Seasons of Plagiarism

22 02 2009

When I was in high school, I, like many other gay teenagers, had a visceral reaction to my first (and second, third, fourth, etc.) viewing of the Broadway musical “Rent.”  Here, I thought, gay people were being depicted positively and unabashedly.  I was a total Renthead, buying the soundtrack, posters and all that.  It wasn’t until a few years later, in college, that  I cast a critical eye of the musical.

I started to resent that the heroes of the AIDS crisis in the world of RENT were straight people.  The characters were cardboard.  The depiction of lesbianism no longer seemed edgy, but trite.  And that music.  Glossy, melodramatic pop fodder.  If someone were to write rock opera as a vehicle for Britney Spears’ comeback, it would probably sound a lot like RENT.  I’m sure many former RENTheads shared my embarrassment after seeing Chris Columbus’ hideous film adaptation of the musical, which didn’t even try to hide the glossy commodification of “bohemian” lifestyles.  It was so bad, it almost read as a satire of self-important AIDS artists/activists, running around subways singing about love while homeless people who aren’t nearly as pretty as Rosario Dawson freeze to death in the streets.  

I say all of this to lead up to a feminist book recommendation.  If you, like me, lost your love of RENT but couldn’t ever quite bring yourself to bash a mainstream depiction of AIDS, gay people and political activism, I’m here to give you the justification you have been waiting for:  Jonathan Larson plagiarized the plot of RENT.  The source material?  Not “La Boheme,” but lesbian writer/activist Sarah Schulman’s 1990 novel about (insert recap of the plot of RENT here) “People in Trouble.”  In her 1998 book “Stagestuck: Theater, AIDS, and the marketing of Gay America” she details her unsuccessful attempt to defend her copyright, while making a larger argument about the commodification of gay culture, the homophobia that demands straight people/ideas be at the center of our discussion of homosexuality and the cheapening of AIDS political art and activism.  

Reading “Stagestruck” was shocking and an important reminder that we radical feminists should always be wary of mainstream media, should resist the temptation to over-identify with the commodities being peddled to us as empowering and should question who is doing the peddling.  (For instance: did you know that Jonathan Larson was straight?  Didn’t have AIDS?  Had only lived in NYC for a few years?  Has no involvement at all of AIDS activists? Admitted to using Schulman’s novel as fodder for his plot?)  Read it.  And if you want to read about lesbian experience from a lesbian perspective (or you want to know about the radical work done by AIDS activists in the late 80s/early 90s…which you should, since the commodification of AIDS has gone to a whole new level with recent pop-activist campaigns and Bush-iscized rhetoric about AIDS “victims”) then read Schulman’s “People in Trouble.”

Rant over.

Sorry.  I don’t know how to include the full-size photos.  Damn you technology!



One response

22 02 2009

Wow! This is really interesting! I was a Renthead all through high schoo (the obsession’s kind of died out by now) and I never knew about any of this. Sadly, it’s not super surprising because this is not the first or only case where a woman’s work, or a LGBTQ person’s work was ripped off by a man.

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