Click through on the picture to get to iprayforangels’ slight conclusion of the great t-shirt debate post… Queer or not?
The library is open children.
Here’s the podcast that Jamal, Del and I did! It was a lot of fun and I hope you get some entertainment as well as interesting perspectives on some current events and pop culture.
Points we touch on include:
- Thoughts on the final 3 of Drag Race.
- #BringBackOurGirls and the media’s involvement/Social media activism
- The 2014-2015 TV lineup (and how messy it is)
- The winner of Eurovision and the media’s representation of gender and sexual minorities.
- Kim K.
Queer Identity & Popular Culture
May 7, 2014
Media Project Paper
Media Project: Attack on Titan and Queer Media
For decades, the queer community has existed within the shadows and dark alleyways of society. This was because of the preferences and behaviors of the members. According to society, the queer community didn’t deserve to be acknowledged or represented in public. As a result of this, the queer community has fought back, claiming their right to be seen and viewed as people. Throughout the course, I’ve learned so much about what being gay means and the ways in which queer identity can be represented. Based on this semester alone, I can say without a doubt that queer identity is diverse, limitless, and new identities are being created today. In today’s world of popular culture, the queer community has been welcomed into the homes of Americans everywhere. The media has played a significant role in how the queer community and identity has been portrayed. Compared to the way gay men and women used to be portrayed within the media lens, today’s media has helped change the way people view gay people. When it comes to the media, there isn’t a limit to the queer media that can be found online. The media allows the queer community to express themselves through words, art, and blogs. From the Internet to television, queer media can be found everywhere. One just has to know where to look. Tumblr is a microblogging website that allows users to post content in the form of pictures, videos, artwork, and other content. Users, if they don’t want people to know who they are, can post what they want anonymously. There are blogs about cooking, political, art, travel, video games and technology, and lots of other blogs that would interest just about anyone. As a member of the website myself, I have managed to find and follow blogs that cater to my interests. Two of these interests happen to be anime and manga, so I follow a lot of blogs about these subjects in particular. During my time on these blogs, I noticed that each of them had fan-made artwork and stories about “Attack on Titan”, a manga that I am a huge fan of. But the stories and artwork all deal with some of the characters as couples. I also noticed that all of the couples are only with the male characters. When it comes to queer space on the Tumblr, there isn’t a limit to where people can post things nor is there a limit to what you can post. “Attack on Titan” is just one of many forms of media that have been given a queer narrative on Tumblr.
Before I jump into my project observations, I’d like to give a general overview of what “Attack on Titan” is about. The manga focuses on Eren Jaeger, his foster sister Mikasa Ackermann, and their friend, Armin Arlert. They live in a post-apocalyptic world where they must live inside of gigantic walls in order to survive. On the other side of these walls are the Titans, giant creatures who devour humans for pleasure rather than sustenance. With their population low, humans struggle to survive within the walls. After a section of the wall is breached, thousands of people are killed, including Eren’s mother. Eren, Mikasa, and Armin are left to take care of and watch out for each other. They join the military, training in order to fight back against the Titans and rescue humankind from their impending extinction.
The manga, from what I have observed, is completely devoid of any sexual content. What I mean is that the characters are not sexually involved with each other at all. The only thing that exists throughout the manga is the overlying theme of survival. However, this doesn’t stop fans of the highly popular manga and anime from making up stories of their own. As I said before, Tumblr is one of the main social media sites fans use to promote their desired pairings. The all-male pairings are as follows: Jean Kirstein and Marco Bott, Eren Jaeger and Levi Rivaille. Jean and Marco are always paired together because fans want to have them be more than just the close friends they were in the manga. These are the most common pair-ups, but I’ve also seen fans pair up characters such as Levi and Erwin, Armin and Eren, and even Jean and Armin. But the first two mentioned are the couples I’ve seen most often.
