Friday, December 02, 2011

Cheap Tricks and Heteronormative Lenses (or, please stop insulting my intelligence)

If you’ve ever taken a playwriting class you probably know that reversals and subverted expectations are useful tools in storytelling. If you haven’t taken a playwriting class you probably also know this because you are a person that is alive and therefore consumes narrative. Usually in a story there are elements of surprise, there are revelations, someone or something changes, or someone realizes something. When these things are done well, you as the audience member might also realize something, you might also experience change and revelation. I think doing these things well usually involves taking your audience member gently by the hand and bringing them on a journey that they will experience through the lives and experiences of the characters they’re watching. Doing these things well generally does not involve tricking your audience, or making assumptions and generalizations about the opinions of your audience, and it certainly does not involve insulting your audience’s intelligence.

There are two marriage equality videos that have been all over Facebook in the past two weeks.

The first is this one:

The second is this one:

If you’re on Facebook and also reading this blog probably at least ten of your friends have linked to one or both of them and said something along the lines of “beautiful”. I disagree. I actually find the first one rather appalling and the second one a little bit disappointing. Here’s why:

Both of these videos use a heteronormative lens (the first one quite literally) through which to advocate for gay marriage; the basic argument of both seems to be “we should let homosexuals get married because if you didn’t know any better you might just mistake their relationship for a heterosexual one.” The assumption is that there is a good, moral working model for marriage and child rearing and that this model it is a heterosexual one. As long as a homosexual relationships can mimic this model then clearly homosexual marriage and parenthood should be allowed. Also, both of these videos use this assumption as a way to trick their audience (see above paragraph about how this is generally not a good way to subvert expectations and also for a link to how what I’m about to say sort of has something to do with playwriting and therefore belongs on this blog).

The Australian commercial takes us through two minutes of watching a relationship through the eyes of one member of a couple who we are supposed to assume is a woman because the one we can see is a dude, before revealing “OMG IT’S TWO DUDES!” GOTCHA! Don’t you feel so silly? Didn’t you think they were straight? Now clearly you see that they should be able to get married because they are wealthy and white and have straight couple friends and do things like barbeque and swim in the ocean.

The second one I’m more hesitant to criticize. I think this man is eloquent, and I was moved by what he said even though the crux of his argument is “see? We’re just like you.” He’s speaking from a place of truth and it sounds like his family is, in fact, a fairly traditional nuclear family and it’s not his responsibility to talk about the various ways in which one can successfully be a family, or love someone, or how it might also be okay if he had turned out to be a less conventionally successful and attractive and masculine man.

What I really object to is the title that has been attached to this: “Two Lesbians Raised a Baby and This is What They Got” “OMG WHAT THEY GOT WAS A REALLY WELL ADJUSTED SMART YOUNG MAN WHO IS PROBABLY STRAIGHT!” GOTCHA! I’m sure that all of the homophobes who were hoping to watch a hateful video about the weird little mutant freak that two lesbians raised have changed their minds about gay marriage. Because people LOVE being tricked. It never makes them confrontational or shuts down their ability or willingness to think and discuss like intelligent human beings. Also, let’s be honest, chances are really good that NOBODY watches that video wanting to see a kid damaged by being raised by two lesbians. Most of us read that title and know that it’s a joke and watch because we already believe in marriage equality, and in a homosexual couple’s ability and right to raise children. That title didn’t trick me. It only offended me. It offended me because I’m an intelligent consumer of media and I think that it’s a cheap trick that assumes my intelligence is less than it is. But it also offended me because it assumes that people who don’t support gay marriage are hateful and want to watch a video that shows a child having been damaged by homosexuality. Don’t get me wrong. I think that not supporting marriage equality IS hateful and bigoted, but I don’t assume that that hatefulness and bigotry extends to every aspect of someone’s life and results in them wishing ill on the children of gay couples.

Tricking people is not the answer. It assumes stupidity and simplicity on the part of our adversaries. It is offensive and counterproductive and if you went to see a play that pulled that shit you would most likely want your money back. And you would almost definitely not post it on Facebook with the caption “beautiful”.


joshcon80 said...

