Thursday, May 20, 2010

Couples Counseling: Me & Primetime TV Edition.

[Stick around / skip to the end of this mammoth post for some music links. Otherwise, gather your skirts, ladies & gents; bring a machete & your best khaki vest.]

As college was winding down, I had little time to keep up with the handful of shows I follow on Hulu—except Lost, of course, because to miss Lost is to volunteer for an aching phantom limb (we will revisit this soon, I promise)—but now that it's all fully wound, & I'm home in the 'burbs, I find myself with plenty of time to catch up on those other less pressing series. In this case, that means House, Modern Family, & Family Guy. What a surprise it was to see that, in one week, each show took on (or, rather, botched near-impressively) LGBT issues in its own special way, from conversion therapy to sexual reassignment surgery, even the simple act of a kiss goodbye—making me question, in my own special way, my relationship with each.

A slight spat in an otherwise solid, long-term deal; Fred & Ethel. (House)

I adore House—have adored it, unwaveringly*, from the moment it aired. (* We were on a break for Seasons 4-5; we don't like to talk about it.) However, this past episode wandered into iffy territory when it chose as its patient a man who recently attempted to cure himself of homosexuality with conversion therapy: aversion shocks administered while watching gay porn & even full-blown ECT (to fry the fairy clean out of him, I suppose). Though the episode ultimately presented most of the right points ("conversion" doesn't work & is physically harmful; gay men who marry unwitting straight women are just being cruel), the last we heard of the patient, he was still blathering on about how being gay or not was his choice—in an episode called "The Choice"—& how, if he wanted to make it work, he could.

Yes, perhaps this was all just a set-up for the slam-dunk of an exit line from his fiancée: "I have a choice, too," as she walked out. But it was a strangely lukewarm episode for such a contentious topic; so much time was spent weaving in & out of the characters' personal lives (a flaw left over from the Times We Do Not Mention; I've learned to live with it) that this "I still have a choice!" seemed like the final word on the subject—despite its contrariness to points raised earlier in the episode (albeit momentarily) &, most importantly, the truth. It seems almost like they picked a random gay issue from the list—& ended up biting off more than they could chew—just so they could finally give Thirteen some legitimate opinion, or at least something to do.

& let me just say this about that: featuring a bisexual woman—who is neither a teenage girl looking for attention, nor a new-age-y thrill seeker—prominently in a primetime drama is definitely a positive step. However, the fact that she's a fairly annoying, uncompelling character who seems to have acquired a touch of the Foremans (i.e., "I have no motivation & am unbearably, sociopathically dull") is not. Ah, well. "We can't have everything, I suppose," I sigh, as House & I tuck in for the night, with our wooly nightclothes & maybe a glass of wine, getting out our reading glasses, crossword puzzles... We'll live to fight another day.

That one nagging issue you just can't keep quiet about anymore. (Modern Family)

... except this time it's not socks on the floor, or leaving the seat up, or saying "BOO-YAH" too often (or, at all)—it's the trend of homosexual rendered asexual, crystallized in a moment I didn't even notice the first time through. See, I'm usually playing Free Cell whilst Hulu-ing & am therefore apt to miss chunks of visuals at a time; I had no way of knowing—nor would anyone expect—that when I heard two couples each parting ways, the screen would show only one pair kissing goodbye, while the other was relegated to a platonic hug. This is especially frustrating, of course, because the hugging couple was Mitchell & Cameron, the adorable & hilarious—but fascinatingly sexless—gay couple on the show.

I mean, most of my opinions on this matter are essentially a rehash of James St. James's (whose post first brought it to my attention), but I'll just say this in addition: up until this clear & present, undeniable "we give the gay couple special treatment" moment, I actually really respected Modern Family's depiction of a gay marriage (or, well, gay long-term partnership; we still haven't quite surpassed that hurdle). I remember hearing somewhere, sometime—& agreeing with, essentially—the idea that what (stodgy congress)men are really afraid of in regards to gay marriage is the thought of gay sex, & that therefore their nay-saying is actually misdirected, because the best way to stop two people from having sex is to make them get married. I saw Cam & Mitchell as a potential illustration of this point—a depiction of a couple that, similar to the show's long-term straight couple, Claire & Phil, had simply put sex on the back-burner in favor of raising their recently adopted daughter, Lily. They were a calm & measured portrait, a very spoonful-of-sugar, "They're-just-like-us!" for instance, which I thought had the potential to be both respectful & useful in the often scathing social/political frenzy.

My enthusiasm waned, of course, the longer their celibacy went on—when the Valentine's Day episode showed the two straight couples going on sexy dates, while the gays were sent to a Friendly's to resolve a preteen (heterosexual) love debacle. This hug vs. kiss was really only the final straw in a long-time-coming backlash for the openly homophobic ABC. I really hope they come to their senses; the rest of the show is delightful, & I would hate it if Modern Family & I had to break up over this—but it's kind of getting to that point.

The whirlwind affair that never seemed quite right, à la Rebecca. (Family Guy)

My romance with Family Guy began rather recently, when I needed something light & inconsequential to balance a burgeoning workload—& ended in flames, as so many do, when the skeletons leapt from out the closet (/the sea), & I realized that they kind of meant all of those objectionable jokes. Or, well, maybe not all—there are plenty of shock-for-shock's sake cutaways. But on the most recent episode, "Quagmire's Dad," the one recurring joke seemed to be "OMG TRANSSEXUAL PEOPLE EXIST OMG," without any of the comic twist or irony for which I waited in vain.

