Understudies! Musicals in the New Dark Age of Digital Reproduction: No Homo
Understudies! Musicals in the New Dark Age of Digital Reproduction: No Homo
Concurrent to the increasing visibility of non-heterosexuals in mainstream awareness over the past several decades has been an expansion and calcification of masculine and feminine stereotypes. These stereotypes manifest as a kind of shorthand for homosexuality, not only in everyday conversation, but also in movies and television shows in which characters are depicted as gay not by engaging in homosexual sexiness (which is still largely taboo), but rather by engaging in activities that have become increasingly and inexorably linked to homosexuality. A century ago, such activities (in the case of men) typically involved fashion-e.g., dressing a bit too stylishly-or a more-than-passing interest in interior decorating, table setting, flower arrangements, or any of the so-called “women’s arts.”
In the present post-war era-a period that can be referred to as the New Dark Age, or like the first Dark Age, a period of intellectual deterioration and religious authority-the range of activity commonly perceived as womanish or effeminate (and thus “gay” when practiced by men) now includes skipping, badminton, shopping, the affectionate ownership of cats and small dogs, all poetry, whispering (not to mention humming and whistling), the use of adverbs-he claimed didactically-any kind of dance not explicitly depicting intercourse between a man and his “ho,” the expression of doubt, ambivalence, or ambiguity, the strategic development of a “finesse” style of play in the game of soccer (see, e.g., the most recent German team), the cultivation of ferns and any flowering plant (especially orchids and lilies), the study of foreign languages (particularly French), and the reading of prose (especially novels) written by anyone but a heterosexual male.
Since the dawn of the New Dark Age, it is the musical, more than any other art form, that has shifted from a position of sexual neutrality to one of (perceived) homosexuality. In 2010, we understand that to see a boy or man singing a show tune means that he’s gay, and for this reason to be mocked, pitied or despised, not only because he’s gay (and for extra laughs, often made to seem oblivious of the fact), but also because he’s the worst kind of gay, i.e., an effeminate male unable (most often) or unwilling (less frequent) “to pass” for a heterosexual.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Broadway (and later, Hollywood) musical numbers-written by (to name just a few) Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Eubie Blake, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Fields and performed by anyone from Mary Martin to Eddie Cantor to Frank Sinatra (and a zillion others)-regularly became popular radio hits, which meant that musicals transcended any kind of sexual/gender ghetto, i.e., these songs were not (yet) considered “gay.” (Let’s not pretend that today’s average broseph would declare these songs anything but gay.) Although an exploration of the many reasons for this transition (e.g., the rise of rock, the “sexual revolution,” technological advances in warfare, the advent of lo-fi buzzbands and “bloggable memes,” etc.) are beyond the scope of this piece, the most important factor in the now-widespread tendency to label musicals as “gay” is rooted in the same ground as the misogynistic impulse to dismiss any art widely understood to be artificial, frivolous, flamboyant, or melodramatic, all charges that, not coincidentally, are regularly used to dismiss women as unserious, unimportant, and inferior.
As an art form, the musical is inherently artificial, to the extent that (regrettably) we don’t find people singing to each other In Real Life. Unlike watching a movie or television, there’s no sense that audience members are seeing life as it unfolds (or ever could unfold). Many great musicals feature ornate costumes and choreographed dance numbers that have nothing to do with the Real World and are unapologetically Over The Top. Most important, musicals are emotional; it’s impossible to tell a story with music, whether a tragedy or a comedy, without at some point unveiling a character’s inner feelings. Hence the appeal to the gays, the majority of whom have spent years and often decades hiding emotions and thus find it quite “liberating” to see others profess their inner selves with naked abandon (even in a superficially heterosexual context, which is the case in the vast majority of Broadway/Hollywood musicals). Audience members are led to understand what it’s like to fall in and out of love, to be wounded or jilted, to crave or despise or to hate by characters gripped so strongly by emotion that they are compelled to sing (which for trained singers, not incidentally, is an action not too far removed from screaming or yelling, or two of the most unhinged emotions in the spectrum).
The implications of this transition do not threaten the existence of the musical; although musicals lack the mainstream appeal of fifty-to-eighty years ago, they are obviously still being produced (sometimes at great profit) and enjoyed by women, gays and heterosexual men who are either 1) dragged to the theater by their girlfriends or wives, or 2) secure enough in their sexual identities not to be bothered by the cocksucking allegations that will inevitably be levied against them.
More problematic in the larger scheme of our society as it stumbles forward in the New Dark Age is the increasing tendency of those who profess to hate musicals to actively denigrate the form in a manner that unconsciously betrays their own discomfort with a world that does not conform to their stereotypically defined view of what’s masculine (and thus worthy of praise) and what’s not (and thus worthy of denigration). For such people, it’s not enough to ignore musicals, they must explain with great virulence just how much they don’t understand the appeal, in the same tone of wounded, confounded misery we regularly hear from non-homosexuals trying to publicly decipher why anyone would choose to engage in gay sex. They act as though creativity (like sex) is a limited resource, and what’s devoted to one art form necessarily deprives them of another.
Whether this culture of denigration has had a chilling or censorious effect on art is debatable, but I find it difficult not to believe that large and lamentable numbers (particularly among adolescents) who, in fear of being labeled effeminate by their peers, are regularly steering themselves away from art forms in which they might otherwise have a talent or interest. (So the world becomes a colder and more barren place.) As the range of what qualifies as Suitably Masculine Behavior continues to narrow, men are left with fewer options to express themselves in ways that are not considered weak, womanish, or gay. Some options include 1) Business and Making Money, 2) Fucking Women, 3) Team Sports Unsullied by Openly Non-Heterosexual Players, and 4) Killing People with Knives, Guns and Explosive Devices, and 5) Art Depicting any of These. (Movement outside of these parameters is sometimes permissible if accompanied by a “no-homo” pass.)
The implications of this ethos are far-reaching, demoralizing and possibly frightening, not just for those of us who try to place ourselves outside of it. The cackling hyenas and self-proclaimed assholes who mock and deride the frivolous, the emotional, and the effeminate will have only themselves to blame when they find themselves at the receiving end of a bullet (real or symbolic) as the pool of those with power becomes increasingly confined in terms of both numbers and acceptable (i.e., masculine) behavior.
Matthew Gallaway is a writer who lives in Washington Heights. This is where you can learn about The Metropolis Case, his first novel.