Tag Archives: mainstream media

alternative press Chasing Amy Fourierism history independent film journalism Kevin Smith lesbianism lesbians mass media media images movie review socialization The Whole Earth Catalogue utopian press

Chasing Amy and media images of lesbians and lesbianism

I know I’m supposed to write about Chasing Amy from the standpoint of media images of lesbians and lesbianism, but this particular film is hard to extend in that way.  Writer and director Kevin Smith is hardly part of the mainstream media.  He gained notoriety with his first film, Clerks, which was completely independent and was noteworthy in a large part because he bucked mainstream film trends.  Smith never shies away from subject matter major studios shun (Chasing Amy is a case in point), uses frank, sometimes offensive dialogue, and refuses to adopt a visual directing style, instead letting the script carry the movie.  If we wanted to look at media images of lesbianism, it would be more valuable to seek out a mainstream Hollywood movie.

One of the benefits to looking at this movie, though, is that it’s so much better than your average Hollywood movie and Smith’s outsider status allows him to examine issues everyone else would be afraid of.  One great example is near the beginning when Banky starts a fight with a seemingly militant black member of a panel on minority comics.  After the panelist shoots Binky screaming “Black rage!” it turns out the whole deal was planned to drum up controversy for his book and that the panelist is flamboyantly gay.  This is one of the few times you’ll ever see a gay character satirizing a straight (and racial) stereotype, although movies and TV are rife with straight characters mockingly mimicking gay stereotypes.

The scene in the bar where Holden learns Alyssa is a lesbian is another striking image.  After singing a seductive song he thought was aimed at him, she makes out with another woman, with no hedging about it-the camera doesn’t cut away or leave anything to the imagination.  This is hardly Hollywood.  What’s most interesting, though, is the way in which Holden deals with this.  He’s not disgusted but reacts rather like he would had she started making out with a boyfriend.  Throughout the rest of the film the other characters react to his dilemma in a similar fashion-fell in love with a lesbian?  Poor guy.  It’s almost as if he fell in love with a nun or a married woman-there’s no real mention of turning her, or how someday she’ll see the light and go straight, or whatever, except maybe by Banky, who has his own issues to work through.  Throughout lesbianism and bisexuality are accepted rather matter-of-factly by almost everyone.

Despite this, Chasing Amy opened to a great deal of criticism from gays and lesbians.  The main issue what the fact that Alyssa fell in love with a man at all-the complaint was that by treating lesbians so seriously on the one hand and having one fall in love with a man on the other, they cheapened it and strengthened the old notion of lesbians as just chicks who haven’t met the right guy yet.  Personally, I don’t see that at all.  I find no indication that Alyssa was just waiting for the right guy to some along and show her the way.  Rather, their romance seems an illustration of how love can appear in places never sought and how difficult relationships can be in the supposedly open and honest 90s.  The scene where Alyssa tells her friends about Holden is telling.  As soon as they find out she’s met a guy, they’re shocked, offended and hurt.  They react as if she’s doing this to hurt them, and they skip out on her pretty quickly once they find out she’s not exactly like them.  Smith is not attempting to show lesbians the light and lead them to the godly path or anything.  He is merely using the oldest theme in the book-two accidental lovers separated by cultural barrier, with guys and lesbians filling in for Capulets and Montegues.

It’s unfortunate that this can’t be extended to a general discussion on media portrayals of lesbians.  The fact the Chasing Amy was a small commercial success may be an indication of things changing, but for the most part except for indie film and very rare notable exceptions (Boys Don’t Cry, for example), lesbians are either stereotyped or ignored.

Journalism history – the utopian press

All alternative media serve to educate, socialize, promote and represent the special interests they cover and the utopian press is no exception.  Just as the black and women’s press attempted to represent and report on topics either ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream media, so did the different utopian publications; just as the black press tried to elevate its readers through education, socialization and promotion, so did the utopian press attempt to attract and encourage members.  But because utopian colonies faced such ignorance and mistrust from the outside world, promotion and representation were essential-especially for the outer-directed utopians looking to recruit and spread their beliefs.

