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Mildred Pierce/Lady Gaga redux


My post of March 25 provoked a number of interesting reactions – comments on the blog, emails and comments in person. Among the blog comments was one from a 28-year-old man who called me out on the relevance of Mildred Pierce.

He pointed out – quite correctly – that pop culture is transient. What’s important and relevant to a person of one generation, may not even be visible to a person of another. Meaning: While Mildred Pierce may be a part of old-fart gay culture (though he was much too polite to put it that way) she likely means nothing to someone in his 20s. Further, and I think he and I agree on this, no one alive today knows who or what from the present will be considered important 100 years from now. Maybe Mildred, maybe Gaga, maybe both. To be honest, probably neither.

So, I’ve been thinking. And reading. (A friend loaded me up with readings – partially completed – on queer theory and gay history.) Here’s where I am. So far, anyway.

History is important. Mildred may or may not be.

Gay history goes all the way back to the beginning. Even though we’ve been comparatively invisible – more so in some periods, less so in others – we’ve been here since before hominids stopped dragging their knuckles on the ground. And written history has documented our presence. That’s important. History places today into relationship with the past. It helps explain a lot of what’s going on now, and helps guide us forward. Gay people – especially those of us who come out late and might be feeling a bit disoriented – need to place ourselves and our community within the context of the larger world.

For one thing, we need to know that while we’ve always been a minority, we’ve not always been despised. Interesting. And encouraging.

On the other hand, we need to remember that while there have been periods of relative openness and tolerance – even celebration – of gayness, these periods have often been followed by periods of repression and suffering. We live in a time of tremendous movement forward toward equality for our community, but it’s essential to remember that history can repeat itself, and the progress of recent decades could be pushed back, even temporarily erased. It has happened before.

History helps us keep it all in perspective.

And, about context? That’s where Mildred – and Madonna and Gaga – come in. Or don’t come in, actually. It seems that Mildred Pierce has lost her context. She’s no longer current, but she’s not history either. She’s sort of nowhere.

Mildred Pierce as embodied by Joan Crawford, is fun – those hats, those eyebrows! – but she’s over. She’s not history in the sense of important concepts and events – think the Fall of Rome, the Magna Carta, George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Stonewall – that must be preserved for the ages. Nor will she likely ever be.

Time has passed Mildred by and it won’t be circling back to pick her up. Same thing is true for Judy, bless her heart. And soon enough, Liza, Barbara, Cher and Madonna will be totally tapped out and joining those other old gals in the cosmic cultural landfill. They’ll all be gone. Before you know it, so will Glee and Lady Gaga. And the 20-somethings of the future won’t even miss them. It may be that gay 20-somethings of the future will be so welcome in the world, they won’t feel the need to stake out their own cultural territory. Who knows what will happen?

So what do I do with all this recently acquired insight? One thing is to thank the young man whose comment helped me re-look at all this. Thanks.

Another is to keep studying gay history and apply the knowledge to how I see myself and my community and our place in the world.

Another is to calm down about 30-year-olds who’ve never heard of the icons that animated the gay subculture of decades past. They may be missing something I think is a gas, but … ehhhh, so what?

And then there’s this: I’m still going to show All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard to anyone I can shanghai and get to watch.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. nanci Reese permalink
    05/16/2011 2:37 AM

    buckle your seat belts we’re in for a bummpy ride.
    the Term “homosexuality” was not even made until late 1800’s or early 1900.
    I think I have told you this before but in either roman or greek times ( I think it was roman) it was normal for an older married man to take a young male as a lover. when the young man grew older he did the same thing. this was “normal”
    In native american culture gay women or gay men -a person of a sex that wanted to do the other sex’s work were called ” Twin spirits”. this was also “normal”.
    I went out an rented All about Eve. then I went on a mae west kick and now I have rented greta garbo in Grand Hotel. the mae west stuff was such a hoot.
    keep going David.
    PS Happy father’s day a little early.

    • 05/19/2011 9:03 PM

      Thanks. Keep reading and commenting.

    • dolphin permalink
      05/29/2011 10:04 PM

      The Greeks weren’t quite has non-chalant about what we think of as “being gay” as they are often given credit for (of course “Ancient Greeks” isn’t as much of a monolitihic culture as we are some time led to believe and different faction certainly held different views), and though nanci’s statement is correct that older Greek men frequently took younger male lovers, those same men were also expected to be married to women and those who chose not were sometimes publicly shamed. That said, their are in fact numerous points in history where same-sex couplings were accepted or celebrated (the native “two-spirits” being a good example, though even those arrangements aren’t really what we think of as “gay” today.), there has even been a Catholic liturgy found that appears to be a ceremony blessing some sort of male same-sex union. Part of the problem in tracing gay history (pre-modern era), is that when more repressive viewpoints have overcome, much of the written record of acceptance has been intentionally destroyed. So we end up finding what we do in little spurts and snippets. Combine that with the fact that all but historians (and often them), have a pretty limited understanding of the often starkly different views on relationships varying cultures have had over time and it can be hard to sy what “being gay” really meant to ancient cultures.

      I don’t really have a point, because I think it’s still really fascinating to learn about the ancient history of same-sex relationships.

      • 05/30/2011 9:09 PM

        I’m in the process of reading a fascinating book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell, a Yale history professor.

        It’s remarkable in part for how current it sounds even though it was written in the 1980s, but also the information about Imperial Rome, where evidence indicates that same-sex relationships, while in the minority, were viewed as being a normal part of life. Also about how a great deal of evidence on this was either ignored or hidden by later scholars, especially in the 19th century. Recommended to read if you haven’t already.

      • dolphin permalink
        05/31/2011 11:13 AM

        I’ll try to check it out Dave, as I haven’t read that one. I almost included in my comments that pre-Christian Rome was actually far more accepting of same-sex relationships than the ancient Greeks were. Ancient Egypt was also generally very accepting. Still, I always hesitate to directly equate same-sex relationships with “gay.” Obviously they are closely related, but the purpose, structure, basis and meaning of sexual relationships is often vastly different from culture to culture (more so when the cultures occupy differing periods in history). Take the Native American Two-Spirits already mentioned. A Two-spirit isn’t a person with same-sex attraction, it’s a person with the spirits of both male and female who takes on the traditional gender roles of the opposite sex from their physical body. In modern Western terms, it’s more akin to being transgender than gay (though even transgender isn’t a slam-dunk definition there). I guess I just think we need to be really careful when describing other cultures with words that were created specifically to describe our own culture. We can lose alot of both accuracy and complexity (and beauty) if we are careless about that.

  2. 05/31/2011 11:18 AM

    True. And, it’s also what makes the study of history so important. We aren’t the only people who’ve lived on the planet, and ours isn’t the only way of looking at things.

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