Art and Stereotypes: What is a Gay Character?

I contributed the following piece to Bilerico on July 12th. It’s based on an older piece, which you can see here. I like this version. It’s tighter, I think. Would love some comments if anyone reading has any on it.

bilericologo

A female friend turned to me a few years ago and said, “You’re a dancer! That’s so great that you’re in touch with your feminine side.” It reminded me that my profession is embedded with expectations of gender and sexuality. Dance is not masculine, feminine, straight or gay, but it seems like most people think it is. Why do we see dance as feminine, or gay?

We all live within communities. And so while you could say – for instance – that “Hispanic men like soccer,” to do so would be invoking a stereotype, not projecting a reality. In the practice of theater, stereotypes are used. When you go to create a character on stage, you need to project aspects of character from which an audience will ‘read’ the vision you are trying to create. At the same time, from what I’ve seen, many artists project the same character stereotypes that their work is seeking to dissolve.

Betttman mime-attachment-thumb-250x375-6665Artists are the visionaries who create the new world (at least that’s what it says in our press packets). So while we exist within communities, we are also leaders, responsible for helping others to find a new way, a new truth, and the way away from The Guiding Light. When we pay homage too deeply to existing stereotypes, we lose our ability to express a more complex, holistic humanity.

Art – dance inclusive – has always been a home for the alternative. Artists are ‘different.’ Today as all members of society jockey for full participation, artists are unfortunately making our own acceptance more difficult by producing work that fetishizes notions of masculine, feminine, straight, and gay. The projection of character and community are complex. To the degree that we as artists prepare the audience to see the world in stereotypes, we perpetuate a society that judges us in the same way.

Are there essential character traits to being a man? Are there central character traits to being a gay man? It is fine to answer glibly that, yes, being a man means liking beer, sports, and Jessica Simpson, and that being a gay man means liking fashion, wine-coolers and Jake Gylenhall. But in reality, the fetishization of ‘gay’ characteristics, like the fetishization of ‘female’ characteristics, pigeon holes not just artists – but also audiences – into oppressive roles.

Being a dancer does not imbue one with a definable character. It doesn’t mean that you are sensitive, feminine, gay, or straight. Being gay does not give you a character either. Being a woman does not give one a certain character. Being hispanic doesn’t give you a certain character. We still live in a world where smart people (for example Lawrence Summers, recent past president of Harvard University) actually debate whether men and women have the same intellectual possibility. As long as we cling to theatrical stereotypes of masculine/feminine/gay/straight, we give validity to the limits placed on any of those groups.

As audiences, and artists, we owe it to ourselves to allow individual character to overcome community stereotyping.

I Don’t Want to Paint the Fence: why big media should pipe down and get back to work

Writing April 27th, 2009 in the online magazine Slate, Gary Kamiya argued, “If reporting vanishes, the world will get darker and uglier. Subsidizing newspapers may be the only answer.” Kamiya’s article – titled “The Death of the News” – is just one in a recent onslaught of articles considering print medias’ current troubles. In a commentary published last week by the New York Times, Maureen Dowd asserted, “my profession is in a meltdown.”

The facts of the issue are dramatic. The website Newspaper death watch.com reports that since the creation of the site in March, 2007, 10 daily papers have ceased print publication. (The Rocky Mountain News; Baltimore Examiner; Kentucky Post; Cincinnati Post; King Couty Journal; Union-City Register-Tribune; Halifax Daily News; Albuquerque Tribune; South Idaho Press; and San Juan Star.) Declining revenue is to blame for these failures. Writing on Slate in 2006, Jack Shafer reported, “Everywhere, newspapers are chucking stock tables, eliminating such once-venerable features as horse-racing coverage and their own editorial cartoonists, and consolidating or killing sections” to reduce expenses.

There are many opinions regarding how this crisis happened, and what the effects will eventually be. Dowd’s commentary blames the search engine google for transforming formerly monetized products into free products. Shafer’s piece notes that, “To be fair, the seeds of the great newspaper decline were planted more than 80 years ago… The emergence of every new media technology-the car radio, television, the portable radio, FM, cable, the VCR, the Internet, the cell phone, satellite radio and TV, the podcast, et al.-has delivered another kick to newspapers.”

The internet has increased the efficiency and decreased the cost of basic news reporting. Writing on the Technology blog for the LA Times, David Sarno cited the downing of a plane in the Hudson river as an example of the new reporting cycle. In that instance, a bystander broke the news long before major outlets were anywhere near the scene. Sarno wrote, “This may be among the most striking instances yet of instant citizen reporting, a trend that was visible in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.”