Thanks, Erica. This is really interesting. I hadn't looked at it from this angle, which is bizarro since I'm always blathering on about the hetero-normative lens. I'm looking at this from two angles: as a marketer and a homo.

The bait and switch is actually a classic marketing tactic, and one that sometimes works really well even if, as you experienced, it can piss people off if done clumsily. (I'd also argue that it works well in theater too, but that's another story.) I'm sure whomever posted these video was trying to "teach" straights something about gay relationships. So, from a marketing perspective, you could say they're hetero-normative because the narrative is created to suit their audience. That said, I can see why it would seem didactic and annoying to an audience of people who already agree with the message, such as yourself.

In my experience as a homo, though, not everybody is as with-it as you (unfortunately.) People still think its within their rights to vote on our equality. And even amongst our own community its hard not to view things through the hetero-normative lens because it's what we're most used to.

All this is just to say, you're probably not the intended audience. The problem is really that the intended audience are probably the only people NOT posting these on their Facebooks walls. (We do love to congratulate ourselves on our progressive politics!)

PS- I sometimes feel that almost nobody is an intelligent consumer of media and that makes me sad.

RJ said...

Josh got to the main point I was going to make - these aren't art, they're sales. They are selling an idea, which is "you are actually, at heart, not as averse to homosexuality as you think you are." And you (we) are not the target audience.

At the same time, they're like political bumper stickers - they probably do very little to actually change minds (though I would argue that they can influence the perception of cultural context) and mostly serve as "I'm not alone" cover for those who already agree with them. On that count, as evidenced by the extreme amounts of sharing both of these received, I think they're working.

I guess mostly, though, you felt a gotcha where I didn't feel one. And it's true, nobody likes to feel gotcha'd.

Erica Saleh said...

RJ,It's precisely the idea of showing people that they are "not as averse to homosexuality as they might think" by presenting a convenient illustration that is palatable to homophobes that offends me.
That said, I understand that change comes in steps and that my offense to these videos comes from a place of safety and theory instead of one of experience and emotion. And in that light, I know these commercials are positive. I know that acceptance and change are things that must be achieved strategically and slowly and I accept that. To the extent that these are used as marketing tools to influence a vote toward equal protection under the law, I will completely support them. But when I see friends who I expect to think more critically and to be the leaders in the next step of acceptance, in which we embrace difference instead of tend toward compromise and assimilation, posting these videos I feel really frustrated. I would simply like to challenge people to go further in the direction of progressiveness and acceptance rather than recycling and propagating a world view that is being used to cater to people on the other side of this debate.

Thomas Garvey said...

Thanks for this! Whenever anyone asks me for insight into why so many young playwrights seem so out of touch with the lives of their audience, I can now point them to this post. Because you know, if you're writing or talking (as you admit) from "a place of safety and theory instead of experience and emotion," then you probably shouldn't be writing OR talking.

plink said...


Whenever anyone aks for your insight on young playwrights, I'd love it if you direct them to plays and not to blogs. Does that make sense?

We have a brunch tomorrow. Come by and decide how out of touch we are.

Erica, thanks for posting!

joshcon80 said...

What the fuck are you even talking about, Garvey?

I don't know what your problem with young playwrights is exactly, but one only need to look at the success of EST and Youngblood's "Hand to God" to show that young people most definitely know their audience.

EST banked on young talent and what did they get? An extension and universal raves and an audience more mixed in age, race, persuasion than anybody is used to seeing. And it happens all the time, not just at EST.

So fuck off.

Ms Conkel

Erica Saleh said...

Mr. Garvey,
First, I second the above post urging you to cite plays rather than blogs in your search for why young playwrights are out of touch.
Second, I wonder who is approaching you asking why young playwrights seem so out of touch? I also wonder what we are supposed to be out of touch with? If my peers and I are being accused of being out of touch with the views of an audience that wants to continue to see a patriarchal, heteronormative, eurocentric world presented on stage, then so be it. But you might also consider that it is those audience members who are accusing the next generation of playwrights of being out of touch who are actually behind the times, and refusing to accept a stage that presents narratives and stories that are unfamiliar or challenging to them. In which case there are plenty of revivals I invite them to go see, which I'm sure they will find very "in touch" with their nostalgia for a world that we are evolving out of .

