Posts Tagged ‘queer’

See: Baggage or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jerry Springer

2010/07/09 3 comments

I‘ve been hesitant to write about my new favorite TV addiction, Baggage (the dating game show hosted by Jerry Springer on the Game Show Network), because it is the most mind-boggling combination of insulting, terrible, refreshing, subversive, and normative. I’ve flip floppped back and forth in my mind how best to watch the show, and I think I’ve reached a tentative hypothesis. But first, let me explain a little how the show works for the uninitiated.

The show features an eligible bachelor or bachelorette who is looking to find love. It is assumed that said single is at least a little bit desperate. The single has a deep dark secret however, his or her baggage, contained within a large, red suitcase. Jerry tempts the studio audience by offering three possibilities for what the case may contain, one of which is true. Then three possible future mates are brought on stage for the eligible bachelor(ette) to select from. Only, each of the three suitors comes with three suitcases, ranging from small, medium, to large. The size of the suitcase corresponds to how dramatic the secret baggage is. Generally the small baggage is something along the line of “I have smelly feet” or something of that ilk, while the bigger bags contain things like “I left my wife to date her younger sister”, etc. In the first round all the suitors open up their smallest bag and explain/justify/minimize it. Then Jerry opens up the medium cases which have been placed randomly, so that the single and looking contestant has no idea whose baggage is whose. He or she must then pick which of the secrets is a deal breaker, and that contestant is eliminated. In the third round, the suitors open up their biggest cases and try to explain them. The bachelor(ette) decides which of the two remaining has the most acceptable baggage. But it doesn’t end there, as the bachelor(ette) must open his or her big red case, revealing their own enormous baggage, and the suitor is now given the chance to say if all this baggage is too much to handle. So, it’s a bit like the other popular game show, Deal or No Deal, what with all the cases opening and people rejecting things.

Let me try to explain my hypothesis, which is that Baggage is possibly the closest thing we’ll ever come to subversive queerness that we will ever get to on a game show. Yes, even more so than shows like “Big Brother” or “Survivor” that frequently feature gay and lesbian contestants. And here’s why I finally feel confident saying that: Baggage demonstrates that the “otherness” of queer individuals is really just a figment of society’s imagination. Through the guise of a heteronormative dating show (to date there has not been an episode matching up same-sex  partners), Baggage reveals that there is no such thing as “normal” and that you can’t always pick out the queer by their asymmetrical haircut. I don’t just mean that is shows us that normal is a construct because no one on the show is normal, what I mean is that queer sexuality in all its forms (not just same-sex attraction) has infiltrated a show designed to pair up men and women.   

Of course, this is still mainstream television, and so any baggage that is nonheteronomrative is met with a studio full of “oooooo’s” and gasps. However, the important part isn’t whether or not a studio audience condones the baggage or not, but that seemingly normal singles are suddenly revealed to be even just a little bit queer; it pulls the rug from under our feet, in a good way. The power of Baggage, unlike Big Brother is that you really never know when queerness is going to spring out at you. In Big Brother there is usually the gay contestant, and he or she (99% of the time HE) is cast very specifically as the gay one. While visibility is a good thing, game show visibility is usually mere tokenism disguised as acceptance. Baggage dispenses with the empty gestures of false acceptance and just bombards the viewer with visibility, saying to hell with what people think. The people with queer baggage in the show aren’t there as token others, but as regular people floating about in the straight-world dating pool.

For example, my favorite pairing ever in the show’s brief history was a couple consisting of a woman who did not believe in monogamy and a man who feels sexiest when dressed up as a woman (the show ran its credits over a picture of him in drag, wearing his wig, makeup, and a slinky red dress that episode). That pairing does more to dismantle assumptions about straight coupledom than any other show I’ve seen on TV. Or last night, one single didn’t believe in the institution of marriage. Straight men have admitted to gogo dancing in gay bars to pay for college, people admit to enjoying sadomasochism in the bedroom, selling sex toys, dating a transsexual, preferring group sex, and having sugar mommas. It’s a queer, queer world out there!

The best episodes are arguably the special “cougar editions” in which a cougar (a woman of a certain age) chooses between three sexy twenty-something men, all vying for the chance to be with an older woman.  I know the whole cougar culture thing has been absorbed into heteronormative culture, but it still belongs in the category of cross-generational sex. Unsurprisingly, the Cougar episodes are the most highly sexual, with almost every comment and secret focusing on what the cougars and their “cubs” would shortly be doing in bed together. Interestingly, the term cub has long been used in the Bear subculture before it entered the Cougar vernacular.

