May 17, 2013

Golden Cities, Far: The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

I discovered The Lord of the Rings in junior high, and thought it the best thing ever written. Heroic fantasy!  Elves, dwarfs, and wizards fighting the Dark Lord in an alternate Medieval world!  Infinitely superior to sword and sorcery (about mighty-thewed barbarian heroes in an ancient world), and to those dreary naturalistic novels that teachers were always pushing at us.  Even better than science fiction.

During the spring and summer of seventh grade, my friend Darry and I started working on our own alternate Medieval world -- if we couldn't find a "good place" in our world, why not make one of our own?   We developed a gazetteer-full of new countries, wrote historical timelines spanning thousands of years, compiled detailed genealogical charts, and learned to speak a dozen languages of Elves, Dwarves, and Men. We got ideas from fantasy novels, myths, folklore, the histories of obscure countries, and anything else we could get our hands on: we named the country of Runoe after Runde Island in My Village in Norway, and the forest-dwelling Colemonas after Coleman camping equipment. We worked fervently, every day at lunchtime and after school, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, during holidays.

Fantasy worlds must be used as the setting for novels, so by eighth grade we were working on a plot about a Midwestern teenager named Jim swept away through a time-space warp to the world of Toulbium, where he gathered companions to fight the Dark Lord.

Everyone we told about the story screamed “You’re plagiarizing The Lord of the Rings!” But we patiently pointed out that Jim traveled west, not east like Frodo; that he got hiscompanions by accident, not through the Council of Elrond, and that the Dark Lord’s land of Moraine was bounded by dark forests, whereas Sauron’s land of Mordor was bounded by mountains.

Every Saturday we took the bus downtown to Readmore Book World to spend our allowance on heroic fantasy novels.  Between 1969 and 1974, Ballantine published 65, bright, shining paperbacks with evocative titles: The King of Elfland's Daughter, The Broken Sword, The Wood Beyond the World, Beyond the Golden Stair, Golden Cities Far.  

But there was a problem: the cover art often showed naked women.  Beefcake was highly stylized, when you could find it at all (here the Welsh god Manawyddan wades across the English Channel).

And another problem: they were unreadable, with stilted Medieval diction, boring characters, and clich├ęd plots.

The biggest problem: the male heroes were entirely obsessed with goddesses, fairy queens, and damsels in distress. With the exception of Tolkien and maybe C.S. Lewis, heroic fantasy was nauseatingly heterosexist.  The Well of the World's Desiring, the Goal of the Quest, the Reason for Living is a man falling into a woman's arms.  No bonding, no gay subtexts, no gay symbolism, no nothing.
Even the cover of Imaginary Worlds, a survey of the fantasy genre, morphs into a woman's face

It's no better today.   No matter if it is print fiction, a movie, or tv (as in Legend of the Seeker, top photo).  There may be a few battle maidens and Amazons who fight side by side, but men are always questing after women.

Even in naturalistic literature, as I discovered in my college class in Fiction Writing.

Benjamin Rojas: Argentine Disney Channel Teen Idol

Born in Argentina in 1985, Benjamin Rojas got his start in Chiquititas (1998), as a jungle boy who gets a girlfriend.  He gained teen idol attention in the telenovela  Rebelde Way (2002-2003), about teens in an exclusive private high school in Buenos Aires.  Pablo Bustamante (Benjamin), son of a famous politician, was the central character, a wealthy, charismatic prettyboy who falls in love with girls a lot.  I never saw it, but apparently there was some buddy bonding and a gay-vague character.  And a lot of ecstatic teen fan chatter.

Next came Floricienta (2004-2005), a teen telenovela that reprises the Cinderella story, with a poor girl becoming a nanny to a rich man, Federico (Juan Gil Navarro).  Benjamin played Federico's brother.  No gay content, but a "mistaken for gay" episode.

Same thing in Alma Pirata (2006): he puts on the swish in order to sneak into a gay nightclub.

But at least there's some buddy bonding on his resume.  La Leyenda (2008) was a classic buddy-bonding movie about two race car drivers (Benjamin, Pablo Rago).

Jake and Blake (2009-2010), a Latin American Disney Channel series shot entirely in  English, had Benjamin playing identical twins separated at birth and reunited as teenagers, when one saves the other's life.  They decide to do a Prince and the Pauper-style switch.

Cuando me sonreis (When You Smile at Me, 2011) was about a man (Facundo Arana) reuniting with his long-lost brother (Benjamin).

Harriet the Spy: Gay and Lesbian Kids

Harriet the Spy (1964), by lesbian author Louise Fitzhugh, is a classic gay-subtext children's novel about an 11-year old writer and grade-school spy.  Harriet is an oddball outsider with distinctly "masculine" interests, a penchant for dressing like a boy, and a romantic friendship with her best friend Janie.  Their male friend Sport (played by Alexander Corti, left, in the 2010 version) is also decidedly gay-coded, neat, artistic, wealthy, and fashionable.  Even the plot -- about Harriet spying on people to gather "sensitive" information, and thereby losing her friends -- can be taken as a metaphor for the secret lives of most gay people during the era, with constant fear of blackmail, entrapment, and discovery.

