In Anti-Divas We Trust

In Anti-Divas We Trust

When I was in grade school, I wanted to be a run-of-the-mill Sailor Moon villainess: obsessed equally with galactic conquest and my own vanity, in pursuit of both immortality and human domination. They had knife-sharp sartorial tastes, impeccable make-up, shrill cackles, and endless magical reserves—and most cases, a Maria Callas-style streak of tragedy to their antagonism. Frequently, they fell in love with dashing men and ended up divesting some of their power into acquiring said romantic prospects. And when the villainesses were vanquished, I always felt a little let down. They provided such excellent foils to the serial’s heroines that I regularly found myself wondering whether I wanted to root for the titular protagonist’s victory or her demise at the hands of such a respectable enemy.

In the not too distant past, there were no role models for young gay boys to look up to. There is no model for masculinity that made sense: simply a promise of persecution if you were found out to not fit a narrow definition of “how a man should be.” In the absence of role models came the diva, empowering and uplifting. And for those days when even Fever by Kylie Minogue couldn’t lift your spirits, the anti-diva was always there to replace glittery rah-rah with something darker, to provide strength through her sinister, megalomaniacal ways.

Throughout grade school, the idea of the anti-diva became a coping mechanism for me to deal with homophobia, a private revenge fantasy that helped me make sense of a mystifying world of social codes, where adults penalized certain kinds of bad behavior and shrugged off others easily. In my fantasy, whenever peers would toss words like “faggot” and “homo” like Molotov cocktails, I could assume the persona of the anti-diva, wave a hand, and send the bombs flying back at them before they detonated. Then, I could cackle wildly and float away, billowing skirts and all. Grisly? Sure. Campy? Of course. Still, it was the self-preservation tactic that helped me survive schoolyard politics relatively intact.

My music tastes; the way I carried my books from class to class; my preference for taking arts classes over sports: each of these elicited taunts of “faggot” and “homo,” and I grew so weary at a young age that I decided whatever these words were, I wasn’t going to let them affect me. I didn’t yet know whether I was actually a “homo” or not, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that the punch-and-kick culture that other boys took to, as per conditioning, didn’t make sense to me. So when one of these assholes tried to pick a fight with me, I had to let it roll off my back. Where all the other boys wanted to be Duke Nukem-style action heroes with rippling muscles, AK-47s, grenades, and any number of blades, I imagined myself as an all-powerful sorceress who could deflect their firearms and zap them to oblivion with high-watt beams of magic.

The openly gay filmmaker Darrin Stein is known widely for 1999’s Jawbreaker and its most visible character, Courtney Shayne. Courtney’s played by Rose McGowan, who wields her insults like knives. “I killed Liz. I killed the teen dream. Deal with it,” she spits. There is no guilt, no shame, no fear of getting caught. It is Rose McGowan at her iciest–a performance that, in my mind, could blow any Duke Nukem wannabe to kingdom come.

I adored Courtney. She represented a foil to all that was messed up about high school politics. Like most anti-divas, Courtney was also plenty messy–despite her attempts to control the world around her. Therein lies the draw of the anti-diva for a gay boy growing up in the Midwest: She at once embodies chaos and a desire to control.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to see parts of myself reflected in the actions of make-believe powerful women, although in retrospect, it makes sense. I was taught by television and teachers that boys will be boys and girls will be girls. So the anti-diva—this reductive but compelling depiction of womanhood—represented a way out of the gender binary, from within the gender binary itself.

In growing up, I’ve evolved past Sailor Moon, but not necessarily past anti-divas, and I’m hardly the only gay man with a borderline-unhealthy preoccupation with this trope. The DNA of the archetype is alive and flourishing across primetime TV, which is an especially comforting and insinuating medium. When the rules of the world don’t seem to be working, primetime TV works; the anti-divas do what we can’t. They get the last word, the final sneer, the ability to disrupt the otherwise smooth narrative progression of a serial.

Anti-divas are everywhere on TV: Mellie on Scandal. Cersei on Game of Thrones. Celia on Weeds. Emily on Gilmore Girls. Yet, their most extreme executions come at the hands of gay showrunners.

