My adoration of Six Feet Under has always been tinged with mistrust. I worried that its existential indecision would take a wrong turn, that I would sour on its inability to decide whether it's inspired by Deepak Chopra or Jean Paul Sartre. Until now, it has taken television drama to new levels of introspection, but this season something slipped, like a priest's hand a few inches too high on your thigh. It has become crass, each episode an empathy decathlon topped off with ghoulishly deferred catharsis.
It seems the writers have developed an addiction to unnecessary trauma, like a poet I once knew who cut herself not because she was mentally ill, but because it would sound right in a future biography. The first segment to give me pause was the burial of Nate Fisher's wife (Lili Taylor). We had already been maxed out on Nate's (Peter Krause) grief, strung along from the point where she went missing, to a brief period where she was thought to have been abducted by a serial killer, to her rotted body washing up on shore.
On most shows, his Olympic grieving would be enough to indicate his loss. Not here. Nate decides Lisa must be buried as she had requested, with no physical barriers (such as a coffin) between her and the earth. He drives her body to a deserted hill, digs a grave, and flops her waterlogged remnants into the dirt, literally losing his mind as he hears her slop into the hole. This went beyond gratuitous.
It's not every series that can make you say, "You lost me with the psychotic crackhead mugger episode," but for what it's worth, there you have it. On the last episode I watched, David (Michael C. Hall) dreams he picks up a hitchhiker who beats him, demands he remove money from an ATM, threatens to kill him, makes him do crack and have anal sex, dumps gasoline on him, and leaves him for dead. All this is revealed in such detail and at such a languorous pace that it feels like a long, locked stare, grotesque and rattling. One can't help but wonder if the writers have come to view such behavior as universal, picturing a world of martyrdom and sadistic domination, punctuated by exquisite agony.
The show's sexual candor used to be its strong suit, but this season morbidity has taken root. David was sucked off by a plumber who helped to clean up a wading pool of corpse blood. Frederico (Freddy Rodriguez) snuck out on his wife (Justina Machado) for a hummer from a junky stripper to whom he ended up playing sugar daddy. These furtive urge-feedings reduce the characters to products of an ambitionless will to power, their moral anchors tissue-paper thin.
It appears Six Feet Under has surrendered its once heady interests for a relatively simple obsession with sex per se. Claire's (Lauren Ambrose) tiresome ennui got a tentative jolt from her recent bi-curious itch, which seems designed to satisfy the Penthouse Forum demographic, by bringing some hot girl-on-girl action to the small screen. David has strayed into casual liaisons even though last season his relationship was torn asunder by a string of threesomes. Nate drifts around, loving his wife more dead than alive, and salving his wounds with whatever convenient nookie he can find.
Even Ruth (Frances O'Connor) is having a headboard-banging fiesta of a new marriage, despite the fact that she barely knows her remote, trivial gnat of a husband (James Cromwell). This alone wouldn't make me uncomfortable. I love sex, and rarely get enough of talking about it, but here the sex is either pathological or too much like those fundamentalist conversion narratives where decadence leads the unbeliever to the path of conservative righteousness.
These elements of the new episodes have me reconsidering the motives of Alan Ball, who previously seemed like one of those harmless Unitarian liberals who know their Chai as well as their Tibetan Book of the Dead . Now I'm wondering whether he's a repressed Christian whose festering faith has him trying to reconcile nihilism, sexuality, and a universe in some sort of moral balance.
In this context, the series' grappling with religious questions has become more hodgepodge and accusatory than in previous seasons. Is Lisa's death punishment for Nate's wandering cock? Is Claire's abortion an indictment of her character? Was David "asking for" violence because he can't be monogamous? That I'm even asking such questions means I no longer trust Six Feet Under's framework. If the writers wish to be moralists, they should just get on with it, instead of panting over their protagonists' distress the way Mel Gibson did over Jesus.
Where I used to see an admirable ambiguity in the show's magic realism, I now see arcane hollowness. A surfeit of psychologizing and sarcasm relegates religious experience to the realm of hallucination, which may or may not have some reality to it. As the tension between godlessness and soul-searching teeters in favor of the former, the characters' notorious conversations with the dead increasingly reflect a belief that life is just a series of nervous breakdowns until you die a horrible, inexplicable death. The opening scenes of out-of-the-blue deaths now seem less like humorous reminders of our fragility and more like gruesome indications of our pointlessness.
