Monday, October 18, 2010

The It Gets Better Project

Heather Cox Richardson

I am fascinated by the It Gets Better Project, a video project started by Seattle writer Dan Savage, who decided to take a stand to stop the frightening rate of suicide by gay teenagers. Desperate to do something to save these endangered kids, he and his husband made a film assuring desperate teenagers that no matter how bad high school seemed with its taunts and
hatred, “it gets better.” They asked others to tell their own stories, also on video, to let students know they were not alone.

That first video has been followed by hundreds of others and has gotten widespread national attention, although the project itself is only weeks old.

The videos are touching and smart, and, I hope, comforting. The people who have made them assure LGBT high schoolers that their lives will get better. Eventually, the films promise, they can hope to have the wonderful lives the videographers enjoy.

But for a historian, the videos are also culturally fascinating. The ones I have watched—and this includes all those selected by Mr. Savage himself to be highlighted on his blog—have a very clear message aside from reassuring youngsters about their ability to survive the jungles of high school, although the second message appears to be an unconscious one.

The life the IGBP promises to young viewers is strikingly conventional. The videos promise college, and an excellent college experience at that. They promise fulfilling careers in a field in which the student excels. They promise supportive friends. And they promise marriage and children. Far from being the call to riot and revolution that opponents of gay rights might expect, these are calls to conventional middle-class respectability.

Those filming the IGBP videos reinforce their verbal message. They are uniformly articulate and smart—who else would record a video?—wealthy enough to have laptops with webcams, and technologically savvy enough to know how to use them and how to cut a clean video. They are also widely enough read to know of the IGBP.

The IGBP is designed to reassure LGBT children that they are valued and have a future, but it also seems to have within it an unconscious call to mold upwardly-mobile, family-oriented professionals. (A parodist has caught this with his own “It Gets Worse” video, purporting to be the story of an uneducated, single, poor, lonely assistant night manager of a Ladies Foot Locker who longs for the days of junior high school when he could make himself feel good by abusing gay students.)

This raises fascinating questions about social change. What effect it will have on a specific population to have such attractive role models calling its members to a wonderful life of education, professional jobs, stable marriages, and children? Would such calls work with different populations who perceive themselves as out of the mainstream of American society? To what extent are these sorts of videos capable of changing the lives of young LGBT people who view them? How will they change the attitudes of straight viewers? (The reaction of the Fort Worth City Councilors to the IGBP video of Joel Burns suggests that observers find the personal appeals in the IGBP profoundly moving in a way they may not find abstract questions of gay rights.)

There is much concern over videos that recruit terrorists. But if it is also possible to use the internet to move individuals for other ends, that also has the potential to change the world.

This revolution is indeed being televised . . . or at least podcast. How it plays out is of great interest to scholars of social movements, as well as to American society.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Clearly they're doing a lot of good, but maybe they'd reassure even more people, if they widened their class scope a little. Add a video that says, "I just lost my job at Walmart, and my trailer is being foreclosed on -- but at least my personal life got better!" Seriously, though, I wonder if they could reach out to kids who don't see a possibility of achieving middle class success (or don't care to). Then the point might be, "hey, as it turns out, you're really pretty much like everyone else."