Utopians often based their lives around new and radical ways of thinking-thus, it was necessary to educate themselves and others about these beliefs in order to adhere to them.  The Phalanx, for example, taught the tenets of Fourierism through essays and translations of Fourier’s works.  It is doubtful such information would have been readily available from the mass media or at libraries, but in order to run a phalanx colonists needed to know the precise rules Fourier provided.  Because so many utopians rejected city life and asked members to live closer to the earth, utopian publications no doubt spoke to former city-dwellers on farming, industry and how to survive.  The single modern-day example given in the book, The Whole Earth Catalogue, is a good example.  In addition to news about new theories and communities information and tools for self-sufficient living are available.

Because many of these colonies were so different from mainstream life and were based on specific principles or ideals, socialization was the key to keeping members on track and training new members to live in the society.  The press is a logical conduit of socialization; people base their opinions on the information they receive, and if within a colony they receive powerful essays in support of that colony’s particular beliefs, they are more likely to believe themselves.  Quite often the utopian press would socialize and educate at the same time, teaching about the theories of the movement but also applying it to everyday living and interaction, showing colonists how they should live their lives according to this scheme or that.  The Owenite New Harmony Gazette, for example, focused on the philosophy of human perfectibility rather than the day-to-day business of the colony-quite unlike the mainstream press, which is usually more concerned with events than themes or ethics.  Brook Farms’ The Harbinger was devoted to Fourier’s idea of social reform and very motto, “the elevation of the whole human race, in mind, morals and manner…[by] orderly and progressive reform” is virtually the goal of socialization in general-to change people for the better (“elevation” and “progressive reform”) by teaching them how better to live with one another (“morals and manner”).  Virtually any time a publication attempts to educate it is also attempting some socialization, and socialization is the key tactic toward most utopians’ stated goal of improving society.

Utopian publications, especially those in outward-directed colonies, attempted to promote their views and communities as well.  This served several functions: for both inward- and outward-directed colonies good public relations was the key to recruitment.  Though the outward-directed colonies were much more concerned with spreading the word, none could or did survive long without a steady influx of new, excited members who were willing to work hard toward the perfect societies they thought possible.  Also, many utopians had very radical ideas, including celibacy, community marriage, community property and nudity.  The only way to avoid fear and mistrust from the surrounding world was to promote the communities’ ideas as not really that bad and dispel rumors that they were immoral or satanic.  The Dial, not based in a specific colony, promoted the Transcendentalist ideals nonetheless, reaching a highly influential and literary crowd and making it mark upon American art and literature for generations.  Editor Margaret Fuller expressed The Dial’s reader-friendly public relations strategy as follows: “I trust…that this journal will aim, not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and nobly.”  The assumption being, of course, that if everyone deeply considered the matter for themselves the validity of Transcendentalism would be apparent.  Just as The Dial helped spread Transcendentalism beyond the small group that founded it, countless other publications attempted to spread their beliefs to the outside world: The Industrialist Christian tried to spread Christian Socialism beyond Hiawatha Village, Oliver Verity believed the key to Home’s success lie in publicity for the colony and it’s philosophy.  And the Oneida Community turned to public relations out of self-defense, having already been chased out of Vermont by angry neighbors.

Finally, just as the mainstream press claims to represent its audience (as a watchdog on the government and a forum for editorials, for example), the utopian press attempted to represent the philosophies, colonies and people it covered.  There were two main goals for this representation: reporting news that concerned the group but would not be covered by other media and to give colonies a voice against detractors.  We see many day-to-day examples of the former kind; The Harbinger covering Fourierist conventions that would not get covered by traditional news sources, the Oneida Circular publishing John Noyes views as well as community news.  But though Horace Greely’s Tribune was receptive to new ideas and utopian theories, it was the exception not the rule, so utopians often found themselves fighting negative public perceptions without an established media outlet.  That, in fact, was why the Onieda Circular was founded-to dispel rumor and fight negative publicity about their ideas on community marriage.  The BCC’s Industrial Freedom was a forum for socialist ideas that could not have been discussed through normal channels.  Representation and promotion were often tied very close for the utopian press.

It is apparent with just the examples given in our book that the utopian press performed all four of the familiar functions of the alternative press.