The winding road from being an outsider to being a little less of an outsider
I’m just including this video out of all possibilities because it makes me laugh to this day.
When I saw the headline “Ladies: I’m not your gay boyfriend” at Salon, I flinched. The vast majority of bashing I’ve heard, from men gay and straight, of straight women who befriend gay men is misogynist in its extreme, and particularly if focused on women who fit the classic “fag hag” profile: opinionated, sexual, dirty-mouthed, and therefore threatening.* But Thomas Rogers is making a much more interesting argument, which is that the fag hags of old are generally awesome women who deserve your respect, but now that the idea of being a fag hag has been mainstreamed, women who don’t have anything in common with the fag hags of yore want to borrow the identity to give themselves a little bit more color. It’s a kind of slumming, actually.
The classic fag hags were theatrical, brassy, unconventional; they were the Liza Minnellis, Bette Midlers and Liz Taylors of the world. They drifted toward gay culture because they perceived themselves as outsiders, and bonded with gay men over shared feelings of social rejection, and love of camp, and appreciation of John Waters movies. And hey, they both liked men. A lot. “The company of the gay man gives the straight woman the potential to express her sexuality without feeling the need to tone it down,” says Justine Pimlott, director of the documentary “Fag Hags: Women Who Love Gay Men.” “There’s a mutual identification.”….
But most of the overeager, self-described “fag hags” I encountered in my early 20s had nothing of the brazen outsider about them: They were demure, and conventional — with square-jawed boyfriends and glittery sweat pants and seemingly little understanding of gay culture. “After ‘Will & Grace,’ women would suddenly ask me to take them shopping,” says Hollenbach. “I’d ask if they like ‘Mommie Dearest,’ and they’d tell me no.”
Rogers’ argument is a sound one, I think. As male homosexuality becomes less and less outsider-y, the very things that define the fag hag become irrelevant. I would add to that the observation that women are also not dinged for the sorts of things that made the classic fag hags social pariahs in the past. Being a straight brassy broad with a dirty mouth and a strong ironic streak means that you’re probably a hipster now. Which isn’t to say that misogyny and homophobia aren’t still major problems, but the concept of the “fag hag” was a historical artifact of the deep closet, the bunker mentality that doesn’t really exist anymore. The cultural narrative that insists that gay men and unconventional straight women will die alone has lost much of its power. Which isn’t to say that straight women and gay men can’t be friends, of course. But that’s the point—they can be friends. No need for special monikers, no need to dig for cultural relics from a sadder time in order to make yourself more interesting.
What I found interesting about this article, though, was it got me to thinking about how the concept of camp just doesn’t mean what it used to, either. Old school camp is all those things that fall into the sweet spot of adoring someone or something that’s tacky but appealing, and creating a small amount of ironic distance from it through exaggeration or other techniques so that you can laugh at yourself a little for your interest. You can call that camp…..or in the year 2009, you’re probably going to call that hipster irony. Or the Wikipedia says they’re the same thing, and I agree. Loving “Mommie Dearest” has, for better or worse, morphed from a coded gay reference to something shared by people of all sexual orientations, though of course a bunch of tedious homophobes who use the term “teabagger” without a whiff of self-awareness are still out of the loop. Or, apparently, a bunch of young women in sparkly pants with jock boyfriends who want to borrow a little of someone else’s outsider status to feel more interesting.
I blame the transition on John Waters, who took a camp aesthetic and made it the aesthetic of punk. Well, I wouldn’t call it blame, except that it’s always a little sad to see what is an outsider culture morph into something that’s easier for insiders to swipe. He’s taken credit for being the bridge between camp and punk, considering his own early audiences the same people that turned into the punk rockers of NYC. I’m a huge fan, of course, but I find the mainstreaming of the Waters-style camp to be more than a little off-putting sometimes. Because there’s a certain amount of mutation where the original humor and meaning gets lost. Take, for instance, the transition of “Hairspray” from being a successful example of a deliberately campy film to a Broadway show to a film based on the Broadway show….with John Travolta playing Divine’s part. I can almost hear the clicking noise of trying to justify this casting. Travolta is a camp figure from “Saturday Night Fever” and he got a spot in the ironic hipster echelon in “Pulp Fiction”. But those are different kinds of roles, and he doesn’t bring the self-aware sense of humor Divine did to the role, and he’s a leader in a disgustingly homophobic church, and he’s plagued by rumors that he’s in the closet. Very disappointing, running against the grain of everything that makes camp fun.
But I digress. These kind of cultural morphings have their good sides and their bad sides, but the blurring of the lines between what’s camp, what’s hipster irony, and what’s mainstream really does have a lot to do with the breakdown of the oppressions that cause outsider cultures. They also have a lot to do with mainstream culture borrowing from outsider cultures, and often exploiting it. What was really interesting about Rogers’ piece is how both things can be true at once. As always, what to think is ambiguous.
*Of course, the “fag hag” stereotype reminds me a lot of the stereotype of the “tragic mulatto“. The cultural narrative of the fag hag is seen as tragic in the same way, because fag hags are seen as straddling the space between masculine and feminine. They love the frippery of femininity but dismiss the submissiveness of it. They are glamorous for reasons outside of being a sex symbol, and they’re meant to be alone because straight men can’t stand their big mouths. It’s a harsh stereotype, but it’s ambiguous in my eyes, because there’s a lot of sympathy in it for the way that pushy women are punished for being themselves.