Thomas Garvey said...

Woo, Josh stops crying and gets angry! Arms akimbo and everything, I bet. As for what I have against young playwrights - oh, just the many hours of my life I've wasted watching mediocre, self-involved efforts by the kind of person who finds even progressive politics "offensive." But keep coasting on "Hand to God," buddy - I didn't know you wrote that! I thought ROBERT ASKINS wrote that! (Oh and fuck off yourself, btw.)

As for Erica - you're "offended" by an ad promoting marriage equality. That's not just out of touch, it's out to LUNCH. No great playwright ever wrote out of "a place of safety and theory" - you know it as well as I do - so get over yourself, and stop trying to win the "I'm more delicate and offended than you are" contest. Look up from your navel to the mirror, then take a hard look at your own life and work on that.

But you know, who am I to interrupt a good anti-hetero-normative circle jerk. Carry on, by all means.

Patrick Link said...

Thomas, obviously your comments say far more about you than playwriting or marriage equality.

Again, I'd encourage you to see the work Youngblood does. When our work is being shared, it will probably be posted on this blog. Hand to God would be a good one to see, but there will be other shows happening in January and beyond.

As for marriage equality, I don't think you had anything to say.

Thanks again for commenting.

joshcon80 said...

BTW It isn't just "Hand to God" either. Almost every single Youngblood show I've ever seen has been full to the point where people have to stand for lack of seats, so your point about young writers not connecting to an audience doesn't really hold water.

EST just got smart and finally put it on the main stage. Other theaters will smarten up too, hopefully.

Patrick Link said...

And just to clarify, we're all for marriage equality. But I think Erica's post was suggesting that the reason everyone should be allowed to get married has nothing to do with BBQs or professional accomplishments. The argument "you won't even know they're gay" is probably not the best argument.

Anonymous said...

HI all,

This is actually my first time ever reading or commenting on this blog (sorry!) But I saw it on twitter and couldn't resist.

I have to agree with Josh and RJ, Erica. I think one of the great things about FB is that it keeps us connected to our own artist community but that can also backfire sometimes. I have seen those videos posted 20-30 times in the last week or so on my friends walls but the truth is that it's a message of equality being re-posted by hundreds of liberal minded artists who are all friends and are ALL preaching to each other... And that's a little sad to me.

Those videos, tricky or not, are meant for a target audience and that audience is NOT us. I will confess that I saw the "trick" and shrugged it off. I posted it on my wall and it still remains there. I posted it because I come from a place in Texas where the people I grew up with still believe that GAYS go to hell. I posted it on my wall not for me or my friends but for them. And I think everyone of us has a "them" we are friended too that needed to see that video.

Also, I see what you're saying about watching plays and our intended audience but I'm a little unclear about the point your making? Sorry. Maybe I'm just slow but I think off broadway audiences consist of two types of people: people with money who don't know their head from their ass and don't care/see/mind tricks and just want to be moved by something AND theater artists who also want to be moved by something but are watching a play and (whether they love it in the end or not) judging it.


Thomas Garvey said...

Sure Josh - people are knocking down the doors to see new plays! Whatever, have some more kool-aid . . . but sorry, you guys are not really for marriage equality in any serious way - you're only for yourselves. This blog is one long advertisement - right now you're trying to market yourselves on the backs of Occupy Wall Street, in fact. I doubt any of you are actually out there, making a political difference - the theatre never makes any difference any more, and certainly no one who really risks anything on the street ever looks to it for any kind of inspiration! (Get real.) Your progressive politics are just part of your personal marketing plan, and you're always following the crowd (whining), rather than leading it. Which is what makes your pontificating so tiresome, but then what do I expect from a sales convention? So anyway, thanks for the phrase "a place of safety and theory." I realize that sums up what I hate about so much new play development.

Patrick Link said...

Thomas - Your position is clear. Good luck to you. In the meantime, back on earth, we have work to do.

Olivia said...