It all reminds me off an oldie but a goodie foundational text in sexuality studies, Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex”, in which she outlines Western culture’s “charmed circle” of “good/natural sex”. Watching Baggage is like checking off the list of “bad sex” and “unnatural acts”:

Unmarried, Promiscuous, Non-procreative, Commercial, Group sex, Casual, Cross-generational, With manufactured objects, Sadomasochism… Transvestites, Transsexuals, Fetishists (11-12).

I‘ve seen all of those on Baggage! I’m not arguing that there isn’t yet a long way to go on TV, nor that Baggage is indeed a beacon of queerness in the wasteland of heteronormativity, but as far as game shows go (and trust me, I watch a lot of them), Baggage at least shows us that queerness is not necessarily reserved for those society deems other.

Categories: Television Tags: ,

Defending Video Games

2010/06/22 2 comments

In the most recent issue of Bitch Magazine (No. 47, the “Action” issue), writer Hilary Barlow examined the work of a small Belgium indie video game developer, Tale of Tales. Tales creates feminist retellings of retellings classic narratives, which Barlow praises as a small step in revitalizing the video game industry which “do[esn’t] have a great history as a source of positive female characters.” She argues that “if the token chick isn’t a princess in another castle then she’s sexed up to a ridiculous degree just to get in on the action”, which then perpetuates misogyny and sexism in the largely male audience of gamers. She has a point too, there is an overabundance of video games that reinforces the idea that women need to be rescued/are the sidekick/don’t exist. However, I can’t help but feel that Barlow paints the entire industry with too wide a brush; the video game industry is arguably still less dependent on the objectification of women and the exclusion of minorities than the movie industry, television, music, pornography,  women’s magazines, fashion, etc. I should also point out here that I’m about to delve into my deeply geeky side, so I should assure you that I do actually go outside occasionally and get sunlight and exercise.

Barlow points especially to the existence of the game “Rapeplay” (which you can probably figure out from the title) as evidence of the specific danger video games pose to women. The fact that such a game exists is obviously horrifying, yet there are far more films of all types which not only depict, but glorify rape. In terms of sheer volume, video games represent just a drop in the ocean. To Barlow, “Rapeplay”–a game you can’t get a hold of in most places and wasn’t produced by any reputable party–is a “phenomenon” but why doesn’t she hold all media to the same standards?

One doesn’t need to look far (certainly not as far as Belgium indie developers) to find positive female characters in video games; what follows is by no means a fully comprehensive list, but is instead meant to be a counterpoint to the accused dearth of “complex female characters”. Yes, I realize that I’m cherry picking my examples and that one could possibly find an objectified bimbo for every strong heroine on the list, but they do illustrate that female characters can be more than captive princesses.

One of Nintendo’s largest and most successful franchises, The Legend of Zelda, has not only strayed from the save the princess routine but also transformed Zelda, the titular princess, into a bad ass team mate. The N64’s first Zelda offering, “Ocarina of Time” saw the princess donning a disguise and becoming an enigmatic ninja who knew more than Link, the male protagonist. Soon after, the game “Wind Waker” cast aside the princess role and recast the Zelda figure into a ruthless pirate warlord. The villain of the game is defeated by a magic bow that only Zelda is powerful enough to wield. The latest Zelda game on the DS, “Spirit Tracks”, featured Zelda as a powerful ally the player controls alongside Link in order to solve puzzles together. Zelda has been kick ass, and even cross dressed; Zelda moved beyond the princess stereotype well before 2000’s.

The widely popular survival horror franchise Resident Evil has always starred tough as nails female protagonists who survive the zombie apocalypse but have in the past also saved their male counterparts. The first game allowed you to play as Jill Valentine, elite STARS member and ex cat burglar who could pick locks unlike the male character and was the only one able to handle the enormous grenade launcher. “Resident Evil 2” starred Claire Redfield, Chris’ sister, also surviving a zombie apocalypse (there’s really only thing that happens in these games). Game #3 stars Jill again… you guessed it. Yes, in 3 Jill is wearing a tank top, but there’s at least no cutscenes of her being bouncy or anything that low. By the way, Jill is the crossover character featured in the Resident Evil movies.