Fitzhugh wrote two sequels, The Long Secret (1965) and Sport (1979), which maintain the gay symbolism.  But in the 2000s, sequels by two other authors heterosexualize Sport.  Harriet Spies Again (2002) by Helen Ericson, gives Sport a crush on a girl.  And Harriet the Spy, Double Agent (2005), by Maya Gold, involves Sport and Harriet competing over the same girl.

One wonders why they heterosexualized Sport but not Harriet.  Maybe there is more cultural anxiety about gay boys than gay girls.

 There have been two film versions.  Nickelodeon's Harriet the Spy (1996), starring Michelle Trachtenberg as Harriet and gay-friendly actor Gregory Smith as Sport, leaves the gay subtexts intact.

Director Bronwen Hughes has also directed episodes of The L-Word and produced the movie Woman on Top (2009), which features a gay "best friend," so she is not unaware of gay/lesbian characters. Plus, notable lesbian actress Rosie O'Donnell plays Harriet's nanny, Golly.

The Disney Channel's Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars (2010), starring Jennifer Stone, makes Harriet a teenager who has "modern" problems like "mean girls" and "hot boys."  She is interested in a movie star, Skander (Wesley Morgan, who previously played a gay character on Degrassi High).  When he comes to town to film Spy Teen 2: The Sequel, she stalks him and blogs about him so obsessively that her friends Janie and Sport dump her, and Skander quits the movie in disgust.  But in the end she apologizes, and Skander gets a role in a new movie and hugs her.

There still is no heterosexual romance -- Harriet never "gets with" Skander (who doesn't seem interested in girls) -- and Sport remains neat, fussy, artistic,  a gay-vague best friend.  Even the crush that drives the plot seems less about Harriet's interest in the hot boy than her attempt to find an interesting topic to blog about.  The heterosexualization is minimal, a nod to the modern censors who yell that kids must never, never become aware that gay people exist.

May 15, 2013

Happy Trails to Homophobes: The Roy Rogers Show

When I was a kid in the 1960s, preachers and Sunday school teachers hated all mass media: rock music ("the devil's music!"), science fiction ("atheism and evolution!"), Casper the Friendly Ghost ("the occult!").  They really, really hated television.

Did The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ever ask God's guidance in fighting the Communists?
Did The Beverly Hillbillies ever bow their heads and say grace before eating Granny's vittles?
The Flying Nun tried to brainwash you into becoming an evil Catholic.

The only program they approved of was Roy Rogers, about a singing cowboy named Roy Rogers, played singing cowboy star Roy Rogers.  He never said grace before meals, either, but in real life he was a fundamentalist Christian who always mentioned God in interviews and included Christian songs in his live performances.

The preachers didn't realize that his show (1951-57) had been off the air for over ten years.  But I must have caught glimpses of the Saturday morning reruns (1961-65), because I remember hating it.  Hardly any gay content at all.

1. Like Fess Parker's Daniel Boone, Roy didn't hang out with guys like "real" cowboys.  He had a wife, Dale Evans, who sometimes rode next to him in her petite cowboy skirt, but usually stayed home to run a restaurant.

2. Like Daniel Boone, this wasn't the Old West. They had electric lights, telephones, and cars. As a kid, I found that idiotic. Why would you ride a horse if cars were available?

3.  No beefcake of any sort.  Like Fess Parker, Roy never unbuttoned a button on-screen.  There were a few semi-nude shots in movie magazines, but nothing memorable. The top photo, with Roy eating a hot dog, may look promising, but according to Darwin Porter's autobiographical novel Rhinestone Country, the "squinty-eyed homophobe" was not particularly gifted beneath the belt.

4. No dreamy boys or muscular men. Roy was hideous, with a face like a mask and tiny, beady eyes. The only other male star was Pat Brady, the cook at Dale's restaurant,  a gawky, comic-relief character who drove a jeep named Nellybelle.

5. The closing song, "Happy Trails to You," sung by the disembodied heads of Roy and Dale, freaked me out.  I distinctly remember them singing it to "cheer up" some kid dying in the hospital.  Mememto mori, a reminder of the transience of life and the inevitability of death -- not what a four-year old wants to hear about while eating his Coco Puffs on Saturday morning.

The only gay content: some buddy-bonding potential, I guess.  Roy and Pat starred in many movies together during the 1940s, and were close friends in real life.

May 14, 2013

Indiana Jones: White Heterosexual Male Adventure

During the famous summer of 1981, when I went to an Italian Film Festival, moved into my own apartment, and learned about  gay German literatureThe Canterbury Tales, and the Beat Generation, I saw a dozen movies with gay subtexts, including  Clash of the Titans, American Werewolf in LondonHell Night, and The Chosen.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark was not among them. It hit  #1 at the box office that year by playing into Reagan-era conservative anxieties about gay people and gender roles (and race and imperialism).

