How “It Gets Better” is Making Things Worse
“Living well is the best revenge,” or so says Dan Savage’s partner Terry in the couple’s renowned “It Gets Better” video. The eight-minute video has, at its roots, a seemingly simple and laudable purpose: to convince struggling LGBT teenagers that their lives will improve. But literary critic Jasbir Puar wisely questions the less apparent consequences of Savage’s video. “It gets better” sometimes, but a lot of times it doesn’t. And while the “It Gets Better” mantra can only have so much of an impact on troubled queer youth, Savage’s video significantly narrows down to whom it can apply. While Savage is sincere in his motives, his argument ultimately fails to be as effective as it should be. By rooting her argument in logic rather than impulsive empathy, Puar successfully illustrates how Savage’s “It Gets Better” video fails to address the needs of its audience. Imploring her readers to embrace a broader understanding of the LGBT community, Puar assesses the damage that Savage may cause to teens who do not identify with his constricted view of queer youth.
Savage’s message comes off as hollow and incomplete. His video focuses more on himself and Terry and less on his intended audience. The subsections of his video introduce segments that are entirely about Savage and Terry’s life together. “Our families,” “How we met,” and “Starting our own family” are three of the major themes of Savage’s argument. Savage fondly shares his experience wandering the streets of Paris at night with his son, DJ. Terry reminisces on a memorable ski trip that he shared with Savage and DJ. But as Savage and Terry go further into detail about their experiences – from the sugar-crystal covered croissants to the double black diamonds that the family conquered – the two get increasingly sidetracked from their original purpose of addressing gay bullying. The couple’s anecdotes stray so far off into the distance that they fail to be immediately relevant to queer teenagers who are bullied in school or outcast by their families. Savage and Terry should instead be describing how they dealt with bullies during their time in high school. Instead, the couple spends the majority of their video reminiscing about their middle-aged lives with DJ. Savage and Terry’s infatuation with their present lives causes them to ignore the needs of their audience.
Savage should be encouraging his viewers by providing them with advice on how to cope with high school bullies. Instead, Savage chooses to delight his viewers with examples of what queer teens may have to look forward to in their very distant futures. Savage’s video is intended for an audience of depressed and possibly suicidal LGBT teenagers. These teenagers are seeking answers to how their lives can improve tomorrow, not fifteen or twenty years in the future. By trying to entice his audience with a beautiful future, Savage illustrates a blatant misunderstanding of the needs of his audience.
Savage’s inability to recognize the needs of his viewers causes him to make many poor decisions in his video. The foundation of Savage’s message is built upon the idea that when LGBT youth get older, they can move to the city and “find a community.” But the community Savage identifies himself with seems to be remarkably limited. The gay bar where Savage first meets Terry implies itself as an icon of the gay community. Savage’s description of the gay bar as the place where he went to hit on men suggests that gays are sequestered from the public. His story is disconcerting and paints a picture of isolation, rather than the unconditional acceptance he should be advocating for.
Savage also makes a significant mistake by continually referring to the coat check at the gay bar as “the drag queen.” Although Savage does not seem to be using the term in mean spirits, his mere usage of the term emphasizes the prominence of labels over individuality. Cruel labels, nicknames,