In the same survival horror vein, “Silent Hill 3” of the Silent Hill series, is one of the first games I know of that engages in a discourse of abortion and a woman’s right to control her own body. Now, the rest of the Silent Hill series may have tended to the misogynist side in its early years, but 3 focuses on the teen aged Heather who survives some pretty psychologically disturbing stuff. She’s got a cultist chasing after her, she’s surrounded by gross monsters vaguely reminiscent of foetuses, and the anti-Christ is trying to burst forth from her womb. Gross. The ending culminates with Heather defying religious teachings and symbolically aborting whatever got inside her. One doesn’t need to look hard to see a woman making the difficult decision to terminate an unwelcome pregnancy forced upon her against her will, a narrative that unfortunately exists in reality today. Sure the message is coated in spooky monsters and creepy sound effects, but at least “Silent Hill 3” is dealing with the complicated parts of feminism politics and not just easier to handle forms of female empowerment.

The newest Final Fantasy game stars a female protagonist who is just as mysterious, moody, and strong as male heroes in the past. And “Final Fantasy 13” isn’t the first time a female led the charge against whatever evil was trying to destroy the world. “Final Fantasy 3/6” (depending on where/when you played it) had an ensemble cast headed by Terra. The game dealt with themes of motherhood, love lost and love gained, and generally involved women warriors kicking ass and taking names (and loot).

Even Mario Brothers games have moved away from the princess perpetually in another castle; Peach has stood on her own in a DS game, is a powerhouse in the “Super Smash Brothers” games as well as Mario Karts, Mario Parties, “Super Mario RPG”, and on and on. We stopped rescuing Peach a long time ago. Anyone remember “Super Mario Bros 2”? Peach was for the first time a playable character (only 2 games into the NES franchise) and was clearly the best character.

Another retro moment: Samus, the high-tech fan favourite from the Metroid series takes off her helmet at the end of the very first game to reveal that she is a woman, blowing the minds of all the players who naturally assumed that since they were being awesome they were playing a dude.        

And Miss Pacman is faster and tougher than Pacman ever was. There’s even a scene in the arcade version where she chases after Pacman, which I guess could be considered gender role reversal to a certain extent.

Canada’s largest video game developer, BioWare, which is responsible for the megahits “Dragon Age”, “Mass Effect 1 and 2”, “Baldur’s Gate”, “Knights of the Old Republic”, etc. has even begun offering players the opportunity to dabble in a queer relationship, though only for a moment. But the moment isn’t treated as a joke or milked for laughs, nor was it designed to spark outrage and thus create publicity, it existed simply because some player out there might want to see that part of their character represented in-game. I’m still waiting for a genuine same-sex love story in a mainstream game, but we have begun to take the first steps.

Despite the overabundance of objectified women, gender stereotyping, and heteronormativity in video games, I still feel video games allow me more space for creating and interpreting narratives in my own way beyond the regulations of patriarchy than what I’ll find playing at my local movie theatre or on my cable television. At least with a controller in my hand I can actively have some say in what I’m implicit in.

Which brings me back to my point: I’m glad there are indie developers out there like Tale of Tales, but we should acknowledge that the industry (yes, even the stuff by mainstream developers Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) might even be a place we can turn to in order to find some feminist fun.

Categories: Games Tags: , ,

Just a Question…

2010/05/26 Comments off

How is it that Glee, arguably today’s most watched, highest praised prime-time television show with out queer cast members (Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer) consistently disappoints me with its insistence on heteronormativity and then (sort of) wins me back by the end of each episode? Particularly this week’s Lady Gaga themed episode, “Theatricality”, which had the highest potential to date for radical queer politics. Half of the show relied entirely on reenforcing gender norms, with “the girls” (including Kurt, the young gay teen character) dressing like and performing songs by Lady Gaga. “The guys”, however, uncomfortable with the idea, don KISS costumes and rock out in a more “acceptable” version of glam. I suppose painting a lightening bolt on your face is femme-y while painting on cat whiskers is butch?

Meanwhile, Finn struggles to cope with the idea of sharing a bedroom with Kurt, the result of their parents moving in together. He is troubled by Kurt’s omnipresent queerness, claiming he “puts [his] underwear on in the shower every morning” because he’s uncomfortable with Kurt’s sexuality. Finn is even physically repulsed by Kurt’s attempt to help him remove his KISS make up with a moist towelette. While Finn’s reaction is probably a realistic representative of how many highschool boys would respond to queerish contact, it’s a story we’ve all heard ad nauseum.

