Macy’s Parade and the Drag Queens: Visual Culture for All?

Here in the USA it’s the Thanksgiving holiday.  For those not of a North American persuasion, this is the holiday to commemorate when the religiously oppressed left England in the Mayflower to head on over to America to set up home over here.  This weekend basically everyone eats themselves silly to commemorate that fact.  The funny thing is that they probably ate corn and fish, and maybe a few carrots.  We now eat all this other stuff that they would never have heard of.  Then everyone goes to sleep…..

One of the things that happens every year on thanksgiving day is a big parade in New York City.  It’s been sponsored by Macy’s, one of the countries oldest and most famous department stores, since 1924 according to Wikipedia.  Every year it is filled with colorful floats, dancers, singers, and it’s really famous for the helium filled balloons that appear.  As something that has a place in visual culture it’s certainly very important due to the fact that each year there are many different acts, singers, and floats that are chosen.  It’s a hugely visually affair and very culturally relevant.  You can check out the Wikipedia page on the parade at this link here.

Kinky_Boots_(musical_poster)So what is it doing showing up on my blog then which is about LGBTQ issues in visual culture?  Simple. Drag Queens and big leather boots.  Yep, this year, one of the featured musicals from Broadway in the parade was Kinky Boots, a musical that is about a struggling shoe factory in England.  Basically the shoe factory is saved by making shoes and boots for drag queens.  The musical is colorful, loud, camp as knickers, and involves a fashion show, lots of drag queens, ordinary people, factory workers, singing and dancing (it’s a musical after all).  It’s about people coming together to save the day, having a good time, and falling in love despite the odds.  Classic stuff…. in big heels, wigs,  and it’s all very visual.

The show has been a really big hit.  With music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauder, it swept through the Tony Awards winning a handful of awards against the odds and has done very well for itself on Broadway.  It’s based on a film from a few years ago that was quite successful and it’s relevant to a lot of people; straight, gay, black, brown, white, democrat, republican, labour, conservative, etc.  So guess what?  The parade organizers included it.  After all, if the parade is about reflecting the visual culture of our times, which a quick trip through the history pages will prove that it is, including it isn’t really that much of a shock.  Here you can see a link to he clip from the parade where it was included.

Well, surprise, surprise, it is now the centre of a row, along with the SeaWorld float which has attracted a ton of bad press too.  Drag Queens and SeaWorld; who knew that those two things together would be such a volatile mix?  An article on the website New Civil Rights Movement caught my eye first about it.  I’ll be honest, I don’t normally follow much on that site, as I don’t appreciate the standard of journalism there.  It’s not very balanced generally and participates in more than its far share of dog-whistle politics.  But what did catch my eye was the fact that it had been trawling Twitter for people posting comments about Kinky Boots being included in the parade.

Here’s the link to the article for you to check out some of the tweets.  I’ve been and checked out most of the accounts/tweets to verify them and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience either.  There is a lot hate and unhappiness out there at Kinky Boots being included.  Some are just silly too.  One that caught my eye particularly was from “LilMissRightie” with her comment that “Liberals ruin EVERYTHING”.  This seemed almost like a twitter tantrum.  I felt like I could hear her stamping her feet on the floor as she wrote it.  The tweets go on, and on, about how awful it is that people are going to have to explain to their kids what drag queens are, and that parents don’t need “their kids to see tranny in thigh high boots. Ridiculous”.  Someone even timed how much coverage Duck Dynasty got compared to Kinky Boots and was complaining about that it seems.  Maybe it was because the drag queens were better dancers?

