The Frivolous World of Simon Doonan
Recently, Jeff Gordinier of The New York Times published a discussion/interview with Simon Doonan, who is promoting his new book. Doonan is an author and an employee at Barneys New York known for his over-the-top window dressings. I should admit up front, I have not read his new book Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, but you can probably tell from the book title where this post is headed.
I absolutely adored the BBC series Beautiful People, which was based on Doonan’s memoir. It’s hilarious. It’s touching. It reminds me of my own childhood. It focused on (among other things) what it’s like to grow up queer, what it’s like to challenge gender norms, what it’s like to be bullied, and what it’s like to have family that tries so hard to be supportive, even when they don’t really understand. For me, it felt empowering to watch.
Yet, here is Simon Doonan drawing upon all of the stereotypes of gay men that got the Simon and his best friend on Beautiful People bullied by peers and adults. To make matters worse, he claims that his book is “aimed at empowering women.” At the expense of gay men. And lesbians. And fat people. And the author of the NYT piece litters the article with all these little caveats (and a huge caveat as the title of the article) informing the readers to be cautious. For example:
It does not take long to figure out that his self-helpish bons mots should be sprinkled with liberal shakes of sodium. And it might be pointed out that he’s putting an extreme, satirical spin on tropes and stereotypes that have been in circulation for 30 years …
So, you guys! He’s totally joking, right? Besides, when queer people make fun of other queer people, that makes it okay. Right?
My problem with Doonan’s “humor” is three-fold: First, it draws on a homo/hetero dichotomy; second, it reinforces stereotypes and homophobic tropes; and third, it is sexist, xenophobic, and sizeist.
Doonan’s premise that foods are either gay or straight is completely asinine. He offers little bits of “wisdom” like “gay chips are baked, straight chips are deep-fried. It’s that simple.” Or how about “British foods used to be so straight when I was a kid. Haggis. Horrible Stews. Boiled greens that were gray. Now they’ve gayed it up, and British food is incredible…Gay foods are more decorative; they’re more frivolous.” Thanks, Mr. Doonan. It’s good to know that the determining characteristics of gays are glitter and frivolity. Not that it’s much better than straights, who are apparently gray and dull.
But it gets worse. Doonan claims that the reason gay men don’t get fat is because they are bisexual eaters. They are more “balanced.” You see, apparently gay men eat…wait for it…both salads and meat. Baby arugula salad (the quintessential gay food apparently; don’t you know that “a Caesar salad’s pretty heterosexual”?) and “Black Angus meatloaf–that’s the Burt Reynolds of foods.” Shocking, I know. And now I’m beginning to think that Doonan’s idea that gays are frivolous is misplaced projection; clearly it is Mr. Doonan who is frivolous.
Doonan engages in this tripe by drawing on stereotypes about gay men and lesbians. I’m am not going to say that self-depricating humor is unacceptable–who am I to tell people what they can and cannot say about themselves? But this goes way beyond self-depricating. This is group-depricating. It’s not self-depricating to make fun of gay people just because you are gay yourself. And it’s not funny to paint all gay men with the same broad brush, as if we are some monolithic group that all think, act, look, and feel the same way. This kind of humor is evidence of internalized homophobia. And it promotes stereotypes that have been used against gay men for generations. He doesn’t just leave it at gay men, though.
Did you know that “earthy, healthful foods” are “lesbian”? Because, in case you didn’t know, lesbians are all tree-hugging, goddess-worshipping, bra-burning, man-hating hippies. “A crusty loaf of whole-grain bread is both ferociously lesbian and wildly heterosexual.” Pardon me, but what the fuck are you talking about, Mr. Doonan?
The interviewer’s food problem, according to Doonan, is that he eats like “straight men automatically do.” How, pray tell, is that? Putting food in your mouth, chewing it up, and swallowing it? Is there some other way that us gays are supposed to eat that I wasn’t taught? Perhaps I am less gay because I don’t “automatically” eat a certain way? How do gay men and straight men eat differently?
I guess my issue is that I’m taking this seriously. You know, because it’s a joke! I should seriously lighten up, right? It’s not like sexist, xenophobic, and sizeist humor is used to silence and shame people or anything.