See, I had actually kind of grown to like Family Guy, even having seen (my much preferred) South Park's spot-on lampooning, after which it's absolutely impossible not to hate the show just a little bit—or, at least, not to view it for what it is: a series of funny-offensive one-liners strung together by a teenage boy who's had a little too much Red Bull (&/or, manatees). Still, when that's what you're looking for, Family Guy is ready to supply—& there's no denying it can be a pleasant viewing experience. In fact, in the case of the controversial 150th episode, the writers chose to do without their precious cutaways entirely, & instead presented an entire half hour of Brian & Stewie passing time while trapped in a bank vault, conceived almost like a one-act play. The episode even ended with a half-maudlin, half-touching meditation on suicide & the value of friendship; this zany, attention-disordered comedy cartoon, which only minutes earlier featured jokes about shit-eating, turned successfully dramatic for a beat. I was wowed, almost ready to take my fandom to the next level. It was our Manderley, before crazy Mrs. I-Keep-Her-Underwear-On-This-Side came & burned it all down with this really, truly awful episode.

I mean, at least when they were presenting potentially problematic gay images before, it was (more often than not) in service of some grander satire: for example, this clip in which Brian & Stewie attempt to get out of the army by loudly proclaiming how gay they are. In the case of "Quagmire's Dad," whose eponymous character changes from "Dan" to "Ida" over the course of the episode, there is no grander point; they are directly commenting on (or, rather, mocking tactlessly) the mere fact of transsexual people, & doing it in perhaps the most offensive—but apparently most popular—way: with vomit. Unfortunately—tragically—frustratingly—upon seeing Brian puke for a high-comedy length of 30 full seconds after realizing he slept with a transwoman, I was able to call to mind several other pop culture touchstones that depicted a similar response:

For example, in his "short story" (though I prefer the term "dick-swinging shitrag"), "The Most Disturbing Conversation Ever," Tucker Max relates a night in a gay bar—where he is totally okay with all the gay dudes, even when they start to come on to him, because he's, like, Tucker Max—& where he also receives "the biggest, most disturbing conversation bomb EVER DROPPED ON ANYONE EVER," which is (you guessed it): "I bet you've already slept with a man." The person baiting him lists a number of characteristics—tall, big hands, some sexually explicit dealbreakers—enough to convince Tucker, such that he wails "FUCK THIS!! NO FUCKING WAY THAT I FUCKED A MAN!!" "WHAT IN DEAR GOD IS HAPPENING??" &, of course, our favorite standby, "I AM GOING TO VOMIT."

For another, I call back to a movie from my childhood: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which the major, case-solving twist is that a hardass female police chief (with whom Ace has been intimate) is actually the male culprit. Surprise! The not-so-subtle joke in this scene of policemen spitting & tongue-scrubbing post-reveal is, of course, that she has canoodled with all of them, & they are now attempting to ritually cleanse themselves of this horror, just as Ace did—though unlike him, they don't have a plunger to induce that precious vomit to flow.

This phenomenon fascinates me (enough to go on a full-on tangent in its name) because it is so revealing about the men with their heads in the toilet—& the men & women who wrote them into being, who laugh at their plight. (Though Mr. Max is, as usual, only accountable for himself.) I mean, this predicament—realizing you slept with someone who was born male—is so deeply frightening to some men, far more so than I would imagine. Max's short story even includes a midway disclaimer:
"WARNING TO ALL GUYS: You might want to stop reading here. The ensuing conversation I am about to recount prevented me from sleeping for a full two days, and has permanently and irreversibly scarred me. Save your psyche while you still can."
Meanwhile, the Family Guy folks equate transsexuals & sex offenders: "When they move to a new place, they're supposed to notify the neighborhood!" Brian screeches, horrified, hands Macaulay-Culkined. (What wit! What a giggle! Am I alone in nominating a certain former presidential candidate to their writing staff?) To these men, transwomen are scary, predatory deceivers who scar irreversibly. For fuck's sake, why?

The catch is, it seems, in this "deception." None of these men mind (&, in fact, are all depicted as enjoying) their trans-hookups—until they realize that they were "duped," of course. This proves, irrefutably in my mind, there is such a thing as senseless, macho pride—& moreover, that their real problem with the whole situation, what induces the technicolor yawn, is the mere thought of having slept with a man, regardless of the fact that was not their experience.

This, my friends, is the secret-wife-in-the-beach-house of this show—& many others, & many actual men who are "totally cool with gay dudes," until they aren't, until they might (gasp!) be one, ipso facto. I will never go back to Manderley—& I encourage you to do the same.

In closing: Networks, treat your gays better. It's 2010, for fuck's sake. Be an instrument of change, not a vestige of reactionary "values." Get on the good guys' side; we're going to win this one.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

(The title of this song is entirely coincidental, I promise you—but it does sync up wonderfully.)

I first saw the Cold War Kids about two years ago when I was visiting a friend in Chicago; I bought a ticket (a pair, actually—it also marked first scalping mission) on faith, which turned out to be a fantastic decision. If I had to define what I think "modern Rock 'n' Roll" should sound like, these gentlemen would definitely fall under my umbrella: scratchy & exposed, rough but clever, dynamic, plain, head-nod-danceable, flesh-invading. (Other recommended tracks include "We Used to Vacation," "Hang Me Up To Dry," "Something Is Not Right With Me," & "Tell Me in the Morning.")

I saw them again this January at Terminal 5—went alone, in the end—&, again, it was the right choice. They gel perfectly; music rockets from their hands at just the right vibration. & now—though they sing of summer ending, when mine has just begun—that first haunting piano note, again & again, slithers underneath my skin & reminds me that this too shall pass, but not without some righteous indignation.


  1. re guys barfing in response to the big trans reveal, there's also the famous scene from the gorgeous the crying game, which pissed me off a bit, even though clearly neil jordan is critiquing fergus's instinctive homophobia (which, to be fair, fergus quickly more than abandons!)

  2. oh, & just saw this pic & thought of your blog's subtitle. xoxoxoxoxo