Although I’d love to go into a debate here about the issues that these people have here (believe me, I would) I’ll stick to the point of the blog which is visual culture and politics.  Like it or not, as I have talked about before, LGBTQ issues are part of the fabric of our culture.  It also doesn’t get a lot more visual than drag queens really.  Add in something like the Macy’s parade and television and it all comes together in the perfect visual politics cocktail.  It’s an example of how much visual culture has evolved that we can firstly have this show on Broadway and secondly that it is now included in a televised parade.  Considering that that other famous New York parade is still banning LGBTQ folk from marching, this is a big deal.Kinky-Boots-Macy_s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-2013-YouTube

Visual Culture belongs to everyone.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it.  It’s culture.  Remember the last time in history when one culture tried to get rid of another one?  I don’t see a rash of drag queens complaining about Duck Dynasty being in the same parade as them, now.  Maybe that’s because they see the bigger picture.  Or maybe they just don’t have time to get their wigs in a knot about it all.  People will always complain about this sort of thing as it is form of artistic expression.  But that doesn’t make it any less rational or silly, does it?  On a personal note I’m glad to see these mediums becoming more inclusive.  As for the kids, I’ll call out one of the tweets where a parent said that her five yr old son loved it and said the biker in heels was his fav.”.  The mother used a great hash tag for her post.  It was #raisingtolerantkids.  I think that says it all really.  Visual culture for everyone!

Big love,

DMx

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Looking for Love: Homos on the Telly.

Homos on the telly.  I ask you, whatever next.  A black man in the white house perhaps.  But wait…..

In reading one of the many blogs on LGBTQ news out there I came across the details of a new television series that is premièring on HBO, a US premium television channel, in January 2014.  In checking out the trailers that have been released, the series seems to be a contemporary look at gay male life in San Francisco. It’s called “Looking” and is focused around dating.  Now I should caution you all here; I’ve only watched the trailer and seen a couple of comments on a blog.  But two things; it looks interesting and controversial as well.  To bring you all up to speed you can check out the trailer here.

I don’t have HBO so I’m not sure if I will get to see the whole show or not.  But the premise seems straight forward from what I can tell.  Ordinary gay people, in San Francisco, on TV.  The trailer features people looking for love, going to dinner, hanging out with friends, kissing, working, doing all the usual stuff that folks do.  But on telly.  Now I am sure that there is going to be more than the normal amount of drama on the show as well, simply because it is television.  After all, who wants watch boring TV?  A lot of people are trying to escape their lives through TV, not to find out that people on the box just plod on relentlessly too.  Dull TV is not the advertisers friends.  But I digress….

What’s worthy of note here are two points.  First, this is not a comedy or a seemingly a sex show (so far).  From the trailer it seems pretty ordinary.  Let’s think about some of the other shows that are out there at the moment that represent LGBTQ people.  Modern Family is the one that immediately springs to mind.  It’s fun, yes, but represents perhaps a niche and stylized aspect of LGBTQ life with the gay couple it represents.  Yes, it deals with some topical issues for sure, but it uses some largely stereotypical devices to do so.  Because it does so it is also pretty inoffensive.  When you use safe things like Mitch and Cam, the two characters in Modern Family (who I love, by the way) to demonstrate a point, it’s very comfortable for the audience.  It hardly pushes any boundaries of acceptability to show everyone’s favorite “gay uncle” kind of image does it, even if they are dealing with some topical issues.  It’s still slapstick.  Same goes for Will and Grace if you want to go back in time.  Now before I get any hate mail from folks, I’m totally supportive of these shows.  Their role in visual culture from an LGBTQ perspective is very important.  They have created dialogues that couldn’t have existed if they hadn’t.  But that doesn’t mean that they are without issue or problems.

Queer as Folk is another show that needs discussing while we are at it too.  But I need to check myself.  This isn’t a blog about LGBTQ rights.  So it’s important to remember that my comments are about the representation of LGBTQ folks in visual culture and politics, and in this case, TV shows.  Queer as Folk is an interesting example as there was a UK version and a US version.  The UK version ran for two seasons and the US for many more.  There were also about a million more episodes in the US version too.  The UK version was very gritty, suburban, and seemed to attempt a much more realistic portrayal of life.  The US version was quite a bit more airbrushed, glamorous, and had a lot more hair gel and make up.  There was not a lot in common between them and they also dealt with very different issues as a consequence, although both reflected aspects of the culture that they were based in.  One was in a working class town, while the other was in a gay neighborhood that was, by comparison, fairly well-to-do.  Visual Culture in action…. airbrushes, hairbrushes, and all in the US version.

