A Conversation with Grace Perry, Author of "The 2000s Made Me Gay"
We discussed why TV is more than just escapism, “I Kissed a Girl," the virginity construct, and how even the best representation often stops short of addressing structural and class issues.
This week, I had the pleasure of inhaling the book The 2000s Made me Gay, as well as interviewing its author, the essayist and humor writer Grace Perry. (I’m hoping to do more interviews for the newsletter going forward). Within its first pages, I felt a wave of bittersweet nostalgia about the cultural touchstones it covers that align exactly with my age group: Mean Girls, Harry Potter, MTV culture, “girl power,” The O.C., sadboys, Glee, and more.
“Sharing a common set of references and jokes and theories about a show or book or film series is the entire point of fandom,” she writes late in the book. “Whenever someone makes a deep-cut 30 Rock reference, I perk up and feel instantly connected to them, as though watching Tina Fey’s seminal sitcom fifty times over means we are, on some level, the same.” That’s how I felt throughout much of The 2000s Made Me Gay.
The book is also, true to its title, about Perry’s own experience with coming out and owning her queer identity, despite the often homophobic nature of such media, as well as her Catholic school upbringing that had trusted teachers telling her “homosexuality is like alcoholism.” The book’s media analysis intersperses with memoir, in turns hilarious and heartbreaking.
As I’ve covered a lot in this newsletter, the early aughts were an interesting time for television and representation of LGBTQ and characters of color on TV. Things were changing rapidly. When we were tweens, there were basically no gay characters on TV, especially TV targeted to kids and teens. Yet by the time we were in college, shows like Glee and Pretty Little Liars had made major strides in showing LGBTQ characters. Now, with series like Sex Education, Euphoria, and countless more, we’ve seen gayness more normalized and celebrated on TV than ever, though there are still shortcomings. And representation in and of itself has its limits. When done poorly, or executed by the wrong hands, it can sometimes do more harm than good.
In our conversation, Perry and I talked about how TV and pop culture is more than just escapism, the “I Kissed a Girl” era of lesbian representation, “girl power,” the virginity construct, and how even the best representation often stops short of addressing structural and class issues. And, of course, Seth Cohen.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Laura Weiss (LW): Thanks so much for talking to me! I loved your book. One of my friends started reading it for her LGBT book club and she was like three pages in and said to me, ‘Oh my god, Laura, you have to read this book. It sounds just like you!’”
Grace Perry (GP): That's awesome, I love that.
It really resonated with me in a lot of ways.
GP: Just poking through your newsletter I was like, oh yes, we are interested in the same things.
LW: How did you decide to write a book about this topic, and how did those ideas develop for you?
GP: The Katy Perry chapter is the one that came together first. I wrote a version of that essay in 2018, as like a ten year retrospective on “I Kissed a Girl.” That didn’t end up running anywhere, but I was like, oh, doing this blend of memoir and pop culture crit is something I should apply to a bunch of different pieces of entertainment or media or pop culture that I consumed when I was a teenager. So I just kind of started brainstorming it, and was like, oh yeah, I have a lot to say about The O.C. and my personality, and a lot to say about Harry Potter.
I'm not interested in retroactively applying our present-day social justice standards to movies and TV shows that came out 20 years ago, because obviously they're not going to hold up. That’s not an interesting thing to say. The more interesting process for me is going back, and instead of just being like lol, this is offensive, it’s more being like, sure, it’s offensive, but how did those offensive ideas, how did the messaging of it really stick to my bones, and what did I take from it as a kid? And then more importantly, what has still affected me today in the way that I see gender, sexuality, and coming out? I think it’s really hard to shake these ideas about the world that we develop when we're teenagers. You kind of just take them for granted as the way that the world is. For me, the process of taking a look back at what my teenage psyche valued was really an illuminating process to affirm undoing a lot of those ideas. Sometimes you can just grow out of something, and other times you need to actively work to dig yourself out of something.
LW: I liked what you said about how people sort of dismiss TV or pop culture as being escapist, but it does make an imprint on people.
GP: Yeah, totally! And that doesn’t mean that everything we watch is shaping who we are, but it is chipping at us a little bit. And I think that's worth looking at that critically, but not taking it too too seriously.
LW: So you started out with the Katy Perry essay, but what were the hardest parts for you to write?
GP: I think the hardest parts were really anything that got too personal. The virginity essay was hard because I kept being like, oh my god, my aunts are gonna read this. I was like, how do I strike the balance of talking about this in a meaningful way that’s like enough detail? I was never going to be too graphic, but where is the line?
