Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Overlooked in 1998

Sarah Schulman's brilliant critique of the mainstreaming of gay culture

By Jon Garelick

JANUARY 4, 1999: 

STAGESTRUCK: THEATER, AIDS, AND THE MARKETING OF GAY AMERICA, by Sarah Schulman. Duke University Press, 151 pages, $14.95 paperback.

In the December 24 New York Observer, columnist Charles Kaiser calls The Other Side of Silence, by John Loughery, "the most unjustly neglected nonfiction book of 1998." Like a lot of people, I knew nothing about Loughery until I read Kaiser's article, so my vote for "most unjustly neglected" has to go to Sarah Schulman's Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

It's probably no coincidence that these neglected books both deal with gay themes, since gay literature, with a few crossover exceptions, doesn't receive much mainstream attention. "If a book this good had been written about women or Jews or African-Americans," crows Kaiser about Loughery, "the New York Times would have put it on the front page of the Sunday book review, every major American daily would have noticed it, feature writers would have flocked to interview the author, and he would have been ubiquitous on Today and the rest of the occasionally serious talk shows." Well, get in line, Charlie Rose.

Schulman's slim volume claims nothing like the scope that Loughery gives his subject in his 507-page tome, which purports to cover an entire century of closeting and gay-bashing in America. In fact, glancing at Schulman's subtitle, even the most avid deep-think media junkie is liable to sniff "gay studies" and move on to the latest issue of the Baffler. The surprise is how sweeping a punch Schulman packs into this little book. What begins as a j'accuse regarding the plagiarism by composer/ playwright Jonathan Larson of Schulman's 1990 novel People in Trouble, which she says was the source for his blockbuster "rock musical" Rent, evolves into a broad-based analysis of the mainstreaming and marketing of gay culture. Schulman's vocabulary has visionary clarity, and her cultural and political analysis has implications far beyond the gay community she is speaking for. When Schulman is offering her own readings of the broad range of theater that opened during the first season of Rent (from star-packed Tennessee Williams revivals to off-off Broadway basement productions), or analyzing the content of ads and feature articles in gay and mainstream glossy magazines, or deconstructing media depictions of gay life and the AIDS crisis, I'd put her on a par with some of our most provocative cultural critics, gay or straight. Her work here belongs beside the media and advertising criticism of Mark Crispin Miller and Leslie Savan and the pop-culture analysis of Todd Gitlin and Greil Marcus.

In fact, Stagestruck makes clear that it's as inaccurate to call Schulman a "theater critic" or "queer theorist" as it is to call Marcus a "rock critic." Marcus invented his own vocabulary to bring together the language of the rock critic and that of the historian. Schulman is equally resourceful. Her ostensible subject is what she refers to again and again in Stagestruck as the "lived experience" of gay men and lesbians, and she's documented that experience to one degree or another in seven novels and a collection of essays.

It's commonplace these days to talk about the effect of marketing and advertising on American culture. In the '60s, the dominant culture was said to co-opt the ideas of the counterculture. Now, notions like "alternative culture" become obsolete almost as soon as they're born, so quickly are they subsumed by marketing and advertising. In pop culture, we watch Nirvana turn into Stone Temple Pilots and Diesel jeans, the director of Drugstore Cowboy become the director of Good Will Hunting. We take for granted "heroin chic" and the homoerotic coding of Calvin Klein underwear ads. Pointing this out has become a kind of collective cultural reflex, and for rock critics, it's their daily bread -- they must constantly make distinctions between the real and the phony, the authentic and the inauthentic, that which has "cred" and that which Kurt Cobain called "false music."

Many of us rationalize this process as part of the daily cultural ebb and flow, a tradeoff of living in an imperfect society ruled by a market economy -- what is pop culture, after all, but marketing? We've learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Except when someone like Kurt Cobain -- or Sarah Schulman -- gets at issues deeper than pop. For Cobain, those realities combined with his personal pathology to become, literally, a matter of life and death (in his suicide note, he called himself a "faker"). Schulman transcends the very personal agenda of the opening chapter of Stagestruck (in short: Jonathan Larson ripped me off) to make a compelling argument of global proportions -- that the lies of the marketplace mitigate our compassion for marginalized people (blacks, gay men, lesbians) and obstruct any attempts to cure social ills (in short: bad art kills).

