This week, a post on James Eldred’s Mostly Retro blog discovered that for the past year onetime Mystery Science Theater 3000 host and current Rifftrax star Mike Nelson had a podcast with cartoonist Doug TenNapel, who has come under fire repeatedly for his offensive comments about LGBTQ+ people and other minorities. Eldred listened to several of the podcasts and chronicled the show’s reliance on vulgar, offensive descriptions to craft “humor” from a strident advocacy of conservative and MAGA positions. For example, Eldred noted that Nelson used vulgar language to describe abortion clinics. The majority of his post, however, outlined TenNapel’s repeated use of anti-gay slurs and TenNapel’s dismissal of concerns over his anti-gay language as politically correct language policing. Nelson did not appear on the podcast episodes where TenNapel used anti-gay slurs, but he also did not take issue with such language over the past year.
After Eldred shared his findings on Twitter, Nelson’s colleague Bill Corbett expressed shock and outrage and said he was not aware of the podcast’s content. Corbett has been a longtime advocate of equality, and within 48 hours, Nelson issued an apology, of sorts. Nelson, who is a lifelong conservative and a Christian, announced he would end his involvement with the podcast due to the “concerns” of his fans. He apologized if anyone felt hurt because he worked on the podcast with TenNapel, and he said that “I denounce bias against anyone based on race, sexual orientation or sexual identity.” It’s worth noting that denouncing bias isn’t quite the same as endorsing equality or human dignity, but it’s the best you can expect, I suppose.
It’s nice that Nelson apologized, but he’s known for years that TenNapel likes to call trans people “trannies” and happily refers to gay people (and others) as “fags.” TenNapel has been doing it in public since 2013 and faced a major flap over it in 2017. He’s still doing it today. The only thing that changed is that Nelson’s Rifftrax colleagues and customers started to notice.
The incident was hurtful because Mystery Science Theater and later Rifftrax meant a lot to me. MST3K was one of the first shows I discovered when my parents finally made enough money to afford an expanded cable package in 1996, and it shaped my experience of both comedy and genre movies. I even read Nelson’s books, published around the turn of the century. They were funny, warm, and smart. I’ve always known Nelson was a midwestern conservative—it’s evident in his comedy if you look beneath the surface. That never bothered me since someone’s views on marginal tax rates or the balance of federal vs. state power aren’t necessarily indicative of their soul. But it’s uncomfortable to discover that someone you grew up thinking positively about is kind of cool with people hating you, and probably thinks that you’re going to hell.
Nelson autographed a bobblehead doll of himself for me many years ago, and I’ve had it on my shelf for more than a decade, I think. My son knocked it off last month and it shattered. I don’t think I’m going to replace it.
This incident is one reason that having positive representation of people from across the diverse spectrum of society is so important, to counteract the messages of hate the keep seeping into our culture, even where you least expect them. Netflix has been an industry leader in terms of positive representation of LGBTQ+ people, and even when I don’t like their shows, I respect the fact that they present the widest and most diverse depictions of minorities of all types in the media. Their shows rarely lean into stereotypes, and when they do, they understand that these stereotypes are only one small part of a much broader experience.
That’s not the case with the Disney empire, which has been much less willing to embrace diversity, especially sexual diversity. We needn’t catalog their many hesitant steps to find a formula that will allow for modest representation without alienating the company’s popularity among conservatives, Christians, and third-world dictatorships.
But it is worth talking a little bit about Disney’s newest effort to tell an LGBTQ+ story with a gay lead, the new Hulu series Love, Victor, a sequel to the popular 2018 movie Love, Simon. Love, Victor began airing on Hulu this week from 20th Century Studios, and both are divisions of Disney. The series was originally intended for Disney+ but moved to Hulu, Disney’s home for more adult fair. Apparently in this day and age gay themes are still considered inappropriate for “family” viewing. Disney covered much of the same territory on the ABC sitcom The Real O’Neals a few years ago, to protests from Christian conservatives, only to see the show canceled when mainstream audiences didn’t warm to a show with a gay teen lead. The new version is safely locked away on a streaming service.
