Lesbians, Hollywood is Not the Savior of Our Intellectual Movement

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Intellectuals have always been a critical component of society, from Socrates to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to the Civil Rights Movement. What defines an “intellectual” is subjective, but we might generally say someone who offers unique insight and wisdom on a strategic issue and has enough social clout to influence and/or inform society writ large. In a romanticized view, the intellectual uses their intellect to persuade society from its baser instincts and onto a higher path. More pragmatically, intellectuals are smart people who are able to articulate in a clear and understandable way events, information, and trends to the general public in a way that mobilizes them to action.

While traditionally intellectuals have come from academia, in the last two decades there has been a rise in “pop culture intellectuals”: figures like John Oliver or John Stewart, who combine comedy and hip jargon with incisive analysis of politics and society in order to appeal to newer, tech savvy generations. In a world moving away from tracts and treatises and towards the 140 character count and emojis, the focus and space for conversation has shifted–to a large degree–from salons and universities to tumblr and Twitter.

Pop culture, once dismissed by the “mainstream” as costume-wearing Trekkies and Madonna’s cone bra, has now become a primary venue of social exchange. Put another way, the fact that Kim Kardashian is now the face of prison reform and Alyssa Milano the face of anti-women’s harassment is not a coincidence.

Because intellectuals often push for change and drive public discourse on human rights, they have historically been a key component of any social movement. As regards the lesbian community, however, I would present the following argument: with very few exceptions, we seem to lack widely known intellectuals whose stature and influence allow them to influence and inform the community and drive it in a strategic direction. Over the last few months, in an effort to map out some of the intellectual luminaries and schools of influence in the lesbian community, I talked to people who are involved in pop culture analysis, under the assumption that the pop culture sphere is currently the best venue for identifying influence.

What I found is that the lesbian community appears to have few recognized intellectuals who are able to influence wide swaths of the community. Instead, our community has extremely diffuse and decentralized authority, and the most influential voices are not writers and thinkers at all but rather showrunners like Emily Andras and actresses like Chyler Leigh. Without realizing it, we have ceded the role of thought leader and community analyzer from our own intellectuals to Hollywood figures, for better or for worse. Let’s unpack that further:

Argument #1: For the most part, the lesbian community lacks widely recognized intellectuals able to influence and inform our community and conduct introspective analysis upon it. Undeniably, the LGBT community has plenty of intellectuals. There are many, many smart people writing smart things on a variety of topics. However, the lesbian community appears to generally struggle to identify these intellectuals and disseminate their works broadly. Put plainly, we as a community often don’t know who our intellectuals are or the ideas that they champion, and we don’t push to amplify the few voices of influence that we do hear. We have elected no captains to captain our ship, and so the ship sails where the wind takes it. Consider the following microcosmic example:

Some AfterEllen writers have gained name recognition in large parts of the lesbian community because of their involvement in the lesbian pop culture sphere. One could credibly argue that some are widely recognized pop culture pundits with some sway over the community.

Recently, however, it feels like community-wide recognition has been chipped away by a new form of tribalism: fandom members recognize uber-fan writers, but are less likely to know writers outside of their specific fandoms. Thus while some pop-culture writers are recognized within some fandoms, they are unlikely to be recognized by a large swath of the community, undercutting their ability to exert broad influence as once writers like Sarah Warn could.

Argument #2: Our community has extremely diffuse and decentralized authority, and the most influential voices are members of Hollywood. When I asked my informal survey participants to name key influencers in the lesbian community, the only specific individuals that they named were Greg Berlanti, Ryan Murphy, Emily Andras, Ellen DeGeneres, and Joss Whedon.

None of the survey participants could identify a specific thought leader. This indicates that we give significant authority to Hollywood to speak on our behalf: we want them to represent us to both ourselves and to straight viewers. It is interesting, too, that famous lesbian directors such as Ilene Chaiken and Dee Rees were not named. It would seem that we prefer to support the showrunners and actresses behind currently airing shows with same-sex couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, rather than anointing lesbian producers and directors. However, ceding the role of primary influencer and voice of our community to Hollywood is dangerous. Although these individuals have been fantastic champions, that is not their only role, and their ability to act as champions could quickly change if shows are cancelled, etc.

In 2017, Smithsonian Magazine asked “What Happened to America’s Public Intellectuals?” Among its other points, the article concluded that part of the reason that intellectuals today may be losing their status in US society (a contested point) is that “in 2017, we are not uninformed; we are over-informed.”

Put another way, social media has allowed for so many voices to be heard at once that the keenest, most insightful may be drowned out. As of last December, 6,000 Tweets were posted each second. That deluge of information makes separating tweets about the weather and food from thought provoking tweets about representation and the LGBT community. It also means that we often are so busy reading about one or two or three specific fandoms that we can’t keep up with other fandoms and issues.

Particularly since the late 2000s, much of the US’s influential public discourse on major social issues has come from pop culture, mixed topic websites like Buzzfeed, Vox and Huffington Post. For the lesbian community, websites like AfterEllen, celesbians who want to be spearheads for the community, or conventions like ClexaCon remain our best hope for pan-community influence, but only if we’re able to amplify the intellectual threads that exist within them.

If we want to captain our own ship and not just let Hollywood blow some wind into our sails, we must find captains, and then we must give them a chance at the wheel. If we only read news within fandom-specific channels or read straight celebrity Tweets, it will be difficult to create that sense of universal knowledge and community. For this reason, the “Lexa’s Legacy” panel at ClexaCon is the most important panel: it reminds us all where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re hopefully going. We need that compass, as a community. Oh, and lead us to the Promised Land, Lesbian Jesus!

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