As I struggled to find a defining trope for my discomfort, I kept returning to Brenda's (Rachel Griffiths) latest relationship, with her neighbor (Justin Theroux). Still recovering from sex addiction, she ends up with a nice guy who can't get hard without being humiliated, forcing her into the role of reluctant dominatrix, her simple needs distorted by someone who can't have intimacy without abuse, or more judgmentally, someone who fetishizes his own guilt. I feel like I've struck a similar Faustian bargain, looking for decent entertainment.
Six Feet Under used to provide thematic intensity and compelling characters, exploring the ambiguities and fears that our culture papers over with platitudes. But I don't want to watch sexualized suffering, a crack addict force someone to fuck him up the ass or de Sadean rewrites of The Waltons. Granted, lauded television dramas often slide into soap opera. Six Feet Under , however, looks more and more like a spiritual snuff flick, where God whittles off Faith and Hope because we like it that way. I'm nobody's bitch. I'm ready to leave this brand of emotional pornography behind.
-- Audre Lorde
"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
That'll stab you in the head
Whether you're a fag or lez"
The Lorde quote has always haunted me for both the way it sears open an entire realm of truth to power and the ways in which it's clearly too pat; particularly when the master's tools are the only things lying around. In hip-hop, this quote seems to run on a loop in my head as I watch video after video of consumer gluttony gone bling with women just one more thing to accumulate.
Don't get me wrong, I love hip-hop. For someone enamored with language the way I am, there's nothing like the pleasure of listening to a genre where words are minted by the minute and meaning gets telegraphed to your booty through lexical stunts of brilliant rhythm. But I got issues. Even the margins of hip-hop are plagued with Promise Keeper views of women and tedious dependence on the crutch of homophobia. (e.g., Not two minutes into the latest MC Jean Grae, we're treated to diss all of the "faggots" who don't tremble in her path.) It's worse listening to the mangling explanations which come forth, that usually end by illuminating the fact that they're not just really calling someone a homosexual, but doing so with a back handed gesture of sexism. I guess this means that the categories of gay and lesbian has become a toxic waste dump for leftover bigotries that can no longer be expressed in polite company.
The energies of prejudice can be impacted into gays because there are still several socially acceptable rationalizations for the hatred. Still debating our existential validity, just recently given legal permission (at least partially) to be who we are, queer folk still operate as frighteners in public debates where religious psychotics still reign over a major political party and forge their selves and sense of mission from the number of freedom pyres under their belts.
Talking to gay artists about their sexuality and art can be a tricky task. Every time I do it, I'm confronted with the low-grade hostility that emanates from a human who feels caged and constrained by a label. Nobody wants to drag around such an oppression nametag as a point of entry for recognition. It's the same burden African-American artists struggled with and, in many cases, have largely overcome through ubiquity. Saying "gay" rapper, comes with an undercurrent of stooping as if to say "Oh, look dear" or "My, my, what a surprise."
Having wound my way through the house of a thousand caveats, I still set out to find out whether or not Lorde's axiom holds true for queers, and whether or not GLBT people could make countercurrent inroads in a genre deeply invested in keeping them as a place holder on the bottom of the totem -- just below "yo mamma" slams.
Some cry "racist" when hip-hop's homophobia gets nicked because, they retort, rock 'n' roll is just as predisposed to hate queer folk. It's total bullshit, of course, because while Steven Tyler might privately pass fag jokes amongst his friends to stabilize the currency of his masculinity, rock 'n roll's lyrical content has never been rife with the denigration of gays and lesbians that hip-hop has. To the contrary, recurring currents of androgyny and sexual deviancy checker rock's history. Sociologists might point out that hip-hop at least partially emerged from the practice of "doing the dozens", a cadenced dialogue of insults designed to rhythmically axe an opponent's ego. But that just begs the question. Tradition hardly excuses bigotry.
Part of the aura of untouchability when it comes to criticizing a genre so heavily peopled with minorities comes from an excess of liberalism's success. People mistakenly assume that humans who've suffered culturally get some sort of pass for their intellectual shittiness. This privilege of those who have suffered can lead to the most egregious forms of exploitation: Think of neo-conservatives who accuse every critic of Israel as being a closet Holocaust sympathizer. It is breathtakingly stupid for someone who has experienced oppression to pass it along to someone else without, for a second, recognizing the irony. But it's wrong to assume that people learn from being oppressed. For some, the lesson is simply that it's better to give than receive.
