In recent months, there's been a lot of chatter on the interwebs about this thing called "gaycism" on the TV. As defined by Lauren Bans of GQ, gaycism is "the wrongheaded idea that having gay characters gives you carte blanche to cut PC corners elsewhere." In her example, Bans cites shows like Modern Family and freshman comedy Partners as emblematic of this trend. Modern Family is an Emmy-juggernaut, a critical darling and a much-lauded champion of LGBT characterization on TV, but that progressivism comes at the expense of Gloria, the lone woman of color. Sofia Vergara is a terrific comedienne and kills in the role, but the brunt of her jokes revolve around her flimsy command of the English language. Gloria's B-story FOR AN ENTIRE EPISODE dealt with her use of malapropisms, like "doggy dog world" and "don't give me an old tomato," because being foreign is her whole purpose on the show. Oh, and having boobs.
Although Modern Family has gotten away with Charlie Chan-ing South American women (so fiery! yelling!) for three seasons, Two Broke Girls came under fire earlier this year for the same stuff. But the difference between the two is that Modern Family is racist like that friend you have who wears Native American prints from Urban Outfitters until you say something about it and then they apologize and never do it again. You know they mean well, and "flesh colored" band-aids prove white privilege is hard to spot sometimes. However, Two Broke Girls is like your white gay friend who thinks he's entitled to say whatever he pleases because he's been oppressed, so he's allowed to oppress other people and call it being an "equal opportunity offender." He's earned the right to be a racist, insensitive asshole, because I guess he asked Audre Lorde and she said it was okay?
For example, look at Michael Patrick King. For the queers in the audience, we know MPK as the man who brought us Sex and the City, a series notably gaycist with its Lena Dunham-esque exclusion of anyone not white, except for the groundbreaking depiction of Miranda's sexy fling with a chocolatey black man. However, King recently upped the gaycist ante with Two Broke Girls, a show the New Yorker referred to as "so racist it is less offensive than baffling." The show reduces black men to sweet ol' jive-talkers, Eastern Europeans to crazed sex hounds and Asian Americans to Long Duk Dong and "Yellow Panic" stereotypes. On the latter, Andrew Ti of "Yo, Is That Racist?" notes, "It's distressingly easy to imagine the writers sitting around and listing off every single ching-chong stereotype, ultimately deciding with some sorrow that a Fu Manchu mustache would be impractical for budget reasons."
And when Michael Patrick King was asked about it a panel for Two Broke Girls earlier this year, was he like your friend who vowed never to shop at Urban Outfitters again? Nope. He was like your friend that then buys a bunch of Native American print underwear afterward and then dances half-naked on a coffee table bragging about how edgy he is -- because he's, like, pushing boundaries or whatever. In defense of being a racist douche, King eloquently summed up the problem with a heaping helping of white gay male privilege, "I'm gay! I'm putting in gay stereotypes every week! I don't find it offensive, any of this. I find it comic to take everybody down, which is what we are doing."
Into this controversy steps The New Normal, the new Ryan Murphy show about two gay men who decide to raise a baby together, a show that marries Murphy's trademark tonal inconsistency "with more gay jokes and regular old racism than Gallagher's stand-up act." All of Murphy's shows have huge problems, and Glee has faced heavy criticism for not only being super racist, but also for being super transphobic, which was recently kiiiind of rectified by introducing the character of Unique, a young trans* woman of color. However, as the Cracked article on the show argues, the real problem is that everyone is a "something" on the show, and all the characters conform to broad caricatures, "like the awkward Jew with the afro, the black girl who always sings the big gospel notes, the gay kid with the great fashion sense, the overachieving Asian [and] the fiery, underprivileged Latina." Although you could argue that in high school, everyone conforms to a stereotype, Cracked's Ian Fortey notes the Michael Patrick King logic behind that rationalization: "Glee's producers think that by shoving their parade of characters and their intense stereotypes in your face, rather than having them be subtle, it's cool, because they're acknowledged."
