Which Disney Princess Are You? Geeks, Gays and Misogyny

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I’ve written previously about a perceived ‘descent into infantile triviality’ where a seemingly pathological aversion to being viewed as ‘too serious’ manifests itself in particular as a ‘facetious fixation on popular culture (which) flows neatly into consumerism’. Nothing better sums up this trend than the explosion in the past 12 months of sites like Buzzfeed, built almost entirely around lists and gifs which offer jolts of recognition to personalities overwhelmingly built around particular aspects of culture. Interestingly, the particular identity which much of this seems to revolve around is that of the ‘geek’. This perhaps isn’t surprising, as this is not only an identity overwhelmingly based on consumption but also one which relies heavily on gif-able culture for its existence.

While this is a general trend, I wrote last year about how this particular identity was becoming the dominant subculture in what we know as ‘gay culture’. This makes sense when you think about the ways in which this serves capital and how they neatly complement the increasing positioning of the LGBT community as both a market and a marketing tool. It’s been no surprise, then, that even since I wrote the ‘Gay Geeks’ blog I’ve noticed a dramatic upsurge in the prevalence of what I described. It also increasingly converges: this morning one of the first things I saw on my Facebook was a link to ‘Disney Princesses as Game of Thrones Characters’ while Push The Button, a gay night devoted to semi-ironic love for c-grade 90s pop, is soon having an evening devoted to The Little Mermaid. The Disneyfication of the geek identity has been fascinating to watch (and is clearly something Buzzfeed has picked up on) but it has ominous undercurrents with regards to a geek culture which is often accused of misogyny (it almost entirely seems to revolve around Disney Princesses). When you take the Gay Geek there are further levels of disquiet, with the issues levelled at the geek identity potentially being compounded by the accusations that misogyny is prevalent amongst gay males. If we look at the markers of the Gay Geek, aside from Disney Princesses, comics, video games, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and the rest you commonly see a love for Ru Paul’s Drag Race present. It’s impossible not to notice that all of these things have problems with their representations of women who, in pretty much all of them, are sexy and sassy while ultimately being in thrall to the brilliant men around them. This is most explicit in Drag Race, where a group of men act out this sassy fantasy and find it reproduced by viewers around the world (with added racial issues as white men unthinkingly do impressions of black female stereotypes).

I thought of this when reading the Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny which has caused a minor storm in some circles. Guha notes that, in certain gay subcultures, women are:

…essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men.

The fit between this and the Gay Geek identity is startling and finds its perfect expression in HBO’s new ‘gay drama’ Looking. The main character is a self-identified geek who designs video games. When he’s not talking about sex with his friends, they exchange self-consciously sassy references to popular culture. His date purchases him trading cards based on 80s movie The Goonies to impress him. While this is going on, women are almost entirely absent from the lives of the central characters. They appear to have a single female friend who is a gay man’s fantasy of a fag hag, always on hand to go drinking and always willing to sit quietly in the lounge while you bring over your Grindr shag. The only other females who have even had lines have been a snooty artist who sacks one of the guys and a chef who refuses to help kick-start the restaurant dream of another. This treatment (absence, largely) of women has been one of the most egregious aspects of the show yet I’ve not seen a single mention of it in any review.

It’s interesting that the attacks on Guha’s piece seem to come from a place of ‘but women shouldn’t even be in gay places and they touch us and treat us like accessories too!’ Aside from the absurd pre-school nature of ‘they started it!’, I find this deeply disingenuous. There is certainly a damaging instrumentalisation of gay people as ‘liberal accessories’ but it’s one in which the entire gay media and community is very complicit. We fall over ourselves to adore straight ‘allies’ who praise gay people (Attitude giving Caitlin Moran an ‘Honorary Gay Award’), even when it’s done in the most patronising and offensive ways. Our gay magazines feature an endless parade of attractive straight men in their pants (I wonder if the writer of the linked Huffington Post piece would take issue with an attractive straight ‘gay ally’ like Ben Cohen being present in ‘his’ gay clubs) and we barely bat an eyelid at Lady Gaga’s adoption of ‘the gays’ as her ‘cause’ or Britney Spears referring to her gay fans as ‘somewhat girls’. No, this defence smacks of people being called out on their behaviour and being outraged (even if we accepted the defences offered, they depict nothing so much as deeply dysfunctional relationships which apparently are fine unless someone actually dares to point out how fucked up they are.)

Misogyny is clearly real and there’s no reason that gay men would be excluded from that. What makes this particularly worthy of commentary is that we seem to think of gay men and women as natural allies and so think we couldn’t possibly be misogynist. Yet I think it’s very present – and with the rise of the Gay Geek it’s being expressed in over more subtly damaging ways. Facing this problem is but one way in which we can educate ourselves, avoid the ‘infantile triviality’ and progress to a position where we can start to challenge these issues.

