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Resting on Pretty: How Digital Media and Aesthetic Values Killed the ‘Gay Icon’

Resting on Pretty: How Digital Media and Aesthetic Values Killed the 'Gay Icon'

The term “gay icon” has taken on multiple meanings in the
last decade or so. With an increase in queer visibility, “gay icon” has become
any cultural figure (from sports, music, film, television, etc) who champions
equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Yet in a more culturally specific connotation,
a “gay icon” is any female entertainer who has been appropriated by the gay
community. Such figures as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Liza
Minnelli, Cher, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna have become gay icons not solely
because of their liberal politics, but because of their personas as well. They
are talented and fiercely independent women who challenge the aesthetic norms
of beauty and overcome adversity in their personal/professional lives. However,
these younger queer generations seem to be lacking their own gay icons. The
influx of new pop singers, actresses, and TV stars provide a stable of great
and talented female entertainers, but none stand out as a figure whose persona
rivals that of any of the aforementioned women. This lack of gay icons is a
result of the means by which younger generations are consuming popular culture.

With any iconography, there is an
element of fetishization at practice (as misogynistic as that sounds). Our
culture is dominated by fetishistic practices, whether it is skimming through
porn for the “money shots,” or rewatching a 12 second clip of a funny segment
from Family Guy. Older LGBTQ generations endured the stigmatization of their
sexuality, which is why they looked for more subtextual (aka campy) readings of
popular culture. When they didn’t see positive images of themselves reflected
on the screen, they either identified/found pleasure in the queer characters (even
if their representations were fraught with problems), or they clung onto campy actors,
actresses, singers, entertainers, etc. This is not to say that LGBTQ youths are
incapable of fetishizing gay icons, but their fetishization comes prepackaged.

With information being at our
fingertips, our attention is divided amongst a multitude of digital platforms.
We have the power to control how we view/listen to media, which is why our
relationship to these icons and queer figures is only tangential or second
hand. We can skim through a film on Netflix and look up the synopsis on
Wikipedia as opposed to sitting in a theater (where a film cannot be rewound of
fast-forwarded). We can pick and choose which songs we want to buy on iTunes as
opposed to purchasing an entire album on vinyl/cassette (which cannot be
shuffled). Our relationship to gay and queer icons is no longer intimate, but
fragmented. We are no longer creating a gay icon out of the full embodiment of
an entertainer, but we are actively breaking the persona into aesthetic parts
and pieces.

Many friends have tried to argue
with me that this generation has gay icons like Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and
Lady Gaga. The problem with these queer figures is that they are cultural
billboards (they routinely change their looks, but their public personas are
paper-thin). My issue with Lady Gaga (whom I adored when she first caught the
public’s eye, but who has since became another exercise in post-modern excess) is
that she is all look and no depth. For instance, in the “Snatch Game” segment
of RuPaul’s Drag Race in which Drag Queens impersonate celebrities, two contestants
(Sonique and Phi Phi O’Hara) were criticized for their inability to make Lady
Gaga anything other than a mannequin for crazy outfits. The truth of the matter,
as RuPaul and Michelle Visage would argue, is that in spite of Lady Gaga’s
talent (I will admit that she knows how to sing), her public persona is not a
three-dimensional character. Lady Gaga, like many pop singers, has yet to
transcend her aesthetic. Once the shock of her outfits and set pieces wears
off, she will fade into obscurity (as evidenced by the plummeting sales of “Art
Pop”). She does not have the longevity of Madonna, Cher, or Barbra Streisand,
and her 15 minutes of fame have been stretched as far as they can go.

It is a pity that there are not
more contemporary gay icons with cultural longevity, but in an age of
postmodern consumption (as I openly criticized in my comparison of Ryan
The Normal Heart to Norman
Longtime Companion),
postmodern pastiche is the new vogue. We don’t need to adore these gay icons of
the past because we have their aesthetic heirs. These younger queer generations
are taking these postmodern figures and texts at face value and ignoring that
they are born from a history of queer predecessors. This generation is
worshipping false idols who claim to be the “real thing,” but who are also
recycled at a moments notice.  I myself
will keep praying to the Church of Tilda Swinton and hope that her mystical
queer power can give her the longevity and “gay icon” status that she so
rightfully deserves.

This Article is related to: Features


James Killough

By "gay icon" you are referring to women who can be impersonated by drag queens. You even acknowledge that, albeit obliquely with the inclusion of RuPaul's Drag Race. None of those women has ever been an icon or role model for me. I've never understood them or their appeal. I also don't agree that a gay icon is "any cultural figure (from sports, music, film, television, etc) who champions equal rights for the LGBTQ community." To me it is a famous and successful LGBT person by whom I am proud to be represented. There are many, many of those. The specific gay icon, as defined by you, that campy female celebrity, I have never understood. She only represents a portion of the effete gay and transgender subset of the community. It's an extremely vocal and tacky one, from my point of view, one that continues to stereotype us with its vocality and tackiness. Still, the campy female celeb only represents a slight majority portion, and not the lesbians at all.