These anti-divas may inhabit comedic worlds, like Ugly Betty‘s Wilhelmina Slater, Will & Grace’s Karen Walker, or Popular‘s Mary Cherry. Or they may exist in dramatic worlds: Ava Moore, Julia McNamara, Gina Russo, Kimber Henry, and Eden Lord all take turns assuming anti-diva roles on Nip/Tuck. Even the casts across every entry in the Real Housewives franchise could even be seen as mutations of the anti-diva trope: They’re wealthy women whose glamorous narratives exist outside of the monotony of the real world, and they exist to disrupt the story arc, whatever it may be. They’re wealthy women whose lines, actions, and celluloid DNA have been shaped, to some extent, by gay men: the best anti-divas bring a not insignificant degree of camp mockery to the worlds they populate.

In particular, I think about Maryann Forrester from Alan Ball’s True Blood. One of the most nuanced characters written within this trope, Maryann quickly became one of my favorites. She thrives off making the entire town of Bon Temps subservient to what she thinks is right: a manic free-for-all storm of reckless sex, violence, and gluttony. From the moment she sets foot in this town, there is an element of camp that kicks in. She disrupts Bon Temps by turning into a force of nature that saps it of all seriousness for the viewer.

Better yet is Maryann’s skewed moral code. Her definition of right is based on chaos, and so she serves as an ultimate foil to the rest of the True Blood world. The way the soap’s universe has been constructed doesn’t allow us, as viewers, to figure out any way in which the protagonists can defeat her and restore order. Bullets go right through Maryann. When Bill Compton lunges at her, sinking his fangs into her neck, she takes pleasure from the attack, while he writhes in toxic shock from her blood.

And therein lies another trait of a standard anti-diva: they foil the messianic ambitions of typically male saviors. Between thwarting Bill Compton and terrorizing Sam Merlotte, Maryann is established as a character who is not only unfazed by the world-saving pursuits of the drama’s major heroes, but as one who is actively able to disrupt such attempts. She has layers, too: She is a mythical beast roaming the earth for thousands of years, searching for the god Dionysus, orchestrating mayhem. She isn’t an abstractly sociopathic monster bent on upending people’s lives. In her mind, everything she does is for the greater good.

For this reason, we do feel bad, or shaken up, at least, when Maryann meets her end. There are fewer scenes more tragic than the one where Maryann allows herself to be gouged by the horned of a great white stag she initially believes to be her god, but upon dying, finds out is only Sam Merlotte. When I witnessed this anti-diva’s arc come to a close in this fashion, validating the blandest of good-guys, it broke my heart. I felt sucker-punched.

You never entirely outgrow your revenge fantasies. You minimize them. You laugh at their absurdity, at the cruelty of children, and the laziness of their parents who tacitly goad on such cruelty. But sometimes you can’t stop reliving them, grilling these memories until they’ve left an indelible mark on you.

For the deepest scars, one strain of anti-diva is especially relevant: The amoral variety. She has no moral compass. It is one that is outside the purview of a character like Maryann. The amoral anti-diva is the most reductive strain of anti-diva. This is a character who will fuck everyone over for the sake of acquiring power. She’s the kind of trope I found most alluring shortly after I came out and I was met with a different kind of bullying–from within the gay community.

Amorality is seductive, especially for those who have already grown calloused. Experiencing what I saw as a moral vacuum, I began craving one myself.

Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, American Horror Story, and Nip/Tuck, has perfected this type of anti-diva. He most notoriously toyed with the archetype on the show that made his reputation, Nip/Tuck. And among the soap’s gallery of anti-divas, one stands out from the rest. At my most aggravated, I love to think about Ava Moore–a cruel, despicable portrayal of womanhood and an antagonist who casts a dark, torturous shadow over much of Nip/Tuck‘s run.

