Danny Dyer, Olly Murs and the Trouble with Straight People Coopting Queer Culture
When pop stars dip into queer culture as a means of self-discovery, they ignore how fragile queer people take those freedoms to be.
Danny Dyer in drag for Lucy Rose's video 'Nebraska'. Screengrab via YouTube.
Oh. A straight bloke in a dress. How thrilling.
I was expecting something more. The press release for Danny Dyer's appearance in drag in Lucy Rose's recent music video quotes him as being "overwhelmed" to be part of "such a moving piece of work". It might be that Danny Dyer and I have different scales for emotional depth, but there's something ploddingly familiar about the story: straight bloke sits in car alone upset, straight bloke descends into neon-lit basement club full of drag queens and gender chaos, straight bloke has a personal crisis in a moodily lit toilet, straight bloke suddenly sits down in an improbably spacious dressing room and slashes on some lipstick, straight bloke is on stage in full drag, under the flashing lights. Straight bloke is in ecstasy! Straight bloke is free! "People should be who they wanna be," he said in a statement that was filled with achingly generic platitudes. "Freedom of expression is so important".
Dyer isn't the only pop figure to get in on queer culture and identity. Olly Murs recently told us that he is, perhaps, 20 percent gay. Enough to be interesting, but not enough to be scary. He has a lot of gay friends, too, he says. Maybe it's a sign of progress that disclosures like these feel humdrum – even The Sun could barely spin a headline out of it. And it would be churlish to suggest that it's a bad thing that gay people no longer attract so much scandal-mongering from the tabloids, or that queer culture gets used for a story other than that of the tragic victim. Murs' own disclosure is a response to Sacha Baron Cohen's joke, while discussing his gay caricature Bruno in an interview, that he thinks all sexuality sits on a spectrum – he himself is sometimes 31 percent gay, sometimes 17 percent gay. Baron Cohen's point is that his caricature provokes homophobic violence, and his character serves as a means of bringing that out; he has less to say about how that character itself might further homophobic cliché. However variable this modish queerness is, it never rises above 50 percent.
In fact, the Baron Cohen interview contains a clanging example of what you might call 'straightsplaining', where straight people offer their frequently eccentric interpretations of LGBT culture and speculate about prejudice. Pondering the durability of homophobia, he cites a study suggesting some violent homophobes experience a degree of arousal when confronted with same-sex erotica. This factoid, often cited as an explanation in itself, has two related effects: it neatly focuses conversations away from the way homophobia is embedded across society, in institutions and attitudes, and on to gay people themselves – in this case, self-loathing or self-deluding gay people. 'Straightsplaining' might not tell you much about actual queer experience, but it might tell you a lot about how straight people think of queer people.
It's clear where the boundaries are. The Dyer video relies on the viewer knowing his impeccably laddish reputation and professional history of playing hardmen. We know he's straight, and we're primed to think of him that way in the video. It's why the reveal works. But there are limits: to remove the beard would look a little too committed, too serious about it. There's a line carefully not crossed, so our straight protagonist stays closer to a rugby team on a night out than Divine or Lily Savage. Dipping into queer culture is a way for our straight hero to discover something about himself, maybe even something about the limits and constraints of masculinity – but knowing he can walk up the stairs, out the club, and remain Danny Dyer all the while. It feels a little like queer culture as a kind of therapy for the straight world: queer culture without queer people. You can feel that absence most palpably in the bland universality of the soundbites accompanying the video, lacking even a trace of drag's specific history among queer people, who have not had very much freedom at all.
The sheer straightness of work like this only becomes really noticeable when compared to videos that put queer people centre stage. Take Years & Years' recent video for Desire, which is full of unapologetic, non-straight sexuality. Even in a time of apparent tolerance, it can still feel genuinely daring to see queer sexuality in mainstream videos, without concessions to a straight audience, rather than confined to specialist magazines and LGBT-targeted products. Sure, the music video is a relatively free form – Jake Shears or Jimmy Somerville might raise an eyebrow at the suggestion it's entirely groundbreaking – but it's still a departure from the norm in an industry where nearly everything is refracted through a boy-girl prism.
So why are straight artists getting in on queer culture? There's a standard line of outrage about this, which views it as straight people appropriating underground expressions of queer culture, stripping them of their histories, and sanitising them for mainstream profit. It's hard not to be sympathetic: voguing didn't originate with Madonna; the drag queens profiled in the legendary documentary Paris is Burning toured talkshows declaring they'd seen little cash from the film's success. And when queer culture makes the trip into the mainstream, it's often focused on white gay men. But is this too cynical? After all, the purchasing power of the pink pound is extolled with dreary regularity. It surely accounts for the interchangeable parade of pop twinks appearing on the covers of the gay press. And maybe some of the more blatant lifting of queer culture into the mainstream is just about adding something exotic or unusual to an otherwise grey offering.
The lens of 'cultural appropriation' is a uniquely bad one through which to understand the relation between queer culture and the mainstream. There isn't a pristine queer culture formed outside of the mainstream, from which the mainstream then lifts and discards exciting cultural forms and images. Queer culture – especially drag – is formed in relation to mainstream culture: it's synthetic, because queer people have to find each other and build their culture in a straight world. That means it lifts its raw materials from the wider straight world, rearranges them and changes them.
I don't doubt that Danny Dyer likes queer people, and even genuinely found his drag experience liberating. But what gives queer culture its bite is its awareness of how fragile those freedoms are, how temporary the rearrangement of norms on a stage is: that's what gives the best of it a lacerating irony, and a capacity to unsettle what straight culture takes for granted. We know what's outside the door of the club. We have to stare in the face the fact that you don't always get to be who you want to be.
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