Thursday, April 7, 2022


The bigotry inherent in Florida’s Republican “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, recently signed into odious law, is in the central premise of restricting schools’ ability to even reference the existence of LGBT+ people as if they are definitionally inappropriate subjects, using vague language that would allow any aggrieved parent to sue teachers directly with accusations. It operates from the assumption that denying youth information about same-sex affection will stop them from developing it. This is further underlined by the bill’s proponents’ and defenders’ falsely claiming with drooling insistence that anyone opposing the measure is inculcating victims in what some still stubbornly believe is a lifestyle choice instead of a simple fact of life. Just when those of us who recognize that romantic and sexual desires are complicated and fluid elements of being alive—even beyond labels of gay, straight, and between—thought that concept had finally lodged into mainstream understanding and acceptance—to look at all reputable polling over the last decade, it has!—these backwards-looking revanchist culture warriors are on the march. Emboldened by the political ugliness unleashed by the worst among us of late, they’re eagerly hoping to reverse the gains of the open-minded plurality and impose their cruel policies and prejudiced views on us all, by any anti-democratic, minority-rule measures they see fit.

Not content with their victorious stuffing the courts to the point where they’re about to end a right to safe, legal abortion in this country, they’re moving in multiple federal and state cases to restrict discussions of race and LGBT+ issues, and making noise about pulling back on interracial marriage and birth control, too. Scary times. These conservative activists—some usual confluence of moral panic, internet trolls, moneyed distraction, and rank prejudice—wish to ignore those who make them uncomfortable. But ignoring people doesn’t make them disappear or die out. There’s that other old homophobic trope—that new gays aren’t born, but recruited. They might be confusing that with right-wing reactionaries. (One must be carefully taught that way of thinking.) Ignoring those ugly ideas hasn’t made them disappear either.

In light of this, what can the movies do? After all, that’s where Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the difference can be made, after employees raised concern that the studio, Florida’s largest employer, stayed uncharacteristically silent about the legislation. Previous CEO Bob Iger at least knew it was better business to say the right things from time to time, and would advocate for humane policies and against inhumane ones, so long as they didn’t ask the company to, say, raise wages for their theme park employees. Chapek instead said they’d stay neutral on attempts to erode civil rights materially and focus on “creating a more inclusive world...through the inspiring content [they] produce.” (Never mind the creatives who later divulged how the corporate brass asked them to downplay gay characters in some projects of late, I suppose.) The symbolic gesture isn’t nothing, and it’s true that representation of all kinds in a good movie can shine a light on oft unseen peoples or circumstances, invite empathy for others, and point people toward possibilities they’d never before understood. There’s magic there. It can’t materially improve conditions, but maybe creates a way of thinking that could help someone feel accepted. A fight for a better world can’t happen only through some well-intentioned movies without actually pushing back on the laws and politicians preventing that better world, or dragging us back toward constricting corruptions of public goods.

Maybe Chapek was thinking about Better Nate Than Ever when he mentioned projects showing “a more inclusive world.” The newest straight-to-Disney+ live-action family movie—the sort of thing that would’ve played in theaters back in the days of Max Keeble’s Big Move or Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, though it’s smaller and thinner and more in line with the Disney Channel Original Movies of the time—is a cute comedy about a flamboyant middle schooler with big Broadway ambitions. The theatrical boy (Rubey Wood) hears about auditions for child actors to play in an upcoming stage adaptation of Lilo & Stitch so, when his parents leave him with his butch brother (Joshua Bassett) for the weekend, he sneaks off with his best friend (Aria Brooks). They get to the Big Apple, where luckily they run into his estranged aunt (Lisa Kudrow, funnier than the material deserves) who reluctantly helps him stay for his chance at treading the boards. Much prolonged silliness ensues.

