Is Connor Walsh Television’s gay stereotype, or our culture’s superstition?

note: spoilers are ahead if you have not seen ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ through the 3rd episode of its 1st season.

How to Get Away with Murder, as ABC’s latest popular drama, mirrors some of the same qualities that characterize its executive producer’s Shonda Rhimes’ other work: the fast-pace, topsy-turvy plot lines, mysterious characters with shady back stories, and up and down romantic and sexual relationships.

One main focus on these relationships has been the frank display of gay sex on its show, with its main character Connor Walsh. Theoretically, there should be no difference in reception of these moments with heterosexual sex on other broadcast TV shows. However, some were uncomfortable and voiced their concerns on social media, even some tweeting how Connor’s exploits are showing why HIV/AIDS spreading from the gay community to the general population and how unrealistic his situations are of gay life. Besides the problematic myths these critiques display (HIV/AIDS is a problem of unprotected sex, not a daily gay lifestyle), they harm all viewers by imploring them to believe that one character on a television show is a complete portrayal of an entire group of living human beings.

There can be a tendency to believe Connor’s sexual freedom is sending a wrong portrayal of gay people to the general public. However, Connor was never publicized to be a true representation of gay life, stereotypical or otherwise. He is an individual in this particular circumstance, someone who is obnoxious [see episode 3 and his attitude toward Michaela being demonstrably distraught over finding out her fiance had a sexual experience with Connor while they were at an all male boarding school], and someone who manipulates others for his professional gain [see him setting his sights on Oliver in episode 1, exploiting Oliver’s insecurities to get him to illegally retrieve a key email for his professor’s legal case].

Described in the official character bio, Connor is unscrupulous: “no matter how dirty the deed, he’ll go to any lengths to earn Annalise’s admiration.” There have been many characters throughout television history described as ruthless and profligate, but when that character is a member of a marginalized group, somehow people have an easier time generalizing an entire identity group based on that one portrayal. He is one instance, not a wholesale version of every single gay male in the United States. Making that logical leap is absurd.

Considerations about whether his gay sex life is unrealistic is outside of the scope of this show. It is suspiciously convenient that everywhere he goes for Professor Keating, there is a gay character he must seduce in order to get important information, and that’s more of critique of its storytelling instead of the lives of people outside the show, but that’s most likely the point: Gay people are everywhere. The fact that many of them are gender-conforming doesn’t make that less true. Not all gay people are gender non-conforming, either; many are proudly effeminate. Collectively, we’ve errantly assumed we can deduce one’s sexual orientation from their gender expression.

In a world replete with access to the study of sexual orientation and the lived experiences and diverse representations within identity groups, online and in person, the inability to separate one example from an entire group is a clarion signal of inhumane, derogatory attitudes toward difference.

Take for example the white woman in the same episode [episode 3] who indecently berated and humiliated a traitor in her self-founded business. Could we say all white women turn into indecent, vengeful curmudgeons when they are betrayed? That would be absurd. Can we characterize all gay men as morally bankrupt, prurient hustlers who manipulate others for professional gain? That is absurd, as well.

Difference exists within identities. There are some gay men who are Christian who choose to wait for marriage to have sex. Some are atheists who volunteer in their local community. Some are the teacher at your local high school. But we choose to believe in phantasms created by fear, ego, and history that help us accept the lie that only those of mainstream, unoppressed identities are more dynamic than the representations we see of ourselves in broadcast TV.

This is the disappointing effect of symbolic annihilation: since more diverse representations of marginalized groups don’t exist, people believe the few representations available to them are indicative of an entire group of people. It’s also unbridled heterosexist white supremacist patriarchy, whose thoughtforms persuade us that making one person’s behavior responsible for the stigma facing one group of people is perfectly reasonable for everyone but straight, white men and those who behave to its superstitious norms.

These norms perpetuate pejorative myths that, among many others, feeling threatened in the company of black men is the same as being threatened, that powerful women are emasculating, that parenting is only a mother’s concern, and, in this case, that all gay men are morally bankrupt degenerates pushing everyone to become the same.

If we leave these thoughts unchallenged, these lies will continue to reign as conventional thought, replicating seeds of bias, discrimination, and violence for generations to come. We’ll continue to make other people responsible for our own bias, risking a return to (and, in many cases, a continuation of) more explicit demonstrations and laws that permit discrimination toward others because of superstitions we created to explain our apprehension to interacting with those outside the mainstream.

Connor is Connor, no one else. It is bigotry to believe an individual’s life – real or fictionalized – is an essential portrayal of the experience of all members of that identity group. To make him, or his creators, emblematic of any entire group says more about you than the representation you critique.