The fans create almost anything with the couples and post it onto Tumblr: fanfiction excerpts, artwork, manga that was drawn by themselves, pictures, short stories, and other things. I noticed that with each post, the characters were taken out of the original context and plot. Instead of killing Titans and fighting to survive, they are put into “domestic” settings with “domestic” plots. The couples are either married with children (fan-made stories don’t have to make sense, as I’ve observed), living in modern times, and participating in sexual acts with each other. Some fans also made posts where the characters were in skimpy outfits such as bunny costumes and dominatrix clothing. In short, most of the fan-made material I saw depicted the characters having sex and behaving differently compared to the manga. After spending a considerable amount of time on the website, I can say without a doubt that Tumblr is indeed a queer space that allows people to post many different queer narratives including “Attack on Titan”. Lipton’s reading could be applied to how the characters from the manga are being recreated by fans.
In Mark Lipton’s reading, “Queer Readings of Popular Culture: Searching to Out the Subtext”, Lipton talks about queer youth and their interpretation and manipulation of popular culture. He also talks about queer reading practices and how young people use these methods to interact with popular culture. Lipton argues that queer youth interact with popular culture and the media around them in order to discover who they are in terms of identity.
Further on in the reading, Lipton talks about queer youth recreating media texts: television shows, music, books, poetry, movies, and comic books (Lipton 167). He talks about his recreation of the Archie comics as well as his queer recreation of Jarhead (Lipton 164-166). He states, “The practice of queer identity production occurs in three important ways. Some directly sought to alter the intended meaning of a text as a result of their personal agendas- to bend interpretation from a heteronormative reading. These readers could find homosocial/sexual content present in almost any text. A second group of youth engaged in more specific practices of negotiation- with a specific text, a specific character, like my experience with Jughead. It seems these readers use both conscious and unconscious processes to fabricate an imagined text, a queer world, as a result of their (often isolated) sexuality” (Lipton 168). He goes on to talk about queer youth creating fantasy spaces as places of safety and acceptance among each other. In these spaces, queer youth can rewrite popular culture and media texts anyway they desire.
Tumblr, based off of Lipton’s reading, could definitely be called a queer space because of the way in which “Attack on Titan” is recreated by the fans. I’ve observed nothing but acceptance towards these fantasy stories and fantasy couples. My observations of the social media website Tumblr as well as the queer recreations of “Attack on Titan” has provided me with a better understanding of what a queer space is. Tumblr is just one of many spaces in which people, not just members of the queer community, can unite and recreate media texts with alternative narratives. “Attack on Titan” is just one of thousands of pop culture aspects being given a queer narrative by fans all over the world.
In conclusion, my observation of Tumblr as a queer space resulted in significant findings. In terms of media texts being given queer narratives, “Attack on Titan” was a clear example of that. Fans of “Attack on Titan” used male characters from the manga in a series of queer narratives. I can only assume that fans had a strong desire to see the characters in this way specifically. The characters were put into couples based on the fan’s individual desires and preferences. I’d like to add that “Attack on Titan” wasn’t the only media text that was given a queer narrative. On a slight side note, it is one of many texts that are given queer narratives by the fans. As the media industry continues to change, queer media continues to gain bigger ground in terms of representation and recognition. From social media sites to television, queer media is becoming increasingly popular. And as it continues to gain popularity and acceptance, the ways in which queer media is presented to us continues to change. I’m not sure how queer media will be in the future. But whatever it becomes, I hope society accepts it.
Tumblr usernames of people who posted (in order of pictures):
by Brie Roche-LIlliott and Olivia Creamer
The Functioning of West Village bar, Cubbyhole, As a Queer Space
Upon entering the poorly lit bar, nestled on a corner of the West Village between brownstones, Cubbyhole is quite obviously queer. It’s not just because of the primarily female clientele, the rainbow kites and banners hanging from the ceiling or the gender neutral bathrooms that Cubbyhole is different from a standard dive bar; it’s not so much what they’ve added to their space that queers them, but more like what they’ve subtracted from the typical bar experience. Cubbyhole is widely recognized as a gay or lesbian bar, but we sought out to identify what specific aspects of Cubbyhole distinguished it as a queer space, and how that queerness was represented in media. The official Twitter of Cubbyhole reads, “Lesbian and Gay, Straight Friendly, Neighborhood Fusion Bar, Anything Goes. Anyone Welcome.” But how exactly, does Cubbyhole support its claims? Even though Cubbyhole is a physical space, it still relies on the internet and media, both within the bar and online, to create its queer identity.