You know the plot:

1.  Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), whip-wielding archaeologist, is trying to steal a valuable artifact from a lost temple in Peru.  He seems to be buddy-bonding with his guide, Satipo (Alfred Molina), and even grabs his crotch to pull him out of a dangerous situation. But then Satipo betrays him and leaves him to die.

It's not just Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Indy is betrayed by Walter Donovan in the sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and by Mac in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Men are duplitious, underhanded; male friendships not to be trusted.

As a consequence, Indy has allies but no buddies.  He has an 11-year old ward, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), in Temple, and in Crystal, he mentors young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who turns out to be his son.

One of his allies, the Egyptian Sallah (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) could be read as gay-vague, as he dislikes receiving a gratitude-kiss from The Girl, and spends a lot of time hugging, kissing, and fondling men. But the gay reading is minimized by making him a heterosexual father with about a dozen kids.

2. After bringing the artifact back home, Indy teaches a class in archaeology to a classroom full of female students mooning over him.  Apparently he's incredibly dreamy, swoon-worthy to the max -- but only to girls.  Heterosexism in full force.

3. Indy gets a new assignment: to track down the Ark of the Covenant that the ancient Hebrews used to destroy the Egyptian army.  (Wait -- didn't the Egyptians destroy them?).  So it's off to the Middle East, or in Temple, to India; or in The Last Crusade, Italy; or in Crystal Skull, Peru.  Unlike most archaeologists, Indy doesn't specialize in one geographic region, and he's fluent in every language ever spoken, even the Mayan language spoken 3,000 years ago in Peru!  Not heterosexist, just stupid.

4. En route  to the Middle East, Indy stops in Tibet (yeah, that's on the way) to look up Marian, a girl that he broke up with, ostensibly to get an amulet that shows the location of the Ark, but actually to get back together with her.  The most hackneyed trick in the book for getting The Girl into the plot. Indy also hooks up with The Girl in Temple (a nightclub performer who accidentally tags along) and in Last Crusade (a Nazi who falls for him and changes alliances); in Crystal Skull, Marian returns so they can reconcile. Fade out kiss. Yawn.

5. After a few more betrayals by male friends, Indy and Marian run up against the creepy, foppish Nazi Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey), who always carries a specially-designed hanger in a black case to keep his coat from getting wrinkled.  Gay vague villains abound in the series.  Perhaps the most egregious is the swaying, jewelry-encrusted young boy, Maharaja Salim Singh (Raj Singh), who tortures Indy with a voodoo doll in Temple (yes, a Hindu with a Sikh name uses an Afro-Caribbean device).

Or maybe the butch lesbian stereotype, Nazi. .. um, I mean Commie. . .Irina Spalko (Kate Blanchette) in Crystal Skull.

6.  Turns out the the Ark of the Covenant contains spirits, who kill the evil Nazis but spare Indy and his friends.  Same thing happens in each of the sequels; the spiritual world, the laws of the universe side with Truth, Right, Masculinity, and Heterosexism.  The gay-vague, the gender-transgressive, the Nazi/Commie must perish.

Harrison Ford is not exactly a gay ally, although he seems ok on gay marriage. Still, I'll stick with the Die Hard series.

May 12, 2013

Austin Mahone Says He's Not Gay

I count such teen performers as Uriah Sheldon and Jimmy Bennett as gay-positive even they haven't made any public statements in support of LGBT persons, because their songs are decidedly not heterosexist, rarely if ever insisting that heterosexual desire is universal. And because their film work involves substantial buddy-bonding.

For comparison, let's look at "the next Justin Bieber," up and coming teen idol Austin Mahone.

Born in 1996, the San Antonio native and his friend Alex Constancio began posting songs on youtube when they were fifteen years old.  They went viral, a record contract appeared, and "11:11," aka "Make a Wish" hit the top of the pop charts.

It's rather heterosexist:

She's got me all worked up inside
And I know it's going down tonight,
Because she's moving and it's feelin right
Girl you got me feelin right

Soon Austin was appearing before sold-out crowds and being interviewed on every talk show on tv.  Other songs appeared, mostly decidedly heterosexist.

"Heart in My Hand": I'm never gonna find someone as beautiful as you, girl.

"Say Something":  Girl, I gotta know.

In 2012 Austin starred in his own youtube reality series, Austin Mahone Takeover, in which he does such macho-heterosexual things as play touch football and search for the perfect girl.

With all that heterosexist content, his heterosexual identity seems rather obvious, but maybe it was the videos of Austin and Alex having a pillow fight and hanging out in bed together that got fans wondering if they were gay.  Austin posted a response on youtube:

"I'm a guy, and I like girls.  I'm not gay.  People ask too many questions."

1. All guys like girls.  Heterosexual desire is universal human experience.
2. Since all guys like girls, by definition gay men aren't guys.
3. Since to be "Not a guy" is shameful, you should never ask if anyone is gay.  It's an insult.

But that's not nearly as homophobic as the comments on the post.
"He's not gay, he's normal."
"Why you haters got to hate?"
"You people are sick!"
"Just because a guy is cute, you think there's something wrong with him!"
"I want to slap somebody!"

Makes you long for the old days when you read interviews in magazines and kept your comments to yourself.
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