Can't get a good explanation...
February 18, 2008 8:26 PM   Subscribe

Why is Judy Garland such a gay icon?

As a big fan, I'm trying to pinpoint why she is so beloved by the gay community, and the answers I'm finding are not satisfactory. The most common answers I seem to be getting are 1) gay people can relate to and identify with the "pain and suffering" in her personal life; and 2) her heyday coincided with the Stonewall riots, so she was a natural for the time. I'm not quite understanding this: plenty of straight people can relate to the suffering in her life, especially considering that she herself was straight; and there were plenty of other riots in the 60s that had nothing to do with gay people. When I suggested this to my snobby gay friends, they just gave me a "you so don't get it" look. Is it just a matter of one group wanting to call someone their own? What am I missing here?

Bonus question: what about Joan Crawford? Same deal?
posted by Melismata to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Who was prettier?
Who had a better voice?

Well, there you go, no one. She's not just a gay icon, she's an ICON.
posted by caddis at 8:44 PM on February 18, 2008

Also her role in Wizard of Oz. Somewhere over the rainbow. Not fitting in. Etc.
posted by gjc at 8:50 PM on February 18, 2008

Joan Crawford would be because of the campiness of many of her films. No idea about Judy Garland, though of course rainbows are important to queer culture.
posted by johnofjack at 8:57 PM on February 18, 2008

Wikipedia has an entire article on Judy Garland as a gay icon.
posted by acoutu at 9:07 PM on February 18, 2008

Judy Garland, gay icon
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:09 PM on February 18, 2008

posted by LobsterMitten at 9:09 PM on February 18, 2008

She is a woman singer with a easily identifiable voice and look. She's easy to do a drag impersonation of. That, and she did lots of drugs.

Is there any gay icon where you go... "Hmmmm, that one I totally understand, but Judy Garland I can't wrap my brain around"?
posted by 23skidoo at 9:11 PM on February 18, 2008

Judy Garland "Get Happy"
posted by geoff. at 9:19 PM on February 18, 2008

She's an acquired taste.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:20 PM on February 18, 2008

Damnit, someone's already brought up the friends of dorothy thing.
posted by holloway at 9:31 PM on February 18, 2008

I was actually asking my g/f about this the other day -- why Judy? And why Cher?
posted by davidmsc at 9:41 PM on February 18, 2008

"Give them a bitch with a drinking problem, and they're anybody's." - Edwina Monsoon
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:21 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is there any gay icon where you go... "Hmmmm, that one I totally understand, but Judy Garland I can't wrap my brain around"?

Bea Arthur...?
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:33 PM on February 18, 2008

She's ballsy, funny as hell, and really quite talented.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:48 PM on February 18, 2008

The Judy Gene, from Project Gay.
posted by Paragon at 12:56 AM on February 19, 2008

Queer, Isn't It?: Gay Icons: Judy Who?
“Ask most straight men if they’ve heard Judy at Carnegie Hall and they’ll respond, ‘Judy who?’. Many gay men, however, know that Judy is Judy Garland, and Judy at Carnegie Hall, Garland’s 1961 Grammy-winning Album of the Year, is the concert album that put the diva back on top.

And rightfully so. Today’s performers could learn from Garland’s comeback concert, a brilliant performance from a legendary entertainer. Here she is, alone on stage with her band—no pyrotechnics, back-up dancers, costume changes, dazzling lights, or mammoth sets—throwing herself without abandon into song after song after song. ‘I don’t ever want to go home,’ she shouts to the frenzied audience. ‘I’ll sing ‘em all, and we’ll stay all night!’

For many gay men and women, the appeal of the album is not just the artistry of a true superstar, but the fact that Garland had to overcome numerous demons just to walk out on to the stage that night. Battling her drug addictions, washed-up status, and an almost paralyzing anxiety that led her to believe she would fail miserably, Garland considered cancelling the concert until seconds before she flew onto the stage, smiling and gesturing wildly. She rose above all the obstacles, and as they say in show business, ‘knocked ‘em dead’.

It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned Garland her status as a Gay Icon. A chubby kid who was forced to take diet pills by her studio, a failure in marriage, a star whose popularity rose and fell repeatedly, an addict (thanks to the diet pills), a financial disaster who often had to sneak out of towns without paying hotel and restaurant bills—there was no reason why Garland should have enjoyed the kind of success she did, except for an adoring fan base and the sheer will to survive in the only business she knew.

Garland is hardly the only diva upon whom society has stuck the label ‘gay icon’. Who exactly is classified as a gay icon will vary depending on whom you ask, but the one trait that most all who are listed have in common is an ability to overcome the odds or fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Bette Davis, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand—too unattractive to be stars, at least by Hollywood standards. Cher, Dolly Parton, Carmen Miranda, and yes, Tammy Faye Baker—too over the top. Madonna, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford—too trashy for their respective times. Yet, all have succeeded, and in their success, they have earned the admiration of homosexuals worldwide. And it doesn’t hurt that, for the most part, they have embraced their gay fans, in turn.

