Episode Five of HBO Max’s Legendary is without question the most stimulating, jaw-droppingly amazing art I’ve ever seen. I am so thankful that this show is on TV. I celebrate its posh presentation of an underground ballroom culture & style of dance.
But it also draws attention to an issue that I think it’s time to talk about: the b-word.
I understand that it is often not used to deliberately insult, and I have also used the term casually many times. Embarrassingly, I have even argued to a woman who opposed the term that “when a gay man says it it’s a compliment.”
After witnessing the impact of BLM in 2020 and having pandemic-induced time for self-reflection, I find my use of that term to be problematic. Regardless of the intent or context or user, this fact remains: the word is defined in the dictionary as “a generalized term of abuse and disparagement for a woman” (Merriam-Webster). As a black person I would be outraged if I turned on the television and heard frequent use of the N-word, and as a gay person I would be equally outraged if I tuned in and heard the F word. So why is it that when I watched Legendary, I heard a disparaging term for women twenty-two times? And that was just in Episode 1.
HBO Max’s Legendary
Now to be clear, this is not a criticism of the show—which is masterfully-produced—nor is it a criticism of the cast members or the culture they represent. As a queer black person, I know how marginalized our demographic can be, and I do not want to add to that. This article is first and foremost an acknowledgement that it is American society at-large that has produced this form of casual and accepted misogyny that is reflected every two minutes on the premiere of Legendary and every three minutes of the first episode of another QTBIPOC reality show—WeTV’s The TS Madison Experience.
Professor of Psychology James Garbarino provides a possible explanation for rampant disparagement, arguing that marginalized populations live in a constant state of degradation as a result of social toxicity—“the extent to which the social environment in which [individuals] develop and operate is poisonous, in the sense that it contains serious threats to the development of identity, competence, moral reasoning, trust, hope, and the other features of personality and ideology that make for success in school, family, work, and the community.”
Thus the misogynistic undertones present in this population are in large part a reflection of the environment from which the population emerges. And according to Dr. Garbarino it emerges from “the values, practices, and institutions that breed feelings of fear about the world, feelings of rejection by adults inside and outside the family, exposure to traumatic images and experiences, absence of adult supervision, and inadequate exposure to positive adult role models.”
Furthermore, “these feelings and experiences arise from being embedded in a shallow materialist culture, being surrounded with negative and degrading media messages, and being deprived of relationships with sources of character in the school, the neighborhood, and the larger community.”
First, I challenge readers to assess the ways in which we contribute to feelings of degradation among this and other marginalized groups. Because to reinterate, the disparaging language that is heard on shows such as Legendary or the TS Madison Experience reflects the ways that queer black people have also been put down in American society.
Secondly, I want to challenge leaders from the ballroom community. Within the culture, disparagement is known as “shade”—which filmmaker Dorian Corey defines as “gay-to-gay sparring”. And while it is often perceived as light-hearted or comical, research shows that its impact is not. Professor of Journalism Scott Parrott’s research showed that exposure to disparaging jokes lowered the self-esteem of people targeted by the joke. As a graduate student I conducted a study which suggested that disparagement humor is motivated by attempts to gain social power.
Further, feminist research has shown that misogynistic language makes discrimination against women more acceptable. In a research paper titled The Social Harms of Bitch, authors Sherryl Kleinman, Matthew B. Ezzell and A. Corey Frost assert that “as feminists, we (a) give credence to the enormous amount of data showing that sexism still exists; (b) understand sexism, heterosexism, class inequality, and racism (among other systems), as connected; and (c) are invested in ending all forms of inequality.” Shouldn’t we all be feminists? But many males are not. In an article titled “Mother Wound as a Missing Link to Understanding Misogyny”, writer Bethany Webster argues that some males may subconsciously embrace misogyny due to rejection wounds that occurred in the mother-child relationship. I believe this dynamic applied to me and many other queer black individuals as well.
Post-2020, I want to change any behavior that contributes to the oppression of any group. I’d also like to challenge queer men to advocate for healthier ways of expression. I challenge us to replace the B-word and other put-downs with words that uplift. Replace criticisms with compliments. Replace insults with encouragements. Whether it’s done for the betterment of the community or as a gesture of respect for women, it would be a small change to make that can have a large impact on sexism. Let’s lift each other up instead of putting each other down. That’s how we all rise.