Ava is manipulative, persuasive, gorgeous, and menacing. She has no magic powers; she has no political clout. Her ability to disrupt the soap’s primary story arcs, the goals of the show’s dual protagonists Dr. Troy and Dr. McNamara, comes from her facility at manipulating those around her. From her debut, Ava is a beautiful, self-actualized enigma. Over time, she is fleshed out as a selfish sociopath, an emotional cannibal. Ava fucks over all the men in her life, and then some. She messes with the show’s heroes, their wives, and their kids. She worms her way into every critical capillary of Nip/Tuck and infects all major and minor protagonists. She disappears without a trace, sloppily written out of the narrative, only to swoop back in as the series approaches the finale to fuck with the characters’ stability once again.

If Maryann from True Blood derives her strength from a place of deluded lightness, Ava derives hers from the exact opposite–a fount of darkness. Maryann causes chaos as a means of celebration; Ava causes chaos as a means of destruction. Ava’s world makes no sense to her, so she bends it to her will, and spares no mercy for the people she breaks in the process.

It’s one thing to go your youth getting sucker-punched–in my experience, figuratively–by stupid high school kids. But when you continue to get sucker-punched, and by the people who are supposed to be on your side of the line, that impulse to destroy kicks in. I’m not the fist-fighting type, so when someone once asked me to “tone it down” at a gay bar, I snapped back, “Fuck off, asshole,” and went back to noisily slurping my vodka. It felt good, though it wasn’t even a scratch on what someone like Ava Moore would do. But that’s why black-hearted anti-divas exist on television: So we can vicariously live through them, experience catharsis, and move on.

While anti-divas are an incredible means of escape, it can’t be ignored that they’re fundamentally drag adaptations of womanhood. Anti-divas are embellished with cultural tokens that, over time, have become coded to demarcate female identity: Fancy dresses, eye make-up, lipstick, a theatrically overwrought package of “girly” mannerisms. These characters aren’t meant to be fleshed out into fully-realized beings on television, or any other medium. They are plot devices, repositories for our own deflected desire.

It’s impossible not to recognize that my own anti-diva worship—like diva worship, its almost-twin—in many ways betrays the degree to which objectification and misogyny drive central aspects of mainstream gay male identity. I was conditioned to relate to these archetypes. As a consumer, it meant that my desire to see anti-divas rule television was very comparable to the desire that my straight brethren might have to see vixens.

More problematically, it is endemic of a larger culture of misogyny that is now not only being perpetuated by straight male showrunners, but gay male showrunners as well. After all, the way a gay male viewer or showrunner shapes a female character into an anti-diva is not much different from how the straight male showrunner shapes women into distressed damsels, vixens, naïfs. Instead of being presented as characters ready to shape their own destinies, they are defined by the obstacles they place in front of a soap’s heroes.

This is why I have been watching American Horror Story: Coven, thrilled to be spoiled with 10 potential anti-divas, soaking up a unicorn moment on modern television where straight male characters are all but absent and a cast of women are given carte blanche to drive the narrative of a primetime soap.

I’d hoped that Ryan Murphy would give his characters to graduate beyond the archetype, and I think he’s succeeded. Coven takes an important step in advancing the anti-diva trope, making these female characters agents of their own destinies rather than plot devices which obstruct the momentum of male leads. It’s a lot further than he’s able to take the trope than in previous seasons of American Horror Story.

That anti-divas have become more prevalent on the primetime television landscape over recent years brings to light an interesting truth: The mainstreaming of gay male sexuality into American culture force some of the bad cultural ticks associated with it into stark relief. More and more gay male showrunners are now inclined to explore how feeling powerless because of sexual orientation is a kind of damage that has followed them well into adulthood. More and more grown men–myself, too–will continue watching, eyes glued to old episodes of Desperate Housewives, in a bid to figure out why watching Bree Van de Kamp makes us feel just that much more powerful.

This is a trope that won’t be evaporating from the television landscape anytime soon. I see anti-divas continuing to flourish in their own right: Standing tall, sashaying, smiling only after they feast on the hearts of our heroes, blood dripping down their lips.

Rohin Guha is an Executive Editor at The Aerogram. He is currently hard at work on his first book of essays and you can follow him in Twitter if you’d like. “In Anti-Divas We Trust” has been republished with permission and originally appears in It’s Complicated.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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