Moreover, the "master's tools" frequently pit one trammeled group against another, as if freedom and equality are a small tray of finger sandwiches in a starved stadium. Many African-Americans bristle at the comparison of civil rights to gay liberation (though many don't as well), because it's believed that homosexuality is a choice whereas race is not. That, of course, has the inadvertent moral effect of arguing that if it were possible to scientifically alter skin color, black people should just combat racism by choosing to be white. This inability to see homophobia and racism as parallel practices makes it all the easier for people in hip-hop to elide the implications of slandering the out group du jour. No one's status as a minority should magically ward off criticism. The achievement of equality should never be about the assumption of untouchable virtue. The psychology of quite a bit of hip-hop is royally skull fucked and there's really no nice way to put it.
New York City's Cazwell has the kind of swaggering style that belongs on billboards. He talks to me from the ass end of a brutal hangover (it's Tuesday) and speaks with refreshing candor, punctuating long riffs with a dismissive "and whatevah". His sound makes promiscuous use of other genres; a rowdy skim of club music, electro, and hip-hop, with lyrics that celebrate sex with the kind of horny abandon where no one gets hurt and everyone only wants to touch themselves a little bit more.
Cazwell sees one of the main obstacles to a successful queer rapper is the desire to meld into the hip-hop canon, a fantasy he dismisses as "I can't wait until they invite me to the Source awards." He doesn't believe that the music industry has an intrinsic homophobia as much as they have a fear of not making money. He takes it further, adding, "One thing you learn as a gay artist is that you have to create your own space with your own thing going on and invite people to come to you. You want revenge? Make a hit record!" Cazwell believes that hip-hop's homophobia comes from its predominance of straight men who hang with straight men whose only contact with gays might be the occasional stylist.
Of course, ignorance doesn't quite adequately explain why people would need to trade in the degradation of people they know nothing about. Cazwell clearly does what he does without apology; rhyming about how to give a good blowjob and doing a pair of brothers, in an off-handed way and with a casualness that puts the ball in your court. If you have a problem with it, it's your problem. He eschews the gay label, and not just for its limitations or its inaccuracy when applied to his sound. "The problem is if you become the gay anything people start saying you do gay rap. Does that mean Rupert Everet does gay acting?" he says.
Listening to transgendered rapper Katastrophe is like listening to Eminem without the Oedipal casualties: Katastrophe has a fresh, combative sense of politics. Taking on the gay community's own closet, Katastrophe, explores the sticky thicket of being transgendered in a world where categorical ambiguity invariably freaks out even the outlanders. His flow has a sinister edge, a liquid quick bitterness that gives his rhymes the heaviness of a potential threat. Katastrophe sees the gay bashing in hip-hop as a simple case of a braggart's fallback, since the worst thing to lose in a war of machismo is your stereotypical manhood.
At this point, I can't help but wonder aloud how funny it is that aggressive masculinity needs to prefaced on this sort of fearful policing -- a united front against individuality. But then I've always believed it takes more courage to be a drag queen in our culture than it does to be a typical man any day, in any way. Katastrophe definitely sees his music as a response to the hostile terrain of hip-hop, noting that "I think it is impossible to be a queer creating hip-hop and not somehow reflect on the fact that as of yet we have no place in hip-hop. Just the act of me being openly queer and rapping about it is absolutely, directly going to respond to the blatant homophobia that goes along with hip-hop and its culture." Far from coming off as a victim amongst victims, Katastrophe carves out a ferocious space of critique with a morbid sense of humor and a bulls-eyed rage.
When I began trying to set up an interview with queer hip-hop goddesses, Scream Club, I knew they were gonna be rowdy fun. Their answering machine sounds like a slumber party in the wee hours of the morning when all everyone can do is roll around on the floor and laugh at absolutely nothing. Bridging the missing link between Salt n Pepa and Peaches, Cindy Wonderful and Sarah Adorable rip through tracks about girl on girl love and sexual politickin'. If you can't have fun listening to Scream Club, you're probably Mel Gibson, and that's sad.
