There’s one recurring Twitter meme that never fails to make me laugh, even though it can barely be called a joke. It’s a photo of Jennifer Lawrence in what appears to be an ad advocating against California’s 2008 Proposition 8 that simply reads “Gay Rights!” The ad is clearly fake (there is even a stray comma after Lawrence’s name) but gestures at something real. Around the time of Prop 8, as mainstream LGBT organizations steamrolled years of debates within queer activist circles and threw all their resources behind the fight for same-sex marriage, the bar for “allyship” became so low that you could accidentally step over it on your way to brunch. In fact, to the fake Jennifer Lawrence’s credit, “Gay Rights!” implies a more coherent political philosophy than “Love is Love.”
The meme expanded beyond that one image when, back in February, a young Twitter user named Grace asked actresses Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman to say “Gay Rights!” on camera at a red carpet. The video went extremely viral. Since then, celebrities ranging from Christine Baranski to Michael Sheen have also unwittingly participated in the inside joke. Earlier this month after Taylor Swift released her latest single, which advises people facing homophobia to tell their haters to “calm down,” the official Grindr account tweeted, “Taylor really said ‘GAY RIGHTS!’ with this one.” Perhaps my favorite iteration of the meme is an aerial photo of a beach in Indonesia glistening in white, pink, and blue, accompanied by the caption, “Beach said trans rights bitch.”
Beach said— Ashura 🌈 (@PedroDeolindo) June 1, 2019
trans rights bitch https://t.co/RiorpF5CiN
Lately, the ghost of Jennifer Lawrence has been haunting me. June is Pride month, and everywhere I turn, some organic wine company seems to be violently shaking me by the throat while yelling “GAY RIGHTS!”
As a certain kind of queer visibility — married! safe! — has become more palatable to the mainstream, each June we are confronted with the increasingly humiliating attempts of brands to cater to potential LGBTQ customers and virtue signal to well-meaning straights. Logos are rainbow-fied, heartwarming ad campaigns are launched, and nonsensical hashtags (#BeTrue!) are ruthlessly weaponized. By this point, we all know the drill.
It’s all become so predictable that even the critiques of this charade feel stale and expected: Corporate Pride campaigns commodify queer identities to sell products, disrespect and dilute the legacy of the acvitism they are meant to commemorate, largely feature and cater to affluent white cisgender men, and all too often serve to add a “woke” gloss to the reputations of companies with less than stellar labor practices and carbon footprints. Plus, the special-edition rainbow products are ugly.
While correct, these critiques have started to seem inadequate. Or, more troublingly, they have been swallowed up by the Pride industrial complex and spat right back out at us. Pride campaigns in 2019 anticipate the outrage cycles they may have caused in the past. They are more inclusive, more thoughtful, and seemingly more in touch with the communities they target. Hollywood celebrities are now joined by real activists in ads. Proceeds from special-edition products go to LGBTQ charities. Faceless ad copy once written by heartbreakingly unhip straight people is replaced with slang borrowed directly from queer culture. I find myself shaking in the fetal position, counting the days until Teavana hires the ghost of Judy Garland to inform me that their herbal tea is scalding hot, hunty!
What does this late-stage Pride advertising look like? It looks like a glossy Equinox ad starring voguing members of the New York City ball scene. It looks like MasterCard installing extra street signs on Greenwich Village’s Gay Street, so that it is temporarily renamed, among other things, Asexual Street, Pansexual Street, and “+” Street. It looks like Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness coming out as nonbinary while announcing a brand partnership with Essie nail polish (“I think any way I can let little boys and little girls know that they can express themselves and they can like be — like, making iconic partnerships with brands like Essie no matter now [sic] they present is really important and exciting.”). It looks like influencer Jacob Tobia proclaiming in a sponsored Instagram post that receiving their first Fossil watch (“the only shiny, sparkly thing I could get away with wearing”) was a “gender miracle.”
I find myself shaking in the fetal position, counting the days until Teavana hires the ghost of Judy Garland to inform me that their herbal tea is scalding hot, hunty!
Pointing out hypocrisy or craven motivations seems almost beside the point. Yes, Equinox is showcasing an artform pioneered by poor transwomen of color while gentrifying the very neighborhoods they used to live in by building luxury gyms that charge up to $250 in monthly rates. Yes, Essie is simply trying to maximize its profits by expanding its clientele to people who are not women. Yes, Fossil’s website still divides their products into “men’s” and “women’s” despite allegedly helping a nonbinary customer come to terms with their identity. Who cares? There is an unspoken agreement that even savvy consumers who see through the bullshit will at least appreciate the effort required to produce it.
The Pride campaigns of yore were easy to dismiss as cheap money-grabs. Something “bad” (a Bud Light, capitalism) was being temporarily wrapped in something “good” (a rainbow flag, queerness). How dishonest! Today’s Pride campaigns, on the other hand, are a Kafkaesque maze of “good” and “bad” half-ideas remixed and re-packaged so many times that they barely add up to a coherent message at all. Instead of simply proclaiming “Gay Rights!” and then going about her day, Jennifer Lawrence is now in drag hosting a cabaret night in Provincetown. One of the performers is the CEO of Raytheon, and all the proceeds go to the Trevor Project.
These campaigns are not totally without merit. For instance, Equinox is donating up to $20,000 (around the equivalent of 80 one-year Equinox memberships) to the direct action initiative House Lives Matter. What they are is deeply confused. While Obama-era Pride was shallow and conceptually limited, it vaguely coalesced around a concrete cause: the legalization of same-sex marriage. That focus has not, as the incrementalists among us predicted, been re-routed towards different, more urgent goals — even in an era when the rights of poor, trans, and immigrant queer communities are under attack. Instead, late-stage Pride advertising offers a pseudo-utopian spectacle of visibility for visibility’s sake, sprinkled with just enough hollow nods to the online language of “social justice” to skirt by unscathed by criticism. One might object that it’s not the job of corporations to engage in meaningful activism in the first place. Fair. But the least they can do is get out of the way.
Against my better judgment, I find myself nostalgic for the more simple evils of advertising-as-usual. In announcing the Gap’s “Love All Ways” campaign, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer remarked that “celebrating love has been an inherent part of Gap’s DNA from the beginning.” How refreshingly quaint! Revealing its rainbow shopping bags (“a colorful take on the brand’s iconic blue bag”), Ikea clarified that they are meant to symbolize “the value of togetherness.” Absolutely go off!
A few days ago, the NSA’s official Twitter account posted a photo of the agency’s headquarters lit in rainbow colors with the caption “At NSA, talented individuals of all backgrounds, contribute to something bigger than themselves: national security.” As an act of pinkwashing, this is undoubtedly more egregious than any of the other examples mentioned above. However, I was relieved at the simplicity of the message. I understood all the words, and I could articulate why the sentence they formed was stupid. I did not have to sit through a video of NSA employees telling me how their jobs empowered them to live more authentically or read a poem about how mass surveillance falls under the BDSM umbrella and is therefore inherently queer. It was just a rainbow. Calmly, I thought to myself: The NSA said, “Gay Rights.”