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October 2, 2020

A Way to See Netflix’s New Boys In The Band Without Identity Politics

by Patrick Hurley

Postmodernism, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a set of critical, strategic, and rhetorical practices…meant to destabilize concepts such as identity, historical progress, and epistemic certainty.

Netflix's The Boys in the Band gets a poster

There has been a collapse, as Nietzsche predicted between the real and the apparent. And the postmodern critic, though this may be an outdated term in the year 2020, focuses on unfair power structures such as issues of race, class, the effect of radical capitalism, and oppression as the real impediment to “apparent” progress. For example, things that are long considered truths can be questioned if the source of that truth is a straight, white man- someone from the dominant, and therefore, corrupt top of the totem pole. Groups that are “marginalized” must be held to a different account. They must be afforded a different morality, and we must see them as a collective. Individuality is disappearing, under the guise of justice. Authoritarian ideals, utopian disillusionment, and cultural dysmorphia have moved past fringe ideas and are now becoming mainstream.  So much so, that the non-postmodern critic doesn’t even seem to be a thing anymore. So, in the void, I wish to stand as a voice that can examine cultural artifacts through a lens that isn’t demanding that I ignore facts, reduce individuals to a set of group criteria, or police my own language for fear of “harming” people.

I begin with a look at the new Netflix film version of Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band. I saw the 2018 revival, heavily influenced by my own myopic identity politics. I didn’t like it very much because I thought it was a bad representation of gay men. It seemed to be perpetuating only stereotypes, and I couldn’t understand the need to remount this antiquated piece. In my mind it was a stunt-casted purely pecuniary endeavor. I missed the point. So, as a newly recovering postmodernist, I watched the film from a new perspective, and I was surprised what I found. And my enjoyment of the piece, though not without a minor complaint here and there, was refreshing.  But this isn’t just a review of the film. It’s an understanding of how, as a gay man, I should view the film, and also a commentary on how far down the rabbit hole of identity politics we may be.

I watched the film, and then I read quite a few reviews, just to see where my impressions landed among other viewers. And I’m going to refer to the first three I read. I read reviews from NPR, The New York Times, and The AV Club. These are three publications whose film reviewers I respect and read frequently. And this is not meant as a criticism of these publications nor the reviewers. It is an examination of a larger issue that they are now vehicles for. An issue that I wish to stand on the other side of, not to play contrarian, or devil’s advocate, but as a lifelong student, to question, to seek a different opinion.  

First is NPR. The following was written by critic Glenn Weldon:

“The Netflix film is content to let Crowley’s play remain a perfectly preserved artifact from a bad time, without struggling to impose contemporary parallels or meta-meanings atop it. And that’s the right impulse. Because it so ruthlessly targets the least flattering aspects of gay men’s inner lives, it doesn’t need to be topical. But it will always be relevant.”

