For 13 weeks the image of two semi-naked gay men filled prime-time Australian television. Gav and Waz, the gay stars of the reality TV hit The Block, were pitched against three straight couples for renovating supremacy. They lost, but became a media sensation of a kind not seen since the ordinary flatmates of Big Brother found nationwide fame.
However, not everybody loved them. Contradicting a chorus of supporters, certain members of the brethren were uncompromising in their dislike of the men in a way that seemed harsh and overstated. Letters were written to the Star denouncing the couple that were so personal and mean-spirited they were not printed. Gav and Waz were described as stereotypes, camp, selfish, arrogant and embarrassing. My heterosexual brother-in-law hated them because he felt they were too faggy, sending out the wrong message about gay men.
Maybe this just says something about my social circle, but I thought Gav and Waz were thoroughly ordinary and perfectly fine. They were no more or less camp than any of my friends (or me for that matter), they were mostly charming on the show and they worked hard. The fact that they walked around in their underwear was a little odd, but surely not something worthy of undue criticism from a community of underwear parties, search for an underwear model events and the occasional naked party.
Something else seemed at stake and there were clues among the slurs. The use of the word stereotypes was both telling and erroneous -“ stereotypes are fictional constructions, so were Gav and Waz being assessed according to criteria previously accorded only to the un-real? Was a certain tone indicative of a political and cultural agenda -“ as if a criticism of Gav and Waz asserted one’s independence from the gay community. (I don’t have to like them just because they’re gay, perhaps). Was their dismissal as too camp simply the rage of Caliban seeing his face reflected in the glass, Oscar Wilde’s definition of the 19th century dislike of realism? Beyond the very legitimate possibility that people might simply not like them as people, was there a deeper agenda?
Professor Alan McKee has written about everything from great moments in Australian TV to the national identity of Australian gay porn videos. He agreed that something else was going on.
There is a habit that we got into about having a kneejerk reaction to every gay representation that we saw because during the 1970s in particular -“ when we were just starting to see gay characters -“ they were almost uniformly unpleasant -¦ McKee said. That’s part of what you get with identity politics. When you’re concerned with how you’re represented, you’ll always pick on the bad thing. That’s a habit that those of us who are older are only just starting to shake off.
I think now it’s reaching the stage where literally every week there’s a new gay man or lesbian appearing on tele, that you just can’t sustain that forever. Eventually it does become obvious that whatever critique you’re pitting against an individual character, doesn’t stand up against the person who was on last night or the person who’s on tomorrow night.
Matthew Kalitowski has a certain empathy with Gav and Waz, having once appeared on TV himself. A gay psychotherapist, Kalitowski is also qualified as an interior designer, and appeared in an episode of a top rating TV make-over show (which he cannot name for contractual reasons).
They have a sort of impossible task -“ representing the whole of the gay community -¦ Kalitowski said. We get all kind of nitpicky about -˜they’re too camp’ or -˜too selfish’ and I don’t think they were really any more selfish or unpleasant than anybody else.
For Kalitowski it was also that television is a glass that distorts, reflecting twisted wrists like a queer Hall of Mirrors. It’s a reflection heightened by an editing process that arguably makes such figures fictionalised and poorly represented.
As soon as a gay man makes a bitchy comment, suddenly it’s because they’re a gay man. Whereas when a straight man -¦ makes a bitchy comment, it’s just a bitchy comment, that’s all it is, Kalitowski said, who added that he felt the reaction of the boys to their seemingly homophobic rival Paul to be legitimate and justified. There’s a sense of them overreacting and being oversensitive -“ drama queens basically -“ so if they’re pissed off and upset they’re -˜drama queens’ -¦ The thing becomes so loaded.
I think internalised homophobia is [also] a really significant part of it, Kalitowski suggested. And I think it is similar to the phenomenon you get in terms of personal advertising, where -˜straight-acting’ is a prerequisite in so many instances. And I think also there’s an element of -¦ a phenomenon of more camp gay men finding [Gav and Waz] less attractive probably because such viewers would not be attracted to camp men.
Johnnie Cass didn’t love everything about Gav and Waz, but not surprisingly was filled with a lot more empathy. Three years ago Cass was the first gay contestant of Australia’s first series of Big Brother and remembers well the shock of criticism from family quarters.
I did receive some negative feedback -¦ Cass said. A lot of it was filtered apparently. But the one feedback that has stuck in my mind even three years later was that I had set the gay and lesbian community back 20 years. Now, I don’t understand what criteria somebody uses to feel that the gay and lesbian community were set back 20 years by seeing me on national TV -¦
But really at the end of the day -¦ I can’t be out there being held responsible for how everybody else perceives you and how everybody else wants you to be. You’ve just got to be true to yourself. It is negative feedback but that’s just people and they way they want to view it and their opinion.
I didn’t necessarily agree with [Gav and Waz’s] behaviour, but it was no more or less than any other people in that program, Cass said. These were maybe personal things for me, personal things that I might not have done -¦ Sometimes they’d come out in their undies or wearing Speedos. There was a part of me that said, -˜That’s great, they’re just being fun, they’re just having a good time.’ And there was another part of me that went, -˜That’s a little bit embarrassing.’ But that’s about me, that’s not necessarily about them.
McKee insisted his response to The Block was totally personal, however negative.
They were all horrible human beings. I was saying that to anyone who would listen, McKee said, who lists The Amazing Race’s gay couple Reichen and Chip as another example of deeply, deeply unpleasant people.
I really liked the fact that Gav and Waz were just as unpleasant as the rest of them -¦ For me that was a kind of breakthrough moment actually -¦ McKee said. The reason that I disliked Gav and Waz so much was nothing to do with their sexuality or nothing to do with their campness -¦ They were selfish, they were careless, they were arrogant, they were singleminded, they didn’t take care of other people -¦
Maybe what you’re looking at here is what would happen if you got any gang of queeny gay men down in a Sydney pub on a Friday night -“ you bitch about people, that’s what you do, McKee said. It’s a part of our heritage. And we should defend it to the death, he laughed.
Johnnie Cass and Matthew Kalitowski wouldn’t necessarily join the bitchy fray.
I’m sure Gav and Waz, as did myself and Sahra and all the other guys, get all those wonderful emails from younger people in the gay and lesbian community who had someone to look up to, who have a role model on a certain level, Cass said. It’s some of the older people in the community who forget, perhaps, where they’ve come from and how difficult it was for them, perhaps, when they didn’t have anybody to look up to.
Kalitowski agreed. The sad thing about it is we almost end up missing the point, and the point is just that they are there, in prime time, on the most successful rating TV program since the Olympics or whatever it is. They’re there in people’s living rooms across the country. It’s huge. It’s a major kind of advance.