Thursday, November 18, 2010

Played Out Like an 8-Track: The Mythology of the Down Low

So, the media’s obsession with the single (and, apparently, miserable) successful black woman? Played out, right? Well, guess what? The media’s obsession with down low black men, likewise, is played. Played out like an 8-track. On one hand, all the successful black women are single and miserable–some of them just attitudinal ball-busters that don’t know their place–and, meanwhile, all the successful black men are on the down low and giving HIV to their wives or girlfriends. Stop the madness, I say! These mythologies, while based in some truth, need to be retired. And, no, I don’t mean locked away in a closet (pun intended), I mean burned to ash. They are not doing any of us any good.

But since I’ve already written about the media’s obsession with single successful black women, I have no intention of writing about it again. Right now, I need to let loose about the down low mythology that the media seems to have a real jones for at the moment.

From Oprah, to D.L. Hughley and Sherri Shepherd, everyone seems to be harping on about the specter of the disease-carrying, heartbreaker of scorned straight black women: the down low black man. The black man who is ostensibly “straight,” who dates, has sex with or is married to a woman but who also secretly has sex with men. On a class level, he’s often a successful black man, an ideal black man: great career, seemingly has his act together, seemingly responsible, etc. The DL Dude breaks the hearts of women and further breaks their bodies by infecting them with HIV, so goes the rhetoric.

There are multiple problems with this rhetoric:

1. It displays a refusal to acknowledge the existence of bisexuality as a legitimate sexual identity

2. It fallaciously assumes that all closeted black men are dating women

3. It implies that non-heterosexual men, gay or bisexual, are abnormally promiscuous

4. It implies that non-heterosexual men, gay or bisexual, are disease carriers by nature and are responsible for the HIV epidemic in black American communities

First, our country is preoccupied with dualisms and either/or ideas. A person is either gay or straight. Black or white. We constantly demonstrate our narrow-mindedness and fixation on dualisms every time we say Obama isn’t acting black enough or, as the Tea Partiers seem to think, that because he’s “black” (rather than biracial) he only cares about black people. Likewise, we constantly demonstrate our preoccupation with dualisms every time we treat bisexuality like it’s a phase, every time we make movies or TV shows (*cough* The L Word) that erase or vilify or pathologize bisexuality. Personally, I have met very few “straight” people who say they have only been attracted to the opposite sex and very few “gay” people who say they have only been attracted to the same sex. Many people just seem to be attracted to people, but only act on their attractions with certain people (be those certain people of the same sex or opposite sex or both). However, everyone is free to pick their label: straight is no less legitimate than gay. But “bisexual” is less legitimate…apparently.

Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls made that evident (*spoiler alert*) as Jo (Janet Jackson) confronts her husband, Carl (Omari Hardwick), about his sexuality. She has seen him checking out men, on the street, in theater halls, when they are out together. Jo asks him, “Are you gay?” In response, we see the pain on Carl’s face as he seems to be trying to figure out what he is. To society, he’s gay, and ergo, he’s not a man. He seems to plead with himself as he says that he’s a man and he repeats that, just before he finishes with, “a man who likes having sex with other men.” I may be an atypical theater-goer, but I genuinely felt this man’s grief as he tried to answer his wife’s question. I don’t know if I was supposed to feel that or not. Some viewers would say that I wasn’t supposed to empathize with him, that Carl was a typical unsympathetic villainous down low character. Indeed, in some ways he is unsympathetic and outright villainous, and in some ways not. The actor certainly brought a real sort of humanity to the character. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that I was disturbed by the “Are you gay” question.

Don’t get me wrong: it is a legitimate question to ask in a situation like the one between Jo and Carl. But why is “are you gay?” the first question that comes to mind when we find out a person, especially a man, is engaged in same-sex relations? Because we are programmed to believe that a man who has sex with men is a gay man, period. He couldn’t be anything else. There’s no turning back to women when a man let’s another man “bend him over,” as Jo said. Furthermore, when she received no real answer from him, why didn’t she follow up with, “Are you bisexual?” I don’t remember her asking that question (someone who’s seen the film, correct me if I missed that). The absence of this question or the mention of bisexuality effectively erases bisexuality as a legitimate identity in this scene. He is either gay or straight. And he’d better just pick one, rather than go around hurting people. That one little phrase would have added an amazing amount of depth to this scene, to her character and his character because the truth is simple: a man who has sex with men but who also dates and has sex with women might just be bisexual. In other words, he might just be attracted to men and women, perhaps to differing degrees. But the problem is that our culture doesn’t allow men (not even women, really) to express attraction to both men and women. Often time, if a woman finds out a man has been with men or is attracted to men, she doesn’t want anything to do with him as far as dating. And when men find out another man has been with men or is attracted to men, they often immediately label him as gay, whether or not the man has labeled himself that way. Indeed, many men who are attracted to both men and women, feeling pressured to choose either gay or straight, choose one so as to have some sort of identity that is at least acknowledged. I know I was probably bringing too many of my own ideas to the film, but I felt that Carl was going through this very dilemma during the film and especially during this moment.