In order to get a first-hand understanding of Cubbyhole’s importance, we set out to examine Cubbyhole on two different nights over the course of approximately ten hours. Each night we were accompanied by various groups or individuals, to see how that affected our experience and how Cubbyhole might function differently depending on time, day and our own presentation. Our first night was Friday, April 25 from 8pm to 1am. We went with a group of three other college-age girls, who all present as typically feminine, and who are all straight. When we first arrived, we were some of the youngest people there, with most of the clientele resembling professional women in their early to mid 30s. By 11pm most of these women had left, and the crowd slowly evolved to a much younger, rowdier one, primarily women in their mid to late twenties. The bar was packed with people from around 9pm on, and consisted of a few older gay couples and young gay boys amidst the lesbians of a range of gender presentations. While the older couples and groups were more reserved and didn’t socialize much outside of the group they arrived with, the younger crowd was much more outgoing and interactive.
Top 40 pop hits played loudly throughout the evening, and we noticed that the crowd interacted with the music, singing along to most songs. Cubbyhole has an electronic jukebox with an unlimited vault of music, yet consistently the most played songs are Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, LMFAO and other contemporary, mainstream pop stars. This normative soundtrack seemed to go against the general aesthetic of the bar, which in other aspects is so queer. By playing so exclusively pop music, Cubbyhole became less queer than it might have otherwise, if more alternative music or music by queer artists, such as Tegan and Sara, had been playing. The crowd enjoyed the music, and indeed were responsible for playing most of it through the jukebox. As we observed the crowd, we discovered that very few people had their cell phones out, amongst both the older and younger clientele. The friends we were with usually go to bars that attract a straight clientele, and they were the first to notice a huge difference with cell phone use; at the bars they usually go to, the majority of people would be on their phones, whether texting, on social media, or taking photos, but at Cubbyhole almost no one was. Perhaps it’s due to the energetic atmosphere, but the crowd at Cubbyhole seem more interested in interaction and meeting people than Twitter updates. The 12-inch TV at the end of the bar has RuPaul’s Drag Race on without the sound, but no one was watching.
Rodriguez discusses discursive spaces, a place where people can come together to talk about issues that are relevant to them, and as a result become “sites of knowledge production” (Divas pg 5). Cubbyhole becomes a discursive space both for queers and heterosexuals as it creates linguistic codes that are unique to a queer bar and create different aspects of the environment. It is these linguistic codes that become a way the women hit on each other It is linguistic codes that allow women to make their interest in other women clear, or for gay men to enjoy drinks with their friends, or for straight women to have a good night out, without, supposedly, the hassle of being hit on by guys. The location, however, is essential to the meaning of these codes, which are not limited to language. As cubbyhole functions as a queer space, a look exchanged between two women likely has more sexual intention behind it than the same look would in a straight bar. In the same way, if a guy hits on a girl at Cubbyhole, it will not be met in the same way that it might be in a straight bar. On the first night we went, Brie was aggressively hit on by a man, who persisted even when asked to leave us alone. We continued to explain that this was a gay bar and we were queer and uninterested. He only left when a large group of women walking past us out the door saw what was happening and told him to leave. This man was not a part of the linguistic codes and rules of the space that everyone else was following, and as a result did not respect the space or the identities of the people there.
The second night we went was on Monday, April 28 from 6pm to 10pm, during the bar’s weekly Happy Hour. This time only the two of us went, and it was empty when we first arrived, a few pairs and small groups scattered around the bar. Just as in the first few hours the Friday before, we were the youngest ones there, but on the Monday the crowd did not change much. The clientele was mostly more butch-identified women chatting with the bartender. There were also a few heterosexual couples who drank in their pairs and groups in corners, and put on music like Death Cab for Cutie and John Legend. Compared to the long lines for the bathroom and squeezing our way through Friday night’s crowd, Cubbyhole seemed deserted on Monday. The tv, still on silent, was on ABC News. Overall, the space was calmer, and different expectations therefore existed. On the Monday, it would not have been appropriate to play Katy Perry and sing along, just as on the Friday, it would not have been appropriate to play John Legend and sit quietly in a corner. After a couple of hours, the lights down and the bar still quiet, the bartender announced a round of free Cosmo shots for whoever wanted one, and then went outside for a break, leaving the bar unattended, something that she never could have done on the Friday. The quiet music and serious TV was a constant reminder to the clientele that this was a different group of queer people than the group on Friday night.