Similarly, The New Normal announces its offensive stereotypes as if it were shouting them through one of Sue Sylvester's bullhorns. TNN has already caught a lot of flack for its "lesbian problem," as it reduces all lesbians to "ugly men" with "gingerbread man bodies," but this is pretty much the tip of one big problematic, racist iceberg. In one greatmoment for the history of gay characters, main gay Bryan (Andrew Rannells) refers to vaginas as "tarantula faces," with the implication that gay men think vaginas are icky and gross. Elsewhere, he prances around a lot, listens to Lady Gaga, talks about dressing his baby up in Marc Jacobs clothes and does lots of other stereotypically "gay things." This is not progress. This is pretty much the same crap that shows like In Living Color (see: their "Men on Film" sketches) used to pull, except now the "Equal Opportunity Offenders" are on "our team" (aka. Team Queer). As a self-proclaimed "femme," I know there's nothing wrong with being effeminate, but nothing about Murphy's characterization of femme males feels particularly nuanced.
The problem is that instead of writing actual characters, Murphy falls back on tired tropes, showing his writing hasn't evolved out of high school cafeteria labels. On top of Bravo Gay Bryan and his Butch Gay partner (Justin Bartha, who gets to watch football and do "dude stuff"), we have a Precocious Child (Bebe Wood), a Single Mom With Big Dreams (Georgia King), a Sassy Black Woman (Nene Leakes) and a Homophobic, Racist Grandma (Ellen Barkin, who deserves so much better). Some of these stereotypes are harmless, but Leakes' and Barkin's characters make my brain hurt, as they seem to be taken from deleted scenes from Crash. Barkin's Nana exists in some Paul Haggis-ian alternate universe where people can just shout racist invective all the time, in place of actual conversation. And in The New Normal, the people around them just shrug it off or laugh at them dismissively. Because old people are so old, amiright?
Nana has a lot of people to offend, and like Andrew Ti, I can picture her crossing off a Glenn-Beck-created checklist for every episode. Jews? Check. Gays? Check. African-Americans? DOUBLE CHECK. To give Nana a lot to complain about, Ryan Murphy casts Real Housewife Nene Leakes to be the embodiment of every single stereotype about black women this side of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Leakes plays Bryan's assistant, and in her first scene, she discusses stealing her boss' credit card to buy new shoes, ones (of course!) covered in rhinestone bling.
When's she's not stealing, Leakes has a constant "mhmm" expression on her face, as if she spontaneously developed a case of Lana Del Rey lips. She serves no other purpose on the show except to be loud and to and validate Bryan and David -- in the same way that most TV shows and films use people of color solely as vehicles for white narratives. General, non-gay-specific racism is nothing new in the media. Non-whites are always relegated to supporting roles where they are acted and commented upon by the white characters (e.g. Bryan and Nana), but rarely get their own agency or the ability to write their own narratives. (Both of the creators of The New Normal are white.) After all the criticism The Help received for similar issues, I'm surprised this ever made it past NBC's people. I know the struggling network is desperate for anyone to take it to the prom, and Ryan Murphy is SO HOT right now, but this is just pathetic.
All of this overt stereotyping makes it particularly hypocritical when Leakes calls out K-Mart Sue Sylvester for being racist, asking Nana to take her "dirty, racist mind back to the South." I couldn't believe that the pot dared to call the kettle African-American, until I realized that the problem was that Murphy and Ali Adler (his out lesbian co-creator) don't see any problem with Leakes' character. TV sitcom writers don't necessarily have to care about white privilege or how stereotyping perpetuates a system of systemic injustice, as they are more concerned with putting on a show and getting viewers. Murphy and Adler will do whatever is necessary to get laughs, even if that means offending people, because pushing buttons is part of comedy! Haven't you seen Brickleberry?
In response to that reasoning, Lindy West writes:
This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an 'equal-opportunity offender,' is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did 'not censoring yourself' become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. Your girlfriend is censoring herself when she says she's okay with you playing Xbox all day. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself--comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn't censor himself is just a dude yelling. And being an 'equal opportunity offender'--as in, 'It's okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah'--falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power.