In writing about relationships, I really tried to keep in mind to make it as clear as possible that I was speaking from my own perspective, and not trying to present it like a relationship is an objective thing, because it’s not, it’s two people with really intense views of how it goes and how it falls apart.
LW: I was thinking about that, in terms of the virginity chapter, because I just did a post about virginity, and ideas about it that are presented to us, and the media that I consumed when I was a teenager, and having a very thought process about virginity that you describe.
As you write, “I grew up with extremely specific expectations for virginity loss that instilled in me a lot of anxiety and shame leading up to my first time. An experience that, in hindsight, was quite insignificant in itself, an experience that I’m only writing about because our cultural obsession with virginity has dubbed it a Significant Moment.”
GP: Yeah, totally. It was feeling like I didn’t get to be a full, realized person until that was a box I had ticked. I think that’s something I got from TV.
LW: There’s this kind of feeling that you write about of feeling jealous of Gen Z because they have all this representation to look up to, but also having grown up in this sort of liminal space of representation starting to come along on TV in front of us, but in these weird, incomplete ways. We grew up in this space where LGBTQ representation was starting to happen, but now it’s really exploding.
GP: Yeah, queer identity and politics is so interesting because of how rapid progress has been. Every decade feels like a totally different era to be a queer person in. So I was doing this weird balance of trying to appreciate the limited progress that had been made, but also knowing it’s not enough.
A lot of the progress that has been made in the 2000s, especially in terms of gay teens on TV, and really into most of the 2010s, was talking about cisgender, attractive, mostly white, usually gay men, not a lot of bisexual men, and lesbians and bisexual women, girls, and boys. So yeah, it’s better today in some ways.
But also because we’ve made this political progress in terms of people accepting queer kids more, there’s so much more rooms for trans kids and non-binary kids and this whole realm of gender expression that was honestly not on the table when I was in high school. That was not even a conversation that anyone was having. Some Gen Z-er could totally write The 2010s Made me Trans, and have the same general thesis that I did.
LW: I think it’s interesting too, the “girls can do anything” and “girl power” being a big vibe growing up that you write about, and having tomboyishness be sort of a proxy for queerness on Disney Channel Original Movies. You write, “Disney Channel Original Movies absolutely loved the idea that ‘Girls can do anything boys can do!’ just as long as the ‘anything’ wasn’t ‘girls.’”
It made me think I should probably rewatch Cadet Kelly.
GP: It is riveting. I rewatched it being like, okay, I know this is kind of like a joke online, and people talk about this as queer subtext, but actually watching it, I was like, this is deranged! The chemistry [between Hilary Duff and Christy Carlson Romano] is unparalleled, frankly.
LW: I love Hilary Duff, though I don't know if I'll be watching “How I Met Your Father.”
GP: Anything for Hil.
LW: One thing you do talk about is performative wokeness, and the sort of overuse of the idea of “representation matters” and how that can become hollow or contrived when it’s overused. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how that happens, when that happens, what can be done to counter it.
GP: I wish I had an answer. I think probably the best thing you could do is, if you want to have a show that has Black characters in it, you need Black writers. And you need queer writers if you are writing queer characters. To me it is so obvious when a gay character was written by straight people. And I'm sure that that is the same case for people of color.
Yeah, definitely. Then there’s this thing that a friend and I refer to as “CW diversity,” where one character will be Black or Asian, and it’s never mentioned. That was such an era on the CW.
GP: Yeah, I'm thinking of Pretty Little Liars. You have Emily and then there are other characters who come in and out who are people of color. But I wonder if it's kind of that pre-Freeform, when it was still ABC Family, probably because it was white people making the decisions, but this idea that “race isn’t something that kids want to talk about, or know how to talk about, or have the tools to be able to talk about, so we’ll just have everyone be equal and not talk about race.” And then Trump got elected and the cultural conversation shifted. To be fair, I haven't seen The Bold Type or the late 2000s Freeform shows. But my sense is that they try to talk about race and stickier social issues a little bit more than they probably did when it was ABC Family.
Yeah, The Bold Type is an interesting one. But in thinking about some of the race and class-blindness, TV stops short, often. I guess an example would be, on The Fosters, it does a really great job talking about race, talking about LGBTQ issues, talking about trans issues, adoption, the foster system... it’s a really amazing show in a lot of ways. But then, one of the moms is just, unexplainably a cop. Or in One Day at a Time that the main character is a veteran, and there’s like this very weird right-wing Cuban politics in it that come up randomly.
