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Media literacy and gay marketing

On Jan 12, Andrea Quijada of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project hosted one of the best sessions I attended at the National Conference for Media Reform: Introductory Training in Media Literacy. I went in hoping to pick up techniques for the Up Against the Wall Street Journal activity I’m leading at the Dollars & Sense house party in Austin this week (F, Jan 19, 8pm, at 1500 Gregory Street)—and I got plenty. I also got some musings on the media’s role in the commercialization of homosexuality.

One of the videos Quijada used in her presentation was a clip from the Showtime series The L Word. Quijada’s selection came from an episode in which, as The L Word’s writer and executive producer Ilene Chaiken says,

Dana, who in the pilot we’ve already established would love to have an endorsement deal, …is closeted in large part because she fears that sponsors aren’t exactly clamoring to have big ol’ lezzie tennis players tote their product. I wanted to tell a story in which she gets a deal, and she thinks that she has to stay closeted, and she finds out after she’s broken up with her girlfriend, that the sponsor knew all along that she was gay—and, in fact, intended to be open about it, and, in fact, even wanted to promote that and get props for sponsoring a gay athlete. In other words, I wanted to tell a story in which Dana loses the girl unnecessarily and then finds out that she didn’t have to be closeted at all.

In the clip Quijada chose, one problem remains: the ad is appearing in major magazines, but character hasn’t come out to her parents yet. As one of the friend characters says, “Looks like Subaru’s going to do it for you.”

Quijada opened the discussion by saying that she was uncomfortable with the way the show made Subaru, a corporation, the hero in what we usually think of as a very human story—the coming out story.

Quijada also pointed us to a PlanetOut interview with Chaiken, in which she talks about how she came to cast Subaru as the story’s hero.

PlanetOut: We’re also really interested in the Subaru story line involving Dana’s character. We were wondering—who approached whom about developing that? Did it just come out of an organic process?

Chaiken: I went around and approached every [sporting goods] company we could think of…. They all turned us down…. Most of them said to us “You know, we’re totally pro-gay, we love the gays, but we’re just not quite willing to go there with you.” Now, see, I really wanted it to be a real company. I didn’t want to make up some cheesy fictional company. And in desperation, I called Elizabeth Birch, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, and I said, you know, “What do I do here?” … And Elizabeth told me she … had a friend, Pam Judarian, whom she was sure would know. So when I finally spoke with Pam, I told her the story I just told you. And she asked me if the story would only work with a sporting goods company. She wanted to know if it would work with a car company. Like Subaru. She told me that if the story could work with Subaru, then she thought she could deliver them. And that was it!”

When Quijada mentioned the Human Rights Campaign connection, I found myself thinking, “Of course it was HRC.”

In no way do I mean to be dismissive of the fight for gay rights, but I do have issues with the Human Rights campaign, not least because the organization appropriated for itself and its rather narrow agenda a much broader term—human rights—that is more generally understood to mean things like the rights, no matter where you live, to freedom from political repression, to the basic necessities of life, and to personal security and sovereignty over one’s body, as well as the right to marry whomever one wants while living a relatively comfortable life in a consumerist society.

Which brings me to the incident that had me muttering, “Of course it was HRC.” It was the day that I turned over one of HRC’s fundraising appeals and saw the organization imploring me to support them by buying things from their corporate sponsors: Nike, Shell, and Chase, among others. Nike may support gay rights, but it is also notorious for selling sweatshop-made products. Shell may support gay rights, but it sells a product that contributes to global warming—and it has a horrible human rights record to boot. Chase may support gay rights, but it also supports predatory lenders.

At the same time that HRC was advertising these corporations to me, the organization was also asking me for a direct donation. All I could think about was all the other organizations that are addressing the problems that Nike, Shell, and Chase exacerbate, but lack corporate support and probably need my money more than HRC does: the anti-sweatshop organizations on No Sweat apparel’s resources page, Climate Ark’s global warming activism links, the organizations that work with the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Resource Center, and the anti-predatory lending organizations listed at the end of Dollars & Sense’s recent article on the fringe economy. I threw the HRC appeal in the recycling bin, feeling rather insulted.

In the May/June 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense, co-editor Amy Gluckman explored the de-radicalization of the gay culture. She is also the editor, with The Nation’s Betsy Reed, of Homo Economics: Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life,

the first honest account of the tense relationship between gay people and the economy. … Address[es] issues including the recent economic history of the gay community, the community’s response to its changing economic circumstances, and the risks inherent in a narrow definition of liberation. …Gay consumers are being courted by corporations, gay money is fueling political campaigns, and gay and lesbian neighborhoods are expanding. The essays in Homo Economics warn us however, that contrary to popular stereotypes, only a narrow segment of the gay community is enjoying economic success and the majority of gay men and lesbians actually earn less than straight men and women.

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