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ASU professor featured in FX docuseries 'Pride'

June 11, 2021

Film and media studies Associate Professor Julia Himberg talks LGBTQ representation in the media

In “Pride,” a new FX docuseries currently streaming on Hulu, ASU Associate Professor of film and media studies Julia Himberg describes the increased LGBTQ media representation of the 1990s and 2000s as an “explosion in queer visibility.”

Himberg is the author of “The New Gay for Pay: The Sexual Politics of American Television Production,” which examines the role of television production in creating and challenging popular notions about LGBTQ identities and social change.

She was featured in “2000s: Y2Gay,” the final episode of the six-part docuseries, which spans the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights from the 1950s through the 2000s.

“There've been several documentaries lately about LGBTQ history and media representation, which to me says that we've reached a kind of turning point, where there's enough interest that it's actually being documented as a history,” Himberg said.

“But I think the way that FX did their docuseries was kind of interesting and unique compared to the other ones I've seen because they tried really hard to tell the story of both the mainstream and the underground radical movements together, and to put those in conversation in ways that a lot of other documentaries have not, that is productive in opening people's horizons to a wider LGBTQ world.”

While the docuseries takes a broad look at LGBTQ history, ASU News sat down with Himberg to learn more about the significant role of media, and specifically television, in that history.

headshot of ASU Associate Professor of film and media studies

Julia Himberg

Question: One way to interpret the title of your 2018 book, “The New Gay for Pay: The Sexual Politics of American Television Production,” is that it alludes to the idea that popular shows featuring gay characters are actually exploiting gay identity for profit instead of sincerely celebrating it. What did you discover about that as you were writing the book and in the years since then? Is that actually what’s happening?

Answer: I think the word “new” in the title is really important because what I was trying to imply with that — with the definition of “new” and with the use of the term “the new gay for pay” — was that actually, television acts both progressively and exploitatively at the same time. There are cases in mainstream television, which we think of as this very normative space, where people are working sort of underground — I call it “under-the-radar activism,” because they often don't want to talk about it and they don't want the public to know about it — but they're doing work that is really activist-oriented toward LGBTQ people and communities, and at the same time, they are still able to meet the profit demands of the industry.

Q: Why does television specifically (or maybe nowadays, it’s more accurate to just say “episodic series,” depending on how you’re watching) as a medium have so much power to influence cultural/societal norms?

A: Television is so unique partially because it was established as a domestic medium, so it's more intimate than film. Television characters really become a regular part of our routines and lives, and I would say this is true even in the era of binge watching. And so television retains this uniqueness, I think even more now actually, because so much content now is available at home. Along with that, representation has come to matter tremendously for any social minority group. It's a form of what I would call cultural currency; when people see themselves represented in a medium as popular as television, it validates them and it tells them that they're a recognized and valued part of the national landscape. Representation is important for anyone, but I think it’s especially vital for LGBTQ youth who don't always have supportive families or school environments, so the first images we see of ourselves are often on television.

Q: The FX docuseries “Pride” spans the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights from the 1950s through the 2000s. You’re featured in the final episode, “Y2GAY,” which looks at the increased LGBTQ media representation of the 2000s and the “explosion in queer visibility” that precipitated it in the 1990s. What led to that initial explosion?

A: The '90s were definitely an important period. We certainly started seeing more gay characters in terms of quantity, but we also started seeing more quality representations of gay characters. But going as far back as the Stonewall riots in 1969, there was this turning point when people understood that television could play a key role in advancing the movement, whether through being involved in production, consulting on shows or even boycotting shows; there were all kinds of strategies used to be visible in television. And so you actually started to see more conversation about this and some gay characters in the 1970s. One of the more famous shows to do this was Norman Lear’s creation “All in the Family.” There were a whole bunch of episodes that talked about gay and lesbian characters — of course, back then, we still didn’t have the B, the T or the Q — in ways that were absolutely progressive. In the '80s, there was a bit of a conservative backlash, but there were still a lot of interesting made-for-television movies that were based on real stories. Sometimes it was a legal battle where a lesbian lost her children after she came out, or sometimes it was about people dealing with AIDS. And those were really important in changing hearts and minds.

Q: The final episode, “Y2GAY,” focuses more on the history of the fight for transgender rights, as well as the history of gay people of color. Why is it important to acknowledge those groups separately?

A: The simple answer is because they've so often been left out of the story. When you look at LGBTQ representational history, it's largely been a story of white, cisgender, mostly male characters. But LGBTQ experiences are not all the same; certainly they vary across racial lines, class lines, religious lines ... So dedicated attention to these histories is needed to correct the record and offer a more inclusive history.

Q: Is there such a thing as too much representation/overexposure? Can representation ever have a negative effect?

A: There's a term called “the burden of representation,” which means that whenever you have a first in terms of representation, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. A decade or so ago, “The L Word” was that with lesbian representation — the first ensemble cast of all lesbian characters. Today, “Pose” is that for trans people. And so viewers can get to the point where they’re like, “Well, now I've done my homework. Now I know what all lesbians are like,” or “Now I know what all trans people are like.” And that can be problematic because it shuts down conversation when people think they know all there is to know. And shows have gotten a lot of critique for that. But it comes with the territory of being the first, because you simply cannot represent an entire community in one TV show. But they set the bar for the next round of shows to do even better, and that’s really important.

Q: Do you have any examples of any shows that are doing it right?