Cubbyhole is easily one of New York’s most famous and popular gay/lesbian bars; people from all over the country visit it when in New York, as some sort of mecca, and the reviews online show a range of clientele and experiences. With over 200 Yelp reviews, Cubbyhole has earned 3.5 out of 5 stars and some rave reviews about everything from cheap drinks to music selection to aesthetics. Most online review sites identify Cubbyhole as a lesbian bar despite being “open to everyone,” even website GayCities says, “ladies are the belles of the ball.” But not everyone has had a positive experience at Cubbyhole. Most of the negative reviews aren’t related to the queerness of the bar or its clientele, but rather focus on the size of the bar (it’s too small.) However, there are a few that specifically address sexuality. Sasha M. says, “want to feel weak, crowded, and unimportant? Do you like being stared at by hungry lioness lesbians? Behold THE CUBBY HOLE,” implying that the space while queer, might not be so different from the typical bar pick-up experience. Mike W., a middle aged black man, who complains that for the second time in two months he was refused entry; despite their 4am closing time, Mike says, “I was completely ignored, so when I finally asked if I could have a drink, at 3:15am, I was told that the bar was closed.” Instances like this call into question whether Cubbyhole is as accepting of non-queer individuals or non-female individuals. Perhaps, even, race is a factor, as something that we noted when we went both nights was that the clientele were largely white.
The distinct differences between the two nights were obviously a result of the day of the week, but the atmosphere and acceptable linguistic and nonlinguistic codes were cemented by the music that was playing and the clientele. Cubbyhole’s online presence, both in the website maintained by it’s own website and the reviews posted by customers on other sources, shows explicitly that it is for queer people. As a non-normative space, it is necessary to make that clear online, so that it’s identity as a discursive space for queer people is apparent even before someone arrives at Cubbyhole for a night out.
 Rodriguez, Juana Maria. “Divas, Atrevidas, Y Entendidas.” Sexual Cultures: New Directions from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. New York: New York UP, n.d. N. pag. Print.
Saad and Michele’s project:
Transgender women are one of the most stigmatized and least understood populations within the LGBTQ community. As such, depictions of trans women in media are oftentimes incredibly offensive, but audiences absorb transphobic and transmisogynistic content without recognizing its problematic implications. The disproportionate oppression that transgender women face is linked to their portrayal in popular media in that media often uses slurs to describe transgender women, relies on tired tropes that reinforce negative stereotypes and utilize trans women as fodder for jokes rather than humanizing them as legitimate characters. For these reasons, it is crucial to analyze the ways in which transgender women are depicted in popular media. One such media source is “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” an episode of the TV show “Bob’s Burgers”; in this episode, Bob, the protagonist, takes a side job as a taxi driver and encounters three transgender women. The women, who are also sex workers, become regular customers of Bob’s and are featured somewhat prominently throughout the episode. The portrayal of sex workers and transgender women in the episode is better than most in that the cisgender characters are generally accepting of and friendly towards the women. Further, there are no overtly transphobic slurs and only one misgendering joke that invalidates the women’s gender identity. Upon further exploration of the episode, however, I discovered that there are several subtly transphobic or judgmental moments that I didn’t even notice at first, although I was watching specifically to analyze the episode’s treatment of trans women. The fact that I first perceived “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” as a generally positive representation speaks to the current state of depictions of transgender women in media; my excitement proves that my default expectation is that any TV portrayal of trans women will be terribly transphobic. “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” provides an example of the ways in which transgender and queer visibility in popular media are crucial to mainstream understandings of queerness, and also allows us to envision future possibilities for media and real-life representation of trans and queer people.
