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

By Jose Gallegos | /Bent August 5, 2014 at 9:33AM

This lack of gay icons is a result of the means by which younger generations are consuming popular culture.
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Lady Gaga

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.

RuPaul 7

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 Murphy’s The Normal Heart to Norman René’s 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.