steady but eventual shift from reaction to proaction with regards to how our society should be handling minority and equality. 

We’re just not there yet.  And I’d like to think that it’s people like Dianna Agron who are trying to push us into this world, where we can all love whomever, and be treated with respect, and the full benefits of equality.  I know I often come across as a cynic, but I have to believe that we can get there.  Minds have to be changed, and it will take awhile.  There will be problematic circumstances surrounding privilege and oppression that will need to be examined and evaluated.  Context will probably always trip us up every once in awhile, and coming to terms with that is frustrating.  And it may take awhile.  But we can get there, if we try.  We have to try.

I think, at the end of the day, human nature has historically been defined by an effort, or lack of effort, to understand.  Understanding was constructed in black and white.  Us, and them.  You are this one thing, and if you are not, it means you are this one other thing entirely.  Social construction operates in binary - those with power, those without.  Those with privilege, those without.  Those understood, those misunderstood.  Those in the majority, those in the minority.

It is human nature to want the world to make sense, to boil it down so it’s as black and white as the words on a “likes girls” t-shirt.  But in reality, we live in a world of gray.  Embrace the gray.  It’s problematic.  It’s challenging.  But living in a world of gray means that we can live in a world of tolerance and acceptance.  Living in a world of gray means  acknowledging that black and white is a problem, and that we must try to live free from construct.  And that’s the goal.

So at some point, we have to throw away the black and white on a t-shirt, the with-us-or-against-us attitude, and move forward.  Dianna’s apparently already there.

Author's Note: There is a follow-up to this post here.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...