In seven novels and a collection of essays published since 1981, Sarah Schulman has methodically chronicled the history of her longtime neighborhood, Manhattan’s East Village. Her body of work surveys the creative vibrancy and embattled changes forced upon that community by AIDS and urban development.
Schulman’s books are rife with artists and activists–many are both–whose stories closely mirror the real-life toll on the social and artistic landscape that is her longtime creative base. She offers a visceral description of that culture and its devastation in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America. “The East Village was a center for the production of global ideas,” Schulman writes. “It was filled with varied races of immigrants, homosexuals, working people, bohemians and artists working in both traditional and emerging forms, most of whom had no institutional training or support. It feels strange to say this…but that was a civilization that has disappeared. It was destroyed by AIDS, gentrification and marketing.”
These three things are inextricably linked for Schulman, particularly as they relate to cultural production and visual representations like theater and advertising. Schulman argues that representation of both gay and lesbian America and AIDS has been overtaken by the heterosexual mainstream, which she calls the “dominant culture.” The results of that takeover are not honest depictions of homosexual culture and the epidemic but outright falsehoods designed to make both subjects palatable enough to turn a profit.
This belief springs, at least in part, from several experiences Schulman had during the 1995-96 theatrical season, when she co-wrote a theater column with longtime critic Don Shewey, first for Lesbian and Gay New York and later for the New York Press. One of the plays they reviewed was the musical Rent, which, after the sudden death of its creator, Jonathan Larson, ballooned into a theatrical monster that is still stomping across the country and around the globe. Shewey and Schulman published the only significant negative reviews the play received in New York. After conversations with several friends, Schulman became convinced that Rent‘s characters, plot and milieu are remarkably similar to those of her 1990 novel People in Trouble. In Stagestruck‘s first section, “Rent: The Dirt,” Schulman describes her belief that Larson based his musical on her novel without permission: “The straight half was from Puccini, and the gay half was from me.” Schulman also recounts how her attempts to prove the charge and air her concerns publicly–both of which would eventually fail–often made her want to go over to “city hall and [change her] name to Franz Kafka.”
In the chapter “Simulacra, Authenticity, and the Theatrical Context of Rent,” Schulman seeks to position the birth (and the success) of the play in relationship to other works of theater actually created by the very people that musical had “profitably described.” She discusses plays about AIDS and those written by gay men, lesbians and black women, in marvelously lucid, observant prose. I have not read such outstanding commentary about them anywhere. Such criticism, with its intense immediacy and personal investment in the theatrical experience, is sadly rare today.
These two sections make for fascinating reading, and they provide the intellectual fulcrum for Stagestruck‘s final chapter, “Selling AIDS and Other Consequences of the Commodification of Homosexuality.” With passionate intelligence, Schulman argues that mainstream images of gay men, lesbians and AIDS “pave the way for the selling of a twisted history and dishonest depictions” of all three. She further believes that “advertising and marketing have created a public myth about AIDS and homosexuality that is far from accurate.” She cites Rent as a prime example of that lie. Schulman also sets her sights on the national gay press, such as Genre, Out and The Advocate, and AIDS-related publications like POZ, which Schulman argues exist primarily so that heterosexual companies can advertise their products to gay consumers and people with AIDS.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have written for many of the publications Schulman critiques. I was the film editor at Lesbian and Gay New York during the time Schulman and Shewey’s column appeared in that newspaper, I frequently write for The Village Voice, I was a film critic for both Out and The Advocate and I am on the masthead as a contributing writer at POZ. In each case, I am paid only for the articles I write and have never been a paid staff writer or employee of the publication.)
Schulman recounts, with a surreal edge, the myriad conversations she had about Rent and People in Trouble with editors, journalists, agents, lawyers and friends, from the anonymous to the famous. She lays out the similarities between the musical and novel with great simplicity and recounts how her initially strong belief that justice would be hers slid into a crushing realization that such an outcome would elude her. She builds a compelling case for herself while describing how she was deeply shaken by the experience. But her arguments about being denied justice and press exposure are not nearly as strong as her impassioned defense of People in Trouble. (Schulman’s efforts at finding legal counsel seem to have been highly selective, and she casts her story in outsized, David versus Goliath terms–a lone East Village artist with no cultural or economic power against a huge, invincible mass of corporate art. Perhaps the New York editors and journalists who didn’t seem to care about her story would have displayed a different news sense had she actually sued the Larson estate.)
Schulman also gives us her own view of art: “Corporate art is the opposite of art because it denies the value of eccentric investigation…. I offer you this book and hope that it gives you something worth thinking about, because, even if it doesn’t produce money, it can produce a level of inquiry that is really interesting.” However, Schulman omits any mention of her own benefit from the capital exchange inherent in publishing: She offers the book to a publisher and receives a fee; the publisher offers the book to readers (for a price) through bookstores (another group of commercial corporations), where Schulman often conducts readings and signings. It may be true that Schulman is among only a handful of gay and lesbian artists who have not abandoned their communal subject matter for more commercial, mass-market material, but she has nonetheless published nine books. As she recounts in Stagestruck, she has also received numerous university teaching appointments as a result of her books. Even if she hasn’t gotten rich, ignoring her own capital benefit, however small, is a disservice to her readers.
