mental math
Plus Signs are Everywhere, but Something Doesn't Add Up

If you haven’t noticed, the plus sign is having a moment.

Originally used in math (boring) and science (which in this house we believe is real), in my gay mind, the plus sign’s cultural ascendance began when it was cast in the role of catch-all inclusivity signifier for the LGBT acronym around 2017 (The first Wikipedia edit to include “+” on the LGBT page occurred in January 2017). And although letters have come and gone, the plus has retained its coveted spot on the sexual identities roster, taunting us with the suggestion that there is more to human experience than what our measly alphabet can possibly represent.

More recently, the plus sign has reprised its role as an open-ended suffix in the rebranding of behemoth media conglomerates as subscription streaming services. From Disney+, to Apple TV+, Paramount+, Discovery+, WowPresents+, ESPN+, and CNN+, the positivity rate for streaming platforms is nearing pandemic proportions. Even Tumblr seems to have tested positive, recently announcing Post+, its new subscription service for content creators. As they say, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern, and four times is a market trend worthy of reductive cultural analysis.

Regarding their foray into positive vibes only, CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker said of CNN+, “We will offer consumers a streaming product that grows the reach and scope of the CNN brand in a way that no one else is doing.” Except that everyone else is doing it. The plus sign has emerged as a quick and painless cosmetic procedure to lift the sagging posterior of these aging media brands, an outward expression of the constant pressure to attract new audiences and capture market share from decidedly nonplussed streaming titans Netflix, Hulu, and HBOMax (notably home to the teen drama Genera+ion).

But does the plus sign add, or does it take away? Disney’s castle logo, a regal emblem of traditional strength, is overtaken by the immaterial fortitude of the plus. Similarly, Paramount’s majestic mountain, once a symbol of soaring ambition and physical might, also caves to the plus sign’s soft power. The plus sign promises to include and expand but ends up condensing and conforming.

To understand the addition fetish of our current media landscape, I turned to the folkx that started it all: spokespeople for LGBTQIA+ nonprofit organizations. The Interim Executive Director of GLSEN explained that they use the plus to “indicate the expansive range of identities folks have within our community and represent folks who aren't defined by only the LGBTQ acronym.” The Human Rights Campaign told me that “by continuing to be open to evolving our language, we’re speaking to the rainbow of identities included in our community, and inviting ourselves and our allies to better see our full, wonderful diversity.”

Echoing these sentiments, a 2018 New York Times article on the new language of gender states that the plus is “not just a mathematical symbol anymore, but a denotation of everything on the gender and sexuality spectrum that letters and words can’t yet describe.” If the plus symbols in Disney+ and LGBTQIA+ are to be connected, it’s in their speculative potential. The plus suffix is a growth engine that drives itself, an in-house “imagineering” team devising new identities and content formulations to attract new audiences. It’s a positive feedback loop built into a brand identity itself.

But a positive feedback loop is not always a good thing (think stampede). In reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, I learned that most biological systems are actually negative feedback loops “in which a change in one component incites an opposite change in another, so they balance each other out.” But the truth may be that as a culture we’re afraid of balance. Stay hungry, stay thirsty — it’s the only way to win.

Yet who exactly is winning in this pandemic of pluses? Are media conglomerates really delivering on the additive experiences they promise or merely repackaging and reselling derivative versions of the same content? One look at the current roster of adaptations, reboots, and remakes makes it clear that we are being offered less for more — hypnotized by a smoke and mirrors tactic to increase revenue streams while depleting our bank accounts. How’s that for a feedback loop?

In our haste to include everything, we may end up with nothing. In sexuality-based acronyms as well as streaming platforms, the plus signifies an identity void that needs to constantly reinvent itself to justify its own existence. Perhaps what unites us all, whether we are sexual minorities or mere television viewers, is our insatiable need for more.

As a grandma in a TikTok video my boyfriend sent me recently asked, “Who are the plus people?” Well grandma, the plus people are coming out of the closet, and they look a lot like all of us — subscribing, posting, adding until we are defined only by the media we consume and the identities to which we subscribe.

Maybe the promise of more will always be better than the pain of less. But I'm getting tired. It’s time to add some negativity to this orgiastic culture of positive vibes only. It’s time for us to learn subtraction (long marginalized as a mere afterthought in the original exclusionary acronym PEMDAS) and return some balance to this age of inflationary positivity and speculative inclusivity. In the meantime, please reach out if you have a Paramount+ login. I’m behind on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 6.

Eric Schwartau is a writer and comedian in New York.