The Camp and the Bitchy
Barrie Drewitt-Barlow is the more attention-seeking half of the gay millionaire couple who became Britain’s first gay fathers. Recently on Superior Interiors, Channel 5’s home makeover show, the Drewitt-Barlows wanted to redesign their daughter’s bedroom. Daughter is called Saffron (how Ab Fab darling), and Barrie took over the show, trying to impose his over-the-top taste in a room that wasn’t even meant for him. Barrie is loud, camp and confident (and by my dreary middle-class tastes, a bit vulgar). By the end of the program, I was feeling unwelcome twinges of homophobia – don’t we know how we come across when we go on like that? Back in the 1970s, gay activists would have picketed outside his home, just as they demonstrated outside theatres where John Inman, who portrayed fey Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?, was performing.
But Barrie’s only one gay man, and in the enlightened 21st century, isn’t it the case now that we have loads of different media representations of gay men – so we’re now nicely balanced? I started counting the gays of TV that I’d encountered in the past week. Obviously, my TV watching habits are going to be different from yours, but they at least give an indication of the sorts of messages I’m getting about gay guys on TV. On Strictly Come Dancing two of the judges are gay – Bruno Tonioli is excitably flamboyant with a penchant for over-statement while Craig Revel Horwood is an ice-queen who dead-pans a series of withering put-downs that put me in mind of a seen-it-all old bar-queen who everyone’s afraid of. They both say ‘darling’ a lot.
But it’s not all camp at the BBC. There’s Christian and Syed from EastEnders – reasonably butch types who look good in vests. Yet so tortured! Their depressing storylines have prompted George Michael to voice concerns. Seriously, how many times can Christian get beaten up? The general message they give off is, why bother coming out at all if it’s going to be this much fuss. Over on ITV, Sean Tully in Coronation Street tends to have a better time, but he’s another camp (if more lovable) stereotype. As is Harry from The Only Way in Essex. I suspect Harry has never had an unkind thought, but that could be because his head is full of glitter and sparkles.
In the US, LGBT station Logo has reality show The A List (now in its second iteration in Dallas) featuring a group of gay men who apparently live impossibly fabulous lives of wealth and glamour but seem to spend an awful lot of time engaging in behaviour which places them socially at the level of dysfunctional teenage girls. There is a lot of metaphorical fanning and whispering in each other’s ears, everyone is hideously over-sensitive and imagined slights quickly develop into lifelong feuds which are all forgotten about a couple of episodes later as the gays and their ‘hags take it in turn to have everyone else gang up on them. The old stereotypes are there by the gallon – the alcoholic queen, the slutty one, the one who likes to break up couples, the bitchy one… and the level of ‘debate’ is set low – the last time I heard some of those insults, I was in a queue to go on a slide.
Another US show, which makes no claims about reality, Glee features several gay and lesbian characters, of which Kurt Hummel is most central. Kurt is sympathetically written as a fabulous diva, although Glee also features a football playing bully who turns out to be a closet case, and warbling dream-boat Blaine, so at least there are three different ‘flavours’ to chose from. And finally, the weirdly disturbing American Horror Story has a couple of bickering gay ghosts played by Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears. They are obsessed with decorating their home just right for Halloween. Quinto’s character makes jealous quips while wearing an apron and cutting fancy shapes into pumpkins, while Sears’ character puts his hand on the crotch of the heterosexual male lead in a not very obvious attempt at seduction. They’re basically two gay dwarves – Bitchy and Slutty.
Right from the days of Julian and Sandy, the media have always favoured the camp gay man because he’s entertaining, funny and safe. He knows his place in a strict hierarchy of masculinity. Straight or masculine men will immediately feel superior – like kings with a shrieking court jester leaping around them, and straight women needn’t worry that he’ll arouse any awkward bicuriousity in their fellas. And there’s no risk of a sneak attack. You hear a camp man coming before you see him and you know what you’re going to get. So there’ll be no Brokeback Mountain homoeroticism if your hubby ever goes on a fishing trip with one. Camp men don’t go on fishing trips anyway.
Yet I like camp. I know all the words to “It’s All Over” (the Dreamgirls song where the girls throw Effie out of the band), I have a deep knowledge of the films of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and I love all the episodes of Bewitched that have Uncle Arthur in them. When I was younger and used to go to nightclubs, me and my female friends (OK, hags) had dance routines to the B52’s ‘LoveShack’ and Kylie’s ‘What Do I Have to Do?’.
And there is something refreshing about camp gay men – they look more at ease with themselves, and they come across as enjoying life a lot more than gay guys who claim to be ‘straight-acting’ and have those internet profiles that say ‘no fems’. Camp gay men tend to bear the brunt of society’s homophobia, while those who can ‘pass’ for straight (meaning traditionally masculine) can choose when, where and how they come out, if at all. So I feel conflicted about the continuing over-representation of camp gay men in the media. I’m OK with camp, but when it gets paired with portrayals that are also self-absorbed, stupid, vulgar and bitchy, then I have a problem. But don’t expect me to start picketing Strictly Come Dancing any time soon. I’m far too in awe of Craig Revel Horwood’s sharp tongue to even try.