The impact of the print media crisis on investigative reporting is uncertain. The editors of Techdirt.com, writing on March 18th, 2009, argue that the major media outlets are propagating two myths regarding their service: “Myth 1: Newspapers put tons of money and resources into investigative journalism. They don’t. And never have. Myth 2: Only newspapers can do investigative journalism.”  The Huffington Post, one of the leading new news resources, recently created the Huff Post investigative journalism fund. As reported on their site, the Fund has, “an initial budget of $1.75 million. That should be enough for 10 staff journalists who will primarily coordinate stories with freelancers.” The Huff Post initiative resonates with the statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt (as quoted by Maureen Dowd) that, “Incumbents very seldom invent the future.”

The wealth of reporting regarding the decline of print publications is influenced by the fact that those impacted are also the ones holding the megaphones. Jack Shafer’s article remarked, “That high-pitched squealing you hear in the background is the sound of the American newspaper shrinking.”

Looking from my perch as editor of an online arts magazine, I see the pain caused by the loss of staff journalist positions. The situation reminds me of an article written by Terry Teachout for the Wall Street Journal in November of 2006, sub-titled, “The decline and near-disappearance of dance in America.” The article highlighted the National Endowment for the Arts 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which showed that “…the percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 who attended one or more ballet performances a year fell from 5.0% in 1992 to 3.1% in 2002.”

Teachout argued that “Anyone who seeks to launch a new company, or revitalize an old one, must start by figuring out how to make large numbers of Americans want to see something about which they no longer know anything–save that Emmitt Smith does it.” Like Dance, print newspapers are falling off of our radar screen. While the talent of the print economy adapts to a new marketplace, we can rest assured that the market still values reporting, and journalism.

There is no evidence that the interest of consumers has dramatically changed; the marketplace is evolving. New models are developing within a newer economy to support the interests of news consumers and providers. The situation is quite reminiscent of Mark Twain’s experience with the New York Journal (a daily that ceased publication in 1966.) Following publication of his obituary in the Journal, Twain quipped, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

The Agreement of Ideas

Louis Armstrong[ From the proprietor, 4/16/09:

In the original post, I began by quoting Louis Armstrong as saying: “What you don’t know ain’t gonna come out the other end of your horn.” That’s Louis on the side here. That wisdom, however, was in fact played by Charlie Parker.  I’m pretty certain I knew that, somewhere in me.

The night I wrote the post I was working on my own book, and was feeling kinship lovey with Terry Teachout, whose Louis Armstrong biography will be out shortly. His blog, which is regularly good fun, as I’m sure the book will be, just had a great post about his process of tracking down the authenticity of things that Armstrong said. You can see that here. And now back to the previously scheduled broadcast…]

I’ve been working on my book the last few weeks. I’ve written in prior posts about the upcoming publication of my Masters thesis. I am working with a large academic publishing house, and am not provided with a text editor. I am responsible for delivering a finished file, which they will put together and print.

I was working last night on Chapter 3, which deals with the science and philosophy that influence our perception of the body. I’ve always enjoyed studying history. The lives of the people who had these ideas, did these things. I find it interesting. I was looking at the section on the English philosopher Locke last night. Here’s the intro:

John Locke (1632-1704) was born at Wrington in England, and educated at Oxford where he received his B.A. and M.A. Subsequently he became a lecturer in Greek and later Reader in Rhetoric and Censor of Moral Philosophy, still at Oxford. In 1666 he met Lord Ashley, later First Earl of Shaftesbury, a leading figure at the court of Charles II. A year later he joined the Earls household, and for the next fourteen years shared in the fortunes and misfortunes of Ashley, serving in a number of supportive bureaucratic positions as the Earl rose to become Chancellor.

200px-john_locke_1632-1704Locke was interested in philosophy, and it was the writings of Descartes in particular which first interested him. As Locke put it: he wanted to understand very precisely and systematically what knowledge “was capable of.” Nevertheless Locke was too involved with the vagaries of British politics to write early in his life. In 1683 he was even forced to slip away into exile in Holland following the Rye House Plot to kidnap the King. Locke was able to return to Britain in 1689 following the crowning of William of Orange, and it was at this time that the majority of his works were finally printed.

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (1690) his magnum opus on epistemology, was inspired by a conversation with a group of friends in 1671. They were engaged in philosophical discourse, when it became clear that they could make no further progress until they had examined the minds capacities and had seen “what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.”

Lockes basic notion counters Descartes, in that he believes that experience is the basis for all knowledge. We receive “ideas” from sense experience, and Knowledge, with a capital “K”, is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas. There are four means of establishing knowledge: Identity, Relation, Co-existence or Necessary Connection and Real Existence. All knowledge is also either actual (directly in front of us) or habitual (having seen proof and remembering it.)

What I was struck by just now is Locke’s assertion that Knowledge is the perception of agreement or disagreement between two ideas. I think there’s an interesting application there to choreography. I’m really looking forward to getting into the studio in April to start choreographing again. Just cause I know whatever I know….. doesn’t mean it WILL come out the end of my horn. But it’s been a few years, and I’m pretty psyched to see what we come up with.