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time


Can Waist-High Pants End Racism? Twitter’s #DonLemonLogic

In the wake of the verdict regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and President Obama’s speech about the lived experience of black men in this country, a renewed discussion about the lives of black boys and men has come into mainstream media.

Recognizing the unique struggles some black men face – growing up impoverished, some in single-parent homes, others in violent neighborhoods, and more living in towns riddled with crime and drugs – many media pundits have come out discussing how they ought to improve their lot.

While some have explained these plights through the lens of poverty alleviation (focused on reform of educational, economic, and social policy), others have cited lack of personal responsibility and a stable two-parent heterosexual family structure as the causes. Fox News Network’s Bill O’Reilly and CNN’s Don Lemon have supported this latter argument, with O’Reilly stating and Lemon assenting,

“The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African American family…Raised without much structure, young black men often reject education and gravitate towards the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs. Nobody forces them to do that. Again, it is a personal decision.”

Lemon went further to enumerate five things black males can do to improve the environments in their communities in a ‘No Talking Points’ segment: 1) stop wearing sagging pants, 2) eliminate the n-word from their vocabulary, 3) care for their communities, 4) complete high school, and 5) reduce the rate of children being born out of wedlock.

Operating from that same self-determination mindset, Lemon argues for respectability – – to present one’s self as respectable, according to American cultural standards —  and addressed backlash he received in social media. He likened the personal behavioral and clothing changes he thinks black men must make to a woman seeking escape from domestic violence.

Regardless if following his tips solve the institutional problems of low access and poor resources black men encounter, or if they address the need for black men to better themselves in order to become better people, some in the Twitterverse disagreed with Lemon. Users acknowledged that these American cultural standards of respectability are subjective, and have been largely defined by whites over the centuries of modernity.

Their reasoning suggests that explaining disenfranchisement and powerlessness through behaviors or clothing, as Lemon does, shifts the responsibility for solving social injustice and racial inequality to those who face that injustice and inequality. Additionally, doing so makes their cultural expressions responsible for the inequity they experience.

It sidesteps the racist imaginations of black men that undergirds policy decisions fueling the economic, social, political, and occupational struggles blacks disparately face in the U.S. Here are some of the highlights of the Twitter-proclaimed #DonLemonLogic:

#DonLemonLogic became a popular trending topic Sunday afternoon that criticized Lemon’s perspective. Many critiques cast his commentary as an argument for respectability as the sole strategy to combat structural racism.

Criticism went on to argue structural racism creates the demoralizing poverty and low-income situations. Then, when coupled with American culture’s money-hungry and male domination values, it promotes problematic choices a disproportionate number of black men end up making.

For example, in a climate void of examples that show education providing lives of wealth in jobs that affirm cultural expectations of men having power, dominance, and influence, crime and drugs step in. Each provides a low-hassle way to escape unhappiness, to solve low-income problems and to become the patriarchal man of unlimited power, money, and influence. Most of all, crime and drugs help them acquire the excess money and material goods American culture insists will lead to lasting fulfillment.

Individual responsibility and disparate structural problems will continue to be a source of debate in solving poverty and economic disadvantage. Some argue the politics of respectability is a separate conversation from the racist oppression and hostility blacks of all income levels face. Nevertheless, #DonLemonLogic is yet another venue to have this conversation.

The One Thing Colleges Can Do to Redeem the Humanities

Undoubtedly, the Great Recession has caused us to rethink our priorities. We can’t wait for a dream job; we have to take any job. We can’t remain content with what we know; we have to create learning opportunities for new skills.

And for college students, you can’t study what you want, because you can’t afford to be unemployed as a college graduate.

With advocates more forgiving of college graduate unemployment supporting the option of graduates moving back home with Mom and Dad , detractors often support prioritizing college major choice as a crucial tool in eliminating it. As the unemployment rate varies among degrees, with humanities and liberal arts graduates suffering more, most voices and opinions are crying for college students to choose marketing or finance and leave their creative writing and photography for the weekends, buffered by research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce saying “choice of major substantially affects employment prospects and earnings.”

Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post questioned liberal arts choices for majors through her own deliberation:

An English major with no internships or any plan of what she might do with the major to earn a living? No job.

A political science major with no internships that could lead to a specific job opportunity? No job, I think.

Engineering major with three relevant internships in the engineering field? Ding. Ding. We have a winner. Job.

Fundamentally, this dogma says “choose a major that gets you a job.” It’s this dogma that’s inspired the slope of a 2012 Forbes article that slips as far to support gutting humanities departments because of the lack of employability for their degreed students.

However, Singletary’s reasoning missed one crucial point – the liberal arts majors had no internships. Since that is the only difference between these examples, what would be her answer should the English major have had a desktop publishing internship and a editorial internship? Would that student have been a winner?

I’d argue yes. The true measure of employability is professional preparation and experience – experience that leverages the strengths, skills and talents humanities students inherently have from their study.

