In 1980, the feminist essayist Adrienne Rich introduced to feminist theory the concept of compulsory heterosexuality or “the assumption…that women are ‘innately sexually oriented’ toward men” (Rich 632). The idea of compulsory heterosexuality acted as a precursor to what we know today as heteronormativity and, by extension, homonormativity. Stripped of its complexities, heteronormativity is compulsory heterosexuality but in an expanded form and made applicable to both men and women. Heteronormativity is “a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation” (Definition). While compulsory heterosexuality assumes heterosexuality to be the norm for women, heteronormativity assumes heterosexuality to be the norm for everyone. Heteronormativity represents a hierarchy between sexualities, homonormativity represents a hierarchy within sexualities. For example, consider the representatives of the LBGTQ community we see in the today’s media such as the gay couple featured in the television show Modern Family or the popular celebrity Neil Patrick Harris: in both of these instances (and the majority of those present in popular culture) the diversity of the non-heterosexual community is being marginalized and grossly misrepresented to be only one race, gender representation, and class of citizen. Anne Balay,the author of Steel Closets, puts it best when she states, “we [queers in America] are often portrayed as white, wealthy, educated, urban, and male” (Balay 6) and that “American culture tends to assume that queers are middle-class, white, and educated” (Balay 1). The representatives we see in the media are what Richard Friedman, the author of Male Homosexuality: A Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspective, paints as “heathy homosexuals” that is, gay men who fall into society’s privileged denominations and do not greatly defy heterosexual standards in their appearances. Homonormativity is reinforced by these problems of privilege including white privilege, racism, sexism (the reinforcing of traditional gender roles), cissexism, and any other system of segregation. In most cases, the people of color, the trans* people, the lower class members of the community are not being represented in today’s media while homo and heteronormative philosophies are being overly represented. In this post I will demonstrate this using a Weetabix commercial and a Campbell’s soup commercial: while the Weetabix ad reinforces heteronormativity through its perpetuation of traditional masculinity and the gender binary, the Campbell’s soup ad reinforces homonormativity through its propagation of the homosexual hierarchy.
The British breakfast cereal commercial Weetabix entitled “Big Day” features a white, middle class “traditional” family, the members of whom compete to prove that their upcoming day is the most challenging. Hegemonic masculinity or the “expected male role” is reinforced through the son’s account of his day. He begins by describing his paper route which, onscreen features many perils including a lunging dog: this image works to reinforce traditional masculinity in two ways. One, it shows that it is the male’s role to be the breadwinner. Even though he is just a boy it is his job -as a male- to earn money and support himself and, eventually, his family. Furthermore, this also reinforces the typical male gender role in that it shows that the male must be a hero: it is up to the men, in our society, to take the risks and be the protectors. To see the son facing the barking dog reinforces for the viewer this male compulsory heroism. This is furthered when the son describes his soccer match and is pictured facing off against someone he describes as “twice my size.” The image we see is a huge soccer player towering over the son in an almost David and Goliath-esque manner. The son’s opponent is the perfect representation of today’s ideal masculinity and, thus, it is assumed, as a result of our concept of traditional masculinity, that the son will compromise his own masculinity (i.e. he will be less of a man) if he doesn’t challenge the player and “prove” himself.
Traditional masculinity is perpetuated on a greater scale when the son discloses that he has to “nervously [chat] up girls that are clearly way out of [his] league.” This aids in promoting the idea that it is up to the male to take the risks and also that nervousness is an integral part of the heterosexual social script. It furthers the idea that there exists a hierarchy of attractiveness that it is the obligation of the man to navigate. Through this “navigation” normalcy and heterosexuality are equated. The nonchalance with which the son states that has an obligation to “chat up” these girls indicates an acceptance or resignation to the binary constraints of society: it is normal for him to chat up girls because that is what boys are supposed to do. In a somewhat Freudian idea, the son has no choice but to try to imitate his father and strive for a future heterosexual relationship of which the first step is “chatting up girls.”
