Merry Christmas fellow queer kids!

As much as I hate using my friends as fodder for this blog, one of my good friends’ comments touched on a subject I think is really important, but perhaps I’ve glossed over in the past: the conflation of gender roles and sexuality.  My friend mentioned how she didn’t like Johnny Depp’s performance in Pirates of the Caribbean because he acted too “gay” to be a pirate.  Ironically, I thought this role was the absolute highlight of his career, specifically because he made the atypical, perhaps slightly effeminate and uncourageous male attractive.  Though the role of Jack Sparrow was never meant to be played that way, Depp’s ability to transform the stereotype of a male pirate into its complete opposite while maintaining his personal sex appeal was nothing short of amazing.  However, my friend’s contrary viewpoint brings up an important concept.

Sexuality and gender presentation are not perfectly correlated, and that is primarily because gender roles are so highly constructed by society.  We talk about this a lot in my Rainbow Speakers Bureau presentations at school- society’s idea of what constitutes a “manly man” or a “womanly woman” is constantly evolving and is very much relative to the culture surrounding it.  This is incredibly evident in many areas, from sports to modeling to high school Proms, but I want to focus on two areas in specific- movies and dance.

Though Johnny Depp is a prime example to the contrary (as he is straight as a pin in Pirates), most of the images we are fed in the media conflate homosexuality with femininity in men.  The examples are less prevalent in the opposite direction for women (as the success of shows like The L Word illustrate), but there are still very clearly defined ideas of what women vs. men should do, act, and say in relation to one another and their sexuality.  To illustrate this, I’ll use The Bechdel test, created by lesbian writer Allison Bechdel, as a criteria for what movies she would go watch relative to women’s gender roles.


The hag from Princess Bride thinks the Bechdel Test is tricky business

  1. There must be more than one main female character
  2. Those female characters must talk to each other
  3. …About something other than a man

It’s incredibly surprising how many movies this eliminates from the Hollywood schema.  But how does this relate to sexuality and gender roles?  Well, let’s put the pieces together- if a woman in a Hollywood movie is primarily concerned with talking about and attracting another man, this prescribes both a gendered role for women (to get men using their feminine wiles) and also a sexuality- straight.  There’s no room in this paradigm for a lesbian.  THEREFORE, because women do A, B, and C (and present themselves in the manner that is consistent with others who do A, B, and C), they are presumed straight.  And by extension, those who do not do A, B, and C, (and who present themselves differently), must be gay.

Similarly with men- a straight man has specific objectives in a given movie (although they tend to be wider-ranging than women’s) — they are tough, strong, confident, independent and have a very clearly defined way of behaving.  Men who act contrary to that (swashbucking, ragingly-sarcastic pirates among them) are considered effeminate and gay.

My point with all this is not simply to say, “well, gosh, that’s annoying, but you should already know this and let’s get on with Christmas already.”  Instead, I want to point out the way this conflation of sexuality and gender roles is poisoning one of our great art forms: dance.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the show “So You Think You Can Dance?”  The show pairs off mostly professionally-trained and rigorously-auditioned dancers to learn routines and perform weekly for a panel of dance critic/teacher/producer/judges.  It’s a very intense process, and the routines incorporate all styles of dance, from contemporary to jazz to ballet to….ballroom.  And here’s where the poison hits.

So You Think You Can Dance has always emphasized the importance of strong, manly physique for its male dancers and made crucial the ideal of an intense, confident, very masculine dance presentation.  This is often very important for contrast with the female dancers, however, it can also be very limiting.  In this season, due to a new competition format, many of the female competitors were eliminated early, leaving a preponderance of male dancers.  When the inevitable ballroom number came up, the choreographers and producers had two options: to embrace traditional gender roles or break them down.

You can figure out from the video which they chose.  For me, this is the poison of conflating gender and sexuality- it becomes so impossible to allow the male to be sensual, to be feminine, to be “other,” that art loses its flexibility.  Which is why I LOVE LOVE this article about Gay Ballroom Dancing in the Gay Games.  It brilliantly illustrates how two men can adapt the idea of gender roles to suit their own needs.  In same-sex ballroom dancing, the lead for the dance often changes between and within numbers- there is fluidity in the roles of the dancers, and thus, the interaction is more organic, more unique, and more vibrant.  And in the case of “Gay Ballroom Dancing,” the emphasis is on gender, not sexuality.  You do not have to be LGBT to dance with same-sex partner, only willing to relinquish your standards of what constitutes male and female roles.  But because society still holds so much stock in the masculine-male, feminine-female dichotomy, it’s unlikely to see much more of this outside of LGBT spaces.

It shouldn’t, however, discourage you from going out and trying some dancing on for size!  The art will only evolve if people push it forward.  So go exert your influence!  I won’t turn you down if you ask me for a dance.  🙂