6.23.2009

The Sanjaya Effect

When I was in middle school, 7th graders had recently invented a word of worse-than-dubious etymology: wigger. The term denoted a white person who "acted black." In retrospect, it's interesting to note how easily the word caught on, and how little confusion there was about its meaning. There is, of course, one awful problem with the word. But there is simultaneously a kind of problematic insight embedded in the word--the word seems to ask a question: can white people act black? Is black not a skin color, then, but a behavior?

Plenty of contemporary academics have essentially said, "That's right: race is about culture." And all the way back to Mark Twain, who deconstructed "race" in Puddn'head Wilson, American thinkers have appeared occasionally who undermine the foundational category itself.

Which brings me to Sanjaya Malakar. Sanjaya has been featured on my favorite summer television program, I'm a Celebrity... Get me Out of Here.

Sanjaya's not black. But--to employ another problematic neologism from the 1980s or so--my gaydar was going off. But Sanjaya has really taken to Heidi Montag's less ridiculous sister, Holly. They're friends, and when asked if they are more than friends tonight in an exit interview, Sanjaya blushed.

"Wait--," I said to my wife on first hearing that Sanjaya might like Holly, "Isn't he gay?"

Whether Sanjaya's gay or not is actually aside from the point. What I want to ask is whether there is anything "natural" or necessary about the behavior patterns associated with homosexual masculinity. Do some gay men "act straight?" And more importantly, do some straight men (Sanjaya) "act gay?"

Like "acting black," "acting gay" will be impossibily difficult to define, and will probably be best left undefined. But most people would admit(again: problematically!), if they are honest, that they kind of understand the concept of "gaydar." I wonder if 8th graders have invented a questionable term to denote the behavior of a straight guy acting gay. (Strays?)

In some respect, this is an even more interesting development than white people adopting pieces of black culture. Sanjaya claims that being raised by women probably contributed to his apparently gay-culture behavior patterns. More interesting because even after racial behavior stereotypes began to unravel, skin color still served (unreliably) as an indicator. If gay and straight behavior patterns begin to merge, there may not be any alternate indicators.

Frankly, I think this is a pretty neat development. Any thoughts? Does what I'm saying/asking sound reasonable? Is it too "dangerous?" (Is it offensive?)

6 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Hmm... I wish I could offer a strong response either way, to any of the questions, but I'm not sure I'm feeling it. Here's a few quickies:

1. Since my CD/tape collection in 7th grade consisted primarily of NWA, Ice-T, Run DMC, Erik B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, and Grandmaster Flash, I am familiar with that term to which you refer. I don't really feel comfortable using it anymore.

2. "Gaydar" probably is offensive, but I would like to argue that the dissemination of gaydar, along with the blatant kind of homosexuality projected by TV shows such as Queer Eye and Will and Grace are probably necessary as a kind of social transformation. In essence "its ok to be gay as long as we normal folk can clearly distinguish you." Hopefully this social identification/performance will evaporate.

On a related note, this makes me think of Jim Brown's recent critique of Tiger Woods, that, essentially, Woods isn't "black enough" when it comes to public activism. As other commentators point out, Woods is perhaps the most active athlete when it comes to charitable donations. Brown reflects a charged and Modernist political era that required clear group identity. WI would argue that Woods reflects a more postmodern approach to race that simply refuses to explicitly treat it as a category. I don't think any sports fan in their right mind would deny that Woods' 9 shot victory at Augusta in 1997 wasn't surrounded by racial "controversy." But Woods simply let his play do all the talking (Leahy and I have discussed this before) while ABC's directors chose to show all those shots of old white guys politely clapping and desperately trying to hold back a scowl.

I guess I've strayed a bit away from your question here, but I guess I want to hold onto the possibility that we can, like Tiger Woods, resist categorization and try to be good humans before we are a good X, Y, or Z.

Wishydig said...

but i think you're not quite understanding gaydar. it's not the ability to see when somebody is acting gay. it's the ability to see when somebody IS gay regardless of how they act. or regardless of the ability to identify which behaviors are triggering it.

whether or not it's real... meh.

"If gay and straight behavior patterns begin to merge, there may not be any alternate indicators."

I can think of some indicators that are pretty ironclad. unless we start changing the definition of homosexuality.

Casey said...

Wrangler, you said:

"its ok to be gay as long as we normal folk can clearly distinguish you." Hopefully this social identification/performance will evaporate.

I sense that you're speaking in the hegemonic mainstream voice there, right? But do we hope that the cultural difference will evaporate? Why? Is gay identity any more or less performed than straight identity? I don't have answers here... just wondering.

But I see what you mean about resisting categorization -- hey weren't we just talking about that on your blog somewhere? Categories?

Wishydig: that's too obvious. I was thinking of the case where I can't tell whether the checkout-guy at the store is gay or not... whereas, even when black people started acting white and white people started acting black, skin color was still there.

Anyway. Hm... nothing clear, as usual, around here.

Wishydig said...

too obvious for what?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Casey - Yeah, the quotes are a definite attempt to distance myself from that sentiment. I'm not necessarily calling for the cultural difference to evaporate-- if I understand what you are asking. I am not expecting gay and straight culture to merge or anything. I'm just hoping uptight people can stop castigating things other than themselves. No doubt straight people "perform" sexuality and gender as much as "gay." Aristotle said it--we learn through mimesis. I feel this conversation calls for so many scare quotes as to loose any hope of meaning anything at all.

@wishy- where are you pulling that specific meaning for "gaydar" from? I lack your linguistic expertise, and I've honestly never spent more than 30 seconds contemplating its meaning (and that was the 30 seconds after reading your comment). I guess I would argue that "gaydar" does refer to perceivable characteristics, mannerisms, behaviors to make a positive assessment...

Casey said...

Too obvious for... I forgot. I think you were saying that a person's sexual behavior will still be a marker of difference. But I was suggesting that's usually a private thing, and if there aren't clues like having a good eye for interior design (forgive me) then there wouldn't be any outward way to tell who is gay and who is straight.

And I suppose you could argue that it's already that way -- I'm sure it is. But are you arguing there's no reliability in "gaydar" (ech... that word does sound worse the more I type it).

Wait, what?