Phonies like Lady Gaga are just using gays to make pink dollar.


Iris Chacón

These are all past and present gringo LBGTT icons. Grow up and see the world beyond your limited parochial shores and then write about gay iconography. Don't confuse being a fan with having an icon.


Hmm… I dunno all I read is that someone from an older generation doesn't agree with kids these days about who they idolize. There are still gay icons, there always will be, you're just getting older. The age you were when you had Cher, Madonna, Cyndi, etc.. is the same age of people who are worshipping the Beyonces and Lady Gagas.


Being a gay man of the younger generation, I would say that Gaga and Lana are two of the biggest gay icons of this generation and (at least Gaga) will continue to be for a while. Gaga will stick around because of the acceptance she showed towards all and help people accept themselves, because of this, many younger people feel as if they owe something to her, giving her this cult like following of the teens and early 20-somethings. Also, saying that she has no depth is laughable and is clearly a thought from someone who hasn't caught on to her themes and messages or just can't grasp them. I believe Gaga will last just as long as Madonna/Cher did. I just hope Gaga will know when to quit and won't have a LDYGG or Dressed to Slay tour…

Just a thought

Maybe today's gay men aren't interested in being used as social collateral by a self-described, fame-monster like Gaga? Maybe Rihanna and Beyonce are too enmeshed in a homophobic thug culture to be embraced. Maybe Katy Perry's bubblegum schtick is too low brow for any self-respecting gay to fetishize. Maybe Lana Del Rey and Lorde are too brooding and dark? Maybe women are no longer the answer for gay men. Maybe younger gay men would, or maybe should, support and fetishize actual gay artist? Maybe the Sam Smiths and Adam Lamberts of the world can be the new "gay icons."


I clearly see what you're blurrily stating,yet you base on sells of album – which is not good, at least for the purpose of this article- an icon manages to be in all aspects of pop culture and as you said those women are sort of icon, personally Gaga and Beyonce seem to be the current icons, you cannot take ARTPOP or ARTFLOP sales 2million so far – still great album- and says Gaga is fading away when shes touring .


Funny that you post a photo of Rupaul but then don't mention her as a gay icon. She is, by far, one of the most inspiring out there today and has more relevance in the current gay culture than any of the other "divas" you mention (most of whom I adore). And yes, she has been around for some time, but again, still has more contribute to the evolving conversation of sexuality than anyone else listed.

David Ehrenstein

Tilda already ahs Gay Icon status. First of all for her work with gay great Derek Jarman (who practically invented her). After Derek's death she branched out in all sorts of ways. She took parts in Big Hollywood movies like "Constantine" and "Vanilla Sky" but mainly stayed with indies like "I Am Love" and most recently "Only Lovers Left Alive." Throughout she has demonstrated how multi-faceted an androgynous look can be. Admittedly she's operating on a much higher cultural level that gay icons of the past but I that she points toward the future.


Folks are incredibly passionate for and against Lady Gaga. And while she may have a great voice, I'm not so sure she has much imagination. She reminds me a lot of the club kids I would see; flawless in their crazy outfit at the beginning of the night, then ripping their clothes and pouring drinks on themselves y the end of the night for more attention.

Grace Jones and Allison Goldfrapp are better examples of artists who excel with multiple persona and musical genres who never have to spell out in lyrics that 'art is in them' because by simply making their groundbreaking music and adopting their personas THEY JUST ARE ART.


You left Tina Turner off of the list of older gay pop icons. How could you forgot Ms. Tina?

I think Beyoncé (although I'm not a fan) could be consider a gay pop icon for this generation. She makes more of an impact than the other women mentioned.


I find funny (for lack of a better word) how you specifically target Lady gaga in a sea of bullshit pop stars, from which she clearly stands out and in which she doesn't even belong (that's a compliment). She has no depth, you say? I recently attended a very intimate Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga show. Yes, the pop star with no depth you are talking about, blew the roof off that little venue, singing American standards of Jazz, with none other than Tony Bennett. All while touring the world for ARTPOP, writing her own songs, playing the piano and yes, we agree on something: the SINGER can also sing! I think people like you are too engaged in pointing and criticizing the artist, which explains why you can't see past her wardrobe. She's a show star, I'd be damned if she didn't at least attempt to dress like one.

Yep Itsme

Your Lady Gaga bashing cracks me up. I just came from attending a Lady Gaga concert in Tahoe this past Saturday. The sheer size of the crowd in attendance says you are wrong. Cheers.

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