Secondly, not all down low men are dating women. Some of them just remain single. There’s a thought.

Thirdly, just like Carl in the film, gay and bisexual men (via the down low mythology) are deemed abnormally promiscuous. They sex men anywhere and anytime, whenever they can get it. For instance, in the beginning we see Carl sitting in his car under a bridge, receiving oral sex from another man. We see him and some other dude checking each other out in the theater, while Carl is sitting next to his wife. We see him sneaking in late, obviously having procured some anonymous or random booty from some dude, and slipping under the covers next to his wife. The down low stereotype differs little from general stereotypes we have of gay men (think Queer as Folk and Ricky from Noah’s Arc) as being perpetually sexed by some random dude and/or constantly sexing some random dude. Clearly, as the rhetoric goes, gay men unlike straight men can’t have monogamous relationships. (I’m sure all the straight women are laughing at the irony of that one, as they tick off the number of trifling straight men they’ve encountered.) This stereotype becomes even more exaggerated when the guy is labeled as bisexual (even bisexual women have to deal with the whore stereotype), and it becomes outright vicious when the guy is labeled as a down low man.

This brings me to the fourth point: the viciousness of the down low “whore man” stereotype often receives its articulation through moralistic sermonizing about HIV and AIDS. Homophobia has become so ridiculous in black communities that we’ve decided to dupe ourselves (or let the media dupe us) into believing that the HIV/AIDs epidemic affecting us is due to the presence of down low brothers. It couldn’t possibly be due to lack of education, poverty and lack of access to good health care, and plain old poor personal choices. Nope. The down low brother is a disease, literally, according to the stereotype. Carl, of For Colored Girls, represents the stereotype of the down low man in its entirety: promiscuous, unfaithful, HIV carrier, a veritable killer of black women.

When is this madness going to stop, I ask myself? We have a real deadly epidemic on our hands, and rather than face its root causes upfront so that we can find a workable solution, we’ve (or at least the media) decided to blame it on down low black men. Yes, some black women have contracted HIV from brothers on the down low. But research (and general common sense) has time and again shown that women are contracting the disease from men who are not on the down low (or from men who at least report that they have not had relations with other men). Women are contracting the disease from straight black men. Like real straight black men. You dig? Women are contracting it from drug use and from drug users. Etc. It’s hard to believe that in such a life or death situation, as the current HIV crisis has presented us with, that we’d rather accept a lie than the truth.

I find it even more disgusting that all the people who are storming off about this film, as if it’s the worst thing ever created—marring the reputation of black men, mangling Shange’s beautiful work, and whatever other excuse people find—that few have included any discussions of this obvious problem in the film. Perry’s own mysterious sexuality makes the portrayal even more disconcerting. I hesitate to say that he seemed to be channeling some of his own anxieties and frustrations in the disclosure scene between Carl and Jo, as the camera remains close up on Carl, who looks like he’s on the verge of tears as he talks. But rather than discuss this, many of the bloggers, male and female, seem to feel more comfortable writing Perry off as a self-hating black man and/or a self-hating homo. Either way, their silence on this issue implies, on some level, that they saw no problem with this stereotypical portrayal. In other words, they seem to have a problem with Carl being gay/bisexual (“dang, the black man can’t never get a break! First, he’s a rapist and a gangbanger, now a homo?!) rather than with him being written as a disgusting stereotype of homosexuality or bisexuality: as a disease-carrying, promiscuous, heartbreaker down low black man. As I’ve written before, I love the film. I’ve hated all Tyler Perry productions before this film, but I admit that he gained some of my respect with this film. That does not prevent me from calling the film out on its problematic—perhaps plain homophobic/biphobic—portrayal of Carl’s character. Like Oprah and others, Perry played a broken record with Carl’s character. And let’s just put it this way, that record was wack from day one.

No comments:

Post a Comment