‘Gay Geeks’

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A lot’s been written on the commodification of the ‘geek’ identity – I’ve briefly touched on it myself – and a lot has been written about the commodification of the gay identity. Given the things they have in common (an attachment to ‘minority’ status, a foundation in excessive consumption, a strong sense of belonging to a larger group) it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s a big overlap between the two. In fact, it seems to me that the ‘gay geek’ is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) the dominant ‘identity’ amongst gay men. Just as it became unacceptable in polite company to be a banker, the stereotypical muscle-bound, preened, clubbing gay man is largely the object of derision and seen as hopelessly self-destructive. Instead, the gay scene is increasingly populated by ‘geeks’, with things like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, comics, Apple , games and ironic appreciation of 90s pop and/or reality tv being touchstones. Perhaps I’ve been in East London too long but the gay club nights which reflect this identity, relying on a deliberately lo-fi & retrograde aesthetic which harks back to London and New York in the 70s/80s, have certainly been spreading further afield.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the sexualisation of the geek aesthetic. If the airbrushed vanity of a club like Room Service is considered rather naff, that’s no reason not to hit the gym hard. Instead the exhibitionism is given a reason to be beyond self-love, whether that be a veneer of art, performance or the ironic detachment which saturates a million images of guys with embarrassed expressions wearing patterned H&M pants and sporting a toothbrush in their mouths. Indeed, it’s no surprise (and no mistake) that much modern ‘gay art’ concerns itself with this aesthetic and this identity.

Of course it’s not to be taken as a given that this is all a bad thing. The issue is less with the enjoyment of ‘geek’ pursuits than with the cementing of (yet another) identity based in purchase power and “the slow creep of media consumption as a mode of living”. These are things to be considered rather than dismissed. What caused me to put these brief thoughts down was this column in the Evening Standard today, one that seems to cement the status of the ‘gay geek’ as a new norm and, crucially, as one useful to capital. It repeats the oft-heard assertions that gay people are more educated and more affluent, referring to a study from The Williams Institute at UCLA. Yet read the link and you’ll see that the study is far more complex than the trite presentation in the column suggests. Investigate further and you’ll find that the same institution presented research suggesting that LGBT people were more likely to be poor than heterosexuals. The research is patchy to say the least but certainly seems to suggest that LGBT people are no better off than heterosexuals in the UK. Certainly a moment of consideration of the column’s assertions makes them seem odd given that we are constantly told that LGBT people are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, which have most definitely been linked to poverty.

What seems to be happening here, then, is that the ‘gay geek’ identity is conflated with the educated, professional (and overwhelmingly white, mostly male) demographic who seem to so dominate modern LGBT political narratives. It’s not surprising that the already privileged are more visible. The removal of ‘problematic’ LGBT people who experience poverty, aren’t ‘professionals’ and for whom a “a corporate commitment to gay rights” means absolutely nothing is not only evident, it’s insidious. Some anonymous executive is quotes as saying:

It is a cliché but the average professional gay person tends to be clever, probably not yet in a civil partnership and certainly not yet a parent. This means they can dedicate more of their time to their career and ultimately to our bottom line, at least for now.

The quote makes it absolutely clear that this ‘commitment to gay rights’ is only for some: if you have or plan to have children, if you aren’t university educated, if you have commitments and a life outside of work, the strong implication is that you’re of no interest. It’s a profoundly troubling quote, not least suggesting that a certain class of gay man is advancing over the backs of women who have the audacity to become pregnant. Yet it’s not parsed in any way whatsoever and is just presented as ‘proof’ that life for the ‘gay geek’ is dandy. We also have the strong whiff of homonationalism with the ‘revelation’ that the world’s third-biggest arms dealer BAE Systems is going to be “champion(ing) diversity aggressively among its workforce over the next year, starting with a co-sponsorship of the inaugural PinkNews awards in October.” Of course LGBT organisations lending their ‘gay is good’ cachet to dubious organisations is nothing new but this is still breathtaking. BAE Systems has a history of corruption and an enduring relationship with the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia (as well as other authoritarian regimes, including Egypt). It’s fair to say that LGBT rights in Saudia Arabia are not in a good place, just as human rights in general are not. It’s absolutely staggering that an arms dealer explicitly profiting in the oppression, injuring and murdering of people will be ‘aggressively’ championing ‘diversity’ at an event hosted by a British LGBT organisation.

What is the ‘gay geek’ here, then, if not a convenient reinforcement of the Western neoliberal social order? They are the ‘right’ kind of gay and, as such, fully deserve to be able to participate in and profit from the brutalising of those pesky brown people while ignoring the uppity queers who ruin it for everyone else with their poverty, their radicalism or their general awkwardness.

It’s a quite fascinating use of an ostensibly harmless identity. Of course there is a leap from the ‘gay geeks’ I describe at the start to the Evening Standard column and many who identify with the former will rightly find the latter abhorrent. Nonetheless, it does illustrate some of the potential pitfalls of tying our self-identity too closely to a larger group based on consumption and/or even on sexuality. Most importantly, it emphatically illustrates the axiom that the personal is political.