Analysing the gay magazines on campus, Liam O’Brien is riled by their representation of gay culture.
Cleansed of any real political fire other than mild left-centrist observation, the gay media of 2007 has lost the ability to shock or push barriers. It is heavily and senselessly aimed at a target market, giving the reader, listener or watcher barely any opportunity for stimulation other than that of the base sexual kind. Take for example the masturbation-fodder pages of toned men – hairless, brainless and smiling like a well-fed and exercised zoo-animal, yet all the same inexorably and eternally caged.
In the context of gay media, a dearth of intellectual content is a problem. Whenever the media represents a group of people that suffers from problems of social perception, it surely has the responsibility to give that group a varied and realistic portrayal, whether on television, paper, the internet, or the radio. Gay magazines in particular, however, seem to have decided that gay people want only to read a vacuous blanket of campery.
This is deeply shameful, especially considering that in comparison, the sexually neutral, super-mainstream media is exceptionally diverse. Matthew Parris, The Times’s columnist, is verbally, intellectually and politically astute to the point where he could hardly be described as their token gay. The same could be said of The Independent’s Johann Hari, a regular on Newsnight Review, who, despite a lambasting from Private Eye for bitchiness and scheming, has achieved a great deal in the journalistic field at a remarkably young age. Alan Hollinghurst, Booker prizewinner and former deputy editor of The Times Literary Supplement, displays in his work a sensual rendering of homosexual intercourse that transcends its crude, abjectly slutty depiction in those magazines stacked on groaning shelves across the country.
Sometimes the gay media means well but nevertheless collapses spectacularly. A case in point is the centrepiece of Channel 4’s recent, well-publicised ‘gay season’. Clapham Junction, a film written by Kevin Elyot, had the opportunity to represent gay people in a light which, even if not relentlessly positivistic, could at least be broad and realistic. It started well enough: intelligent dinner party conversation, gays in high-profile, competitive careers, a demonstration of the fear and self-loathing that many young gay people suffer from, and society’s labelling of certain things as innately ‘gay’ (in this case musical instruments), all things which probably had queer theorists clapping like a Seaworld creature. Inevitably, though, drama needs ratings and ratings need drama, so a host of horrible pre-established stereotypes and a bilious horde of new ones were unforgivably unleashed. Anyone who believed everything the film told them could not have come away with a broader, more enlightened view of gay people.
Innocuous teenage lust culminated in a scene in which a convicted paedophile had sex with a 14 year old, the dramatic angle of which was such that we were encouraged to sympathise with said horrors, on the grounds that sexual desire cannot be controlled (an absolute contravention of contemporary and perhaps even historical morality).
Unnecessarily creepy older men cheated on their wives in the toilets of the tube station, showing each other their penises before fucking as if this somehow allowed release from their sybaritic, socio-economically conformist, white male lives. The sad victimisation of young gay people became fetishistic, with all the blood, ass, piss and semen of a Gilbert & George exhibition. The need for drama can be appreciated, but until gay people are normalised in television, rather than hired to present tacky shows about dancing or interviewing listless celebrities, the value of shows such as Clapham Junction is minimal. Gay magazines are not as overtly sexually debased as this particular TV film, but they do share more similarities with it than the list of people mentioned above, at least in creating a savage, one-dimensional portrait of gay life.
On campus, though the occasional copy of Attitude appears, the gay magazines are the Gay Times and AXM, and the sole lesbian rag is Diva. All of these are published by the Millivres Prowler Group, and as such they have different target markets. Nick Scargill, Press and Publicity officer for LGBT society at York University, observed that “When I started reading them four or five years ago, they all seemed to be generically the same, but in recent years, they seem to have gone down different routes.” Gay Times, which Nick admitted to have stopped buying due to its endless advertisements and unappealing content, is seen as the flagship gay magazine, and more serious in tone.
AXM, containing features this month on Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Fleeshman, is more youth-orientated. Diva is basically the lesbian equivalent of the Gay Times.
The Gay Times, though culturally and politically conscious, balances its intelligent articles with adverts for working-class porn, and, most disturbingly, ten pages of escort/masseur/rent-boy adverts at the back. As Chris Bowman (co-chair of York University LGBT society) observed, “It’s a bit excessive”. This gives rise to the representation of a gay culture in which a promiscuous lifetyle is the only option for homosexual men. It is a long-held, if erroneous stereotype, that Bowman explains by saying, “the reason that these stereotypes exist is that back in the day [a promiscuous, camp lifestyle] used to get you noticed, and quite a lot of people still act that way. The media just reflects what is already there”.
AXM also causes possible moral objections to arise. For a magazine that aims squarely at young homosexuals, the porn reviews and photoshoots are a bit tenacious, and unlike GT and Diva there are no wider cultural aspirations; it’s about gay people, for gay people. Nick Scargill remarked that, “with gay magazines it’s like our gay little world where we’re going to talk about gay things”. The magazine’s message can be somewhat contradictory. In an article about getting “sex-confident”, one would expect advice like “learn to accept yourself”. However, instead there is body-fascistic diatribe about getting toned and, comically, “beefing up your dick”. Sociologists, including Germaine Greer, have noted that a potential reason for becoming gay is a refusal to fit into gender sterotypes, but in AXM, you are presented with a new stereotype: for God’s sake, don’t be gay if you’re fat and ugly. If a young gay person showed their parents a copy of this magazine as an interpretation of his culture after just coming out, the parents could justifiably be terrified: this is a child that likes porn and Kylie.
Diva is less blatantly sexualised than the other two, yet is a little self-contradictory. In the current issue, a cross section of lesbian women pose nude in a Whitman-like cross-cultural celebration. However, a few pages later, noticeably thinner, eroticised women pose in a more soft-pornish shoot. Beyond the top-selling magazines, however, there are signs that gay medevac is not yet required. Not available on campus, Refresh is more art-orientated, promoting lifestyle choices rather than conformity.
Yet, whilst the gay media does still need to develop, its continued existence should also be applauded. The main issue which needs to be addressed now is the problem of relevance. The intelligent columnists choose to write elsewhere; GQ does the same thing as them but with a hetero-façade, and gay culture is becoming more widely accepted even though it still faces stereotyping and generalisation. There is a resounding image of a ‘normal’ homosexual, despite the fact that you can’t even pin down what constitutes a ‘normal’ person. Gay media needs to find a new issue. Barriers have been broken in the area of entertainment media: the word ‘come’ no longer shocks people, and gay sex has been shown on TV. The only option left in order for the gay media to remain relevant is for it to intellectually diversify.