Love, Victor is the story of Victor Salazar (Michael Simino), a fifteen-year-old from a conservative family of Colombian heritage. As the series opens, he and his family arrive in Atlanta to start a new life for reasons that are only explained in a dramatic revelation later in the series. Victor thinks he might be gay, but he doesn’t want to be. He writes to Simon from the original movie to complain that Simon made the process of coming out look too perfect and easy. The two begin to talk, and we follow Victor as he haltingly begins to discover himself. More than half of the series’ ten-episode runtime is given over to Victor’s doomed efforts to convince himself he’s straight by dating a girl he likes but doesn’t love. However, he can’t overcome his attraction to an openly gay classmate, Benji (George Sear), who inspires in him much stronger feelings. The tension in the narrative revolves around Victor’s fear of his conservative Catholic family and his concern that being gay will exclude him from his family, culture, and community.
The show is cute, warm, and uplifting. Mostly, though, Love, Victor is strangely bloodless. It doesn’t deal with Victor’s internal struggles beyond the superficial, and it doesn’t really allow Victor the same level of sexual desire or even romantic depth that it gives to the straight b-story involving Victor’s best friend Felix and his efforts to win over his love interest, Lake. As a side note: Anthony Turpel (from Netflix’s No Good Nick), who plays Felix, gives the show’s most unusual performance, playing Felix as if Dylan O’Brien were doing a Christian Slater impression. It’s kind of weird, but it also kind of works in a way I didn’t expect.
Anyway, when you compare Love, Victor to Netflix’s current stories of gay youth, even in trash shows like 13 Reasons Why and the ungodly October Faction, you can see how Disney’s version bends toward being inoffensive, passionless, and generic. That’s what made the one episode that broke format so jarring, and to my mind a bit uncomfortable.
The eighth episode, “Boy’s Trip,” finds Victor in a panic and desiring to see what gay life will be like for him after high school. The producers didn’t think this through very well, so they have him sneak out and travel 22 hours by bus (!) to New York City to spend the weekend with Simon (Nick Robinson) from the original Love, Simon movie. Did no one stop think what it would look like for a now-sixteen-year-old boy to run off halfway across the country to go visit an older man who has been grooming him online for months? We’re supposed to find it uplifting, but that rests entirely on us having seen the movie and trusting that Simon is on the up and up.
Being part of the Disney universe, nothing untoward happens, but the message Victor receives in New York bothered me. There, he meets with Simon’s boyfriend Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale, from Love, Simon), who introduces him to their makeshift family of queer roommates. We learn that Simon and Bram and their roommates all live together, party together, and live lives revolving around camp/drag culture in which their sexuality is foregrounded as the essence of their identities. Even when Bram tries to show Victor that “there’s no one right way to be gay” by taking him to play in a pickup basketball game, he reveals that it’s a gay basketball league and that he took him there to “butch up” the weekend. Ugh.
Every one of the roommates talks about needing to leave mainstream society in order to embrace a gay identity. The show makes quite explicit that this identity revolves around the rejection of mainstream ideas of masculinity, the rejection of mainstream culture, and the embrace of nonbinary models of gender identity that are inseparable from the kind of camp and drag club scenes that developed in the last part of the twentieth century.
I found this surprising for a number of reasons. In the movie, Simon goes through a phase where he tries to “dress gay” in order to fit in with media-driven gay culture, only to reject that notion as untrue to his experience. Here, though, he and Bram have fully embraced the camp / drag / clubbing scene and have been absorbed into New York’s gay scene.