Transgender women face enormous danger and discrimination; the following data illustrate the oppression that trans women must endure on a daily basis. It is imperative to note that of any statistics that refer to discrimination against all transgender people, the overwhelming majority of those people will be trans women, and particularly trans women of color: “In examining reports of hate crimes against transgender people, researchers found that 98% of all “transgender” violence was perpetrated specifically against people in the male to-female spectrum” (Stevens 2012). Christina Stevens also cites an American survey of transgender adults, that found that half of respondents had experienced abuse or violence while one quarter of respondents had survived “hate-motivated physical/sexual assault or attempted assault” (Stevens 2012). According to the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are unemployed at double the rate of the general population, while 97% of respondents had experienced mistreatment or harassment while employed. Further, the study found that 15 percent of trans-identified people, again twice the rate of the general population, live below the poverty line (“Preliminary Findings”). These factors likely contribute to the suicidality rates of transgender people—49 percent attempt suicide (Stevens 2012).
Perhaps the scariest threat to transgender women’s lives is the extremely high risk of homicide. GLAAD’s analysis of homo/transphobic hate violence in 2012 found that “53% of anti-LGBTQ homicides were transgender women” (Giovanniello 2013).
The intersection of LGBTQ and racial identities plays an important role in who exactly is targeted in hate crimes and murders—trans people of color are even more at risk than white transgender people. The GLAAD survey also found that 73% of murders of LGBTQ people were perpetrated against people of color (Giovanniello 2013). In analyzing the dangers that transgender women face, one must understand that trans women of color are triply oppressed because of their identities as women, transgender, and people of color. This population is most susceptible to homicide: “Of the 38 murders of transgender people reported internationally in 2003, 70% were women of colour” (Stevens 2012). Stevens also quotes someone who reports that while 1 in 12 transgender women will be killed, that figure rises to 1 in 8 when considering transgender women of color (2012). The aforementioned statistics demonstrate horrifying threats to the safety of transgender women; this is precisely why it is crucial to explore trans women’s depictions in popular culture and popular discourse.
Naturally, society’s oppression of transgender women affects the ways in which this population is depicted in media, and vice versa. According to a recent Pew study, only 8% of Americans know someone who identifies as transgender. This same source notes that as such, it is “imperative that [the media] get [transgender issues] right” (“GLAAD’s Transgender Media”). Unfortunately, statistics show that the media has not been getting it right—an analysis of over one hundred television episodes featuring transgender characters found “anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue [present] in at least 61%” of episodes (“Victims or Villains”).
The one instance of overtly transphobic dialogue in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” is a misgendering remark made by a minor character. At Bob’s daughter’s Tina’s birthday party, Tina exclaims: “I just kissed my first boy!”, to which a cisgender man who’s been flirting with one of the women replies: “Me too!” (“Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”).
This damaging joke could have been turned into a teachable moment, perhaps by having the woman who was misgendered, her friends or a cisgender character explaining why invalidating a transgender woman’s identity is offensive. Unfortunately, the comment was glossed over benignly, with the target of the transphobia merely saying “Oh, shut up!” in a jokey way. Because of this incident, “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” would likely fall into the GLAAD study’s category of “anti-transgender” media.
Another more subtly transphobic element of the episode is the attention drawn to the women’s masculine features—not only does each woman have at least one physical sign that differentiates them from cisgender women, but these symbols are highlighted in sensationalizing close-up shots. When Bob first meets the three women, each one is closely zoomed in upon, not on their entire faces but their Adam’s apple, mustache and beard and arm hair, respectively. None of the women’s eyes are shown in these shots, dehumanizing them further.
The focus on trans women’s masculine features that prove their difference from cis women, whether conscious or not, discredits trans women’s identities. In discussing violence against gay men, Kate Bornstein asserts that the fear of gay and effeminate men often has more to do with their subversion of expected gender norms then anything else: “It has a lot to do with seeing that man violate the rules of gender in this culture. The first commandment for men is ‘Thou shalt not be a woman’” (Bornstein 104). While transgender women are not men, they are often understood by society as “actually” being men. Gerald Mallon writes of an “existing cultural hierarchy which classifies and subjugates trans people as being less real and less natural than nontrans people” (84). The illustration of the transgender characters in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” clearly demarcates these women from “natural” women.
Transgender women are often discriminated against by being told that they are not “real” women, and are oftentimes accused of attempting to deceive the world, and particularly cisgender men, by “pretending” to be women. Whether conscious or not, the decision made by the Bob’s Burgers animators to portray transgender women as more “man-like” than their cisgender counterparts is detrimental.