If only this Thomas Garvey actually had some action on his own blog so he would stay off of others. Can we pay someone to read and post on his or is he already doing that? Probably. Local disgrace. Gag me.

Anyway, back to real people voicing real ideas. Carry on, Youngblood!

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Thal said...

If only this Thomas Garvey actually had some action on his own blog so he would stay off of others. Can we pay someone to read and post on his or is he already doing that? Probably. Local disgrace. Gag me.

Actually, up in the hinterlands of Boston, where I ply my craft, Garvey is one of a handful of critics that the actual theatre practitioners read and discuss. Sometimes he's controversial-- and there was even an effort by a few theatres to blacklist him in a purely behind-the-scenes manner, but at the end of the day, that aroused more support for him in the theatre community.

As to the basic claim of "heteronormative lenses," leaving aside any theory and attending only to my personal experience of socializing with couples hetero- and homo-: outside of what I might presume occurs inside the bedroom, and the fact that one sort of couple qua one sort of couple has the experience of being a persecuted minority, the basic behavior and concerns are indistinguishable-- not because the gay and lesbian couples are aping heterosexual norms, but because a lot of these behaviors and concerns transcend the gender of the individuals in the relationship. Once this becomes obvious to the majority of heterosexuals that same majority will also see any further legalized discrimination against homosexuality as an affront to their own standards of decency-- that's how political change occurs. DADT was eventually defeated because heterosexuals had finally been persuaded that the rule was unjust, not by the conceptual purity of those activists doing the persuading. That's also how marriage equality eventually became protected under the law here in Massachusetts.

Which of course gets to Garvey's basic point: if you're overly concerned with conceptual purity, you will have either rendered yourself politically ineffective or worse: having a negative impact on your environment.

Patrick Link said...

I don't think it's a matter of purity, just a matter of depth. To argue "you won't know they're gay" doesn't seem very strong or sophisticated. Same with "I turned out okay."

The reason everyone should be able to get married isn't because "it'll be okay." It's because it's a basic right.

So while I don't object to the videos in the same way Erica does, I think it's fair to ask for a little more depth.

I also think it's fair to talk about this without calling it a "circle jerk."

joshcon80 said...

Garvey, (as always) I'm not sure what you hoped to achieve by coming to a young playwrights blog to comment on how shitty you think they all are.

Since you run your own blog, I assume you understand that different blogs have different purposes. This is a blog for and about the community of young playwrights known as Youngblood, so of course some of it is going to be "come see our show" kinds of posts. These guys are under no orders to start the new Hub Review or any other theory/criticism blog.

And you have no way of knowing of what political activities people do or do not partake in. To quote the girls in my childhood neighborhood, "You don't know my fucking life."

Ian, we know you're a fan but please don't presume to speak for all of Boston.

Ugh. I need a shower.

Ian Thal said...

Ian, we know you're a fan but please don't presume to speak for all of Boston.

Josh, I don't claim to speak for all of Boston: I even pointed out that a number of theatre companies admittedly attempted to blacklist Thomas Garvey for his writing. That said, I have the advantage of having feet on the ground of the Boston theatre scene, and I can report from my personal observations that he's the critic whose writings stimulate the most discussion and whom the artists I know most often cite as someone they read regularly, even if they disagree with him. My point is that there is a huge difference between being "controversial" and "a disgrace."

joshcon80 said...

Ian, I'm just having fun with you.

Sara said...

"My point is that there is a huge difference between being "controversial" and "a disgrace."

I just don't think Thomas seems to know the difference. He can write quite brilliantly on occasions, but his relentless character assassinations on people he disagrees with too often make him sound like a crackpot.

Thomas Garvey said...

Yeah - I think that "crackpot" tag may be a mutual thing, know what I'm saying? And just btw, Andrew Sullivan recently described the video you guys found "offensive" as "the best message for marriage equality," and has posted a touching note from a former homophobe whose mind was changed by, yes, that very video.

Ian Thal said...

You know, Tom, it's awfully heteronormative of you to think that portraying queers as being human and in most respects having the same aspirations as straights is a good thing, when one can instead be a radical other living in a sphere of incommensurability!

