Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What Price Visibility?

Scene1: A tragically trendy salesman of diminutive stature wearing white framed eyeglasses and a pastel outfit holds up an equally diminutive sparkly evening bag, pinky extended, and says to his wide-eyed female customer something to the effect of "I have here a little piece of heaven that’s a great investment for any wardrobe." In barges a sensible, "regular" looking guy who advises our damsel, who apparently is unable to think for herself, that said evening bag will end up in the back of her closet in six months and instead she should invest her money in a "real" investment–his sensible mutual funds. Or something.

Scene 2: A hopelessly straight, schlub of a man is being dragged along by his stylish wife/girlfriend who, despite his indifference, asks his opinion on each item she selects in every store then chooses the opposite. While in a shoe store, she presents him with the choice of "wedge or espadrille" our clueless schlub unwittingly chooses "espadrille" to which the lady replies "oh really? ‘Cause I was thinking wedge." Cut to a salesman with obvious "gay face" who rolls his eyes in disgust, exposes all his teeth and hisses "wedge" in solidarity with our leading lady. By the third store, our dim-witted husband has caught on and decides to use reverse psychology and when presented with a choice of a new red or blue mobile phone tells his wife he likes the blue one, so naturally she chooses the red one for herself leaving him with the blue one, which he wanted all along. For in matters of real importance–say, technology–even this dim-witted boob knows how to get what he wants.

These are two commercials currently running on tv. The first for ING Direct investing, the second for T-Mobile. At last the GLBT community is being represented in advertising. But as who and as what? In both of these cases the gay men are minor characters and in order to instantly recognize them in a 30 second spot, they are reduced to stereotypes. Besides just looking the part, they are represented as vapid, shallow individuals having nothing of real importance to contribute to the situation except purses and shoes.--things that wouldn’t interest "real men" in the least. The first is also misogynistic in that it portrays the woman as completely clueless in matters of money. But at least she might be able to be talked into making a "sensible" investment. Our foppish salesclerk on the other hand–hopeless.

Tell me--am I just being a spoiled sport? Should we be happy to even have gay characters represented in advertising? Wasn’t it only a dozen years ago or so that advertisers would pull their ads from shows that dared deal with gay subject matter? Or is this the price we have to pay on our way to true visibility? I heard the phrase "pink face" coined recently. It’s a comparison to the racist, black-face minstrel show stereotypes of the 1920s and 30s. In essence, these effeminate salesclerks, decorators and hairdressers are the tap-dancing, watermelon eating black servant roles of the 1930s.

But what to do? Grin and bear it, thankful for any representation in the mainstream media? Or do we raise a stink? Would this make us too controversial to deal with thus dooming us to invisibility once again? Are there enough well-rounded gay characters, or better yet, actual gay men and women on television to counteract these negative images? And does that therefore make these stereotypes all in good fun–if there can be such a thing where stereotypes are concerned. What do you think?

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At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm quite pleased that advertisers are recognizing that there is a strong gay community out there that should be represented in the media. However, I cringe at all the stereotypes that are being employed and I think you hit the nail on the head comparing them to the black servants in the movies back in the first half of the 20th century. I think 50 years from now society will edit these gay portrayals because they were ultimately offensive to many, just like some networks rightfully edit out the "Abraham" song in "Holiday Inn" (thank god).

At 10:37 PM, Blogger Dave said...

A very interesting topic, Michael. While I agree that some of these sterotypes are over the top, or just palin distasteful, let's look at this from a different perspective: If the men in these commercials (who we'll assume are gay, given the stereotypes) looked less stereotypical - which is to say, more like the average gay man - would you know they were gay? As we're assimilated into the "mainstream" (whatever that is), how do continue to set ourselves apart? Sure, we could tell that a guy in a commercial was gay if he had another guy on his arm, but then, would our enemies say that being gay is all about sex?

For that matter, how do we know that all the single, ordinary-looking guys in TV ads haven't been gay all along, but we just assumed they were straight because they weren't foppish stereotypes we didn't recognize? ;)

I'm not disagreeing with you, just looking at it from a writer's persepctive, and playing devil's advocate.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Diane said...

Very interesting -- as usual! I think the comparison to the black-face minstrel shows is an apt one in this case. As such, I think ads like these will one day appear incredibly dated and we'll wonder how anyone could have found them funny or even acceptable. That said, I do find more and more opportunities in the mainstream media to make me hopeful about true acceptance of gays and lesbians. Aside from celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and Anderson Cooper (who are great at their jobs and also happen to be gay), I see real gay couples on shows like House Hunters looking for a new home, or on Divine Design asking Candace Olsen for help in designing a new bathroom. And guess what? They face the issues we all do -- they want clean, safe homes where they are comfortable and can enjoy their family (whether or not that includes kids). So, other than the fact that I watch a LOT of HGTV, I think Americans are definitely starting to get more well-rounded views of gays and lesbians. I hope it isn't too long before these start to crowd out the "pink face" representations.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger Matt said...

This is interesting. I haven't seen either of these commercials, but I agree with you - I don't want "us" always depicted as a stereotype. (Although actually, isn't the straight "schlub" being depicted as a stereotype, too?)

I don't know about raising a stink, necessarily - but I think we should civilly demand that gay characters not always be caricatures. How? Don't know ...

Great post.


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