“There’s a lethal amount of fat in guacamole,” he went on. “A friend of mine was just going off to Mexico, and I said to her: ‘If you get kidnapped, remember to tell your kidnappers: no guacamole. You cannot be in a confined space ingesting guacamole. You’ll become so enormous.’”
Let’s take a moment to unpack this knapsack. First of all, if your friend got kidnapped, I doubt her first thought would be about her figure. And I hope that wouldn’t be your first thought either. This “joke” reduces women’s importance to their bodies. It’s not so much important that she’s been taken and is being held against her will; the real concern is that she doesn’t get fat.
And what the hell does he think happens down in Mexico? Does he think that kidnappers imprison their victims in a tiny cell and force feed them truckloads of guacamole? I’m so lost as to where this comes from. It’s completely xenophobic. Why does he immediately think of kidnapping and guacamole when his friend is going to Mexico? And so what if someone becomes “enormous”? Why is that a freaking issue for Simon Doonan to concern himself with–especially if the person is a kidnapping victim being held against her will?
And what about all his generalizations aimed at heterosexual folks? “I’ve got a lot of straight friends.” Oh, well that certainly clears that up. I’m so pleased to see that bullshit trope goes both ways.
The sad thing is, Simon Doonan is funny. I thought he was mostly funny on VH1’s I Love the Decades series. He’s even written some funny stuff, too. I love camp, and Doonan is definitely campy. But this latest book is a seriously flawed attempt at self-depricating humor. It has the potential to reinforce all sorts of stereotypes. The fact that it’s aimed at women is baffling–and sexist. Why does Doonan think that this sort of crap is what will empower women? Oh, that’s right–women (just like gay men!) are only concerned with their looks.
Not only is that offensive and unacceptable, it also slows down social justice movements and gives ammunition to oppressors. After all, they can now point to another example of a gay man sharing their heteronormative and homophobic truisms about what it means to be gay.
I just heard Simon Doonan on The Moth podcast recently and went looking into his book. You’ve validated the impression I got about it, sadly.
And yes, definitely even sadder because he is actually a funny story teller. I loved his Moth story but I’m not going to buy a book that thinks that lesbians = crunchy hippies and gay men = arugula salad is going to make me laugh.
Awesome post, Will. I also want to agree about loving BBC’s Beautiful People. It makes it that much sadder to see the real life Doonan being so disappointing.
P.S. One upsetting cultural trope I’ve noticed is how in our mass media it is becoming acceptable for gay men to say wildly sexist things and define the standards of beauty a woman is meant to live up to, and tell her what she is meant to be. As though the gayness armors them against criticisms of misogyny, because HEY, WE’RE ALL GURLFRIENDS HERE, GURL or something. It seems to be a really sneaky tactic of smuggling the same old BS through to women and teaching them to think of themselves purely as aesthetic objects. By wrapping it in a gay package, it suddenly seems “okay”, because those guys aren’t trying to have sex with them. But let’s not consider for a moment the motives of the publishers, producers and executives, or the cultural tropes being perpetuated… let’s not consider that a gay man could possibly have internalized some negative cultural concepts of gender and sexuality…
Well, being ugly is tragic, and we should spend every waking moment and every last dollar making sure that we don’t offend the eyes around us, right? That’s just logic, there. You don’t want to be worthless and disgusting, do you?
I wonder if plastic surgeons have a copy of this book in the waiting room?
There is an excerpt from the book on Slate, concerning Marilyn Monroe. It was unimaginitive and rather offensive. I gave up reading it pretty quickly. Highlight: the camera usually adds ten pounds, but it added 500 pounds to Monroe. Cause, you know, she looked so obese, you’d never guess she was a petite woman.
Wait, this is basically the opposite of true right?
Because I was pretty sure that Monroe would be considered a plus sized model today.
That’s an urban legend. She was a very small lady. Her proportions were not necessarily what is popular today, but based on her measurements she was likely between a size 4 and a size 8, which is not plus size by any standard.
I must know the most unusual gays and lesbians on planet earth, because when I cook for them, go to their house for dinner, go out eating together, they eat just like me, can you imagine? And they struggle with the same issues on weight, and body image and all that shit.
Who’d have thought that they were the exception and not just, you know, people.