One of the largest failings of “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” is that throughout the entire episode, the women are incorrectly referred to as transvestites, a pejorative term for cross-dressers, rather than as transgender women. In the episode, one of the women makes a comment insinuating that she would like to undergo sexual reassignment surgery: “When it’s time for you to blossom into a woman, you can’t let anything stop you…not a town full of doctors who refuse to remove your penis” (“Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”). Generally, cross-dressers identify as men and do not wish to medically transition, so this comment seems to imply that the women Bob meets do, in fact, identify as women and are not “transvestites”. Since the term “transvestite” is not used correctly in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”, and would likely be identified as an outdated and somewhat offensive term by members of the transgender and queer communities, it appears that the writers of Bob’s Burgers did not actually consult any transgender people while writing the episode. Further, this error shows just how much more work needs to be done in the advancement of transgender issues—I cannot fathom a similar slip-up of gay and lesbian terminology going unnoticed or making it onto the screen! The Bob’s Burgers production team was clearly wrong in their use of the term “transvestite”. (While condemning the writers for their mistake, however, it is important to simultaneously note that the characters in Bob’s Burgers are not transphobic; rather, it’s due to an unfortunate botch of the show’s writers that the characters in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” subsequently use the term “transvestite” matter-of-factly rather than pejoratively.) I am disappointed by this mistake because “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” provided an opportunity to offer transgender women the visibility in popular media that is so crucial to the advancement of understanding of trans issues; instead, that opportunity was wasted because of the conflation of two discrete identities.
Other reinforcements of stereotypes and tropes against transgender women in Bob’s Burgers include their careers as sex workers, their associations with poverty and their drug use. According to GLAAD’s study: “The most common profession transgender characters were depicted as having was that of sex workers, which a fifth of all characters were depicted as” (“Victims or Villains”). The one slight consolation is that in Bob’s Burgers, the women’s work is not turned into a joke or looked down upon—when cisgender characters refer to the women as “transvestite prostitutes” and “transvestite hookers”, they do so without judgment. However, Bob does express some bewilderment when he comes home after his first night on the job, telling his family: “I picked up a group of transvestite hookers who showed me a side of this town I never knew existed” (Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”). While the women’s sex work isn’t considered problematic by the Belcher family, Gerard Mallon would argue that its inclusion in the episode certainly is: “The power of stereotypical images of trans people as prostitutes…cannot be erased. The resulting erasure of the identities of trans people of color and the silencing of their voices often precludes the consideration and inclusion of their concerns” (Mallon 93). Another important aspect to consider is Bob’s response to the location where the women work. By creating a boundary between the area where Bob raises his family and works at a respectable job and the seedy part of town where the trans women work, “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” perpetuates the notion that transgender women are poor. Not only are the trans women in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” linked to poverty and sex work, but they also use crack and drink heavily.
Further, the women have names such as ChaCha, Glitter and Marshmallow, which keep the women from being taken seriously. These names are likely intended to be humorous because they are trashy—I cannot imagine a cisgender character on TV being named Marshmallow or ChaCha! As proven above, “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” relies on the intersection of several tired tropes to reinforce the stereotypes of transgender women as sleazy crackheads and gaudy, poor prostitutes.
While most viewers of “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?” will likely interpret the women’s sex work and lifestyles as negative, Jack Halberstam imagines a world in which one day, there might be space for alternative models of living that do not fit society’s current hegemonic standards. In his recent book, The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam discusses and condemns the prevalent standards of today’s society. In an interview with Sinclair Sexsmith, Halberstam asserts: “We’re living with one model of success and failure and one model alone. And that model is, that to make money and to advance professionally is what it means to be successful, and everything else is failure. That’s given us a zero-sum model against which we can judge our achievements in life, and that’s very unfortunate, because it squashes out all kinds of people doing alternative things for alternative reasons” (Sexsmith). Halberstam hopes that in the future, societal ideas about which lifestyles are considered acceptable will expand to include other models of living that are currently judged and condemned. He also argues that LGBTQ folks are ahead of the curve in this sense: “Queer people have actually been doing this for a long time precisely because we quickly fall out of the prevailing model of success and failure by not managing to meet the standards of gender and sexuality set for us” (Sexsmith). The transgender women in Bob’s Burgers definitely do not meet the prevailing model of success of which Halberstam speaks. Were Halberstam to watch “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”, he would likely wish that the portrayals of sex work and transgender women were even more normalized and less joked about. Halberstam makes it clear that “We need to measure ourselves against different standards” (Sexsmith).