To Murphy and co., it's not being racist, it's being politically incorrect, which Debra Dickerson argues is often the same thing:
The rhetorical cul-de-sac where white hate went--in goes racism, out comes political incorrectness. Use of this phrase is a tactic designed to derail discourse by disguising racism as defiance of far-left, pseudo-Communist attempts at enforcing behavior and speech codes. However, vicious, brainless, knee-jerk, or crudely racist a sentiment may be, once it is repackaged as merely 'un-PC' it become heroic, brave, free-thinking, and best of all, victimized.
And that sense of victimization is exactly what makes the gaycism in The New Normal so troubling, because it makes the show feel entitled to being offensive. Shock humor is the only type of humor The New Normal knows, and it insists on shoving it down our throats, like when Nana thanks a young Asian girl for "helping build the railroads" and offhandedly remarks that "when [she] was in school, they learned about presidents that owned people like [Barack Obama]." Shows like South Park and Louie do a good job of using racially charged and politically incorrect humor as a way of critiquing societal and systemic norms, rather than indirectly supporting that oppression through just mindlessly regurgitating stereotypes. In contrast, nothing about Nana's statements subverts the status quo, and the laughter only derives from the fact that Nana is saying the things we aren't supposed to or allowed to say. She's just being "real" and "honest," like a second-rate Archie Bunker.
However, in the case of Bunker, the jokes were on him, as the show served as a critique of the conservative ideologies that made him racist, and Bunker's punchlines only served to show what a xenophobic jerk he was. The New Normal doesn't do that, and in fact, they have Bryan and Nana bond over both being Asian racist, so everyone's racist and it's okay. Because Murphy doesn't know when to quit, the show's fourth episode, "Obama Mama," has Bryan and David then reflect on their racism -- when they realize that they have no black friends. Because I guess having black friends makes you not racist, they try to get some to fix the problem. Spoiler: They don't actually make any. However, they are nice to an interracial family for approximately two seconds, which is totally the same thing as challenging societally constructed racial biases. As Barney taught us, fleeting recognition of existence = friendship = post-racial society. Racism solved. Not only does this skirting of the issue uphold the show's racial status quo, but it also centers on a false notion: Mel Gibson starred in four Lethal Weapons with Danny Glover and look how he turned out.
Remember hipster racism? This is that turned up to 11, like Murphy throwing a big blackface party on TV and saying its okay because it's "ironic." However, the biggest problem with pointing this out is that people often don't realize that ironic racism is still just racism. And what actually makes the show's racism so doubly troubling is that the act of being systemically oppressed should make people more aware of the ways in which they have the ability to marginalize others, because they have experienced the same thing themselves. The New Normal is even ABOUT that marginalization, specifically the discrimination Bryan and David (or "Bravid") face for being two men who want to raise a child. Although the show is on the surface purely entertainment, Murphy has an explicitly political agenda, one he announces at almost every turn, the same way he did when he made bullying a major storyline in Season 2 of Glee. The message in TNN is that all families are normal, which (although problematic) comes from a good place and is necessary in a political climate where even some in the LGBTQ community, like Rupert Everett, think two men can't raise a child together.
As the gay parenting is the central subject matter of the show (rather than a supporting storyline, like in Modern Family), The New Normal is (whether I like it or not) a landmark show, and how Murphy defines "the new normal" will matter to same-gender parents everywhere. This isn't one of Murphy's haunted house yarns; this is people's actual lives that Murphy is representing. As Spider-Man's uncle once said, with that "power comes responsibility," and like David and Bryan, same-gender parents want their children to grow up in a better, more inclusive world for all people, no matter their color or preference. In the third episode where, after being gay bashed in an outlet mall, Bryan tells David he doesn't want to raise a child in a world where people so openly discriminate against each other. If Bravid ever have that child, I only hope that Ryan Murphy heeds that wish. Their baby deserves better.
Note: An earlier version of this post was featured on In Our Words, a Chicago-based online salon covering all things queer, and was updated to take the newest episode into account. You can find the original here.