What gives Schulman's case more heat than most such arguments is that it comes not from the academy, but from the streets. Schulman's turf is New York's East Village, and in Stagestruck she laments its "violent gentrification." "I am a relic of a disappeared civilization," she writes. "It was filled with varied races of immigrants, homosexuals, working people, bohemians, and artists working in both traditional and emerging forms, most of whom had no institutional training or support." Of her fellow writers from that milieu, she says: "We had learned to write by writing. . . .When we finished writing our books, we learned about publishing by getting them published." This she pits against the network of connections and fellowships in the MFA creative-writing industry, where, as she points out, one is "paying a bribe (tuition) to get contacts with your teachers."

If Schulman's language seems reductive here, it is brilliantly so (Schulman supports herself, in part, on creative-writing teaching gigs). Standard academy-born cultural criticism is not only jargon-laden but often colored by a cool detachment, an "objectivity" that is downright cynical; for your average overachieving graduate-school dweeb, such writing is little more than intellectual gymnastics. "Cultural studies" and "media studies" doctoral candidates preen themselves on their cleverness at dissecting the relationship between American culture and the marketplace, with nothing more at stake than their own fellowships. Nothing exemplifies this attitude more than an essay by Baffler editor Tom Frank that appeared in Harper's last spring. In it, Frank (a product of the University of Chicago) outlined the professional progress of a friend who chose being a rock musician as a "career." Frank gleefully documented the band's rise and fall, from its early, charmingly eccentric indie start to its gradual co-optation and dissolution at the hands of the major-label meat-grinding machine. The piece was titled "Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony."

What was striking about that piece, and what differentiates Schulman's work from it and others of its ilk, is that Frank nowhere credited this musician with an honest, simple urge to make music. In fact, Frank allowed that in a different era, his privileged friend might have gravitated toward "corporate management or perhaps the law." But with Schulman, it's the artistic impulse that's always a given. In fact, she grants that impulse most readily to the man one would think her natural enemy, Jonathan Larson.

Larson's story has been well documented. A composer and playwright, he had written songs for Sesame Street and had some success with a one-man show while supporting himself as a waiter. In February 1996, the night before Rent was to open off-Broadway in a New York Theater Workshop production, he died of an aortic aneurysm. Eventually -- given licensed productions, recording deals, film rights, etc. -- the Larson estate would be valued at $1 billion.

Schulman carefully documents the instances where Rent, credited as a modern rock-music updating of Puccini's La Bohème, borrows from her work: "Basically, Rent had two plots: the straight half was from Puccini, and the gay half was from me." In that gay half, there is a triangle among a straight man, his wife, and a lesbian; the wife in the triangle is an artist who stages a performance to neutralize a greedy landlord who is evicting people with AIDS. In People in Trouble, an Act Up-like organization steals credit cards to buy groceries for the poor. In Rent, ATM machines get ripped off for similar purposes. There's other damning evidence, including hearsay reports that Larson had said he'd read and was even "using" Schulman's book as a source.

Ironically, when she began working on her novel in 1987, Schulman had proposed her own musical treatment, an opera that she and composer Michael Korie pitched as "a West Side Story for the '90s" and "a modern La Bohème" -- the catch phrases that would later be applied to Rent. In another irony, Schulman did not even recognize her material when she saw Rent as a critic for the New York Press. Only later, when a friend asked her about it, did she re-read her novel and see how much of Rent had been lifted from it.

Yet initially, it's not that use of her own material that gets under Schulman's skin, but its alteration. Simply put, in Rent, "straight people are the heroes of the AIDS crisis." In Stagestruck, Schulman reprints her initial review of Rent from the New York Press, almost as a kind of manifesto. "[Always] gnawing at my mind during this play was the now-daily experience of watching gay artists slightly shift or reposition their subjectivity to achieve broader professional success. I am obsessed by this. It is my version of the Kennedy assassination. It is a conspiracy."

This statement -- which shows how Schulman's anger is charged with wit -- serves as the groundwork for the rest of Stagestruck. Larson was not gay, as Schulman initially assumed. But for her, he typifies the tendency in straight depictions of gay life to "normalize" gay experience; to depict AIDS as "a mitigating force on homosexuality, something that makes gay people acceptable"; to portray heterosexuals as the ones who always come to the rescue of AIDS victims. In the movie Philadelphia, which she offers as another example, the gay Tom Hanks character is "saved" by a straight homophobic lawyer and a straight white doctor -- "there is no gay community" or system of support. But in fact, she points out, "Gay lawyers were among the first professional sectors to respond to the epidemic. In other words, not only was the premise of Philadelphia false, it was the opposite of the actual truth."