Halberstam envisions a new way of doing things: a future of queer visibility that I too would like to see, given the current standards of normativity that dictate how queer people, including transgender women, are understood. Perhaps Halberstam’s dream is already being effected to a certain extent as transgender visibility is increasing in mainstream media, recent examples including Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox’s spot on The Katie Couric Show and Janet Mock’s interviews with Piers Morgan. Crucially, as these women are sensationalized, they are finally achieving the platform to speak out about the issues that are truly important to them and to discredit cisgender folks’ misunderstandings. Even Buzzfeed.com has recently published a quiz titled “How Transphobic Are You?”, encouraging participants not to use slurs or ask transgender people about their genitals. As the world evolves, so too will popular media, as the two are inextricably linked. Mainstream media is slowly beginning to take more notice of the injustices facing queer people, including calling out transphobia; I am excited to see where this leads in the future.
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw. S.l.: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Giovanniello, Sarah. “NCAVP Report: 2012 Hate Violence Disproportionately Target Transgender Women of Color.” GLAAD. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.glaad.org/blog/ncavp-report-2012-hate-violence-disproportionately-target-transgender-women-color>.
“GLAAD’s Transgender Media and Education Program.” GLAAD. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.glaad.org/transgender>.
“Jack Halberstam: Queers Create Better Models of Success.” Interview by Jack Halberstam and Sinclair Sexmith. Lamba Literary. N.p., 1 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <http://www.lambdaliterary.org/interviews/02/01/jack-halberstam-queers-create-better-models-of-success/>.
Mallon, Gerald P. Social Work Practice with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. New York: Haworth, 2008. Print.
“Preliminary Findings: National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality. N.p., Nov. 2009. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <http://transequality.org/Resources/Trans_Discrim_Survey.pdf>.
Schroeder, Jon. “”Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”” Bob’s Burgers. Fox. 6 Mar. 2011. Television.
Stevens, Christina. “Murder Statistics of Transgender People.” Patheos. N.p., 29 May 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd/2012/05/murder-statistics-of-transgender-people/>.
“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television.” GLAAD. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.glaad.org/publications/victims-or-villains-examining-ten-years-transgender-images-television>.
When The Wire premiered on HBO in 2002, the public was immediately captivated. The gritty crime drama focused on the seedy underbelly of Baltimore, Maryland and introduced viewers to a variety of identities and situations that were previously non-existent on American television. The writers and producers sought to create a hyper-realistic depiction of urban life while avoiding the sensationalist approaches normally taken by such subject matter. Audiences of varying backgrounds identified with and reacted to the smartly drawn and nuanced characters and for queer people of color in particular, The Wire, represented a pivotal development in media representation. The Wire featured several queer characters, all of whom exist outside of the normative perception of what is acceptable for a queer television character because they exist in a highly marginalized area of society without qualification. One character in particular, Omar Little, lives a life that can only be described as a comprehensive deviation from societal expectations. Omar is an anomaly in almost every facet of his identity. Omar is The Wire’s archetypal Robin Hood and to some extent the heart of the show. Omar and his crew frequently rob street level drug dealers and use the money to support themselves while simultaneously cleaning up the streets. Omar presents as a hardened street criminal but adheres to a strict moral code which includes abstaining from profanity. Most notably, however, Omar is an openly gay, hyper-masculine African American male living in an urban center. While that combination of contradictions should most certainly read unrealistically, Omar comes across as fully realized and not simply a vehicle for some socially righteous agenda.