Not only does the Weetabix advertisement, and by extension the media, reinforce the idea of heterosexuality as the norm but, it also propagates the idea of the “elite” heterosexual and, thus, maintains the traditional gender binary. In the “ideal” heterosexual relationship, the man is the provider and the woman’s role is in the home. As Luisa Capetillo puts it “the true mother of a family must know how to do it all” (Capetillo 7) and, the mother in the Weetabix commercial doesn’t disappoint. Thirty-four seconds into the commercial she launches into a description of how she must “do all [the] washing, all [the] shopping, tidy the clothes [her family] steps over” all the while tending to the baby and entertaining her mother-in-law. Meanwhile, the father is portrayed as the breadwinner: we see him attending meetings and navigating the complexities of the corporate world. He even describes spending “eight hours in a series of team building exercises” and, when these exercises are shown, every single participant is male. Similarly, the father’s boss (the symbol of status) is shown to be a white man. The absence of women in the father’s workplace coupled with the mother’s domesticity affirms traditional gender roles and the idea that the woman’s place is in the home and the man’s is in the office.
While not a facet of heteronormativity per se, it is important to note that the perpetuation of the elitist heterosexuality is also present in the Weetabix commercial through its lack of diversity. Societally, it has been perpetuated that being white elevates your standing. In the shots shown of the son’s school (we see him in the hallway, classroom, and on the soccer field) there is no diversity: every student is white. Similarly, there is one only African American man pictured in the many shots of the father’s workplace and the boss, who represents the elite members of our society, is also white. This presence of such traditionalist anglocentric ideals in today’s media furthers the existence of hierarchies within sexualities and, thus, normalizes and validates homo and heteronormativity.
So, if the issue is that the media is perpetuating heteronormativity and the characteristics of “elite heterosexuality” is the solution simply to create more media featuring individuals who identify as something other than heterosexual? If only it were that easy. There are pieces of media featuring members of the LBGTQ community however, homosexuality in the media is marginalized.
The recent Campbell’s soup commercial featuring a male gay couple greatly subscribes to this hierarchy within homosexuality and, thus, perpetuates and normalizes homonormativity. The advertisement features two gay men and their adopted son Cooper. Both men present as cis males, sporting clothing that is unambiguously masculine and average. There is no question of their gender and their clothing is very mild with cool tones that seem to avoid any flamboyance or even personality. Their understated masculinity is further emphasized by the fact that they are advertising Star Wars soup and thus quote Star Wars throughout the advertisement, the connotations of which are very masculine (the Star Wars films feature action, violence, and heroism, all traits that are traditionally associated with masculinity). Another aspect that often intersects with homonormativity is white privilege or the fact that the majority of the time queers, if they are even represented in the media, are white. Subscribing to this, both of the men featured in the commercial are white. Similarly, in the fleeting glances we get of their chic abode and smart dress it is easy to infer that they are, at the very least, middle class with wealth being another facet of homonormativity. There is art (usually a symbol of wealth and status) hanging throughout their home (it is viable in the background at 0:04, 0:17, and 0:23) and their kitchen is spacious, well furnished, and modern –another indication of wealth.
If we consider these two commercials to be even somewhat representative of today’s media, it’s evident that our society is perpetuating homo and heteronormativity by subscribing to and showing all the problems of privilege that reinforce them: traditional masculinity, the gender binary, white privilege (anglocentrism), and elite homo and heterosexuality. Though one promotes heteronormativity and the other homonormativity it’s interesting to note the similarities between the two commercials, especially when it comes to how they portray the men. The two gay dads in the Campbell’s soup add are remarkably similar to the father in the Weetabix commercial, which demonstrates that just representation alone isn’t enough. Queer representation in the media must be mindful representation and must not perpetuate homonormative ways of thinking if there is any hope of advancing the LBGTQ cause.
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Capetillo, Luisa, and Matos Rodríguez Félix V. A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks
Out: Mi Opinión Sobre Las Libertades, Derechos Y Deberes De La Mujer. Houston, TX: Arte Publico,
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Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. London: 1981. Print.