Such lies become the prevailing cultural norm, says Schulman, and such viewpoints end up being considered "objective." The commercially palatable lie becomes the prevailing truth. It's touching when Schulman finds out more about Larson and realizes that what he presents in Rent is false not merely to her life and the lives of her gay and lesbian friends, but to his own. He was, after all, a composer making his living as a waiter. She gives an example of the East Village video artist in Rent, a straight white man who suffers a crisis of conscience because MTV has called, tempting him to "sell out." Larson's own life ended, Schulman notes, after he twice received incompetent emergency-room care. "In other words," she says, "he died because he was poor." What's more, she concedes, "I am sure that Larson was a composer because he had to be. It was a compulsion inside him that could not be stifled. Given the punishing atmosphere for artists in our society, there is really no other viable explanation." So much for the "crisis" of video-art compromise, and for choosing rock music as a "career."

But Rent -- and the Rent phenomenon -- have overwhelmed the facts of Larson's life. It's become, as Schulman points out, part of a larger American phenomenon in which gays are niche-marketed along with everyone else, misrepresented as buff and rich, even when they appear in ads for AIDS-care medication and products. "The not-so-hidden message behind a great deal of AIDS advertising," she argues, "is that these products will make you hunky, young, and healthy, just like the normal gay people in Out magazine."

It's just another way in which marketing homogenizes American life, flattens not differences but the appearance of differences, so that social problems need not be addressed. We know we're enfranchised citizens when we see ourselves represented in ads. Racially integrated advertising "is a public statement that black people now participate fully in the economy," and the same goes for gays:

Previously, advertising served to repress any signs of the existence of marginal people or of a changing American demographic. Now, with new strategies of containment in place, the existence of most Americans is no longer being denied. Instead it is presented within a context that seductively normalizes the fact of people's lives without actually addressing any of their special needs. That different Americans might have different perspectives, needs, and experiences of American society is subsumed under one representative acknowledgment: that different kinds of Americans have different kinds of products that they can be convinced to purchase.

Indeed, these "different" Americans often don't complain: "It is seductive to see one's self translated into acceptable codes of behavior and therefore depicted in an approving way," Schulman points out, "even if the details are false and the approval illusory. It is something like the way the 'You don't have to be Jewish to eat Levi's rye bread' campaign freed Jewish mothers of the early sixties from having to buy Wonderbread. Now they can eat rye bread without threatening their Americanization, because, for the first time, it came presliced in plastic and Christians were eating it, too." It's in this atmosphere, where the gritty details of gay life are repressed by both gay and straight media while the mere appearance of "diversity" passes for equity, that she is pursuing her "Kennedy assassination."

I've only begun to hint at the scope and rigor of argument in this big little book. Schulman also provides a brilliant survey of New York theater, a summation of the Robert Brustein-August Wilson festivities of a few years back, and some shocking investigative reporting into the loathsome viatical industry (companies that buy life-insurance policies from sick people for a percentage of the return) and the attitudes of gay marketers and magazine editors. And here, her paranoid conspiracy theory comes true: she finds that viatical-company executives, and even the inventor of the HIV home-testing kit, are supporters of anti-gay Republicans.

Schulman's provocative insights -- such as her assertion that "[m]illions and millions of product dollars are earned by convincing white straight young males that they are actually outlaws and therefore not responsible for the system that benefits them" -- left me arguing with her on page after page. At some points I wondered, "Doesn't it do some good to see representations of homosexuality in the mainstream media?" In the end, though -- in a national climate so absurd that a president is being impeached for adulterous behavior -- it's difficult to ignore her. Her suit for plagiarism has been dropped because copyright law covers only the "expression of ideas" and not the ideas themselves (although the dramaturge for Rent recently won a similar claim for an undisclosed amount). Nonetheless, Schulman single-mindedly carries on. (Her recent tackling of high-profile gay conservative Andrew Sullivan in an Advocate interview is a hoot.) Her radical point of view argues for not merely the tolerance of difference, but the embrace of it; she recognizes, in fact, that passive tolerance has become a kind of oppression in itself. Her epigraph to People in Trouble reads: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness." It's from Karl Marx, a writer considered somewhat corny in this postmodern, post-communist era. In Schulman's argument, he sounds right up to date.

Jon Garelick is the associate arts editor of the Phoenix.

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