That was also maybe pre-Ferguson. But I had the same realization last year watching The Wire for the first time. There's a scene in The Wire where Kima, who is one of the cops, and she's gay. But there's this one scene where Kima is out at a gay bar with her girlfriend and a couple of their friends, and one of them asks her why she decided to become a cop, and Kima gets this whole monologue about helping people, and meanwhile they're doing drug raids and beating the shit out of people. The Wire does not have a glamorous view of what being a cop is at all. It’s very critical of police. But this whole scene at the gay bar with Kima giving this heroic speech about being a cop, and her friends are like, “that’s so amazing.” And I’m like, okay, maybe the times were a little different. But this group of all gay people being like, “we famously and historically love cops.” And it’s like, no...
There’s kind of this inability or refusal to contend more deeply with structural issues.
Yeah, I also think that there’s a thing of people not wanting to write characters who are quote-on-quote stereotypes. So if you have a gay character, [an exec on a show] might not want to make them super effeminate. They’d be like, “no, we're going to push against that negative gay stereotype and make him masculine, like you wouldn’t even know that he's gay.” And I can see how the head of a network who’s not gay, might think, “we’re breaking stereotypes about what being gay is, and we’re showing all kinds of ways to experience sexuality.”
But really what you’re doing there is making that character conform to the more normative kind of group. You're making them more masculine, or more wealthy, or not political in any way. And I can see how somebody in their head could think that’s the right thing to do when really it’s erasing so much.
Yeah, in an effort to undo stereotypes there’s erasure going on. I just was rereading the part in your book on Adam Pally’s character, Max, in Happy Endings, which is doing that same thing. I rewatched that last year, and I had to overlook a lot, but it was still funny.
GP: Happy Endings is so fucking funny. That’s a show that I'll just cycle through because it's consistently great. And I think Adam Pally is great, and I love Max as a character. And I do think it’s hard to blame one character like they got it wrong. Because really there should be a whole world in our media landscape of all these different gay characters, so then if you have one masc, “Oh I’m gay, but I’m such a sloppy bro,” then it doesn’t matter. But when the show came on in 2011, there just weren’t a lot of gay characters on TV, so it was like really, you’re going to waste having one gay character as being a “no homo” gay character. It doesn’t feel great, but also I love that show.
LW: Thinking about the lack of structural critique we were talking about before, it’s unlikely we’ll see any critiques of capitalism or strong pro-socialist stances on TV soon, even though that sociopolitical tide is shifting for young people. But I still kind of look for whispers of it.
GP: Yeah, because if you know that there are writers and creators and whoever else who are thinking that way politically, but it’s hard to sell a show that is a critique of capitalism, because the networks love capitalism.
LW: Yeah, it has to be implicit. In the first season of Riverdale there was some class consciousness that was interesting.
GP: I watched the first season and then I was like, this is unwatchable.
LW: Yeah, it became unwatchable, though the first season was pretty addictive. I thought at first the Southside Serpents brought up some interesting things about class, in a way. And on Good Trouble, one of the characters is a Black Lives Matter activist, and some people from the BLM movement are actually on the show, so maybe there’s an effort to try to correct that. I think of everything I watched that show really pushes the envelope most in terms of certain kinds of representation and political consciousness. I think that and Sex Education are probably the best teen TV there is.
GP: Yeah. Totally.
Before you go, let’s quickly talk about the “banter boy” essay. In your book, you write that Seth Cohen from The O.C. “defined mid-aughts teen culture” and “birthed a generation of witty sadboys.” As you say, “Without any gay girls on TV, I’d successfully convinced myself that Seth was my dream crush and ignored what he really was: at that point, the closest representation of myself I’d seen on TV.”
So, growing up, I was also obsessed with Seth Cohen. I was in love with him but also wanted to be him, but also thought I was him. You say, “I was snarky like the boys, and I made mix CDs with Death Cab and Wilco and Rilo Kiley on them,” which I also did, so that was a fun shoutout.
GP: I’m glad. I was about to say more, but I realized it's all in the book!
LW: So what are you watching now, teen or otherwise? What are your favorites?
GP: Thinking of things I've watched recently, I mean, I love Succession. I don’t want as much teen stuff. I do sometimes, but Riverdale really broke my heart. That was a show I was so excited about, and then it was so bad. And I also say this as an Archie purist, because it really departed from the Archie comics and I don’t appreciate it.
Like a lot of people in the pandemic, I got really into Survivor. I liked White Lotus a lot. I think Hacks was my favorite thing I’ve seen in the last year. It was so smart. The performances were great. It’s funny, but it’s not driven by comedy, which I liked. It does feel a lot more emotionally driven. That’s probably my favorite thing I’ve seen of late.
You can buy Grace Perry’s book on Bookshop. Go, run! You won’t regret it.