I wrote this article about Grey Gardens for Newsweek magazine…
If you’re a friend of Dorothy’s, are you somehow duty bound to idolize Judy Garland? If you’re not the marrying kind, are you genetically pre-disposed to find Joan Crawford a role model? And if you bat for the other team why should the news that a 35 year old documentary was to be adapted into a drama have sent shivers of ecstasy and foreboding through your community? Well, that’s what happened when news first leaked out that Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore were to embody the sacred beings that are the Beales of Grey Gardens.
Grey Gardens is not a gay movie, but there is no question that it has a huge and loyal fan base amongst gay men, and little Edie is definitely a gay icon.
But why? What makes one? Who decides? Is there a gay icon award committee? And isn’t the slavish devotion to certain figures by a whole community slightly menacing and spooky? Kind of fascistic?
I have always felt that one of the bad things about gay culture is its tendency to self-ghettoize. Of course at the same time I understand why that happens: we all want to belong. Most gay people, even today, will have lived some of their lives in an environment where their true selves are not tolerated at all – and let’s not forget every gay person in America is living in a country where their government does consider them to be worthy of the same rights as any straight person - so you can understand why suddenly being able to identify with your tribe is a joyous and liberating thing. But here’s my beef: By wearing the same clothes, having the same haircut, listening to the same music and having the same icons as your peers you are not just wearing a uniform but are also becoming it, and the creativity and above all individuality that once was associated with being ‘different’ is watered down or, at very best, homogenized.
Of course usually the characters that we take to our hearts are utterly individual, creative and march to their own tune. Perhaps they are a reflection of who we hope to be? Is that it? But which self-respecting gay man wants to be trapped in a racoon-infested mansion wearing pantyhose on his head?
No, it’s more than just that. If it was just staunch individuals that we vaunted then the gay icon net would have a much larger trawl.
I think it’s pretty simple: gay men of a certain age have a special affinity to people who, like them, have faced adversity, and who, like them, have had to fight to become the person they want to be. This adversity could be drugs, it could be even a fictional adversity in the movies a certain actress might play, it could be a smothering and undermining mother who will not let little Edie go back to New York and live her dreams. But our icons all tend to be vulnerable but strong in the face of adversity, and, of course, stylish in their fight.
And if that sounds a little puerile, remember how potent these icons can be: the Stonewall riots that sparked the gay rights movement happened the night of Judy Garland’s funeral. Talk about the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I mention gay men of a certain age because I have found that the type of icon has changed as the years, and, to a certain extent, the prejudices, have gone by. Nowadays, gay icons tend to be heavier on the fabulousness factor than the conquering adversity thing. Kelly Clarkson’s battle with her record company to allow her inner rocker to shine through seems the biggest struggle that the Beyonce brigade have to contend with. Britney of course made a valiant attempt but is now firmly back in the bipolar closet. So it is to the past we must look to see the women whose struggle is both a reminder of our own and an inspiration to keep up the fight.
At its heart the concept of holding people in high esteem who are strong, independent and spirited is a really positive thing, so why have we cornered the market on them? Why doesn’t the straight world get in on the act? Don’t straight people have to face adversity and long to be able to live lives other than their own, and to be a bit glam?
Sure they do! But maybe it’s a question of semantics. If something has the prefix ‘gay’ it tends to be quite marginalizing. I’m sure there are lots of butch frat boys, preppy Wall St types or hip-hop brothas who loved Wonder Woman and understand the concept of someone having to keep something hidden about themselves, even though it is a strong and beautiful thing. However, we all know how unlikely they are to eulogize knowing that Lynda Carter’s alter ego is a defacto ambassador for gayness.
Which brings me to my last point… Can we stop the gay thing? I am bored with being defined by what goes on in my underpants. I would like to advocate the increased use of the word ‘queer’. Queer isn’t just about where you put your genitals. Queer is about sensibility. So you don’t need to be gay to be queer, indeed some of the queerest people I know are straight. But they think outside the box, and they can appreciate those who don’t necessarily think the way they do. My mum is a bit queer. Obama is definitely queer. Edie Beale is very queer. I think if more people would realise and embrace their queerness, we’d all be the better for it.
At the end of the brilliant new HBO version of Grey Gardens, Little Edie is seen performing her raucous and idiosyncratic cabaret act in a Greenwich village club, reveling in her new found freedom to be who she has always wanted to be. Here’s hoping we all get that lucky.