Can’t remember how I came across this article in the New York Times yesterday about how Judy Garland’s days as an icon of the gay culture may be rapidly coming to a close but thought it was worth sharing.
It’s an interesting article and definitely worth the read. As a straight guy that has an unabashed interest in nearly all of the gay icons, I found it an interesting commentary on how generations relate to their icons. Every generation has its heroes and heroines, the people that really plug into the zeitgeist. Sometimes they persist beyond that time, but frequently they don’t. I kind of feel like this is true of the population as a whole, so it’s really not a stretch to find that it applies to specific segments of the culture as well. Like so many other things, people and groups of people end up having more in common than not.
I can still remember the first time that I became aware of Garland’s rather significant gay male fan base. It was actually by way of a 50-something coworker of mine that worked in the pharmacy I did when I was in high school. She mentioned something about it and I remember being a bit taken aback – mostly in the “how did this subject come up?” way, but also in the “wow, I had no idea” way as well. Knowing what I know now, it’s kind of a big old “duh.” A strong woman who was beaten down by life, dismissed as “over” time and time again, only to make comeback after comeback? Considering how marginalized gay men were during the 50s and 60s, it’s no wonder they connected with her and identified with her. In many ways, she was one of the first real divas.
As someone who has (rather unintentionally) ended being a fan of most if not all of the gay divas, I have to say that even I really don’t have too much of a taste for Garland’s music. I find her story fascinating – the TV mini-series Me & My Shadows is a solid telling of her biography – but as for her music, it’s an occasional hit but, by and large, it’s a total miss. It isn’t my cup of tea and her style of belting and vibrato just doesn’t do anything for me. So when I always say that I have the non-functioning gay gene, in that it codes for everything stereotypically gay except for when it gets to sexual orientation, degenerates into a nonsense mutation and abruptly stops, I guess you can add Garland fandom to that part of the gene map as well.
But what’s really interesting about this article is just how much she has faded as a gay icon. There will always be something timeless about her – probably because of reruns of The Wizard of Oz – but I would imagine that the 30 year-old gay friend of the author of the New York Times piece is probably more representative of the relationship between gay men and Judy Garland than he’d like to think. And really, that’s okay.
As I said before, every generation has its icons, and as goes the generation, so go the icons. Gay men my age are much more likely to relate to the 80s divas, first and foremost being Madonna. But go 20 years younger than that and you’re likely to get a reaction to a Madonna mention that includes “she’s still alive?”
I don’t really know who the equivalents to this generation in their teens and 20s are. That’s partly because I like what I like and have a hard time breaking out of that box, but it’s also because I think that perhaps we’re in a post-diva era. As is mentioned in the article, “today, gay can be anything.” Is it such that the gay community no longer needs the strong women with which many of them have identified over the years? I think the jury’s still out on that. It’s kind of sad to think about, considering how wrapped up in the divas I have been and probably will continue to be, but progress is progress.
I do, however, have a feeling that Streisand is next in the diva purge. I just don’t see a younger generation of gay men connecting with her like those in their 50s and 60s do now. The guard will continue to change and someday yes, Madonna will no longer be relevant. But hopefully that’s long after I’m dead because man, that thought is really depressing.