Milking It

The pleasures and potential dangers of the It Gets Better videos
by Tom McCormack  posted December 6, 2010
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The most significant meme of the year probably wasn't an epic fail caught on a cell cam, nor a gonzo Japanese commercial, nor a ridiculous cat, nor anything particularly funny or ironic or Schadenfreude-ish or any of the other qualities we've come to associate with self-proliferating online distribution. It was, rather, a series of earnest, crowd-sourced videos telling LGBT youth that It Gets Better.

The project originated back in September when the author and syndicated columnist Dan Savage blogged about Billy Lucas, yet another gay youth who had killed himself. A commenter chimed in: "I wish I could have told [Billy] that things get better." Sympathizing, and realizing the possibilities afforded by the Internet and video-hosting technologies, Savage came up with the It Gets Better Project. He wrote:

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids. So here's what you can do, GBVWS: Make a video. Tell them it gets better.

In support of his project, Savage quoted Harvey Milk's famous slogan, "You gotta give 'em hope." But putting the It Gets Better Project next to Milk, or at least the Milk of Gus Van Sant's biopic, makes for an interesting contrast.

There's a key scene in Van Sant's film where Milk is called away from a party to answer the telephone. A teenager from the Midwest has found his number:

Paul: I'm sorry, sir. I read about you in the paper.

Milk: I'm sorry, I can't talk right now.
Paul: Sir, I think I'm gonna kill myself.

Milk: No, you don't want to do that. Where are you calling from?
Paul: Minnesota.

Milk: You saw my picture in the paper in Minnesota? How did I look?
Paul: My folks are gonna take me to this place tomorrow. A hospital. To fix me.

Milk: There's nothing wrong with you—listen to me: You just get on a bus, to the nearest big city, to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, it doesn't matter, you just leave. You are not sick and you are not wrong and God does not hate you. Just leave.

Here we have two very different responses to the specter of suicide. One, an assurance that things will get better; the other, "just leave." There are a few complicating factors, of course; one being that many of the recently publicized LGBT suicides may have been too young to make running away a viable option. And then, as happens when something like hitchhiking comes up, people argue that the world is more dangerous today than it was in the past. That could be, but it's likely that runaways face many of the same problems. Van Sant's Milk doesn't skip over—but also certainly doesn't dwell on—the fact that many of the young characters in the film turn, or had turned, tricks. We can hardly suppose that in recommending fleeing home, the possibility of the kid turning tricks wouldn't occur to the world-weary Milk. How else would he make ends meet, at least at first? Of course, we should remind ourselves that this was taking place before the discovery of HIV.

But still, the shift from Just Leave to It Gets Better is symbolic of a larger shift in queer politics, and in progressive politics more generally, away from a radical leftism that rejects middle-class values and toward a more accommodating liberalism. A shift away from idealism and toward pragmatism, away from a belief that contemporary life is, or can be, absolutely intolerable (better to be a hustler than to have Christian nuts trying to reprogram your hard-wiring) and toward a belief that it merely requires tweaks, adjustments, reorganization. Milk didn't believe his life actually started until he came out—closeted life was, for him, a kind of unyielding psychic death, and sacrificing the bourgeois comforts of hearth and home to really be alive for the first time was not beyond the pale. Now, we're uncomfortable with such absolutes, and besides, to talk about something like not living on the streets as a "bourgeois comfort"—like I just did—is to be seen as, at best, presumptuous and, at worst, morally irresponsible.

Temperamentally, I admit, I'm with the new age of chillaxed, skeptical liberals. I'm more comfortable with contemporary identity politics than those of yore. On any given day, I'd prefer the playfully indignant assessments of third-wave feminism to the outraged manifestos of the 1970s. Latter-day feminists set me at ease—part of their project is bringing guilt-ridden white men like me into their fold—while the old guard can unsettle me. Contemporary liberalism is so soothing, while radicalism is so not soothing. And now there's not much radicalism out there. It's a familiar story: the fall of the Soviet Union roughly coincided with broad decisions by many progressives to abandon militancy (no more of this chic posturing), basically make nice with popular culture (don't be a snob, embrace camp), and generally court the middle class (just get them policing themselves, especially on matters of language). Unsurprisingly, the new attitude won out. It appealed to some older folks who'd found a measure of wealth and security later in life, and had massive appeal for those of us who came of age with some womb-conjuring end of history apparently on the horizon and were happy to hear that we could have relaxation, entertainment, and luxury while still fighting the forces of oppression. Temperamentally, I'm still happy to hear that. 

Temperamentally, too, I love the It Gets Better videos. Really love them; as in, I've watched many of them multiple times and teared up and felt that warm, too-full feeling; that inner hug rising from the bottom of my stomach up to the back of my throat; that feeling I get when I'm convinced I'm in the presence of something significant, important, urgent, real. Which is exactly what makes me, member of a generation raised on irony and self-doubt, suspicious of these videos.

I'm not entirely sure of the effect the It Gets Better videos are having on LGBT youth throughout the country. It's conceivable, even probable, that they are doing unimaginable good, possibly literally saving lives. But I am sure of how these videos are functioning among young, liberal, educated urbanites like myself: they're comfort food. Not only do they offer bite-sized personal narratives of perseverance and triumph, they also offer a chance to momentarily step into the role of disadvantaged LGBT youths stranded in unwelcoming communities and to get a glimpse not so much of their suffering but of the ineffable happiness their future lives hold. Added to that, their future-tense happiness sometimes seems suspiciously correlated to finding and making friends with... young, liberal, educated urbanites. The liberal city-dweller is allowed a Clintonian "I feel your pain" moment, without actually having to feel any pain, and, as a bonus, is told that these kids will be just fine—when they move nearby.