What Mr. Weldon seems to be suggesting is twofold. First, that this piece stands as a time capsule of a bygone era, that he calls, a “bad time.” That makes sense. Second, that contemporary gay men will understand the unflattering inner-lives of the characters without any need for commentary on it. Why is this true? Because as representatives of gay men, they must speak for all of us? Is self-hate a symptom all gay men have? We have to think so, under the current acceptable wave of thinking, because groups must represent all of their members. What is not really mentioned in this review is perhaps the bigger question of representation. The modern-day critic, as Mr. Weldon is, uses given circumstances of acceptable cultural norms. And so, there is a level of assumption a writer can make when formulating his or her thesis. Mr. Weldon, like most critics today, understands identity politics and the deconstructionist aspects of postmodernism that vilifies some and victimizes others. We can see him do this by his frequently pointing out the dangers of heteronormative, white narrative devices, such as his interpretation of gay victimization which he describes as “the poor pitiable (gay) soul that the straight, white male hero must vanquish.” He is leaning on a true literary trope that doesn’t really exist any longer, but that we all are supposed to understand is true. He rightly points out that Crowley’s play, as other homosexual writers at the time, did not rely on the straight, white hero to interrupt the world and save anyone. But this is the exception that proves the rule. The dominant culture is absent, so the gay men in the story, are in a vacuum they cannot be rescued from. But he fails to recognize that everything he’s referring to is not about being gay, but rather human. The gap could be bridged because anyone with an ounce of humanity understands low self-esteem and self-hate. There are two ways to see Michael’s (Jim Parsons) fate. The postmodern way, which says that because he is in a group with no autonomy he is therefore un-savable. Or, that the significance of the piece is that it plays not to the cultural identity of a group, but the desperation of an individual lost in the idea of another group. Michael cannot be happy because he longs to be a part of a group that’s not his. When Michael reaches his breaking point, his cathartic realization is accompanied by the word “we,” as if there is a universal gay experience that he is emblematic of. Or, the “we” are the gay men in his life, and is not meant to extend to every gay person, but to his experience. This is so important for 1968, because the gay group was not something that had really been represented yet. But this is not a clinging to victimization, which is so often the go-to narrative of the 21st century. This play saw these men as victims of real oppression, of real systemic bigotry, and they were fighting for equality, not power.  The postmodern ideal of wanting to be a victim hadn’t been realized yet, because gay men were still actually being victimized by a good portion of society. This is not true now. So much progress has happened that we have to contextualize to understand much of this piece, and isn’t that a glorious thing? But what’s even more interesting  is that in the absence of this glorifying of victimhood, this piece stands solidly on its own as a reminder of progress, but also a personal story that need not be emblematic. It was 1968, the world was about to change. Gay men needed the safety of one another, and very often had to fight to be seen as equal. This might be true for some people, but they are the exceptions now. Flash forward fifty years, and the idea that a “gay” group is necessary to thwart oppression and create “safety” is kind of preposterous now.  Again, it’s not a hundred percent, I’m not claiming every gay man has it easy, I’m saying victimization of gay men has been decreasing ever since this play debuted, and we should embrace and celebrate that.

Patrick Gomez of AV Club, one of my favorite publications of film criticism, said in his review, “Boys doesn’t tell every queer man’s story.” And at first, I considered this a fair statement. And this is not an attack on Mr. Gomez, whose thoughtful review of the film is quite a good read. The issue is with the postmodern idea that “queer” is first of all an umbrella term meant to replace “gay,” which is in and of itself fine, because one could argue that the term applies to a larger group of people, it’s more inclusive, and we should work toward minimizing labels. Sadly, I don’t think this is the reason the word queer is being used. The word gay is too often considered “white,” and “male.” These are two words that a politically correct writer should avoid unless they are criticizing them. Political correctness in language, especially when referring to a minority, is at an all-time level of irrational, and so writers are being extra careful not to use offensive language lest they harm someone. But if we look at the simple line that he wrote in the review, can we really come up with a good reason he had to write it? This isn’t a story about a group of people, as much as we have been trained to look at representation as all-inclusive, it’s about Michael. There is a clear protagonist, and the very idea that “queer” men would even consider that this is their story, undermines the authorial intent and immediately invalidates his voice. Should we ever think any story about a minority is meant to represent the entire minority? Why add that line?  We are looking for ourselves in pop culture, that is true, it is a phenomenon that has been increasing since Film, Television and the Internet began to occupy most of our time. But this is where postmodernism, more specifically identity politics loses me, and does so because it veers off the road of equality and barrels forward down the road of victimization. Because looking for yourself in pop culture is not the same as finding yourself.  Finding yourself in a character should be universal, and I should be able to see myself or aspects of me in any human being, of any color, male or female, gay, straight, transgender, or any other. Human beings are not different because of biological markers.  Suggesting a gay character can only be like me or its illegitimate is nearly the road we’re on now.  

Therefore, the need to explain that this fifty-year-old piece of writing, which was groundbreaking in its time, needs to be viewed contextually, as all writing should, was added to this review, I think, because to see “queer” we are to assume it must be speaking for all of us. By this logic, we’re left with an understanding that, for those of us who are “queer” men, this is a true representation of who we all used to be. And instead of saying, look how far we’ve come, we’re supposed to say, look how badly I was treated.  Representation in pop culture is necessary, but if we’re to believe that every “queer” character must be representative of every queer person, that this piece of writing is a voice for an entire group of millions of people, we’ve lost the fight for equality, and replaced it with a fight for conformity. It’s an impossible task, where all we’re being trained to see are the negatives. Mr. Gomez’s review ends with the following:                                                    
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the fight for LGBTQ rights, but many young queer people are still left with only their chosen family after coming out. Hopefully in another 50 years the story of Boys In The Band will seem woefully antiquated. For now, it’s a necessary reminder of how far yet how little we’ve actually come.” Look how badly they treated us.