"We're down with queers!" Cindy shouts and both of them start laughing. They seem to have given much thought to the questions of genre and bigotry, to an even broader extent than I had. When I asked them about being "lesbian" rappers, Sarah piped in with "I prefer queer because lesbian is too rigid. It doesn't leave room for including trans people and it doesn't question categories like 'girl' and 'boy. Basically, it doesn't leave much room for many different kinds of gender expression." Cindy definitely wants to counter what she sees is wrong with hip-hop, "I'm really aware of it (homophobia). Not only is hip-hop homophobic, it's also very sexist. I didn't use to think of what I was doing as a response to that. I was doing what I liked. But recently I've really wanted to make music that directly responds to that."
The idea that they might be pigeonholed doesn't faze them. Sarah replies, "We're definitely queer, that's who we are, so if we're described that way, that's awesome to me." To be frank, this was the most heartening gesture of solidarity I heard. While I fully understand the desire to steer clear of the queer artist box, the effect of that avoidance can sometimes be premature gentrification; like queer people moving too quickly to the deluxe apartment in the sky without acknowledging a debt to a struggle. I'm not accusing anyone I've interviewed of that, but I do believe that there has to be a more nuanced, halfway mark for gay artists making their way in the world. There has to be a way to identify to the civil rights of gays and lesbians while simultaneously asserting the autonomy of their creativity.
It's too early to test the hypothesis that it's queers that are going to take hip-hop to some next level shit, since none of these artists have garnered the ink they deserve, though all of them are more than capable of that "hit record" vengeance Cazwell mentioned. I've never supported censorship, even when it comes to hate speech, because I don't believe anyone has the right to be pampered out of the beautiful and ugly reality of difference. But I fully acknowledge that on an unleveled playing field, the speech battle can be a bit like trying to flood the world by taking a piss.
When all is said and done, I came away from these conversations with a huge sense of hope about the evolution of hip-hop as well as a greater commitment to calling out people who traffic in homophobic, king-of-the-hill cheap shots. These are just a few of the people out there mapping out a wholly new and innovative artistic homeland. It's a shame that hip-hop's cultural ascendance has come with such short-changed introspection. Perhaps it's just a phase that will soon be superseded by people with mad skillz and no baggage -- people who won't need the dubious prop of an underfoot Other. People who will make incredible music without becoming the master's tools.
Reality television, in the form of "The Simple Life," seems finally to have found its karmic balance. Democrats would do well to tape this show as evidence for any future hearings about the estate tax, as suffering is here doled out where suffering is due. If anyone should find herself on the ass end of the boob tube, it should be the fake-n-bake party heiress whose most recent barnacle on the hull of proper fame was a grainy private porno featuring a sleazy former boyfriend.
At last, the cult of celebrity has reached its nadir. Though you might think the proliferation of fame might make it seem less attractive, in fact, reality television has made people all the more desperate for a taste, setting the bar so low that almost anyone can sacrifice enough dignity to garner a shameful pan flash. Fame is no longer solely a province of achievement, no matter how dubious. It's an accessory, a trend that's pedestrian to the point of being this decade's parachute pants.
Case in point: Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton have no discernible talents (I haven't seen the video) and personalities as pleasant as a bout of dry heaving. The premise has them leaving their wealth behind for a month on an Altus, Arkansas farm, where they live with poor people, namely, the infinitely patient Ledings. "The Simple Life" introduces the girls during a "typical" day: they spend thousands of dollars without seeming to think. (Hilton walks into one store to spend $1,500 on a bag for her dog, confident that mommy's credit card is on file.) It was, in fact, a cagey opening gambit: after watching these coddled vipers giddily stuff their voids, I was eager to see the wealth teat ripped from their mouths. For them, it's a kind of punishment; as one of Hilton's friends observes, "I'd rather have no food for six weeks than no cell phone."
What follows is one of the most protracted indictments of wealth and privilege ever recorded. It's "Clueless" meets "Survivor," as Nicole and Paris navigate the world of normal folk. They struggle mightily to maintain their ice-princess courtesy. Nicole asks, "Do you guys hang out at Wal-Mart?" This gives Hilton pause: "What is Wal-Mart?" The show is premised on such ping-pong hilarity, showcasing the girls' class deformation to the point of retardation. "What are wells for?" asks Paris, as she's warned about stepping over one in the floor of the house. Is she kidding? I have no idea. Usually, it's only Presidents who appear on tv to reveal their numbing levels of disconnection from our lives.