Humanities graduates have these applicable (and transferable) skills, strengths, and talent from their liberal arts course work: cognitive load management, presentational skills, analytical thinking, synthesis, research, writing, and editing skill, plus many more. Principally, as humanists specifically and college students generally, they gain the crucial written and verbal communication necessary to succeed in any professional environment. If these skills are so adaptable, why such a high unemployment rate? And if Georgetown’s Center director says “that occupational skills are more and more important and more and more lucrative, ” why does the discussion center on eliminating or curbing study in degrees that unequivocally provide these occupational skills?

It’s the lack of professional application that leads humanities graduates to suffer. Career blogs say getting the job and having career success is in how you sell yourself and how you relate to others. For students, it’s about how they sell their education – first to get the internship and then to get the job. And that comes from networking, informational interviews, and job searching – strategies many liberal arts students forgo during their study, naively trusting their skills as their sole qualification for employment.

Writing in cover letters we can speak extemporaneously, write efficiently, and think effectively, many humanities students suffer from not knowing how to translate these skills into a professional environment, the crucial evaluation tool that differentiates writing endless cover letters and scouting for apartments online. Here, Socrates’ sage advice details the crucial factor that can direct career success for humanities students: Know thyself. We have to know ourselves, to know 1) what we want and 2) what we are meant to bring, in order to successfully align our strengths with a specific industry or a certain job’s requirements. It makes the difference between mediocre performance and significant success.

Many humanities graduates don’t choose or haven’t chosen a career path because they don’t know what they want. However, Career exploration – searching for possible careers, learning about them, and planning how to get experience in those fields – is a fundamental must for humanities students, simply because of the career variety their skills can bring. Spending 13+ years running the marathon of school education can limit your purview as to what is possible for you, thinking classrooms and homework is all that there is. Indecision and ignorance hinders any meaningful professional work. In turn, many ignore intentionally seeking out internships, or developing their interests, skills, and values and presenting them in interviews in order to get those experiences. Those career skills – and the success of using those skills – are not dependent upon your course of study.

If humanities students are unsure how to transfer their skills into professions, let alone what possible career they could choose based on their skills and interests, colleges and universities will have to answer questions about how employable their graduates are.

But this is not an issue. Career centers have staff and resources to help with employing graduates, from recommendations for skill assessment tests, timelines and strategies for job searching, and potential internship employers. We need to strengthen their presence in undergraduate life, beyond the senior year rush. Doing so will produce more of the stories we already have: English majors doing graphic design, young art history experts working in consulting, sociology students leading research assistantships, culture and politics students working for U.S. Congress, government enthusiasts doing press work for political campaigns, working as marketing account assistants, or writing for publications. Because there is no direct career path for many liberal arts, we conclude that that they are not professionally solvent. The perspective must change. Instead of what could you do with that? It must be, what you do plan on doing with that? The possibilities are only as limited as our imagination.

And our current imagination is limited to the salary numbers and immediate employability even before the students cross the stage in late Spring and Summer. The conversation about the value of humanities directs our consideration of higher education as a method to increase our profit margins. Is our professional lives the main reason we pursue education? Arguably so. Education is the central thoroughfare for economic mobility. However, given that there are skills inherent in education that can be applied to any job (the central point in the argument for attaining bachelor degrees), adequate and targeted career counseling can be the assistance necessary to push humanities graduates through to employment.

In supporting their idealism and vision, colleges and universities must also be more vigilant with enforcing practicality with their liberal arts students. Encourage them in their study of the human, for studying the human condition can generate greater understanding of the social, economic and moral crises facing us today, while encouraging – possibly requiring – professional development and internships to apply that study to the world at large to increase their likelihood of employment after their graduation.

Laura McMullen’s advice from U.S. News article citing a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) study echoes the universal preparation and application of humanist study:

Edwin Koc, who wrote the NACE report cited above, states in it that “the objective of a liberal education…is to prepare you broadly for the professional world so that you are prepared to undertake many jobs rather than to be trained to do a specific task.”

We learn how to write well from an English professor. We learn how to analyze research results from a Sociology and Psychology professor’s data assignment. We learn how to see and build visually intriguing messages from art and design professors. And for the business-minded, we learn how to save money lost from pulling and redoing a culturally insensitive advertising campaign from an African-American studies or Latino studies professor.

We must embrace the meaning-making from the human experience liberal arts graduates have learned. Without it, we simply behave to our political, social, and economic forces with no awareness or self-evaluation. Ironically, without the careful, deep analysis from the humanities, we end up with ill-informed hasty solutions for human issues like suggestions to cut whole humanities departments, without looking deeper for the more insidious problem that we take for granted as not existing, becoming a greater liability for collective success the longer it is unaddressed.