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How interpretive dance got cool

Rampant homophobia stunted turn-of-the-century American culture. Are we finally moving on?

January 3, 2016 2:00AM ET

When I was a kid, everything uncool or different was “gay.” Your shirt or shoes could be gay. So could English class or a movie. Having friends who were girls was gay, as was not having seen “American Pie.” Each day was a new obstacle course in gay stuff you weren’t supposed to say or do or like. “Gay” wasn’t just a substitute for “bad”; it automatically put anything beyond blue for boys pink for girls in the category.

Of all the gay things that existed 15 years ago, the gayest were performance art and interpretive dance. None of us 12-year-olds really knew what those were, but they were weird and confusing and definitely not for regular boys. In movies such as “She’s All That” (1999) and “The Big Lebowski” (1998), performance art was associated with insufficiently feminine women and the presumably queer men who hung around them. Women directing men dancing around in tights stood for everything that was culturally transgressive — in a bad way.

A decade and a half later, interpretive dance and performance art seem to have shed their bad rep. The decidedly mainstream Justin Bieber recently released “Purpose,” a visual album that is full of the kind of art that I never would have been caught dead with in middle school, and in the video for the song “Life Is Worth Living,” dancers Emma Portner and Patrick Cook choreographed and performed a tortured modern dance routine that translates young heartbreak into flexibility and tan leotards. In another video, “Love Yourself,” the real-life couple Keone and Mari Madrid narrate a breakup through interpretive dance in a domestic scene. There’s a notable lack of anxiety in their form of expression; no one in the Bieber fame machine seems too worried about kids thinking his videos are gay. The need to protect heterosexuality no longer defines American pop media; Miley Cyrus has renounced her gender identity in favor of a more fluid, flexible definition.

Meanwhile, attitudes about queer people in America have evolved significantly over the past decade. A 2013 Pew survey of LGBT adults found 92 percent of respondents said society is more accepting than 10 years ago. Eighty-seven percent of Americans now report personally knowing a gay or lesbian person, up 26 points since 1993. The media usually frame LGBT Americans as the main beneficiaries of this liberalization, but we shouldn’t skip over how the erosion of strict heterosexuality has improved national culture for everyone.

In retrospect, homophobia seems like a — if not the — central structuring principle of Y2K straight boy culture. In the 1999 film “Fight Club,” straights reclaim cruising from the gays by having strange men find each other, gather in secret, take off their shirts and punch each other in the face. Pop-punk bands such as Blink-182 and Sum 41 sold the idea that every other kind of guy — athletes, the Backstreet Boys, whoever — were all gay. It’s virtually impossible to go back and watch a teen movie from the late 1990s or early 2000s without running into extraneous homophobia. Media studies professor Tijana Mamula compiled nearly an hour of gay jokes from “Friends.”

American pop culture is better than it was 15 years ago. The tyranny of mean teenage boy consumers is breaking down, and we’re all benefiting.

This offensive teen culture created the conditions for very real violence against queers, women and even some straight men who aren’t seen as masculine enough. At the time, I think, most adults imagined that kids were naturally cruel toward difference and that homophobia, especially among boys, was endogenous and unavoidable. The best they could do was tell us to cut it out. Looking back, now it’s obvious how much money and work large media companies invested in gay jokes. We had to be taught how to be dicks.

If we learned it, then kids now don’t have to. The “gay” charge doesn’t have the same sting for hetero male artists that it used to. Rapper Young Thug — who wears little girls’ dresses and poses naked and calls his male friends “bae” when he feels like it — has shrugged off the slurs. “I like everything that people say,” he told The Guardian, “no matter what they say. You gay, you a punk. You got a nice girlfriend, you’re ugly.” His gender play hasn’t hurt his mainstream appeal. Instead, he has become a fashion icon. Perhaps nothing better captures the collapse of “that’s gay” culture than the Young Thug tweet “No homo we smokin penises!!!!

Two years ago, Shia LaBeouf was well on his way to a career as a masculine blockbuster action star when he tossed it away for performance art. At first, it seemed like a joke, but he has fully committed, producing a series of increasingly inspired collaborative pieces on fame and public attention. He donned the classic tan spandex for a modern dance music video in January. In November he watched all his films in reverse chronological order in a New York theater, inviting the public to join him in person or via a live stream of his face. The piece trended nationally, and the idea that this was performance art and performance art is gay didn’t come up.

American pop culture is better than it was 15 years ago. The tyranny of mean teenage boy consumers is breaking down, and we’re all benefiting. Not that straight guys my age really deserve it; after spending years calling everything culturally adventurous gay, it’d be fitting if we were stuck with Limp Bizkit and straight-to-DVD “Road Trip” sequels for the rest of our days. Thankfully, that’s not the case, and we owe a large debt to everyone who ignored us.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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