The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Tom Cruise, and the cultural power pyramid

Looking at the recent tabloid explosion of Tom Cruise stories, it's fun to watch them accuse him of being gay without coming right out and saying it.  (Is his relationship with Katie Holmes real?  Why didn't he know how to make love to Nicole Kidman on the set of "Eyes Wide Shut"? etc.)  After he sued a London Tabloid and a young man who claimed to have had a torrid affair with him, I remember one cultural critic commenting on the fact that Cruise felt that the young man was attempting to damage his reputation and career.  This critic, somewhat disingenuously, I thought, suggested that Cruse was overreacting, that "in this day and age" being gay wouldn't be a disadvantage to an action star, and that therefore the suit was baseless.  Wow.  Was this guy blind, or deaf, or dumb, or overly optimistic, or am I completely misreading the culture?
If Tom Cruise was "outed" (and I'm not saying he could be.  None of my business) suddenly, his movies wouldn't be as popular.  Oh, no one would say it was because he was gay--any more than black movies fail "because" the star has sex.  Suddenly, they would be "over the top", "not credible" his "shtick" just "wouldn't be as appealing" and his "boyish charm" would have "worn out it's welcome."  None of it would be because he was gay.  If you want to know hwere his popularity would be, well...take his current popularity (#3 all-time movie stars according to Entertainment Weekly) add the popularity of Phillip Seymour Hoffman (probably the most popular openly gay actor.  Is Hoffman in the top 100?  Maybe he's around 105.  Now divide by two.  Let's be generous and say that Cruise would find himself at around #50, suddenly out of fashion for reasons that have nothign, nothign at all, you see, with his sexual orientation. But what about Ellen DeGeneris, you ask?  Look at the relative acceptability of Lesbian and gay male images and you'll have all the understanding you need.  There is simply no comparison to the level of social acceptance.  None at all.
## terms of social power in America you want to be straight, male, lean-bodied, tall, white, Christian, 18-40 years of age, wealthy, intelligent, and healthy.  If you change any one of these variables, you're likely to have problems making money or getting elected to public office.  Wearing the protective coloration of the dominating group (one might as well add "of English extraction" to that list) is a safety factor.  The number of Jews, Italians, Lebanese, etc. who changed their names to "Martin" or "Thomas" or Darin" to be able to function in show business is legendary.  Getting noses bobbed, concealing religious preference, etc.  is just part of the business.  If you CAN pretend to be a white Christian heterosexual, the rewards are great.  How many women hid their identity behind men's names in order to be published?  How many obese people have starved themselve to try to be skinny?  Micheal Jackson wasn't the first black person to actually try to turn themselves white--he was just the most notorious failure.
the joke, of course, is that I've known lean-bodied, heterosexual males convinced that women or blacks or whatever have all the advantages.  These poor deluded specimins must have such contempt for the "out group" that on any occassion when they succeed, they attribute that success to an unfair advantage.  Yes, I know a few whites who say that they've lost jobs because of an unfair advantage some black person had socially.  But you know what?  EVERY black person I've ever talked to can say exactly the same thing about white people.  Am i supposed to believe all of them?  None of them?  Or just the stories that make me, personally, feel superior and justified in prejudice?  Tell me, please.
On the other hand, I know that EVERYONE has a perfect set of reasons to feel screwed over, tropmed on, disadvantaged. yes, we've all been hurt, and every member of the human race is a minority group of one.  But if I don't admit that there are advantages to being intelligent, lean-bodied, and financially successful I'm simply lying to myself.  If I were white, I'd admit there were advantages there.  There are advantages to being male--but then I believe there are very real, statistical disadvantages as well.  I'm not asking anyone to feel bad about themselves or what advantages they may have.  Just to be realistic and clear-eyed about the fact that (if they're not careful) everyone is oppressing someone, and we want to be compassionate.
If a man worth half a billion dollars is right, that merely admitting that he loves and is attracted to membrs of his own gender would destroy his business, that is hardly a thing for us, as a society, to be proud of.  Not necessarily something to be ashamed of, either.  It is something to look at calmly, and clearly, and ask if that is who we want ourselves, and our children, to be.  Be very certain who it is you are committed to being in this world.  Because you are voting with every word, every step, every glance, every movie ticket you buy. It's your world.  Own it consciously.

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