“One Day I’m Going to be Really Successful”: The Social Class Politics of Videos Made for the “It Gets Better” Anti-Gay Bullying Project

Image result for it gets better“The individualism built into IGB [It Gets Better] and the lack of structural critique makes problematic social class narratives particularly likely. Social class is fundamental to IGB because one of the primary ways in the US for LGBT people to document how they have improved their lives is through extensive descriptions of personal and financial success. Inevitably, then, the project appeals to a particular type of LGBT person – one who can document “success” in normative ways. In the videos, as well as the comment sections of YouTube, a common way of praising the project was to suggest that it provides “hope” for LGBT youth; hope that their lives will improve after adolescence. Still, for low-income LGBT people who have little access to these normative dimensions of financial success – going to college, moving from a small town to a big city – the hope provided by the project may turn to disappointment when they reach adulthood and find these benchmarks of success out-of-reach.”

“While the intended goals of IGB were to provide hope to LGBT teens, and the project’s primary aim was certainly not to contribute to conservative, neoliberal discourse, the cultural elements of neoliberalism, in which economic standing is associated with morality, remain embedded in IGB narratives of improvement. Videos reproducing classist language are the most obvious example of how the project can facilitate these cultural elements, reproducing neoliberal discourse that associates poverty with personal degeneracy; those videos are consistent with the “neoliberal paternalism” described by Soss, Fording, and Schram (2011). At the same time, most of the makers of the videos did not reproduce discourse pathologizing the poor. In this sense, makers of a majority of the videos were not reproducing explicitly classist language or reinforcing unambiguously neoliberal discourse that privileges the needs of the rich over those of the poor. The project, however, in calling for stories of improvement, supports not only norms of personal responsibility, in which individualistic solutions are privileged over collective ones, but also promotes a neoliberal narrative of happiness through financial success (Centeno and Cohen, 2012; Ong, 2006; Wacquant, 2002).”

“These ideas about anti-LGBT bullying do not reflect social trends, but reinforce stereotypes and distort many LGBT people’s experiences. Indeed, the literature on bullying indicates that low-income students are more likely to experience this form of violence than their middle-class counterparts (Due et al., 2009). The idea that bullies come primarily from poor families has also received mixed support from the literature, as research indicates that children from high-income families, as well as those from low-income families, are more likely to engage in bullying than their middle-class counterparts (Christie-Mizell, 2004). Given that bullying is largely about power, adolescents in structurally advantaged positions at the school – disproportionately those who are popular and upper-middle-class – are likely to cause greater emotional distress than unpopular and low-income bullies, and yet these discourses that position bullies as “unsuccessful losers” obscure these structural dynamics (Due et al., 2009; Peguero, 2012). Rather than reflecting reality, these ideas reinforce neoliberal paternalism and encourage punitive narratives calling for disciplinary measures to be taken against low-income people (Soss et al., 2011; Wacquant, 2009). Such discourse then disproportionately harms low-income black and Latino students, who are likely to bear the brunt of this fetishizing of punishment. This argument is consistent with Pascoe’s (2007) work, in which she found that black boys were more likely than their white peers to be punished for engaging in masculinist and homophobic practices. Moreover, even though many of the IGB videos established college campuses as a safe space – three of the videos even used that exact phrase – substantial sociological research indicates that low-income students experience class injuries in educational settings (Bettie, 2003). College is also hardly a safe space for other social groups: gender nonconforming students experience emotional distress in educational settings and women experience sexual assault in college at disproportionately high rates (Armstrong et al., 2006; D’Augelli et al., 2006). Further, this goal of attending college is obviously not feasible for many low-income LGBT people, whose families are less likely than their middle-class counterparts to provide financial assistance (Lareau, 2003; Wacquant, 2009).

Given these structural concerns, a sociological approach to examining anti-queer violence is necessary, particularly one that takes seriously other structures of inequality beyond heteronormativity. As intersectional approaches to studying social inequality have documented, attempts to undermine one structure of domination often do so at the expense of bolstering another (Bettie, 2003; Ward, 2008). My work here lends further support to this position, as IGB draws attention to LGBT people’s experiences of adolescent bullying, but does so in a way that reinforces deeply regressive social class narratives. Although attempts to undermine heteronormativity that do not simultaneously reinforce inequalities based on race, class, and gender may be easier to accomplish in theory than in practice, one approach is to create structures and social movements that value and encourage the participation of the most marginalized LGBT people (Spade, 2013).

