by: Tim Jones-Yelvington
Two weeks ago, A-List New York star Reichen Lehmukl confirmed that the series will not be returning for a third season, part of the Logo network’s move away from LGBT-specific programming in order to attract a more mixed audience akin to Bravo’s. The A-List was widely derided across the queer political and cultural spectrum as a “very bad representation” of gay people. My own first reaction to the show was that it seemed yet another instance of queerness as narrowly defined by white, upwardly mobile male consumers.
But over time, I grew to find The A-List oddly subversive, and eventually claimed it as a relatively guiltless pleasure. I once heard the cultural critic Judith/Jack Halberstam suggest (at a live panel, so I’m paraphrasing from memory and probably filtering her argument through my own analysis) that “good representations” can often do more damage than “bad” ones, to the extent that they reinforce “normalcy,” “respectability” or a constrained or constraining notion of queer identity/identities – they regulate rather than liberate. Here are a few reasons why I found the “bad representations” on the A-List refreshing (consider this an obituary of sorts):
The A-List embraced gossip.
Like all reality shows within the docudrama genre, most of the A-List’s narrative was driven by people saying things about each other behind one another’s back. Gossip can get ugly, but it can also build community, and there are rich traditions of gossip and gossiping within queer spaces. To embrace gossip is to embrace a stigmaphile queer politics – that is, to radically claim those characteristics that have been used to justify oppression. Gossip can serve as a leveling force – reminding us that no one is really free from the muck, and we ought to give one another a hand from time to time. My favorite A List gossiper was The A-List New York’s T.J, a fan favorite whose gossip never felt mean-spirited, and who always served up levity and fierceness.
On the A-List, the alpha male is a fraud.
Over the course of the series, hegemonically masculine charmers like The A-List New York’s Reichen and the A List Dallas’s Levi are revealed as pathological liars, so incapable of displeasing others around them that they are dishonest even with themselves. If this is the kind of masculinity to which we’re meant to aspire, then clearly the emperor has no clothes… literally, as demonstrated by the naked webcam photos of Reichen that circulated against his wishes between the first and second seasons. This failure of the masculine ideal speaks to one of the more profound tensions that animated the series, which is that none of its stars were actually A-List, and their ineffectual striving was both dramatically and politically compelling.
The A-List was surprisingly femme positive.
In contrast to the impotence of dudes like Reichen and Levi, queens like T.J. and the A List Dallas’s Chase often seemed to emerge as heroes and fan favorites, exhibiting resilience and “dignity in shame.” Chase’s treatise on big hair was one of my favorite moments on either series. For the most part, I felt like the show laughed with these men rather than at them, never opting for the cheap shot or making them look buffoonish, which is genuinely surprising on a show where pretty much everyone was a buffoon.
The A-List depicted extremes of vanity.
Some of my favorite scenes on The A-List involved characters subjecting themselves to intense and often uncomfortable medical procedures, like botox injections, colonic irrigations and spray tanning. One episode of the A List Dallas depicted Christian republican fundraiser Taylor getting laser hair removal while saying, “Vanity might be a deadly sin, but I think it’s a sin to look ugly,” then comparing the smell of his lasered skin to cattle being branded. I found it simultaneously refreshing, disgusting and riveting to witness cismale bodies publicly subjected to such ritualized displays of shame, vanity and abjection – the sort of thing usually reserved for ciswomen (at least in heteronormative/patriarchal mass media).
The A-List was often horrifying – but for me, it provided the kind of horror that was not only dramatically compelling, but also politically useful; on the one hand, The A-List’s vain, partying gossipers served as an antidote to the marriage agenda and its politics of respectability, on the other, they offered a mirror for examining some of contemporary white gay male masculinity’s deepest pathologies. My summer will not be the same without these boys and their drama.
Tim Jones-Yelvington is a Chicago-based writer and gender-bending multimedia performance artist. He is the author of “Evan’s House and the Other Boys who Live There” (in “They Could No Longer Contain Themselves,” Rose Metal Press) and “This is a Dance Movie!” (Tiny Hardcore Press, forthcoming). He works at Crossroads Fund, a public foundation that supports grassroots organizers and activists working on social, racial and economic justice issues in the Chicago area.