On the one hand, we are supposed to read this as empowering because they have finally been liberated from the oppression of mainstream society. On the other hand, the show is quite explicitly pushing back on the move by implying that to be a “good” gay, you have to be into showtunes and drag shows and the club scene. This is not to disparage this important and vital culture but to note that it is a self-selecting group of people who have chosen that identity for political, social, and cultural reasons, not because their genes code for Liza Minelli and leopard prints. It does not represent the totality of queer people. More to the point, this episode argues directly that being a “good” gay is living a life separate from mainstream society, in a different, socially distinct culture that forever removes you from the larger world. Depending on your experiences, you might see this as freedom from social oppression or as moving from a closet to a box.
But America supposedly learned long ago that separate but equal is inherently unequal. I understand the deep historical roots of the queer embrace of drag and camp, but that culture is not synonymous with the gay experience, however much it overlaps. Historically, the embrace of countercultural symbols helped to unify the gay community during a period of oppression and to provide a focus for political advocacy and social support. There has been a long and often thoughtful conversation about the degree to which this should be preserved or left to assimilate into mainstream society going forward. We can’t solve that here, but it’s important to note that the queer culture of the mid-to-late twentieth century has never been synonymous with the entirety of the gay experience. It was a specific movement, largely in cities, of individuals working toward specific ends, first in response to government suppression and then in response to the AIDS crisis. It’s not genetic.
When one of the roommates says that flamboyance is the real him and the conservative clothes he once wore were the costume of a character he played, we’re meant to see his embrace of queer culture as liberation. But it only highlights the fact that all cultural expressions are artificial, all aesthetics are masks we wear to convey messages. His loud shirts are not the “real” him; they are an expression of his political and cultural ideology filtered through what capitalism allows as an expanding range of acceptable expression, not a genetic need for paisley. Trying to declare any one cultural expression, whether it is khaki pants or a drag ensemble, inherently more correct—the “right” way to be gay, to coin a phrase—is problematic. You can celebrate people having the freedom to live the lives that best express their beliefs and values without suggesting that there is a moral obligation to embrace specific political and cultural values established in the 1970s.
The opposite, however, is also dangerous and risks obliterating the self in service of conformity. For example: To counter accusations of a lack of representation, Marvel Comics, now a Disney division, once argued that there were plenty of gays in their comics, in the background. You just couldn’t tell because they looked like everyone else and never looked at another person of the same sex where straight people could see them. That’s not equality; that’s closeting and repression.
The better message for Love, Victor would be to show that being gay is not a totalizing event—it is neither the entirety of one’s existence nor an embarrassing tattoo to be hidden away from view. I’d rather that they show gay people can have full, rich, and varied lives both within and beyond our sexual identities.
However, by suggesting that that the preferred happy end state of a gay person is to self-segregate in a distinct subculture that may not be true to their own experience is a massive disservice to the very people this show supposedly hoped to reach. I can’t help but think about the gay kids in small towns and in the country, who wear jeans and t-shirts, ride dirt bikes, and listen to country music, the kind of kids who, if history were different, would probably have never put sexuality first in describing themselves and have no interest in dressing in drag or embracing neutral pronouns. Does it help to tell them that coming out will mean that you will always be gay first and anything else second, and that being gay means being thrown into a culture you might not understand or identify with but that will forever define you? It seems to me that this is a recipe for fostering rejection of the “wrong” kind of gay.
There aren’t easy answers to this. For a host of reasons revolving around prejudice and bias, being out is to be boxed into stereotypes about what gay men are, or should be. And it’s true that many areas of the country will drive out those who are different. That’s wrong and needs to stop. But segregation isn’t the answer in my mind, voluntary or otherwise. I understand why a separate gay-only culture was essential in the twentieth century, but I feel like there needs to be more acknowledgement that what was once essential for self-preservation is now an optional choice for one way to live. When I was a kid, the only non-tragic models I ever saw for gay men were Paul Lynde, Bruce Vilanch, and Liberace—and even then in decades-old reruns. It rubs me the wrong way that nearly three decades later, Disney still thinks that’s a kind of platonic ideal.
I guess my point is that sexual orientation isn’t culture, and when we conflate the two, we artificially limit both and hurt the people who will be left out.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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