Tuesday, February 13, 2018

i hope no one ever tells her we were bad guys

So, for future readers, the Winter Olympics are going on this week and next. Among the competitors is Adam Rippon, a male figure skater from the US who is openly gay. On a post (which I cannot find the specific one I saw yesterday) on Facebook by some conservative page I follow, maybe Fox News, maybe the page that used to be called People Against Obama's Liberal Adgenda [sic], about Rippon, some immediate (and expected) comments were all about how his sexuality is irrelevant, just do your sport and leave politics out of it... Which 1) of course they don't care when it's not about them, or doesn't agree with them. Like they--and I will lump them all together under one "they" for the moment, because fuck them--tell celebrities not to talk about politics, just do their acting job, dance like the trained monkeys they are and shut up about anything else, because actors, as we all know, are not people, are not voters with the same rights as everyone else, and of course, they would never take advantage of a soap box if they had one. But, let's narrow this down to the gay thing. Because, so many unfortunately uninformed individuals (in addition to all the bigoted assholes) don't understand why it matters that an Olympic athlete (or a celebrity) might be allowed to be openly gay and might be celebrated for it, and it might actually matter to a whole hell of a lot of people. Because, they--who are mostly white, mostly heteronormative, cisgender (and they think they're mostly male, even though statistically, that just isn't true)--don't see themselves represented in a person like Rippon, they don't want to hear about fundamental parts of who he is. They just want him to be random athlete they can ignore outright if they want.

But, they see themselves represented all over the place, in so many athletes for so many years, in most actors, and especially "popular" actors. They are so readily and regularly represented that they 1) don't even realize how nice it could be to be represented and 2) are only just starting to realize how much it might be a problem to not be represented. But, that is exactly the thing that should make them capable of empathizing with all the marginalized people who have not seen themselves represented in popular media. Instead, they get angry and blame the other. A young child, perhaps a race other than white, perhaps homosexual, or gender non-conforming--not that they would accept that such a thing exists naturally--watching Olympic coverage that shows them nothing but white, heteronormative athletes, feels less than. But, they see someone like them, and they can imagine how great the things they might be capable of themselves.

Nicole Martins of Indiana University explains (in a Huffington Post piece by Sara Boboltz and Kimberly Yam):

There's this body of research and a term known as 'symbolic annihilation,' which is the idea that if you don't see people like you in the media you consume, you [infer that you] must somehow be unimportant.

That term was coined by researchers George Gerbner and LArry Gross back in 1976. They explain: "Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation."

Rippon is one athlete on a team of 244 athletes, nevermind the athletes from all of the other countries. But, the media dares talk about what makes him unique and the normative majority gets offended. Gets scared. Because, things outside the norm being accepted means they don't have all the power anymore. They imagine a zero sum game, one party rises, the other must diminish. But, it doesn't have to work that way.

Now, if you keep up with this blog, or just clicked the link from Twitter or Facebook, you're probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the film Savannah Smiles. That's the thing, though. Savannah Smiles is all about two gay men raising a kid.

Something that never occurred to me when I was a kid--younger than Savannah when the film came out mind you--was how much Boots and Alvie are coded gay. Or at least Boots is; Alvie actively involves himself with a woman during the film. But, Alvie's efforts--his "powerful need"--could simply be him trying to conform. Boots, on the other hand, actively jumps into being parent to Savannah, he buys groceries and toys, he prepares meals, he wears an apron. He fills the role of typical housewife. Also, Donovan Scott, who plays Boots, is gay in real life.

I was thinking about the gay coding already and, as I usually do, googling everything, I looked it up, and I find Timothy Rawles, writing for SDGLN (San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, by the way). "The film 'Savannah Smiles' (1982) inspired me as a young gay tween," he writes, "because in it, two men... take on the role of dads by themselves after accidentally kidnapping the [titular] little girl". Boots and Alvie both looking after the girl in their charge does not inherently make them 1) a couple or 2) gay. But, Rawles writes,

I remember watching it, and even though the two men aren't portrayed as a gay couple, I fantasizes that they were because they had such great chemistry.

They do have chemistry. Also, the film never tells us how they became friends, became partners in crime. Upon learning that Scott was gay in real life Rawles eventually reached out to the actor, thinking "perhaps there was a gay undertone after all and the film was actually more progressive than I thought". Scott "didn't necessarily agree" with Rawles assertion. Rawles explains:

I asked Scott since he is a gay man if he infused a gay nuance to Boots when he performed the role. [Scott replied] "No, it was not in the writing and I never felt the need to make it feel otherwise."