That's right folks! From now on every civil rights movement should adopt some variant of "we are a completely alien species out to destroy your way of life! Do not try to communicate with us! Now respect our constitutional rights!"

Erica Saleh said...

Ian, I think if you read the original blog post you would realize that's not the point at all. Your assertion that my opinion is in any way promoting othering of politically oppressed groups suggests that you did not actually read or consider what I had to say. And, as I've said in comments above - if these videos change anyone's mind toward supporting marriage equality, I am behind them. But let's also recognize that there is a more progressive next step to the conversation, in which we stop referencing heterosexual couples as the assumed norm because until we do that there is no amount of equality that will keep homosexual couples from being othered.

Ian Thal said...

The point however, is that while there are genuine gay and lesbian cultures with their own institutions, customs, heroes, works of art, that on the most fundamental level that needs to be addressed in the political, legal, and economic spheres-- safety, security, liberty, equality, et cetera, the difference is irrelevant. The old gay couple I overheard in the bookstore the other day, were having the exact same type of conversation that my heterosexual parents and my heterosexual aunt and uncle have with one another.

That's not "heteronormative"-- that's two human beings who have loved and cared for (and occasionally been exasperated by) one another for decades. And that's what anyone who doesn't think they know any gay people need to know.

The straights who are studying gay subtext in 19th and 20th century American literature are probably already your allies.

Erica Saleh said...

Oh Ian. The thing is, we're actually agreeing. But I think that there is room for more than one conversation, and the vocabulary that is useful to convince homophobes does not need to be the same vocabulary that progressives use to talk to each other. I expect those of us who already support marriage equality and who recognize that love between two people can look very much the same OR very much different from couple to couple regardless of the gender assignments within that couple, should at the very least point out when the media is employing a subtext that suggests that homosexuality is only okay if and when it looks like heterosexuality (which is also problematic because it suggests there is a static thing that heterosexuality looks like).

Ian Thal said...

Except when I'm talking politics or civil rights issues, I don't see why I have to talk to gay people "as a progressive" (isn't that self alienating?) when I could be talking "as a friend" or "as the performer after the show was over" or "as some dude with a funny hat you met at the bus stop the other day."

When you register another human being as being a member of minority group, do you automatically start wondering how to "talk to this person as a progressive?" Sorry, but it sounds like a very "othering" mode of discourse and it comes across as an attempt to create a theoretical simulacrum of the liberal temperament than actually living life with a liberal temperament-- which is simply embracing the diversity of humanity without seeking recourse to theories. Theories give no moral authority.

Erica Saleh said...

Nobody is suggesting there is an equal sign between being gay and being progressive. (Please see Garvey's reference to Andrew Sullivan as example number 1).

Thomas Garvey said...

You know, Erica, you wrote the following about these highly effective tools for marriage equality:

"Tricking people is not the answer. It assumes stupidity and simplicity on the part of our adversaries. It is offensive and counterproductive and if you went to see a play that pulled that shit you would most likely want your money back. And you would almost definitely not post it on Facebook with the caption “beautiful”."

Now . . . what exactly are you saying? That these videos don't "work" somehow? (They obviously ARE working for a lot of people - because somebody DID post them on Facebook and wrote "beautiful"!) Or is that they "work," but you'd rather they didn't, because you feel they're "offensive," that they "insult your intelligence"? Please! So you feel marriage equality should wait until you and the Youngbloods have approved the media strategy? I'm not always a fan of Andrew Sullivan, but he wrote early, influential justifications for marriage equality, and he certainly knows from publicity. And through all this, I keep wondering - what have YOU done in the struggle? Anything besides criticize? Just wondering.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

I was really moved by that Zach Wahls video, too, though I did think he went too far with his last line, about how his parents' orientation had ZERO effect on his character. I would say, in fact, that his parents' experience did influence his commitment to civil rights, which in turn makes him such a forceful spokesman. That line is so transparently designed to refute straight expectations on their own narrow terms that I can understand why it feels a little pander-y.

I sent the video to a close friend who's raising two kids with her wife, and she sent me this in response, which makes excellent points along your lines, Erica.

A most entertaining discussion, I must say.