Now, I haven’t seen anything other than the trailer for Looking yet.  There is also the caveat that this is, according to what I have read, a show about guys who are trying to date in San Francisco, so it could very well turn into a sex show.  The trailer does show someone wandering around in a bath towel after all so we will have to see how that goes.  But dating is a fact of life for folks and it’s a large part of gay culture.  Importantly, it’s also something that doesn’t really get talked about much in a serious way in many of the shows that feature gay characters.  Will and Grace covered it from a comedy/sanitized perspective, Modern Family doesn’t cover it at all, the US version of QAF did cover it, and that’s really it to my knowledge.  When LGBTQ people get dealt with on TV they are usually either safely coupled up already or the dating is done nicely, humorously, or it just sort of happens.  There hasn’t been a show that revolves AROUND it (at least not for the guys).  That’s quite a big thing and is another milestone in reflecting an aspect of LGBTQ culture in the visual realm that I don’t think I have seen before.  Dating involves kissing, body parts, relationships, and all the things that seem to scare the general public the most about gay people at the moment.  So to see such a big part of LGBTQ culture arriving on TV is a big thing.

So what of the second aspect that I mentioned?  It all seems very white according to the trailer.  I don’t think I really saw anyone who is non-white in a lead role.  That’s also something that a lot of people seem to be discussing online too.  If this show is about representing culture visually, then it should surely be representing all aspects of a culture.  Judging by the trailer they have so far failed and there are a lot of pissed off Asians, Blacks, and Latinos out there already.  That’s not a good start.  That’s the thing with a visual medium like the telly; when you miss things out, it’s really noticeable in a lot of ways.

So, will you watch it?  I’d love to but I don’t have HBO and chances are won’t subscribe to it just for this.  Maybe one of you can tell me what it is all about.  Otherwise I’ll have to wait for it to arrive on Netflix in about 10 years…..

Big love,

DMx

Transgender fightclub: Video gaming and Trans characters.

Today I saw an interesting article on characters in video games on out.com, (link here) a website that deals with LGBTQ entertainment issues.  I’m not

Leo

Leo

really much of a video game person to be honest though.  Yes, I have an XBOX 360 but we use it mainly as a media extender and for all of the applications it supports.  Game wise about the only time it gets pressed into service is when we have friends round, we have a few drinks, and someone thinks that it is a good idea to break out Dance Central and we all bust some moves with Kinect.  well, it’s all fun and games until someone dislocates a hip-joint anyway.

But I digress (as usual)….what REALLY caught my eye about this article was that it was about transgender friendly characters in video games.  I’ve never thought about that before at all.  Maybe it’s because I don’t have enough exposure to video games that it hadn’t occurred to me or maybe it’s because trans people are always treated as invisible by society.  But the article listed 7 characters in video games that were considered to be “trans friendly”.

untitled (2)

Poison

Now, in the whole history of the world, 7 is not really a large number at all.  But considering how there are virtually no trans people visible on telly, it’s certainly more than I would have thought.  Chas Bono was the last time I saw a trans person on prime time TV in anything substantial and Dancing With The Stars, while one of my favorite shows, is hardly a show that is going to educate people about the weightier side of  transgender issues.

Video games seemed such an unlikely place for trans characters to be hanging out.  I was also quite surprised at the write ups that were given about each character as well. Poison, from the Capcom series Final Fight, was revealed to be officially a post-op transsexual by the games producers and Leo, from Tekken 6 by Bandai-Namco, was deliberately created to be gender ambiguous, though was later revealed to be female.  Others, such as Guillo, from Baten Kaitos Origins, were created as gender neutral characters with attributes of both men and women.  It’s clear that the game makers were intent on introducing (at the least controversial end of the spectrum) non-normative gender characters, and (at the other end of the spectrum) trans friendly characters into their games.

