Show me the queer love that’s hard to look at, the kind that makes its own rules and does what it wants regardless of approval or pride.
In late May, the Visit Las Vegas Campaign released “Now and Then,” a glossy vye for queer tourism depicting the marriage of two women. The ad has since reached over 7.8 million YouTube views and the reception is overwhelmingly positive. At first glance, this might seem like a win for a culture unfamiliar with mainstream depictions of women loving women. Yet as I watched, my stomach sank. The ad felt like a cheap, performative grab for my queer attention. Ultimately — and regardless of the many rainbow emojis brightening the comments section — my feminist killjoy alarm went off.
Here’s the down and dirty overview: Beautiful Lesbians A and B are deeply in love and vacationing in Vegas. A wants to get married. B does too, but she’s tormented at the thought of her parents’ disapproval. A cajoles B while they both enjoy Las Vegas’ various amenities, until finally surprising B with a gorgeous ceremony. All the couple’s friends are there, but B is going to shut the whole thing down until she realizes her parents are in attendance. B lets out a high-pitched, “Let’s get married!” then moves towards a beaming mom and dad.
“Now and Then” is shamelessly soap, moving in for every queer person’s soft spot with heat-seeking precision: the homophobic parents, the shame, the emotional release of seeing accepted the little dyke we all root for. It seems like an important step for lesbian visibility in popular culture. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that tolerance is a trap, and the Visit Las Vegas Campaign wants to sell it to you.
Suzanna Walters’ book The Tolerance Trap exemplifies how media like “Now and Then” — with its liberal attitudes towards gay tolerance, depictions of gay marriage, and rainbow capitalism — actually sabotage gay equality while seeming to advance it. Though the high-sheen production value can mask this, the plot of “Now and Then” is clear: If queer folks conform to heterosexual norms like marriage and wait around for societal approval, we’ll be rewarded, Vegas-style. Walters points to the sinister nature of (eventual) acceptance when she writes:
“The tolerance mindset offers up a liberal, ‘gay-positive’ version of homosexuality that lets the mainstream tolerate gayness. Its chief tactic is the plea for acceptance. Acceptance is the handmaiden of tolerance, and both are inadequate and even dangerous modes for accessing real social inclusion and change… The ‘accept us’ agenda shows up both in everyday forms of popular culture and in the broader national discourse on rights and belonging.
‘Accept us’ themes run the gamut: accept us because we’re just like you; accept us because we’re all God’s children; accept us because we’re born with it;…The ‘accept us’ trope pushes outside the charmed circle of acceptance those gays and other gender and sexual minorities, such as [transgender] folks and gays of color, who don’t fit the poster-boy image of nonstraight people and who can’t be — or don’t want to be — assimilated.”
“Now and Then” exemplifies the performative tolerance politics that the straight and cis majority thrives on. By capitalizing on classic — yet very real — tropes of disownment, rejection, and secrecy, the commercial asserts that queer happiness is achieved by hinging your actions on heterosexual opinions and values. B clearly orients her self worth to her parent’s unwillingness to tolerate her. “My parents aren’t proud of me,” B tells A, who feigns incomprehension:
A: “But you’re so beautiful, successful, funny!”
B: “I don’t think it’s my sense of humor they have an issue with…”
B: “We can’t get married today, my parents will never forgive me.”
A: “For getting married without them, or for who you’re getting married to?”
Both scenes cut away, leaving unnamed not only the validity of B’s fears, but also the clipped-wing desire to finally have the legal right to marry and feel unable to because of intolerance. Note that the edited version of the commercial (rather than the full length version discussed here) is purged of this dialogue. Instead, the edits imply the parent’s issue is with elopement, not B marrying a woman. With this, Las Vegas give queer people two, and only two, impossible options: Hinge your life to hetero acceptance, or pretend the trauma of being queer never happened.
The dialogue is haunted by B’s apprehension. But with the sound off, “Now and Then” tells a completely different story. Strategic cinematography distracts from the lovers’ conflict, instead panning the best of Las Vegas’ attractions. The women laugh in the gorgeous Nevada dessert, take in the bustling nightlife, kiss in a neon-lit hotel pool. It’s all G-rated and aggressively cliché, but “Now and Then” offers up a rare moment of visibility to lesbian viewers starving for the scraps of representation.
When A leads B to the surprise wedding, the venue is candle-lit, elegant, but not ostentatious enough to annoy. This is supposed to be the emotional climax of the story, but instead “Now and Then” proves its own disconnection with queer lives by revealing that B’s perceptions of intolerance are baseless — her parents are there, smiling and happy. Surrounded by supportive friends, family, and — here’s the important part — the city of Las Vegas, the commercial seems to say See, aren’t you silly for thinking homophobia still exists? The irony of “Now and Then” is that it tries to signal the end of intolerance when in fact its star is driven by the fear of it.
Visit Las Vegas’ commercial is dangerous because it “short circuits the march toward full equality and deprives us all of the transformative possibilities of full integration,” by depicting fully-realized queer joy as dependent on heterosexual acceptance. Even more alarming, “Now and Then” offers convenient vindication for any homophobic person ever. B’s parents are not held accountable for their prior actions; when they enter the wedding venue they are absolved of any wrongdoing. Given that B’s parents are brown-ish, and that both women have foreign accents, the commercial reinforces racist perceptions of foreigners as regressive. The ceremony is a racially-coded, apology-free mess.
Whatever the good intentions Visit Las Vegas had, “Now and Then” is a money-driven advertisement, released at a time when Vegas has nothing to lose from marketing to gay people. Note how it’s taken them until 2018, when a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, to make an ad like this, rather than tout Vegas as a destination for tolerance and fun in the ‘90s. Make no mistake, the motivation behind all “queer-friendly” media is to profit from, not defend, our community. “Now and Then” targeted a market, and now eagerly awaits the pink money and gay tourism that will surely follow. Don’t let the thrill of seeing yourself represented mask this.
Here and now, it’s 2018 and I’m not satisfied with lesbian representations in mainstream media. Even the commercial’s title, “Now and Then,” implies a degree of separation from the bigotry “then” and the tolerance “now.” The commercial is a joke its creators don’t seem to get. Supposedly “post-gay,” “Now and Then” can’t even imagine a present unburdened by the “air kiss of faux familiarity” that defines mainstream understandings of queer people.
Show me the queer love that’s hard to look at, the kind that makes its own rules and does what it wants regardless of approval or pride. Show me the most intolerable among us front and center: trans folks, gender deviants, queers of color, the undocumented, the deeply transgressive. Show me two fat, middle-aged bull-dykes madly in love, deeply amused by the ironies of gay marriage, and getting hitched anyway. Then maybe I’ll visit your damn city.