Another compelling part of the book is the subsection “The Lesbian Theatrical Context of Rent,” with its concise but crisp history of lesbians in the theater and its concentration on how difficult it was for their work to find outlets for production. Schulman describes the hope she felt when George Wolfe, an openly gay African-American, took charge of New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater, which she believes has always underrepresented lesbian work. She recounts a call she made to the theater inquiring whether it would now be interested in lesbian work. The response Schulman got, according to the book, was that the theater was interested in “lesbians of color.” (Schulman is white.)
“She’s entitled to think whatever she thinks about our history,” says Wolfe. “But I’m horrified that someone at the theater said ‘We’re interested in lesbians of color.’ Assuming someone did say that, I apologize. That is not the policy of this theater. The only agenda I have is to make every season as complex and diverse as possible.” Wolfe points out that the Public recently produced a solo piece by Lisa Kron, a member of the longtime theater troupe The Five Lesbian Brothers, and Stop Kiss, Diana Son’s play about what happens to two women when they kiss.
“I would have loved to do Stop Kiss three years ago,” he says. “But the work has to be nurtured and polished before it’s put on display. We didn’t do the play three years ago because it wasn’t available.”
Schulman expressed appreciation for Wolfe’s statements–“I’m glad the Public as a forum is changing”–but also counters that “all the people in that section of the book have been working for thirty years. They have not been given readings or residencies. Their work has been institutionally underdeveloped. [Wolfe] is the only person in New York actually producing this kind of theater, and that makes the Public’s omission of lesbian work all the more disappointing.”
But the most damning part of Stagestruck is that final section, “Selling AIDS and Other Consequences of the Commodification of Homosexuality.” Here, Schulman mercilessly dissects niche marketing, often with a wry sense of humor and an eye for detail normally absent from such critiques. There are particularly effective passages about gay marriage–specifically its false promise of equality–and about the differences in economic privilege between gay men and lesbians. In particular, she attacks businesses like the advertising agency Mulryan/Nash and Out Publishing.
“We always get criticized for not representing lesbians,” sighs David Mulryan, who is misidentified as Dan in the book. Mulryan is deeply suspicious of the idea that changing the images in advertising will change anything. “Lesbians are underrepresented because they identify themselves as lesbians much less frequently than gay men,” he says. “The reasons people do or do not self-identify are more complex than advertising can solve. This is a for-profit business. I get people to buy my client’s stuff.”
“We’re in business to make a profit,” Out president Henry Scott concurs. “We are not going to help you cope on $15,000 a year. I realize that our readership is only part of our community. But it is an incredibly affluent section and I’m very happy about that.”
But Martin Duberman, professor of history at the City University of New York and author of numerous books on gay and lesbian history, notes that this constant “buy” message goes far beyond advertising and magazines. “In both their ads and editorial, these magazines are devoted primarily to consumerism,” he says. “What’s the hottest restaurant? What’s the hottest disco? Where do you go on vacation where there will be other glamorous people? And these images are seen far beyond people who read these magazines. They’re on bus stops and TV.”
Schulman also turns her guns on POZ, which was founded by Sean Strub, who has had HIV for more than seventeen years. POZ is largely credited (or blamed, depending on whom you ask) for the increase in direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, which now encompasses everything from over-the-counter antacids to serious drugs like HIV-related antivirals. Schulman chastises Strub and POZ for dependence on advertising, along the way contending that other AIDS publications, like Body Positive and PWA Newsline, do not accept advertising. Body Positive‘s managing editor, Richard Brigandi, notes, “We do accept advertising and almost always have,” and PWA Newsline‘s Cheryl Whittier points out that while her magazine “has never accepted advertising and never will,” the organization’s quarterly resource guide does contain it. Strub, who vehemently disagrees with Schulman’s contentions, says he notified Duke University Press of this and also complained about Schulman’s overall depiction of POZ in a series of letters and e-mail messages.
Strub strenuously disputes Schulman’s contention that “by emphasizing which AIDS-related products should be supported and which companies should be pressured, [POZ] prefers to foreground the buying power of PWAs [people with AIDS] as their primary means of political influence.” Strub finds it condescending to think POZ readers “would confuse a sales pitch featuring a PWA with the achievement of political power.” But, as Schulman points out, advertising is designed to create a bond between the product and the viewer of images, ultimately resulting in a purchase. It is, therefore, equally ridiculous to think that POZ‘s ads have no effect: It’s safe to say that at least one reader has purchased, for example, a bottle of Solgar vitamins after seeing the company’s ad on the back cover, especially in three or four consecutive issues. Strub says it makes sense for advertisers to act in their economic self-interest: “The pharmaceutical companies aren’t going to show people with AIDS throwing up from their drugs. And Coca-Cola isn’t going to show your teeth rotting.”
