Last week, NHK aired all 22 episodes of the second season of “Glee” over seven consecutive nights. “Glee” is an American TV series centered on a high school glee club whose members are considered outcasts because of their love of singing. One member is a gay youth named Kurt. In the first episode of Season 2, he is giving a monologue about how he will conquer all obstacles in the new school year when a jock walks up, calls him “lady,” and throws a soft drink in his face.
Given the recent reports of bullying of young homosexuals in America, this segment might have been shocking, but it was played for laughs. Kurt’s situation was explored extensively in Season 1 and by now the show’s fans know everything about him. His homosexuality is simply one facet of what he is, and though the jock wanted to hurt him with the “lady” crack, he was responding as much to Kurt’s penchant for self-aggrandizement as he was to his sexual orientation. He was bringing Kurt down, albeit in a typically crude adolescent way.
LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) groups have lauded “Glee” for its approach to sexual minorities, and though that approach may not be mirrored by a consistent level of progress throughout America, the fact that “Glee” is very popular means something. In Japan, acceptance of LGBT issues in the mainstream media has a different priority.
Two weeks ago the Nihon TV variety show “Naruhodo High School” presented a long segment featuring four prominent “onē tarento,” who are nominally male TV personalities whose selling point is their ultra-feminine behavior. They all act like women, or at least the way the media think women should act. The subjects were put through staged situations that strained their composure by causing physical pain or making them angry. Hidden video cameras captured their unmediated reactions and veteran talent Maki Carrousel, the first Japanese show biz personality to undergo a sex change operation, would judge the reaction in terms of whether or not it conformed to how a “real woman” would respond. If it didn’t, then the subjects were “fake onē.”
It was funny, but unlike the insult to Kurt in “Glee,” the objectification of onē talent took place in a context where the only element under consideration was the subjects’ gender identification. This idea has less to do with social prejudices about sexual minorities than with TV’s need to pigeonhole all personalities so that viewers know exactly what to expect.
The four onē are very different from one another within the purview of LGBT. Kaba-chan and Tano Shingo are gay men with stereotypically feminine proclivities, Mitsu Mangrove is a cross-dresser and Ai Haruna a transgender — born male, now female (which, according to the aims of the segment, would seem to disqualify her for the test).
The fact that TV has narrowed their appeal to only one aspect of their demeanors proves how uncomfortable the media is with making distinctions that could elucidate the peculiar challenges LGBT people face in a society that is also uncomfortable with these distinctions. Japanese entertainment isn’t really equipped to tackle such issues. In “Glee,” Kurt is liked or disliked for his own special qualities, only one of which is his being gay. The four onē, in order to secure work, are forced to play up only one trait — being seen as men trying to be women. In fact, sex has almost nothing do with it. It’s about which team you play for.
Gender roles are so clearly delineated on Japanese commercial TV that any woman who doesn’t wear makeup and talk in a circumscribed manner has to explain herself. The lesbian couple who were the subject of a recent two-part series on NHK’s discussion-documentary program “Heart TV” are not conventionally feminine, but nor are they particularly masculine. It depends on your definition of those two adjectives, which are determined by culture, not biology. Hideko and Keiko allowed NHK to follow them for several years. They have been together for more than 30, during which time they raised five children from their earlier marriages to men.
Some of this footage was broadcast last year, and the reaction was so strong NHK made a followup. Though their last names were not mentioned on the show, the two women did not ask that their faces be masked or their voices altered. They do not hide their relationship, but they also don’t advertise it, having come out 16 years ago only to their children and close friends. As for their neighbors in the rural western Japan community where they live, Keiko and Hideko assume they understand and accept them but don’t know for sure because they don’t talk about it. “We never willfully deceived anyone,” Hideko said. “Maybe they think we’re just two single-parent families living together for the sake of convenience rather than lesbians.”
Hideko and Keiko’s decision to open their life to the media was brought about by a confluence of two events: Hideko’s diagnosis of breast cancer and their grown daughter Noe’s suicide. Moreover, while neither woman had ever made a big deal of her sexual orientation, when social pressure is brought to bear on keeping such a central component of one’s being hidden, eventually one feels the need to make a statement. “This program is an affirmation of who I am,” Keiko said.
The viewer may jump to conclusions about Noe’s suicide, and one of her siblings says that their parents’ homosexuality was initially difficult to process. However, Noe, a folk singer, was diagnosed as being autistic only months before she died and always had problems communicating with people. “I never understood her disability,” Hideko admits. To say Noe’s problems had no connection to Keiko and Hideko’s relationship would be disingenuous, because parents’ relationships have an impact on their children. But like Kurt’s gayness on “Glee,” it’s only one of many elements that combine to form a person, a partnership, a family; or even a TV show.
Philip Brasor blogs at www.philipbrasor.com