In contrast, IGB encourages the most privileged LGBT people to participate by calling on those who can document how their lives have improved. LGBT people with the most opportunity and the most access to achieve upward mobility will likely feel the most welcome to participate in the project. As narratives of improvement in the US are deeply infused with rags-to-riches tales, IGB is situated in myths concerning equality of opportunity and the American Dream, with the project encouraging makers of the videos to downplay or ignore how their lives have been made easier through structures that privilege them. Thus, although IGB has opened up the possibility for further discussion and analysis of the institutional dynamics that lead to anti-LGBT bullying, scholarly and advocacy work that challenges homophobia but reinforces neoliberalism – which includes and yet exists beyond IGB – will only benefit LGBT people in privileged social class positions.”

Meyer, Doug. 2017. ““One Day I’m Going to be Really Successful”: The Social Class Politics of Videos Made for the “It Gets Better” Anti-Gay Bullying Project.” Critical Sociology 43(1):113-127. [Pp. 122-124. References by Meyer reproduced below, links not in original:]

Armstrong E, Hamilton L and Sweeney B (2006) Sexual assault on campus: A multilevel, integrative approach to party rape. Social Problems 53(4): 483–499.

Bettie J (2003) Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Centeno MA and Cohen JN (2012) The arc of neoliberalism. Annual Review of Sociology 38: 317–340.

Christie-Mizell CA (2004) The immediate and long-term effects of family income on child and adolescent bullying. Sociological Focus 37(1): 25–41.

D’Augelli A, Grossman A and Starks M (2006) Childhood gender atypicality, victimization, and PTSD among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 21(11): 1462–1482

Due P, Merlo J, Harel-Fisch Y, et al. (2009) Socioeconomic inequality in exposure to bullying during adolescence: A comparative, cross-sectional, multilevel study in 35 countries. American Journal of Public Health 99(5): 907–914.

Lareau A (2003) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Ong A (2006) Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pascoe CJ (2007) Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Peguero A (2012) Schools, bullying, and inequality: Intersecting factors and complexities with the stratification of youth victimization at school. Sociology Compass 6(5): 402–412.

Soss J, Fording R and Schram S (2011) Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [A review by Sanford F. Scharm appearing in Social Service Review, vol. 87, no. 3, pp. 619-624, September 2013, can be found here. A similar paper by Soss, Fording, and Schram, Governing the Poor: The Rise of the Neoliberal Paternalist State, a paper prepared for presentation at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Toronto, Canada, can be found here.]

Spade D (2011) Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Brooklyn, NY: South End Press.

Wacquant L (2002) Scrutinizing the street: Poverty, morality, and the pitfalls of urban ethnography. American Journal of Sociology 107(6): 1468–1532.

Wacquant L (2009) Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [The Afterword can be found here.]

Ward J (2008) Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press

One thought on ““One Day I’m Going to be Really Successful”: The Social Class Politics of Videos Made for the “It Gets Better” Anti-Gay Bullying Project

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  1. I believe it would be beneficial to address the issue in more the same way that modern alcoholism/addiction is. That is, by focusing on the individual’s authenticity or sense of self rather than worldly ideas of success. I read a lot about celebrity addicts and it’s always the same story: “How could so-and-so do that to themself? They had everything!” Yes, they had fame, money, success… everything but an identity of their own. Nearly every recovering alcoholic/addict’s story includes some version of not fitting in or not being able to be themselves or not even KNOWING who they are. The goals for recovery, then, may be very similar to the goals of LGBTQIA communities and should be identified as achievable goals through any program which hopes to provide assistance to the respective communities they wish to serve. I don’t know a lot about the social perils that LGBTQIA individuals face today, but I have a pretty good idea that the young men I knew who are no longer alive because of their sexual preferences would have much preferred to find hope for acceptance rather than hope for financial success.

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