Perhaps, but imagery of smiling groups of ethnically diverse friends does not mean the ads themselves contain accurate medical information. While POZ has often written about this issue, I wish Schulman had tackled it also. One area she is absolutely correct about, however, is the huge profit windfall these ads have given to all of the national glossies. Because of Food and Drug Administration regulations requiring disclosure of certain medical research information, many of these ads must be two, even three pages. Imagine Coke or Ivory soap buying a three-page spread in every issue of Vanity Fair, Time or Esquire, and one begins to get an idea of the huge potential profit from this marketing pool.
Henry Scott himself seems to have recognized this opportunity: Out Publishing debuted another magazine, HIV-Plus, in early September. Clearly established to compete with POZ, HIV-Plus used former POZ staff editor David Thomas as its managing editor for one issue. HIV-Plus calls itself a “treatment and research” magazine, but out of its sixty-four-page length, thirty-seven pages were editorial copy and twenty-seven were advertising, nearly all from pharmaceutical companies. Virtually all the information contained in the premiere issue of HIV-Plus was circulated in the myriad of nonprofit, noncommercial treatment newsletters and publications–like AIDS Treatment News and GMHC’s Treatment Issues–that very month or earlier. As Schulman further articulates, the editorial viewpoint employed by the gay glossies and the mainstream press is almost exactly the same, despite the former’s “rhetoric of diversity.” Her arguments about how the dominant culture has usurped these publications is incredibly compelling. “There is no opposition between them,” she says in an interview. “A huge number of gay and lesbian people are being completely, intentionally ignored.”
Scott eagerly pointed to covers of women like Angela Davis, Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche and k.d. lang, but bristled at the fact that, except for Davis, all are famous white lesbians. “Where does this idea come from that magazines like Out and The Advocate should be all things for all gay people?” he demanded. “There are populations that exist for whom there are no magazines.”
Judy Wieder, editor in chief of The Advocate, makes the following gender-based economic argument: “Men are much more likely to throw their money at things that seem to reflect their lives. Women are picky and infinitely more critical. They’re not going to buy the magazine just because our cover is about breast cancer.” While Wieder declined to discuss The Advocate‘s advertising at length, she applauded Schulman’s book. “It’s difficult to look at any of this, but this radical thinking, this painful criticism, is really necessary. But it’s not the only way to effect change.” For her part, Schulman believes Wieder’s and Scott’s “evidence” proves her larger point.
“If your readership deserts you when you put a woman or a person of color on the cover, then you are stuck servicing that readership and its advertisers forever,” Schulman says. “People are responsible for the content of their representation. That content should evolve and, as it evolves, create equitable representation. But as is often the case, people who dominate this representation do not do that. They have the choice to change, but they choose not to change.”
A study released in November seems to back up Schulman’s argument about media representation, popularly held opinion and reality: M.V. Lee Badgett, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, conducted an investigation of differences in income between gay men and lesbians and their heterosexual counterparts. The final report, titled “Income Inflation: The Myth of Affluence Among Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Americans,” was published jointly by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. Badgett made numerous discoveries, among them that gays, lesbians and bisexuals do not, on average, earn more than heterosexuals; nor do they tend to live in more affluent households than heterosexuals. Badgett also found that–just like most heterosexuals–gays, lesbians and bisexuals tend to fall somewhere in the middle range of income distribution.
In writing Stagestruck, Schulman harnessed deeply personal, painful experiences to elicit an extremely effective discussion of cultural production and visual representation. Linking the imagistic power of theater, advertising and magazine publishing, she confronts some troubling aspects of American culture. Why the incredible denial that AIDS continues to spread? How have those at risk come to believe that acquiring HIV is no longer something to worry about? The marketing of pharmaceutical products and the happy-go-lucky imagery upon which they rely have everything to do with those delusions. Why do gay men and lesbians continue to face discrimination? In part because of the myth of affluence and the notion, as the political right has successfully argued, that such an elite class has no need for “special” protection. And also because the dominant culture cannot remain dominant without placing someone under submission.
To believe Schulman’s argument that AIDS and homosexuality have been dressed up for mass dissemination and maximum profit, one need look no further than the corridors of Washington or the nearest magazine rack. Congress refuses to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons from Manhattan to Wyoming are attacked and murdered in increasing numbers. And yet, new magazines of consumer lifestyle crop up almost monthly, offering escape into an imaginary world free of such real-life concerns. There was once a slogan in AIDS circles: “All I want is a cure, and my friends back.” Even POZ now features a motto on its cover, one for the niche-market nineties: “Because AIDS Isn’t Over.” In the difference between these two sayings lies perhaps the greatest of Schulman’s many truths: As long as there is profit to be made from AIDS and inequality, both are here to stay.