It's obvious that the It Gets Better videos are treating a symptom, not the disease. Like the suicide hotlines they sometimes recommend, the videos are an emergency measure; and like those hotlines, their use should be an indicator that there's an emergency.

When corporations like Pixar come out with these videos they're praised for their bravery, but it's just as easy to see opportunism. Suicide is just about the least polarizing of issues, so how brave to come out and take a stand against it. If Pixar is really behind the LGBT community, why don't they come out with a video against Don't Ask Don't Tell and in favor of legalizing gay marriage? Or, for that matter, have their lobbyists in Washington throw some weight around?

Then again, DADT and the illegality of same-sex marriage are themselves symptoms, the legal and material base of an ideological superstructure woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness that it becomes difficult to imagine exactly when and how, big-picture-wise, things will get better. As has happened frequently with racism and sexism, advancements in the law may end up quieting a discussion that should be just beginning. It's conceivable that, in the very near future, DADT will be repealed and same-sex marriage legalized, at least in most places, and that these things will have the support of a majority of Americans. But when talking about basic human rights—and basic human decency—a majority is basically a sorry thing to celebrate. It's a hurdle to pass, and perhaps a landmark, but no kind of ultimate goal. Which is something that becomes very clear when one considers a) that many of the people who support the repeal of DADT and legalizing same-sex marriage really do so with a laissez-faire, as opposed to actually accepting, attitude and b) that the most hateful people seem to be very good at forming communities that stand apart from the tides of modern, liberal America, and that these communities don't seem to be changing at all, or if anything, are becoming more extreme, or at least more vocal, because they feel so alienated from and pissed off at modern, liberal America. What's more, these communities are the very places where many troubled LGBT youth are located and where LGBT people will continue to be born and live for many, formative years. All of which ignores that fact that even if public discourse somehow shifted to being universally pro-LGBT, homophobia would almost certainly linger the way racism and sexism linger; championed by a few, unspoken but thought by many, and unconscious but internalized by most.

What would really shake things up is if corporations and politicians—like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, to name just three who have made It Gets Better videos—would all make videos recognizing that these bullies are merely acting out the systematic and institutionalized forms of symbolic violence regularly directed at the LGBT community. These corporations and politicians should come out and tell the country that those of us whose minds aren't warped by hate will no sooner countenance intolerance than the fanatics themselves seem to countenance tolerance. That religion and tradition are as good an excuse for homophobia as they are for racism and that to defend homophobia under the guise of religious tolerance degrades this country's tradition of religious tolerance.

Sarah Silverman made a video—an uncharacteristically joke-less indictment of American culture's homophobia that ended with the j'accuse, "[the bullies] learned it from you"—that could serve as a model for future celeb appearances.

But videos like that offer no real closure, no neat reassurance. All they can give the viewer is a faint glimmer of hope flickering way off in the distance, some inkling of a potentially realizable but practically unimaginable future. They leave viewers feeling, in other words, something like how I imagine a lot of those bullied LGBT youths must feel when told what joy and happiness their future lives hold. It's probably true that a lot of their futures do hold joy and happiness, and it could very well save their lives to hear that—but we should keep in mind that by the time of their theoretical joy and happiness there's going to be a whole new generation of stranded, isolated young people. And that all those LGBTs living within accepting communities in large, urban areas will still most likely effectively be second-class citizens.

I know Savage wasn't trying for a cure-all when he initiated the project, just reasonably reaching out to at-risk young people. And I realize that he did a great thing. I'm not arguing that the videos are bad—they're good—but the extent of some people's infatuation with them, as evidenced by their viral spread on blogs and social networking sites, troubles me. Comfort food isn't bad in and of itself, but it is not, finally, nourishment, and one makes a grave error in mistaking it for such. To those of us who are not isolated LGBT youths, which seems to me to account for a large segment of the It Gets Better audience, the videos are above all outstanding entertainment; they involve you, rivet you, move you. I can't help feeling that the embrace of them is just another sign of an entertainment-obsessed culture, one that would rather hide the symptom than face the disease, one that prefers the quick fix to the long haul. It's a feel-good culture and the It Gets Better videos offer just what we're looking for.

The biggest shift from the progressive politics of Milk's era to the progressive politics of now may not actually be a shift from leftism to liberalism, or even a shift from a possible rejection of middle class living standards to an abhorrence of that possibility, but simply an ever-greater emphasis on image. Giving 'em hope wasn't—as Van Sant's film and Milk's life story make clear—Harvey Milk's raison, it was mostly his marketing strategy, one he picked up after being in the game of politics. Milk understood that hope is most useful in moderation and when coupled with change; in excess and uncoupled from change, hope is a false deity, a mirage, an obstacle, not an aid, to progress. Suffering LGBT youth need hope; I can think of more useful emotions for the culture at large. The problem is that a campaign based on any other emotion—say, anger or determination—or based instead on a thoughtful engagement with the issues at hand would probably not go viral. You gotta give 'em hope indeed, and if you start giving them too much other stuff you may not end up getting a lot of hits, or tweets, or status updates.

For those of us privileged enough not to deal with daily bullying—and maybe especially those of us who, like me, are straight—the It Gets Better videos just offer another emotional high, and risk obscuring the actual problems that need to be dealt with. By their very nature, the videos guarantee a happy ending, and the problem with happy endings is that they tend to assure us that things are working, the irony being that the very existence of the videos is proof that things are not working. For the general culture, the videos shouldn't be comforting, but disturbing. Their very effectiveness in conjuring a sense of hope is what imbues them with a potentially dangerous power. A Band-Aid can help those in pain, but to everyone else it may just hide the reality of a wound. 


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Photo Gallery: Milking It


internet  |  sexuality  |  Milk  |  It Gets Better videos


Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.

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