The bitterness of these words are clearly true in one aspect. There are many people who still face rejection and hatred due to their identity. However, do we really see this piece as a reminder of that? Is that the point of this production? Maybe it is, and I may be completely wrong. But since art is subjective, let me posit an opposing theory. Boys in the Band is a story that takes place in 1968, when gay men had to fear the world around them. But their internal struggles are not just about being gay, they are about not being straight. Michael especially, is desperate to feel “normal.” This piece is actually a reminder of why groupthink is bad! His unhappiness stems from his desire to be one of the herd. Let us not walk away from this film with the idea that gay men had it so bad, but that progress has afforded us the right to stand apart. The progress needs to be more important than the stasis. Because there hasn’t been stasis. Postmodernist critiques demand victimization. It’s not a negative aspect of the reviewer him or herself, it’s required by cultural expectation. It happens in nearly every review of everything that has a minority involved, and sometimes even when it doesn’t. White, straight narratives will be criticized so much harsher than others, because they are the victimizers. If one person is still homophobic, we all still suffer. This is illogical, and we will never stop finding it. Bigotry will never be completely gone. This group mentality of vitimization is destroying art, free speech and education. The critic’s job now is to find the negatives. Yes, we’ve made progress, but it’s not enough. First of all, the use of the “we” is actually not helpful. Who are “we?” It seems quite clearly that all the new labeling makes society more and more like high school, where you have to find your clique, or you’ll be castigated. More labels, more policing of language, all of this leads to less progress. God forbid, you speak against the idea of a group, or point out the positives without the unfortunate reminder that unless you are a straight, white male you must cling to whatever victimhood you can.

Glenn Kenny’s review in The New York Times poses at its thesis the following: “The Film aims to compel viewers to ask, how far have we come, really?” The review doesn’t attempt to answer this question, nor does it even really refer back to it. It’s just a given circumstance at this point, that anyone who watches anything dated and  “queer” must ask this question. I assume the same goes for black, Latino, Asian, or any other minority writing that was written in a different era. How little progress have we actually made? So, what I think Mr. Kenny gets wrong in this sentence is the bit about the film compelling the viewers. It seems pretty clear that as the audience we are supposed to be looking for the negatives, the film doesn’t have to do anything but exist. 

As I read more and more reviews, I kept coming across this idea over and over again, that there is still so much work that needs to be done. The belief is that the world is made up of those with power and those who are hurt by those with power. This is as reductive as you can get. If a group is marginalized, then they must be protected from looking bad. I don’t know what this means, but I know the coddling that I read in these reviews was not insignificant. There’s a kind of protection of minorities that comes across as placating, much like when a college removes entrance exams to make it easier for minority students to get in. Are they saying minority students are not intelligent enough to get in like white students? No, of course they can’t say that. They say, the tests are racist. They were created however long ago to keep minorities from succeeding. This kind of thinking is harmful. Shaming anyone for a generation you don’t come from is illogical. And suggesting someone’s agency relies on you removing their “barriers,” is just flat-out racist. I don’t think Mart Crowley wrote this play to make straight people feel badly about themselves. I don’t think he wrote it to suggest that all gay men are the same. I think it was written, and this film holds onto a personal story of a man stuck in a time and a way of being that seemed impossible to get out of. But it wasn’t. And the hindsight with which we can view this makes the bittersweet realization of progress all the more fascinating. Particularly as Jim Parson’s digs his heels into Michael’s desperation with no irony, and no foreshadowing. He has truly trapped himself, and it is a marvelous performance.  

The film itself is quite good. It’s a bit claustrophobic which helps and hinders certain moments. The cast is great, though the bulk of it sits on Parson’s incredibly capable shoulders. It stands as a personal story, with a great amount of universal appeal. Yes, it’s broad, it’s melodramatic, and a bit sentimental at times. This is where contextualization is most helpful. Crowley, like a painter, used a gigantic canvas, because it was among the first of its kind, and you can’t really paint a clear picture on so large a canvas with a tiny brush. The brushstrokes are big, they’re colorful and they’re sometimes messy, but the result is meant to be seen from far away, not up close. If we dig into the subtext of the play, we lose the message. We’re all human. We all want to be loved. We all need to feel like we belong. There’s nothing more than that here. These men have found each other, and they want to connect to one another. So stay on the surface and revel in the big colorful mess that is the human condition.

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