gender benders

The Bold Gender Politics of The Prancing Elites

The Prancing Elites. Photo: Oxygen

On Wednesday night’s episode of Oxygen’s breakout hit The Prancing Elites Project, the “all-male black gay dance team” travels to Louisiana because they’re hoping to perform at the Bayou Classic, an annual college-football game held at Tulane Stadium. On their way, they stop for gas and are immediately intimidated by the men standing around the station. The air feels thick and hostile — and it is. The moment they step out of the car, one man yells out, “Someone call the KKK!” Others shout, “Get lost!” and “Wrong jurisdiction!” You get the sense that these scenes would play out differently if there weren’t the protection of a camera crew documenting everything.

The Prancing Elites hail from Mobile, Alabama, and they’re a forceful reminder that in the era of “just do you,” it can be a radical — even dangerous — proposition to do just that. Wherever they go, the Elites, as they often call themselves, arouse visceral reactions from local residents, of both disgust and admiration. In that same scene, the cashier tells them, “I got your back. Don’t worry.” From the outset, the captain of the Elites, Kentrell Collins, says what they’re doing is similar to what Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks did during the civil-rights movement. It’s a lofty comparison but not  off-base. Instead of leaving for New York or San Francisco, they choose to stay in Alabama, a state that abandoned its sodomy law in 2014, more than a decade after the rest of the country. The Prancing Elites threaten these mostly white, presumably Christian crowds — not necessarily because of their sexuality but, more specifically, because of their gender politics.

As gay marriage moves toward political inevitability, gay culture has taken on more of the affectations of mainstream culture. Gay respectability politics are less about whom you have sex with and more about how you present yourself. And the Prancing Elites outwardly flaunt their disregard for conventional gender boundaries. “There’s no such thing as female clothing,” Collins told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t know clothing had a gender.” What makes people uncomfortable is the spectacle of it all, but the spectacle — the sequined costumes, the makeup, the tucking — is the point because it demonstrates that gender itself is always a performance.

Their detractors (and, I also suspect, some of their supporters) dismiss them simply as effeminate black men, but the label doesn’t hold upon close inspection. Their self-description that they are “gay black men” seems borne more out of convenience than accuracy. There’s Kareem Davis, “the guy of the group,” Kentrell Collins, the diva martinet, and Tim Smith, or “Timberly,” who wears breast inserts and prefers to go by the pronoun she. Their identities don’t fit into neat categories of male or female, masculine or feminine, and represent a broad spectrum of how a person can be.

Part of why we’re able to see this difference is because rather than having one — the token gay black man we typically see on television — there’s a group. They don’t operate in a narrative vacuum, where one has to be “the different one.” It’s the Bechdel test line of reasoning, where, by having a group of gay black men instead of just one, the narrative center shifts. So rather than have a story where the “others” relate to a white male character, it’s one where they relate to one another. The viewer, too, takes the Elites on their terms. This is how and why “diversity” plays out differently on shows like Scandal versus Empire, where one features a black female lead who must often deal with white people and the other creates a black world. One narrative frame is not necessarily better than the other, but one is certainly more privileged on TV.

Once The Prancing Elites Project started airing, there was a petition demanding the show’s cancellation because of its “degrading” portrayals of “stereotypical” black men. (They really let anyone make a petition on there these days.) While it’s important to look at what images are created and by whom, it’s regressive to suggest that there is a fixed idea of what black men should be. Even while the flamboyant black man is a common sight on reality television (narrative television, on the other hand, has arguably stepped up its representation game in the past couple of years: Andre Braugher on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jussie Smollett on Empire, Being Mary Jane, The Haves and the Have Nots, Cucumber, Banana, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are some recent examples), the burden of representation shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the Elites. Their only responsibility, especially in this context, is to themselves. Prance on, Elites.