My favorite moment of the premiere episode (so successful on its first night that Fox re-aired it on Wednesday, garnering 13.3 million viewers) comes when the girls are asked to go grocery shopping. They, of course, don't stick to the list and end up spending more money than they have with them. When the clerk tells them they don't have enough money, Paris asks, "Can we just have it?" He confuses them by telling them, "It's not a soup kitchen." In the car, Nicole echoes Paris' surprise: "I can't believe he wouldn't just give it to us." Apparently, she lives in that stratosphere of capitalism where your very identity is somehow a commodity to be bartered. If you can score free cocktails at the Viper Room for being peripherally famous, why not Miracle Whip at the Piggly Wiggly?
By contrast, the Ledings look like admirable people, entertained by the spectacle of prissy snots "roughing it." From the start, one nurses the hope that their charm will prove contagious. Maybe by the end of the series, Hilton and Richie will have Dickensian epiphanies, where they say: "Our lives are vile. We're going to be different people from now on." More likely, though, they will see the experience as an affirmation of their social position, and have their assistants send the Ledings expensive pots of jam for the holidays. I know there's a market for the psychological version of "Queer Eye" -- these girls are prime candidates for existential makeovers.
Still, I did observe flickers of humanity cracking through the dead nights of their souls. Richie, for one, makes an effort to notice and reciprocate the politeness of her multigenerational host family. This is more than can be said for Hilton, who limply endures the experience like some cyborg who got lost on her way to the set of The O.C.. But they both display a moment of kindness, when they're deciding what to do for the evening and show something approximating genuine warmth to the older son. Nicole offers the porny aside, "We should have a threesome with him." That's "Thank you" in the dialect of Beverly Hills.
I've often been told to lighten up when I'm bitching about something -- as if it's impossible to reconcile enjoyment and critical analysis in the same sitting. Yes, "The Simple Life" is cavernously stupid. But it's also incredibly fun, a heavy bevy of easy targets that go perfectly with take-out and a circle of culture wolves.
Terry Sawyer is a regular contributor to PopMatters.
I suppose that minstrelsy is the sincerest form of insult. If television can be reliably held to reflect the evolution of a minority's status in culture, then gay people appear to be at the "What's Happenin'?" stage.
Cashing in on the success of shows like "Changing Rooms" and other reality shows, Bravo has created "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy," in which tyrannical gay fashionistas remodel some poor straight man in their coke-mirrored image. Echoing the vacuous brain decay of Jack from "Will & Grace," Bravo seeks to show gay men as materialistic vamps, style clowns with cock-centered worldviews who see conversation as an opportunity for Three's Company-level double entendres. When these men open their mouths, distant stars collapse. Whereas Jack can be relished as at least part parody, his real-life Bravo counterparts murder any possible redeeming irony.
Stock representations are a mixed bag at best. On the one hand, gays become lauded for their alleged virtues: aesthetic superiority and brassy wit. On the other hand, those illusory victories simply reify and subtly reinforce the incoherent category of oppression that corralled everyone together in an ill-fitting noose in the first place. If you doubt this is the case, scan the periphery of the dialogue about pederast priests. Why did gay people even have to defend their collective sexual impulses because of a few ugly strays? Stereotyping cuts twice as much as it mends.
Worse, caving into the logic of stereotype inaugurates division and ludicrous debates about authenticity. "Gay" magazines join in on the vast pink-wing conspiracy, offering their consumers month after month of body image sadism wrapped in the promise of salvation through consuming. What are the countless people outside this box to think? Since I'm a slob who hates clubbing, loves philosophy, and couldn't tell you the difference between Estee Lauder and Crisco, am I no longer authentically gay? After a show like this, should I care?
The premise of Queer Eye is not much different than "Are You Hot?," where, in service to the masochistic altar of minor fame, participants subject themselves to grueling degradation. It's the sort of show that convinces me our entertainment industry makes us all victims of a sort of battered wife syndrome. We expect our television to debase us, empty us, and condescend to us. And, for the most part, we'll all be back for more.