Except, that doesn't actually answer Rawle's question or he assertion, and definitely doesn't cover his inference. As Rawles explains,

The relationship between the two men feels like a marriage. Alvie is the crotchety older man who has no pateince for the antics of a cutesy six-year-old, while Bootsie [Rawles uses Savannah's nickname for Boots] takes on the motherly role providing toys, freshly cooked meals and sympathy.

While I found Rawles article last night, I am only reading it now as I write, so the specific echoes of what I already said about Boots above is interesting. Rawles continues:

With this type of set-up, it seemed the film was a subtle liberal Hollywood nod to the LGBT community in the conservative era that was dominated by the GOP.

Further down, Rawles asks Boots to conjecture "why I would feel the way I did." Scott replied:

Family is family, held together by love... Where there is no love there is no family. Sacrifice is one of the definitions of love and an important one. We must all compromise in order for love to grow[. W]e do not want to change the person we fell in love with but we want to allow ourselves to change as our love grows.

Savannah Smiles is about love, of course. Both Boots and Alvie love the girl by the end of the film. And, while Savannah's father seems more concerned with his senatorial race than his own daughter's abduction, her mother is distraught and, in the end, her "goodbye" to her husband seems quite final, like she is picking their daughter over their marriage, damn the consequences to his career. Regardless of any gay coding in the relationship between Alvie and Boots, there is love between them, and between them and Savannah. In the end, they lose Savannah, and they lose their freedom. And, while we barely get to know them before they start interacting with Savannah, I think it is safe to say the two men are more alive with her around. Mark Miller, who plays Alvie and wrote the script, wrote the part of Savannah for his own daughter (also named Savannah). So, on the one hand, you've got a father infusing a script with love for his daughter, on the other hand, you've got an openly (if not loudly) homosexual man taking on the role of a, yes, motherly criminal who comes alive around a temporary surrogate daughter. Maybe it is just that the love feels more real here and so, whether Scott means to come across as gay or not, he does because, let's face it, gay people are better at expressing love... Be offended if you like.

Scott explains his confidence regarding his sexuality to Rawles:

There are plenty of people I would like to spend time with and don't need to waste my time on someone who doesn't get me... Some people call that an ego, I call it healthy living. Know who you are and make no excuses to anyone, gay straight or otherwise.

The same can be applied in personal circles as well as one's interactions with celebrities or athletes, to bring this back around to Adam Rippon. If you don't like him, that's one thing (whether or not it comes from you being a bigot or not). But, feeling the need to jump into the comments section to proclaim that sexuality doesn't matter to you... Well, you're disproving your own point by taking the time. And, maybe it's just not about you. Your need to express your negative impression just doesn't matter as much as those who might be affected positively by the mere existence of an openly gay athlete like Rippon, or a coded gay couple like Boots and Alvie.

(For the record, the same applies to my own negativity about you. But, to paraphrase something I have said more than a few times, this is my blog, and you can click away from it any time. Hell, you can comment below and say whatever you like.)

One final note before I head off for today. I've written about the way fiction will use weddings, even tangentially, to reify societal norms in an otherwise subversive script. Well, at the end of this movie, Boots and Alvie use the cover of a wedding to make a run for the mountains. Structurally, the film could have ended sooner, as I pointed out yesterday; if Boots and Alvie were going to get arrested anyway, they could have been captured at the house. Instead, a wedding. Instead, a honeymoon, as they leave the wedding only to head off to Bridal Veil Falls. It's no Niagara, but positioned after the wedding, and after the two men playing at domesticity with their surrogate daughter, it's a honeymoon destination.

And it doesn't really matter if Miller writing or Scott acting meant for Alvie and Boots to come across as a loving couple. The audience's inference matters more than the creators implication.

If you imagine Boots and Alvie are a gay couple and it makes you feel good, because you're gay and there aren't enough gay couples on the big (or small) screen, imagine away. Feel good. You're not hurting anybody.

This week, Black Panther will be in theaters. Writing about just how big a thing that movie can be in terms of minority representation for Time, Jamil Smith explains:

Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn't happen, we are all the poorer for it.

Are Alvie and Boots a gay couple? No, they're probably not meant that way. But, if they were, if there was a mainstream film in 1982 with a gay couple at its center, how much better off might we all be for it? If we had a big screen version of Black Panther back then... If we had more female-led films...

The idea that more and different characters getting stories takes anything away from the world is ridiculous to me. They can only add something. And, anyone who can't handle it needs to actually watch more movies, experience more stories about people that are not like them. Grow some empathy and get over yourself.

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