Last week LGBTIQ organisation Rainbow Youth released their first ever TV spot to combat homophobia. Sam Brooks does a close read of the ad, what it means, and where the conversation goes next.
“If it’s not gay, it’s not gay.”
Rainbow Youth’s viral ad has a simple concept and a simple message. We’re in some field or other farming location. A farmer-or-farmer-adjacent man drops his pie on the grass. He says, “That’s gay.” He is admonished by his friend for saying that, with the legitimately great gag, “It’s deeply disappointing but it’s not gay.” It’s made clear that ‘gay’ is only when a man loves another man (or as another dude interjects, a woman loves another woman). Their fellow farmer-or-farmer-adjacent man is also gay, as is pointed out.
It’s an effective ad. It gets its point across simply and effectively, and with humour: Stop using ‘gay’ as a pejorative term, because it’s dumb and incorrect. Also don’t know who around you is gay, maybe, and you might offend them when that’s probably not your intention.
What the ad brings up is a whole other kettle of fish, and I should preface this by saying that Rainbow Youth has been open about using this ad as the start of a campaign. As they’ve said on Facebook, “We chose to address something small that contributes to much larger issues – homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.” This isn’t the end of a conversation, it’s the start.
And before getting into this kettle of fish, I need to speak to my privilege as a gay man for a bit. I live in an urban centre. I’ve never had an issue around my sexuality and I’ve never faced prejudice because of this, and I recognise my luck and privilege because of this. I’m surrounded by people who have never had an issue with my sexuality or anybody else’s. I work in a community where fluidity of sexuality, gender and identity is welcomed with open arms and little judgment, especially compared to the world as a whole.
My initial response to the ad was, “Oh, that seems a bit dated.” I kicked myself for this. Just because I don’t hear this language in my day to day life doesn’t mean other people don’t. I’m not the target audience for this ad.
It’s speaking for me, or at least a community I belong to, which is not the same thing. An image sticks in my brain here: I see a kid who, for some reason in the year of our lord 2017, is watching this ad on terrestrial television with his family. They’re going through all the terrible things that teenagers go through: bangs, trying to figure out if wine is meant to taste good and what the hell use they’re going to get from algebra. On top of all that, they might be attracted to people of the same gender. This ad comes on TV, it makes them feel seen and makes them feel heard, in some way.
That’s important, that’s really important – more so than we give it credit for. When you feel seen, you feel important. When you feel heard, you feel important. When you see yourself represented, you’re reminded that you exist and you’re not alone.
The other thing that is interesting for me is the ad’s representation of masculinity, and where homosexuality fits into that.
Now, look, I know I’m reading a lot into this ad. I did year 13 media studies. I come from the same generation as that guy who did a bad thesis on Carly Rae Jepsen. This is happening.
When was the last time you saw a masculine gay man represented on television? On New Zealand television? When we see gay men represented at all, it’s generally as white, gay, feminine men. Not exclusively, but generally – your Sean Hayes, your Neil Patrick Harrises, many of the queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race. The most recent example of a gay man in New Zealand television I can think of is Bikey in Westside, an actually fairly progressive portrayal of a gay man but who is still light years away from the kinds of men who we see portrayed in this ad.
It’s almost revolutionary to see masculine men talking about homosexuality, and not just ‘masculine men’ but men who are coded as the default ‘New Zealand man’ – guys who drink dobros, throw strangely shaped balls around fields, wear short shorts and gumboots, guys who marry women and have lots of kids. We don’t think of these men as possibly being gay. To have an ad on mainstream TV, that might pop up when someone is watching the news or Shortland Street, is pretty huge as far as representation goes.
(There’s something else to be said about the role of masculinity and femininity in the gay community, in the gay male community, and this isn’t necessarily that place, but I’d like to probe you, dear reader, to think about why it is that masculine men are automatically coded as ‘not gay’, feminine men are coded as ‘gay’ and the perverse flipside where femininity is not respected or is looked down upon in the gay community as abnormal or less than, and masculinity is looked at as passing or normal. It’s a fun conversation to have with yourself, I recommend it!)
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I wish that we didn’t have to start this conversation with the G in the LGBTIQ acronym. Even though all people who fall underneath that label are underrepresented and often misrepresented in our media, it’s the G letter that is represented most of all. In some ways, that’s why it makes sense to start with this issue. Everybody understands it, they don’t need to take the long walk to the beautiful gateway of understanding. But in another way, it’s sad that the conversation, in 2017, still has to start with a G.
But it’s not the entire conversation. It’s the first step. I’m not the target audience. Think about that kid sitting in their lounge watching this with their family and feeling heard.
This is a good thing and I can’t wait for the conversation that follows on from this.
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