“Two households both alike in dignity/In fair Verona where we set our scene”
“an excellent conceited tragedy” indeed
I remember the opening prologue to Romeo & Juliet because I saw it countless times whilst waiting in the wings for my entrance during my high school’s production.
Let the record show that I was not Romeo. I was Friar Lawrence actually.
In the two productions of Shakespeare my school put on, I was cast as a religious figure who gave advice to those struck dumb with love. Presumably this was due to the fact that as an overweight black teenage male, I didn’t exactly exude romantic lead material.
Waiting in the wings, waiting to go on, and observing the activity night after night gave me somewhat of an interesting challenge: I was disconnected from the action, but expected to thrust myself into it just a few scenes later.
This was not that different from my day-to-day life at the time, where I often felt like I was disconnected from the high school world around me. I was, for lack of a better term, “other.”
Now, on some level, that’s just a standard teenage phase, but as a double minority (black and gay), not being considered part of the mainstream really got to me. It got to me so much that I pretty much the kibosh on any thoughts of being an actor after graduating. Instead, I was going to be a writer. Yessir, I was going to write the world as I saw it and everybody’s minds would be collectively blown and the world would be a bit less daunting to the fat black gay teenage boys from Wisconsin.
I’d like to think that the world of 2014 is a bit more hospitable now than it was then.
Today, I saw two articles from The Atlantic that made me remember that sense of “otherness” from way back when.
The first one was from Enuma Okoro, praising the everywoman aspects of the lead character in the new BET (Black Entertainment Television) show Being Mary Jane, which is about a journalist attempting to get that proverbial work-life balance just right. In the article, Okoro quotes a study by Essence magazine that states that a considerable majority of black women see negative portrayals of themselves more often than positive ones, amongst which include the infamous (and unrealistic) head shaking, sassy black woman stereotype.
It certainly didn’t reflect the reality of the black women that I ever came across in my family, nor in my black female peers and friends.
This is not to say that it wasn’t true for some people, but not all, and particularly when your only representation is this archetype it can become an expectation.
Apologies for the cliché, but if I had a dime for how many people overseas asked me if black women really were that way, I’d be able to solve the GFC.
That’s the problem with television and media in general, it can turn a character trait that the actual person has to chop down (often with a metaphorical pickaxe) to find the truth inside.
And that truth is, as Okoro says about Being Mary Jane, “the potential to slowly alter the way viewers see and relate to African-Americans as a people whose lives and experiences—their good and poor decisions, and their trials and triumphs—can be encompassed into cultural and social norms in the same way that the lives and experiences of white Americans have been for centuries.”
The second article was Hope Reese’s interview with Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, the creators of Looking, a new HBO show about gay men in San Francisco.
Haigh says “Our ambition is not to tell the story about all gay people, which is impossible to do. The gay community is full of all different types of people. It never was our intention to be the ultimate gay show about all gay people. We just want to tell the stories of these characters and their lives.”
In response to Reese’s question about whether they [Lannan & Haigh] felt a burden to “get it right,” he says: “I think ‘burden’ is a good way to put it. We do feel like there’s a burden, and then the trailer comes out, and everyone comments on it, saying, “That’s not my life.” It was hysterical looking at some of the comments. Some people decided it was a show about cock-hungry sluts, and others would say that it’s all white people. Everyone has a judgment. But we can’t represent everybody—it’s impossible.
So in many respects, we have to ignore that. But I also understand the desire, the need, for representation on the screen. My hope is that if this show does well, it will offer the opportunity for other people to make other shows about different types of gay people.”
Haigh’s statement about hoping that it offers “the opportunity for other people to make other shows about different types of gay people” echoes earlier remarks from the creators of the sitcom Will & Grace in response to accusations that the show wasn’t realistic.
Mind you, it is a comedy, and asking for verisimilitude in a half-hour comedy without it becoming mind-numbingly dull is a big ask.
A belated disclaimer: I have yet to see either of these shows, but I suspect that Looking will make an appearance on some Australian television outlet, and the eternal optimist in me hopes that Being Mary Jane might as well. (I like to believe that in a nation that believes in the “fair go,” that is a possibility.)
With regards to Looking, I must admit that for some gay men out there, it might be a breath of fresh air to see their lives reflected onscreen. I remember when Patrik-Ian Polk’s Noah’s Arc debuted on LOGO. I remember thinking “wow, I see guys who are black and gay, and who actually have a sex life and relationships!”
Noah’s Arc (cover art for the 2nd season box set)
It might seem peculiar to those who aren’t black and gay, but for the most part, the representation of black gay men in TV was pretty much as the “sassy sidekick” (mostly in drag) to the white leads who got to go through the ups and downs of romance, awkwardness, and well…reality.
Which brings me back to what the overweight black gay teenage boy waiting in the wings in 2014 sees.
I truly hope he can see that his hopes and wishes not that much different from everyone else, and perhaps, everyone else sees something of their own hopes and wishes in his.