The movie never quite says gay, but it’s all over the broad sitcom antics—the squeaky-voiced boy loves Designing Women in addition to show tunes and constantly undercuts the heteronormativity of his lumbering brother. (When older bro glowers that it’s unfair his younger sibling can sleep over at a girl’s house, their father admits, Nate’s not going to get in trouble with that.) And it’s in the wide-eyed naive showbiz stardust sparkling over everything. So it’s a sweet little movie with its heart in the right place—even if its corporate synergy says everyone is equal…in that they’re able to experience the magic of Disney. (Surely not a coincidence there’s a live action Stitch in the pipeline, natch.) Even the setbacks are bright and buoyant and no underdeveloped sadness can last. Writer-director Tim Federle—of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series—gives the thing an up-tempo glossiness and squeaky-clean simplicity. There are modest musical numbers, some gentle joking, and an ending calculated to give the kids who’ll see themselves in such a picture the self-esteem boost needed. I wasn’t entirely unmoved to see this plucky kid succeed. I’m glad it exists for those who’ll find in it permission to be themselves.

For those of us wanting more introspection engaged in the thorny difficulties of exploring one’s sexual orientation, and of coming out—to oneself, as much as to family, friends, and the world at large—there’s Jarrod Carmichael’s latest stand-up special: Rothaniel. In it, the 35-year-old comedian, perhaps most famous for The Carmichael Show, his excellent three-season multi-cam comedy on NBC from a few years ago, reveals that he’s gay. That drops early in the hour. The rest is a reckoning. He arrives there after a winding preamble about his family secrets, including the affairs of both of his grandfathers and his father, with the attendant sense of betrayal and complicity he felt in holding that in. He goes on to unravel how various family and friends reacted to his revelation. The hour covers a lot of ground: his internalized homophobia, how his sexuality interacts with his Christian faith, how he senses friction from some family members. Even loving responses can feel cold when it’s wrapped in layers of disappointment, distance, or confusion. He tip-toes up to explicit confessions, crosses lines and then slips back, a little embarrassed he waited so long, or divulged so much, but recognizes the complicating factors of social structures and family expectations that constructed his closeted years. This isn’t easy.

It is personal material, often going stretches without punchlines, amusing only for Carmichael’s natural easygoing charm. He has the same sitcom brilliance in his delivery he did on his show, shades of Lear (Norman, not King), that let him get away with provocative political needling without losing the aw-shucks, All in the Family, real talk, just-having-fun thinking-out-loud magic trick. Somehow it’s also still so real and immediate and raw, a sense of an unfolding personal extemporaneous working-out of deep emotional pain and promising release. The balancing act wobbles and teeters at times, but never quite steps off. And he never loses a sense of the audience reaction. He plays to them even as he slips into impromptu therapy. And he has a killer last line in his back pocket the whole time, even as you might wonder where he’s going. Even as he might be, too. He knows it’ll land, even if he’s not sure where he will. He talks himself into a more truthful language of his being.

In this way, Carmichael turns in on himself as he comes out. The filmmaking by director Bo Burnahm emphasizes the effect of the spotlight in intimate closeups as the intensity of the bulbs cause a heat that fades colors and washes out the background into a milkiness. The camera also draws attention to Carmichael’s posture as he speaks, sometimes even interacting with a largely unseen crowd that’s rapt and a little off-balance, sometimes shouting out questions or affirmations at him. He sits in a folding chair, often leaning back, other times shrinking into himself, slouching, his hand sometimes running over his face and neck or teasing his collar in a nervous fidget. He’s the center of attention, suddenly his full self in the public eye for the first time. It’s the opposite, then, of Burnham’s excellent mad musical comedy of indoor pandemic creative expression Inside; you could call this Out. Carmichael’s not sure what he’ll do there, but the very fact of speaking the truth about himself creates a power, and a permission, to grow into the man he is before our eyes. And maybe that’s what scares the people who, as George Eliot once wrote, “would have every man's life ordered according to a particular pattern, and…are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them.” In this special, a man explains an existence that can’t be ignored.

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