But why video games?  Why not into print media, films, or TV shows?  Perhaps they had an eye to the

Guillo

Guillo

fact that gamers are often marginalized themselves and therefore may relate to these characters.  It’s certainly possible that people who may operate on the fringes of society would be more willing to accept others that society places into the same positions as themselves.  It also suggests that trans people, for some reason, may have an easier time breaking into society through a visual medium than through real life.  The reasons for that may be far more complicated than this blog can deal with.  Could it be that the medium of gaming also allows people to deal with the issues in a controlled, detached way?  Visually I also found it interesting to see how

these characters were portrayed.  they are all heavily styled, and there are significant visual links between them.  7 is hardly enough to be able to make a significant analysis on though.  But it would be interesting to assemble a greater collection to see if the representation of either transgender people or “trans friendly characters” (whatever that really means) presents any unifying information.

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Flea

Still, what ties all this to my blog is that it is yet another example of LGBTQ issues in visual culture.  There is no denying the role that video games play in visual culture today when games break out of the console into movies, books, and even soundtracks.  The crossover between media genres ensures that what is relevant in one area has impact in another, so we can be sure that the use of transgender identities in the visually driven gaming world is having an impact in other areas of visual culture too.

I wonder what I’ll come across next?  It’s always something different, that’s for sure!

Big love,

DMx

Letter Bomb: Visual politics in the mail.

Since I started this blog back up again with a new direction it’s got me thinking a lot about images, culture, and politics.  I obviously think a lot about that stuff anyway in my own fine art photography practice which tends to focus on those things, but I had never really examined it in great detail in outside of that.  I’m finding all sorts of ways that the image becomes a political tool or object, either deliberately or accidentally.  It’s also interesting the subtle ways that images are present in our culture too.

This post is one that looks at how an image is going to potentially cause a political upset.  Does David have a crystal ball, I hear you ask?  No, dear reader, he does not.  He just knows that people have a tendency to get a little upset when certain things collide.  Some of those things are sexuality, the government, the public, and pictures.  How are these things going to collide this time?  Through something that millions of people are going to see, that millions of people are going to receive (whether they want it or not), and through untitled (2)something over which they have absolutely no control over whatsoever.  This is a thing that will be used as a tool to wind people up, to debate the use of public funds, and that will please some people and drive others totally up the pole.  What is it, I hear you cry?

It’s a postage stamp.  Due to be released in 2014 by the United States Postal Service, it will feature Harvey Milk, probably the most famous gay rights campaigner in US history and the first openly gay politician to be elected in the US (I think).  Yesterday the USPS announced that the stamp will be released next year.  They didn’t give a date but it was confirmed in a posting via the Harvey Milk Foundation.  I should stress that the image here is NOT the actual stamp; this is just a mockup from a blog.  Hopefully he won’t look like a cheesy country-western singer as in this example…..

Here we have almost the ultimate combination of visual culture and politics for this blog.  We have the image of Harvey.  That’s bound to create some discussion to start with.  Visually what will they use?  Will it be a drawing, a photograph, a painting?  People can never agree on these things anyway and I am sure that this will no different.  Culturally he is important to LGBTQ people everywhere as he is someone who people look to as relevant in their history, whether they agree with him politically or not.  He was the first gay elected official in California, regardless of political position so he instantly becomes a cultural symbol for many.  Politically this has the potential to become a (heated) discussion point as we have an independent agency of the United States government producing a stamp of a figure that represents a very current and controversial political and social battle taking place.  Three points that are hugely relevant to this blog coming together.

