Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Construction of Happiness in "It Gets Better" (Brief Essay)

In response to a rash of highly publicized suicides of lesbian and gay youth, columnist Dan Savage initiated the "It Gets Better Project" ( in September, 2010. According to the website, since its inception, various individuals, including celebrities and politicians contributed over 10,000 videos. The laudable purpose and aim of the project is to provide hope to despondent gay and lesbian youth. Although many have lambasted critics of the program (such as gay blogger Joe Jervis’s denunciation of queer theoretical critiques as “predictable,” “over-intellectualizing,” and “navel gazing” ), to exempt this very well-meaning program from analysis is to willfully ignore the ways in which the project works against its own aims. As Sedgwick says, “in the vicinity of the closet, even what counts as a speech act is problematized” (p. 3).

The content of the videos tend to vary somewhat depending on the contributor, so for the purposes of this brief analysis, I focus on Savage’s and his partner’s original video. The better future that Savage offers is an intact family, with an emphasis on fulfillment through the addition of a child, “the promise of the child becomes the promise of happiness” (Ahmed, p 113). Happiness is the “reproduction of happy heterosexuality” (p. 90). Thus, the failure to enunciate any alternate, queer forms of love or happiness becomes one of the “many silences” (Sedgwick, p. 3) and becomes a powerful reification of heterosexual happiness scripts. In addition to the silence that denies queer love, the videos act as a confessional space where queers get to perform their coming out. Invoking Foucault, one may question: for many of the contributors, in addition to Savage, for whom does the confession provide happiness? Perhaps rather than the audience, the confessor derives his (or her) pleasure from the act of confessing queerness. Also, to what extent does the video serve to provide hope versus providing a space for the confessor(s) to establish him/herself with the societal structure, to perform acceptance? Is hope possible when the potential site of liberation is placed within the very structures that oppress or fail to prevent oppression? At the very least, Savage fails to “trouble…conventional ideas of what it means to have a good life” (Ahmed, p. 115) or to account for a better life that includes unhappiness, given that “happiness tends to come with rather straight conditions” (p. 100).

Works Cited:
Ahmed, S. "Unhappy Queers" in The Promise of Happiness.
Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality Vol 1.
Sedgwick, E. K. Epistemology of the Closet.