Guest Blogger

Art and Stereotypes: What is a Gay Character?

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 12, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Robert Bettmann is the Artistic Director of Bettman Dances. His new work, 'All Good Men' premieres July 16th and 18th, 2009 in the Capital Fringe Festival. See for more info.

A female friend turned to me a few years ago and said, "You're a dancer! That's so great that you're in touch with your feminine side." It reminded me that my profession is embedded with expectations of gender and sexuality. Dance is not masculine, feminine, straight or gay, but it seems like most people think it is. Why do we see dance as feminine, or gay?

We all live within communities. And so while you could say - for instance - that "Hispanic men like soccer," to do so would be invoking a stereotype, not projecting a reality. In the practice of theater, stereotypes are used. When you go to create a character on stage, you need to project aspects of character from which an audience will 'read' the vision you are trying to create. At the same time, from what I've seen, many artists project the same character stereotypes that their work is seeking to dissolve.

Artists are the visionaries who create the new world (at least that's what it says in our press packets). So while we exist within communities, we are also leaders, responsible for helping others to find a new way, a new truth, and the way away from The Guiding Light. When we pay homage too deeply to existing stereotypes, we lose our ability to express a more complex, holistic humanity.

Art - dance inclusive - has always been a home for the alternative. Artists are 'different.' Today as all members of society jockey for full participation, artists are unfortunately making our own acceptance more difficult by producing work that fetishizes notions of masculine, feminine, straight, and gay. The projection of character and community are complex. To the degree that we as artists prepare the audience to see the world in stereotypes, we perpetuate a society that judges us in the same way.

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Are there essential character traits to being a man? Are there central character traits to being a gay man? It is fine to answer glibly that, yes, being a man means liking beer, sports, and Jessica Simpson, and that being a gay man means liking fashion, wine-coolers and Jake Gylenhall. But in reality, the fetishization of 'gay' characteristics, like the fetishization of 'female' characteristics, pigeon holes not just artists - but also audiences - into oppressive roles.

Being a dancer does not imbue one with a definable character. It doesn't mean that you are sensitive, feminine, gay, or straight. Being gay does not give you a character either. Being a woman does not give one a certain character. Being hispanic doesn't give you a certain character. We still live in a world where smart people (for example Lawrence Summers, recent past president of Harvard University) actually debate whether men and women have the same intellectual possibility. As long as we cling to theatrical stereotypes of masculine/feminine/gay/straight, we give validity to the limits placed on any of those groups.

As audiences, and artists, we owe it to ourselves to allow individual character to overcome community stereotyping.

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Stereotypes frequently do a disservice to those who are caught in a particular stereotype’s grasp. But stereotypes aren’t always bad. They can admittedly be useful as a form of shorthand. As Mr. Bettmann notes, in the world of theater, for example, characters are sometimes narrowly drawn using stereotypes so that the audience experiences immediate recognition. “Oh, he listens to Broadway show tunes, he must be gay,” many may think after a character in a play gushes about his love of musical theater. Yet is it wise to reply upon stereotypes in this way? Or is it laziness? I agree with Mr. Bettmann that both artists and audiences have a responsibility to demand that we move beyond stereotypes. Reliance on stereotypes as shorthand shortchanges those being stereotyped and perpetuates generalizations that can be damaging as well as misleading. Part of truly celebrating diversity is celebrating individuality, something we might all strive harder to do. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of speculating about a male dancer’s sexual preferences, we simply applauded his prowess in his chosen art form?