The practical aspects of this are interesting.  People will use this stamp as a tool.  You can be sure that LGBTQ organizations will buy it in droves for use in their mailings.  People will use it to send letters to people who they KNOW are against LGBTQ issues just to wind them up.  Some people will go in to the post office and will ask for stamps that contain anything BUT Harvey Milk.  People will object to the USPS printing a picture of Harvey Milk on a stamp, even though there have been countless dead heterosexual politicians on stamps in the past.  You can bet that this will come up in church as well.  Conservatives will scowl at their mail and Liberals will rejoice at theirs.  People will pay more attention to the stamps on the envelope than the contents.  It will be fascinating to watch.

The media love a good controversy.  It sells advertising space and generates clicks on webpages for both sides of the debate so you can be sure that this will dominate the airwaves.  Just like in the Pasta Wars talked about earlier you can be sure that this will be whipped up into a frenzy online.  .  All over an image of a dead person.  People will imbue this image with so much stuff and baggage that it will fill days and weeks of time.

Harvey would have loved it.

Big love,

DMx

Wedding photos; Political speech or creative expression?

The visual culture of politics.  As I mentioned in the last blog post it seems to cover a lot of things really and I’m discovering that this can really go in a lot of different directions.  I’ve looked at using a service like Instagram to communicate a political message (Lance Bass and his recent engagement), the use of comics to reflect issues of sexuality in contemporary culture (Batwoman), and now I’m thinking of looking at the issues of how photography and image making is being used in political speech in a seemingly innocuous way.  Yep, in a nice segue from the last piece, I’m going to carry on talking about marriage but specifically about taking picture of the gays getting hitched.

DandJ

James and I on our wedding day in 2010 in England

There has been a case going on in New Mexico recently about some wedding photographers who refused service to a gay couple having a commitment ceremony.  They cited that this was against their religious beliefs as they believe marriage to be between one man and one woman.  Now you may say that they are within their rights to have that belief, and, much as I disagree with their point of view, I agree that they are entitled to have whatever beliefs they want.  But there are two other important things at play here.

First, they are saying that as photographers, their work is creative expression and that is protected free speech under the first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America.  Secondly, New Mexico has a Human Rights Act that states that couples cannot be discriminated against based on whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex.  Enter the wedding/commitment ceremony image into the realm of politics (you knew I was going to be able to tie it all together didn’t you….). The case was first of all heard by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, who found that the photographers were guilty of discrimination.  Then it was heard by the New Mexico court of appeals who also found the photographers guilty of discrimination.  Then it was heard by the New Mexico Supreme Court.  They too upheld the decision that the photographers discriminated against the couple.  Now the photographers have decided to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court.

I won’t bore you with all the legal details.  For that you can find plenty on the web here, here, and here.  I’d also like to clear up one other thing as well about the way the couple in the original case felt about things.  They probably were not suing to make the photographers do the job.  That would be crazy.  Who would want these people at their ceremony after they have refused to do the work?  They would have found someone who actually WANTED to be there.  They likely reported the discrimination to get the issue raised and fixed, that’s all.  But what it surfaces is the fact that images and their creation are now seen as personal and political expression and also political speech.  The photographers, in their brief to the State Supreme Court, were very clear that they see the images that they make as representative of their beliefs because the images are their “creative expression”.  If they are to be believed then one of their concerns is that people will perhaps consider that they are not being true to their own beliefs on marriage, which, whether they like it or not, are also political as well as religious beliefs due to the current debates on marriage equality across the globe.  Logically it follows that their images can then also be seen as political images.  By refusing to make images of a same-sex commitment ceremony they are making a religious and a political statement, again, whether they like it or not.

Do they really have a choice then as to whether they use their images to make a political statement?  Absolutely they do.  They operate a business that compels them under the law to offer services to everyone and under the current terms of the law they can choose to not offer wedding/commitment photographs to anyone at all.  Whether that is fair or not is up to the courts to decide.  But their seemingly innocuous images are political speech for now, that much is clear.  At least until the US Supreme Court settles the case by either refusing to hear it or ruling on it.

Big love,

DMx