The difficulty of presenting a character like Omar Little stems from the inherent lack of any precedent for such a portrayal. Prior to the time that The Wire aired, American television tended largely to facilitate diversity through flatly non-threatening depictions of minorities. The history of both queer and African American television representation has been marked by a tendency to strip characters of their cultural context and to place them in the most normative possible environment. This has often meant that such characters have been relegated to sitcoms or to minor or trivial roles on dramatic series. Omar Little’s existence as a queer black man in a major role on a dramatic television show completely deviated from that tendency. In one of Omar’s first scenes on the show, he is depicted sleeping in bed with his boyfriend when he hears a noise, grabs his gun and goes to investigate. Not finding anything, he goes to the kitchen for cereal. In one very short scene, a compounded notion of identity emerges. The audience is at once presented with an image of a young black man who is homosexual (presumably comfortably so) and traditionally masculine enough to casually use a gun, while being domestic enough to keep a clean organized home. Overt masculinity has long been associated with heterosexuality and Omar’s life as a dangerous street criminal most certainly plays into those assumptions, so much so that it tends to color other men’s notions of his identity. Omar is feared and respected amongst the other men that he interacts with who are mostly heterosexual. This contradicts the typical notions of gay men as less than straight men because they are assumed to be less masculine and therefore non-threatening. Traditionally, Omar’s position as a gay man would be central to any straight male he interacts with on the show and likewise would be central to his character development. One of the more innovative qualities of Omar’s portrayal is that his homosexuality is presented as fact without the necessity of patronizing humor or an overtly sympathetic narrative. Throughout the series, Omar engages in romantic relationships with men and his sexuality is treated as something inherent and thus there are no flashbacks explaining his coming out or depicting his struggles with reconciling his identity. Given the stigma associated with queerness in the African American community, this is particularly progressive because it could be assumed that Omar would have a great internal struggle with his sexuality due to societal expectations. Instead, Omar appears to be very comfortable with his sexuality which is depicted through his romantic relationships. Where gay men and black men are often depicted as over-sexualized beings, unable to reckon with the concept of monogamy, Omar enters into three committed and monogamous relationships over the course of the show’s five seasons. Much like Omar’s character himself, depictions of functioning, minority queer relationships on television were a fairly progressive move on the part of the show’s producers.
The concept of black gay men in America is highly complex and informed by expectations and pressures related to masculinity, fear, and suppression. Ron Becker uses an example from another American crime drama, Law & Order, to illustrate the institutionalized stigmas that have informed the way media deals with black gay men. In his essay “Guy Love” Becker describes an episode of Law & Order where a white District Attorney is murdered by his African American lover who is also an attorney (Becker 129). While the District Attorney is out of the closet, his lover is married and on the “Down Low” which is a term for the subculture of black men that present publicly as heterosexual, but engage in homosexual sex secretly. Becker draws connections between the proliferation of these kinds of narratives and the notion that homosexuality in African Americans is often associated with immoral, deviant and often violent behavior which is a product of an inability to come to terms with a sexual identity that is largely understood by White America. Omar highly contrasts other images of gay black male characters on television because his homosexuality is not presented as a debilitating condition which consumes his identity. Furthermore, Omar is depicted as someone who is comfortable with his sexuality within his own environment which suggests a mental dexterity that is not often afforded to similar characters. Omar’s life is complicated by his criminal activities and by his relationships and not by fear of detection, of disease, or of emasculation. These complications serve to disconnect the idea of masculinity from sexual identity. Within the context of the show, Omar never appears to be unsafe or in jeopardy because of his sexuality and that reinforces the idea that a gay man can be strong and independent without living in a completely queer world.
As a black male character, the characterization of Omar is particularly important because, while his monogamous behavior contradicts traditional notions of promiscuous homosexuality, it also allows for the development of emotional depth which helps to deconstruct the concept of the black male body as a purely sexual and violent object which has been a significant issue in both the gay male community and American society as a whole. The fact that these compounded contradictions were able to inhabit one television character on a non-queer driven television show without the need to engage in assimilationist de-contextualization or sensationalization is remarkable. The subversiveness embodied in Omar’s sexual and gender identity is indicative of the subversive nature of his character and of the show as a whole. The Wire was groundbreaking for suggesting that some of the most marginalized members of American society had a compelling story to tell and that there was more to be derived from their existences than voyeuristic intrigue and pity. That queer people of color represent more than the sum of their circumstances is a notion that continues to struggle toward acceptance and while there is no formula for perfecting representation, one thing is clear: television needs more Omars.
Becker, Ron. “Chapter 7: Guy Love.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Ed. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham.121-40. Print.