Gay or European? People used to ask that about a man who didn’t fit the American image of manhood: “Is he gay, or is he European?”
In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry acquired a small bag to carry around everything that stuffed his pockets. When he forgot it, his companions said, “Hey, you left your purse.” “It’s not a purse,” Jerry shot back. “It’s European.”
American manhood has come to look down upon European models of masculinity. Since the early twentieth century, European versions became less patterned and, thus, suspect.
As the concept of the American male as rugged individualist and pioneer tamer of the wilderness became the standard, there was less respect for European “deviance” from this American machismo.
Militarily we had to help Europe win their wars, after all. What saved them, and still will with all of our troops still stationed in Europe today, was the Yanks.
Socially, they became “mommy states” with all their welfare, healthcare, and concern for the family lives of working people. Caring for their citizens — what bleeding hearts!
Our model was to tough it out. No pampering of the weak and needy for us. We loved to think of ourselves as different, and the U.S. as the world’s hero and only hope.
Any male in our culture who doesn’t fit this model isn’t fit to be called a man here. And the way to force men into the American male role is to pull out the gay slur.
When the kids say “That’s so gay,” they may not be thinking about their LGBT friends, but they are certainly thinking that whatever “gay” means, goes against American gender-training.
Gay or European: The battle over fries
Among all of Europe, France came to bother us most of all. They were so wanting to be, well, French.
France just wouldn’t embrace America’s cowboy culture. They thought of themselves as distinct from our influence and were proud of their non-American ways in language, literature, and culture.
So, their men were seen as the most effeminate — read un-American. Their objections to the US having its unchallenged way with the world rankled most in the breast of the American warrior.
“How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?” the putdown of the French went. “No one knows. They’ve never tried.”
Then there was the name switch in the Congressional cafeteria: French fries would now be called “Freedom fries.” “Old Europe” just would’t fall in line with American exceptionalism when we headed for Iraq to rid it of non-existent WMDs.
Gay or European: The McDonald’s offensive
Now the French have done it again. McDonald’s of France just released a TV ad welcoming gay people to their restaurants. The spot, titled “Come As You Are,” shows a young gay man eating in McDonald’s with his father, who doesn’t know his son is gay.
Nathalie Legarlantezec, brand director of McDonald’s France explained it as, well, French. “We wanted to take a look at how French society is today. We’re very comfortable with the topic of homosexuality, there is obviously no problem with homosexuality in France today.”
Not being like those French, the protectors of American “values” mocked it. That icon of angry white American manhood, Bill O’Reilly, made it a talking point, asking if it caused people to crave burgers or fries. He ridiculed its slogan, “Come As You Are” by inquiring if McDonald’s will be running an Al Qaeda ad as well.
In a June 13 article, McDonald’s COO Don Thompson told the Chicago Tribune that the U.S. market would not replay the ad. Thompson said the company discusses how marketing that reflects cultural norms in one market can have “cultural implications” in markets elsewhere in the world.
Though the right-wing portrays this as part of that giant assault meant to destroy American values as they define them — which, they believe, should be those of the whole world — the French ad wasn’t some conspiracy to change anyone’s values. It was marketing by a multi-national corporation to enhance its bottom line. It was a pure business decision — what will bring more French into what the French see as an icon of American encroachment: the local McDonald’s.
The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of an estimated1.4 million LGBT-owned businesses in the United States, cut off any future relationship with McDonald’s and its subsidiaries, after trying to work with them.
In a letter to the company, it expressed its “utter dismay at the blatant geographic pandering to the LGBT community in the recently released TV ad in France, while McDonald’s has continued to distance itself from the LGBT segment in the United States.”
The Chamber understood exactly what this was — a decision about making money by playing on the cultures in which it finds itself. It was not about freedom of speech, or being an accepting corporation, or reshaping moral values.
A boycott of McDonald’s might be appropriate business-wise. What more can we expect from a mammoth multi-national corporation than doing whatever it takes to increase its profits and stock values.
Gay or European — or just modern?
But what really needs to be cheered is the French for being, again, unlike us. What needs to be jeered is us.
The ad plays in France because of what the French have done, because of where they have come in terms of acceptance of diversity and rejection of American ideals about LGBT people and those well-worn ties of bigotry to American machismo. Because French culture is more accepting, McDonald’s could make the marketing decision that this ad would work there.
Likewise, McDonald’s also knows that there is still an issue about accepting everyone as they are, particularly LGBT people, in these United States that matters enough to its demographic. No matter how we might think they should treat us like France, McDonald’s as a profit-oriented company recognizes how far the US still has to come on the issue.
While Europe has gone in one direction socially with some countries legalizing marriage equality, America’s go-it-alone manhood brags about the fact that we haven’t gone there, we’re loners who are in no way “European.”
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.