In the premiere episode of Queer Eye, the victim (their term, not mine), Butch Schepel, gets shredded in the manicured claws of his image benefactors. Carson, whose area of expertise is fashion, picks up his underwear and says, "I think there was a car accident, because I see skid marks." He then asks him if he alphabetizes his clothes by "ugly, ugly, and uglier." Only Kyan, the personal hygiene "expert," seems to have brief moments of ensoulment; he convinces Butch to donate his ponytail to a charity for kids with cancer. In contrast to the slashy bitchpit of the rest of the crew, Kyan's furrowed empathy seems comically out of step.
The makeover candidates weather the hissy onslaught with steel-plated patience and courtesy. Whereas I would have made the preening interlopers dodge knives, both Adam and Butch were case studies in magnanimity. Yet for every ounce of sympathy I am tempted to extend any reality show participant, I have in the back of my mind three pounds of scorn. Why people sacrifice their intimacies and dignity for a peripheral stab at minor, fleeting recognition is absolutely beyond me. It's almost as if television has become the supreme existential validation and no one can be said to have lived if they haven't at some point nationalized their groping wants.
More interesting, what would motivate two straight men to be verbally and literally Barbie-dolled by a flock of gay men? They truly seem to believe that what plods out of their mouths is something akin to the style gospel. Pathetically, their families and friends act as if Santa's makeover elves have given them the precious gift of someone less hideous to love. This is a most unfortunate expansion in the influence of "gay culture." Women have suffered for decades under a norm that coerces them to see themselves as beautiful only if they spend most of their disposable income dieting, buying beauty products, and constantly reinventing their wardrobe. Gay men have become the new arbiters of the beauty myth, which they can now successfully inflict on men -- of all persuasions. I suppose there is some sort of twisted progress in suffering more evenly dispersed.
Truth be told, the "Fab 5" do a good job of transforming Butch from looking like a survivalist abortion terrorist to a "cleaner" type. And Adam, the man in the second episode, certainly seemed happier to have a few extra sets of handsomely cut clothes. At first, I was afraid that the show would simply be circuit queens convincing some hapless sucker that a tight half-shirt and a glow stick in his tongue would make him "hot." But even as I am vaguely charmed by the catty Capra warmth that seemed to envelop the finished product, I still find the existence of this program a million shades of useless.
Speaking of finished products, Queer Eye is the single most shameless corporate tramp on television. Even the helpful hints, along the lines of the lessons at the end of the G.I. Joe cartoon, shill for high-end purveyors. Every scene involves a close-up on a store front, a label, or a smartly designed tube of styling gel. I hope that most gay people are rich as well as peerless aesthetic fascists, because Queer Eye consistently equates good taste with ridiculous expense.
Even more to the point, what these guys consider tasteful is East Coast, urban, and shamelessly expensive. Thom, the Foodie, is absolutely put upon by the fact that the guests at a party they designed aren't in love with foie gras ("That's $150 worth of foie gras!" he exclaims). One of the things that Thom fails to realize (most certainly a list of encyclopedic length) is that his definition of taste is linked to status rather than pleasure.
Many of the salvos of praise launched at the series have missed their mark. Heather Havrilesky argues in Salon.com that "Queer Eye will unveil the originality and flair of gay culture for bland heterosexuals across the globe!" That's an exceedingly naïve and optimistic prediction. Her comparison of this show to Arnold from "Diff'rent Strokes" and other shows with a "wisecracking little black boy" is much more instructive. That is, part of the sassy black youth tradition involves a more sinister corollary. Blacks are lauded for their earthy honesty in contrast to the more intellectual and excessively rational whiteys. It's not hard to see how ephemeral and situated such a compliment would be.
The same is true for anything remotely positive that could be drawn from Queer Eye. How exactly could this representation "improve" the position of gays in mainstream culture? It would be better to broaden the representations and deny that being gay has any consistent content at all than to write a show that portrays gays as moral savages who live their entire lives in pagan adoration of high-end hair product.
Harvilesky does have a point, though, when she says Queer Eye is "destined to have you cackling with evil glee." Even I laughed a couple of times, between shudders. But I like my fun a tad smarter. Though Carson tells the besieged Butch, "We're not here to change you, we're here to make you better," the show will, most definitely, not make you a better person.
Terry Sawyer is a PopMatters music and TV critic.