Unfortunately, however, Finn can hardly be blamed; Kurt’s character has taken a rather creepy turn in the past few episodes, concocting a scheme that pairs up their parents in order to position Finn as a kind of brother/room-mate/ object of desire. The whole dynamic has a problematic incestuous vibe to it. Kurt is simultaneously the creepiest and the most emotionally realistic character in the show; his coming out to his father was one of the most emotional scenes of the entire season, but his continued efforts to get Finn into his bedroom are borderline disturbed. And, again, isn’t the story of the gay boy hopelessly infatuated with the straight jock another narrative past its expiration date?

Conversely, the scenes with Kurt’s father have continued to be heartwarming and reasonably progressive. When Finn refers to Kurt’s choice of decor as “faggy”, Kurt’s father bursts on to the scene demanding that Finn leave his house immediately and reassuring Kurt that the room looks great. It’s standard fare, yes, but it’s about as good as I’ve come to expect from the average television show. The episode concludes with Finn defending Kurt’s right to be different from a pair of football players, wrapped in a red shower curtain (which I guess is the straight boy version of a Lady Gaga outfit).     

So my question is, it is alright to be completely essentializing and heteronormative on the one hand, and moderately progressive on the other? Is Glee giving viewers the queer-lite version of progressiveness (“Being different is fine! We’re all different!”) while continuing to propagate what it means to be a “real” man/woman? And perhaps most importantly, am I asking too much from a television show that one can watch on basic cable?

Categories: Television Tags: ,

Why do I love “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life”?

2010/05/09 Comments off

No, I’m really asking you. Why do I love to watch Kirstie Alley’s newest reality television offering, Kirstie Alley’s Big Life? I can’t figure it out. The show isn’t good, or even bad-good enough to enjoy for its bad-goodness. I’m usually pretty skilled at affecting that irritating-in-other-people ironic enjoyment at these type of things. Heck, I kept watching Grey’s Anatomy even after it got all terrible and such. But when it comes to Big Life I manage to derive a genuine sense of satisfaction.

And there’s a lot to hate about Big Life. Besides the fact that it’s basically one big advertisement for Alley’s new weight loss product, Organic Liason (the show constantly references the product, and the product’s offical website refers back to the show), there are some problematic representations of queer people, and, uh… fat people. The show isn’t exactly fat phobic; after all, Alley doesn’t claim to speak for all fat people, just herself. She says that she feels less confident and sexy at her current size, and wants to help others who want to lose weight. However, and I feel this way about most weight-loss shows, there is a certain element of fatsploitation present. I get it, I get it, the show is about being fat, so I can’t complain that the show subjects the large body to our gaze, but that doesn’t mean I have to feel good about it.

Equally worrisome is how Alley’s personal assistant’s personal assistant Kyle is edited. Kyle’s character on the show seems to fit the mould of the stereotypical gay boy. No, not the fabulous kind, the other kind: he’s the sassy sidekick, a little bit dumb, and safely asexual. In one episode, he talks about going to his high school reunion and asks Alley if she’ll be his date. This conversation took place during a couple’s massage he shared with Alley, perfectly playing the role of surrogate boyfriend. Naturally, he’s single and never displays any desire to actually be with a man… at all. He spends all his time in the company of women, and never really has any meaningful interaction with the show’s other male characters. During the latest episode in April, a rather hunky (or at least hunky because he’s from exotic Australia) male joined Alley’s team, and Kyle’s reaction was a mix of hostility and jealousy. Fortunately, the show is sympathetic in its portrayal of Kyle: he’s a lovable doofus rather than an incompetent screw-up. 

My main issue with Big Life, however, is the fact that it’s even on. Didn’t we already watch Alley be fat on Fat Actress? How many times can we watch one person lose weight? Once, I get (kinda). But twice? How many times does Alley get to be famous for hating her body? Is it really all that different from us gawking at Heidi Montag’s multiple cosmetic surgeries? I really don’t mean to go on a diatribe here, but I really don’t see the difference between Alley being famous for being fat and Heidi being famous for being famous. At least Alley got famous beforehand for actually doing something.

But  all of that doesn’t even come close to answering my question: why do I love to watch Kirstie Alley’s Big Life? Why am I willing to overlook what I hate about this show? Alley’s voice-over narration is contrived, and can’t help but show how the show is that awful “scripted but pretends not to be” style of reality television. But for some reason, unbeknownst to me, I will be tuning in for the ONE HOUR SEASON FINALE in about one hour’s time.  I’m hoping the clouds will part and suddenly all will be revealed to me, but I somehow doubt it. Instead, I will probably watch it, laugh occasionally, and then forget about it after the season is done.

Categories: Television Tags: ,