A: I do think “Pose” is a really important series in this conversation. And it's hard not to include something like “Schitt’s Creek,” which everybody loves to love. I think it does something pretty powerful by kind of creating a world in which homophobia doesn't exist. Another really interesting show that didn't get a lot of press but that really pushed the envelope much more around queerness was “Work in Progress.” “The Politician” is also interesting because it both reminds us how important identity categories still are and, at the same time, is kind of trying to be part of the generation that eschews those kind of labels. The documentary “Disclosure” gives a very good history of how trans people have been represented throughout film and media history.

Q: What’s your take on the state of LGBTQ representation in media today, and where do you see it going from here?

A: I think in general we can say that LGBTQ characters are certainly an expected and accepted part of the Hollywood landscape, especially on television. It’s past being a trend. And I would say we're seeing a push for more inclusive representation, both in front of and behind the camera. We're seeing this kind of closure on what has come before and a sort of incarnation of a new reality that includes a deeper, broader range of identities. There's also an increasing number of LGBTQ-dedicated media outlets, such as Revry and Open TV, that are focused on giving voice to LGBTQ media creators whose voices are typically not heard in Hollywood, especially creators of color. So the digital landscape has opened up opportunities for storytellers to tell their stories and to reach more audiences than ever before. So that’s a very important piece of what's happening, not just right now, but also as far as what the possibilities are for the future.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

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Will America add a new star to its flag?

June 11, 2021

ASU lecturer on why another state has not joined the union in 6 decades and if Washington, D.C., may be next

House Democrats pushed through legislation in April to make portions of Washington, D.C., the 51st state in the nation. The new measure would allow nearly 700,000 residents an opportunity to vote for new seats in the House and the Senate, have representation and transition from a federal district to a state.

However, the bill, which has the backing of President Joe Biden, appears to be losing steam and most likely won’t make it past the Senate.

Even though it won’t become a reality in 2021, an Arizona State University lecturer said Washington, D.C.'s eventual statehood is inevitable.

Dave Wells, of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, believes that one day Washington, D.C., will become a state and another star will be added to the U.S. flag.

ASU News caught up with Wells in time for Flag Day to discuss the history of statehood and the move to make the district No. 51.

Man in glasses, suit and tie

Dave Wells

Question: How difficult is it for a U.S. territory or district to become a state?

Answer: Today? It’s pretty challenging, but historically lots of states have come into the union. The reality is that it will have to get a majority vote in the House, majority vote in the Senate, and then the president would sign off on it. But that doesn't mean it hasn't always been controversial or there haven’t been political aspects to it. For instance, Virginia was one of our original states, but West Virginia became a state during the Civil War because they decided not to secede from the union, whereas Virginia did. The Dakotas also had a dispute politically that led to them becoming North Dakota and South Dakota.

Interestingly, in Arizona’s case, we became a state in 1912. We were the 48th, or last of the continental states, to be added to the union. We were originally part of the New Mexico territory. The issue here was more about the fact that we were a Democratic state at the time and New Mexico was a Republican state and the leadership in the presidency, which at the time was William Howard Taft. The Republicans held control of Washington, D.C., in terms of the presidency and the Senate. They were reluctant to add a Democratic state, which is what Arizona was at the time. So they were much more eager to add New Mexico as the 47th state. Then they finally got around adding Arizona as the 48th state.

Q: There hasn’t been an addition to the United States since 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. Have there been any other attempts since then to create a new state?

A: There’s certainly been movements within Puerto Rico to change their status so that they either became an independent country or a state, but they've never reached a point where it’s moved forward. 

Q: What are the particular complications for turning Washington, D.C., into a state?

A: We live in a very polarized country right now … becoming a state means you would add a person to the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. If D.C. were added as a state, we’d likely have two new Democratic senators. Instead of having a 50-50 Senate, we'd have a 52-50 Senate, and there are 50 Republican Senators that are upset about that prospect. So it creates a really big challenge related to adding D.C. as a state. That means the Democrats would need to eliminate the filibuster to create D.C. as a state this year. It appears that Sen. Joe Manchin and our own Sen. Kyrsten Sinema seem reluctant to go that far. Certainly it’s (statehood) something that’s going to be discussed and debated moving forward. ... It’s definitely something that's going to eventually occur, in my mind.

Video by Alex Davis/ASU

Q: Why do you think D.C. statehood has become such a prominent issue in the past few years?

A: The fact this issue has become so prominent has a lot to do with things like the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Social justice becomes an important factor because the (district residents) who are not currently allowed to vote for members of the House and the Senate and don’t have any voting privileges are largely African American. So we’re essentially denying representation to a huge number of African Americans while we have states that are predominantly white, like Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Vermont — states that are very small (in population) but do have representation in the House and Senate. African Americans in the District of Columbia do not. People increasingly recognize that’s not appropriate, and it’s something that needs to eventually change. So despite the political challenges we face now, I think in the future it’s going to get through. I just don't know how long it's going to take.

Q: The U.S. flag hasn’t changed in appearance in 60 years. Should we think of the flag as something stagnant or flexible?

A: Obviously, as soon as we add a state, we’ll have to add a star to it. However, you’re right. We haven’t changed the flag in over 60 years. That means in my entire life, the U.S. flag hasn't changed, but that’s not true for my parents. My parents were alive when it went from 48 to 50. My grandparents also experienced changes in the flag. So it’s certainly something that will and can happen.

We’re down at this point to two most pragmatic likelihoods, which is the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — unless Puerto Rico decides it wants to become an independent country. I expect sometime in the next couple of decades we’ll probably see one or both of those added to the flag and we’ll have one or two more stars. 

Top photo: Bunting with the stars and stripes drapes the front columns of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Reporter , ASU News