A few days ago, while I was having coffee with a colleague and friend of mine, we somehow got onto the subject of “Match Game.” I spent hundreds of hours watching that show during those long, lazy summers when I was in late grade school and junior high, circa 1975. The fact that everyone’s parents disapproved of the show’s sexual innuendo, which was as wall-to-wall as our shag carpets, only added to the allure.
My friend said, “Well, there’s a theory that Charles Nelson Reilly queered the game show!” Not her original thesis – I think it may come from Elana Levine’s Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television- but looking back, I knew immediately what she meant. Back then, however, I had no clue that Charles Nelson Reilly was gay; I just thought he was funny. (Judging from this comment thread on Pam Spaulding’s obit for him from 1997, I wasn’t the only kid who didn’t get it.)
Not that anyone used the term queer back then in the mid-1970s. It was still an insult, years away from being reappropriated. At least in North Dakota, all things homosexual were still very hush-hush, which helps explain my cluelessness.
But there was so much change in the media around that time. While people weren’t yet regularly labeled as “gay,” depictions of non-straight people were beginning to proliferate, even if Ellen DeGeneres was still unimaginable in my corner of the Upper Midwest. I grew up listening to Elton John and David Bowie. I just didn’t have a handy label for what made them different from, say, Billy Joel.
In some ways, though, the more remarkable thing was the portrayals of “straight” masculinity that really don’t look quite so straight nowadays. I mean, the hero of Saturday Night Fever was a dancer. The soundtrack was provided by the oh-so-fey Bee Gees. Luke Skywalker looks downright girly by today’s standards. So do all the teen heartthrobs of the time: David Cassidy, Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, Parker Stevenson. (Of course, that layered-look, blow-dried haircut can’t help but be anti-macho. You have to wonder if they all had the same stylist as Farrah Fawcett.)
And then there was this commercial, which I hadn’t thought about for thirty years until I stumbled upon it a few hours after my game-show nostalgia session: “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper …” Imagine, if you can, a soda commercial today featuring a man singing and dancing like a leprechaun. (The head Pepper was, as it turns out, David Naughton, he of “American Werewolf in London.”)
I’m not saying that those singing and dancing Peppers were gay. But man oh man, did they queer masculinity!