Why is it that older gay men are attracted to such tortured souls? Why don’t gay women share the same list of icons? And why don’t young gay men share the same attractions for these legends? The stereotypical answer would be that these women make great subjects for female impersonators to emulate, but such an answer is superficial.

For older gay men, the women they idolize represent their own personal struggles. Gay men who are in their 40s or older grew up in a time when they were judged on the basis of one thing: their homosexuality. It didn’t matter if you were a great teacher, dentist, accountant, neighbor, citizen. What mattered, and what people talked about, was that you were ‘that way’. Understandably, there emerged a desire to be judged for the whole package, not just for sexual inclinations—a longing to be recognized for your skills on the job and whether or not you were a good person who played by the rules, paid your taxes, and treated your neighbors with kindness and respect. Those were all a part of what made these men individuals, but they were rarely acknowledged. (While gays are still judged on their sexual preference today, it is not a factor that limits one’s ability to succeed in society as it once was.) ….more….”
From: What Does It Take to Be a Gay Icon Today
When Judy Garland sang ‘Over the Rainbow,’ the sadness in her voice, even when singing about such happy images as bluebirds and lemondrops, was palpable, hinting at complex depths beyond the wholesome image projected on screen. This was, in effect, the sound of the closet, and it spoke to gay men’s consciousness that the image they presented in their own public lives was often at odds with a truer sense of self that mainstream society would not condone.

This duality was only reinforced by the scandals in which Garland’s career became increasingly mired. Hearing shocking reports of drug and alcohol abuse, of exhaustion and collapse, gay men could not help but sympathize with a woman whose career, whose image, whose entire life, appeared to be dictated by an authoritarian studio system run by powerful men.

While Garland’s scandal-plagued life and tragic death hinted at the damaging aspects of a closet-like dual existence, there were other early icons who gay men admired for their determination to depart from societal standards and expectations. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in classic films like Jezebel (1938) and Mildred Pierce (1945), played strong-willed female characters who glaringly strayed from the subservient, meekly feminine norms associated with being a typical wife, mother, or daughter.

And in their careers and private lives, as well, they were labeled “difficult women” who fiercely fought studio executives who they thought were mismanaging their careers, who never settled happily down for conventional marriage (Davis was married four times, Crawford five). They were living embodiments of how strong-willed individuals might defy closet-like restrictions forced on them.”
FYI -- current gay icon, Rufus Wainwright, presents homage to Judy Garland and her Carnegie Hall comeback concert | video excerpts.
posted by ericb at 1:03 AM on February 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

I think the wizard of oz was a big sensation culturally, and gay men were just one audience that was touched. It was pretty fantastic film making for 1939, one one of the first colour movies! The idea of an alternative universe, say one where everything was brightly coloured yet unreal, attracted a lot of attention. Many people thought of it as an allegory in a variety of ways.

Judy Garland attracted a lot of gay men in her life, often as boyfriends. She wasn't so happy about this, understandably. But the gay men in her life attracted a lot of attention in the gay community, which was at that time looking for images of itself in all sorts of covert ways. Gay men, particularly closeted gay men, love to gossip about who is gay, who is surrounded by gay people. Judy was famous and glamourous. And surrounded by effeminate men. I think Doris Day is to a lesser extent a gay icon, in part because she was always playing against Rock Hudson.

There is also an element of tragedy to camp, and many camp figures are exceptional people who are leveled by every day problems like drugs and aging. Judy Garland was not just beautiful and talented, she was always on the edge, suffering from substance abuse, instability and emotional strain. THink of other gay icons-- Marilynn Monroe, Liza Minelli (okay, Judy's daughter, but still) Britteny Spears (gorgeous but embarrassing herself constantly)-- they are exceptionally beautiful people, whose lives are tragic. We share their pain in compassionate but almost mocking way.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:30 AM on February 19, 2008

Because she's fabulous. Duh.
posted by desuetude at 6:21 AM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

with those references, ericb has it -- perfectly
posted by Robert Angelo at 12:21 PM on February 19, 2008

I would expand on what ericb says by drawing a causal connection between the "numerous demons" and the "brilliant performance." There is something enormously empowering in the notion that Garland's genius was actually fueled by the general unhappiness of her life. The message for the unhappy (possibly closeted) gay man was: you have the choice of simply suffering through your misery or else you can find the courage to transform your misery into something beautiful.

To this magical thinking might be added the quality of gently ironic sophistication Garland brought to her onstage persona in the post-MGM part of her career. What in real time must have felt like a humiliating disaster could, in retrospect, be reconstructed into witty patter introducing the next song in the act. Nobody could laugh at her because she was in control of the joke.

There's a lot more to it as well.

As for Joan, well, there is a lot of camp in many of her performances, and it's good camp because it's unapologetic and it's informed by love.
posted by La Cieca at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

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