Gaycism and The New Normal: The “Hot” Trend This TV Season is Bigotry

by: Nico Lang

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 GQgaycism 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 revolved around her use of malapropisms, like “doggy dog world” and “don’t give me an old tomato,” because being foreign and sexy is her whole purpose on the show.

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 while 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 it’s Lena Dunham-esque exclusion of anyone not white, except for the groundbreaking inclusion 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 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 its marginalization of trans* narratives, recently kiiiind of rectified by introducing the character of Unique, a young trans* woman of color.  Similarly, The New Normal 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 great moment 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.”  Yay, progress!  This is pretty much the same crap that shows like In Living Color (see: “Men on Film”) used to pull except now the “Equal Opportunity Offenders” are on “our team” (aka. Team Queer).

The problem is that instead of writing real people, Murphy falls back on his habit of writing played out tropes.  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.  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 the main couple—in the same way that other TV shows and films use people of color solely as vehicles for white narratives.  They are always relegated to supporting roles where they are acted and commented upon by the white chracters (eg. 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 anything, 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!

In response question, 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 socially 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.  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.  Also, they have Bryan and Nana bond over both being Asian racist, so everyone’s racist and it’s okay!

Remember hipster racism?  This is that turned up to 11, like Murphy throwing a big blackface party on TV.  However, the biggest issue with pointing it out is that people often don’t realize that such “ironic racism” is still just racism.  And what actually makes the show’s gaycism 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 (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.

Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington PostChicago TribuneLA TimesThe New GayThe Guardian and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.

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25 responses to “Gaycism and The New Normal: The “Hot” Trend This TV Season is Bigotry

  1. Lest we forget that these are two wealthy queers. Most people would never think of a child as an accessory because they cannot afford said accessory.

  2. What if the gay couple is a brilliant lampooning of the sort of obnoxious boys town gays that we see all the time in Chicago. Though I’ve only seen the pilot, everything that came out of the femme guy’s mouth was one degree exaggerated from something I’d actually heard a white gay man say. If it’s played in a way that makes you think “what a selfish idiot,” then it is pointing out prejudices & problematic behaviors, no? While it’s a fine line, hipster racism seems to me to be the idea that you can do & say racist things and still claim not to be racist, or to be transcending racism, while characters like the grandma on this show are more in the vein of Archie Bunker – characaturing racism in a way that makes it both obvious and utterly ridiculous. There is of course that constant question of who is laughing with and who is laughing at, but part of the importance of comedy is context. I don’t really know why Louis C.K. gets an automatic pass, I’d like specific examples of the difference between his humor and this. The fact that he supported Daniel Tosh when he made those comments about hoping a female audience member got raped certainly makes me doubt his comedy’s intentions of being satirical, rather than merely another angry white man.

    • <<<<>>>>

      Re: Louis CK he’s explained in full elsewhere that he was unaware of the whole Tosh rape joke fiasco when he made that tweet and it wasn’t a message of support as much as a general appreciation of his comedy. As far as I can see he doesn’t “get” a free pass but has rather “earned” it by deconstructing and lampooning the idea of rape rather than making jokes about people getting raped, where the victim is the punchline. “How else are you going to have an orgasm inside their body?” vs. “wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped right now”. Stewart Lee does similar stuff. The difference between what you call “hipster racism” and regular good ol’ fashioned racism is intelligence, wit and the knowledge of the audience that these things are not being talked about earnestly. It’s usually pretty easy to spot when someone’s being sarcastically offensive to poke fun at intolerant people and when they’re just being offensive because that’s what they believe.

  3. You made some very good points and helped me realize exactly what it was that was bugging me about this show. Murphy and co. seem to write Ms. Barkin’s character as if she has a point about her rants. THAT’S WRONG! I think he is going for a modern-day Archie Bunker, but, unlike the writing on All In The Family, the writing here is not strong enough to push home the point that Nana is W-R-O-N-G! Also, TNN is NO All In The Family. While I chuckled a few times (the Grey Gardens impersonation by the little girl was kind of briliant), the show is not that clever. Thanks for focusing my thoughts on this. Great article.

  4. While I understand where you are coming from, it’s important to take a step outside our community while watching this show. What they are writing is exactly what middle America thinks. Venture over to One Million Moms’ facebook page (on which I am banned from posting comments) and entertain yourself reading some of the things those people believe. Ellen Barkin’s dialogue is the epitome of their narrative. They are setting up these characters with stereotypes that people outside our community can connect with, and I feel we will see the characters grow and the viewers will grow with them. I’m certain there are viewers watching and agreeing with everything Ellen Barkin has to say, and what they will (hopefully) witness is her softening and warming to this gay couple and her granddaughter’s involvement with them. That’s my hope, at least.
    We live this stuff every day so to us they are simply stereotypes, but this is how those outside our community relate to what they don’t know. My family wasn’t comfortable about gay people until they found something/someone to relate to: me. So, TNN plants these stereotypes in front of the viewers so they can associate them with something, and as the season progresses, they’ll be able to relate to these characters on a more human level.
    I, for one, can completely relate to a lot of what has happened in the show. I know plenty of gay boys who would say and do exactly what Andrew Rannells’ character says and does. I also know plenty of gay boys who would behave like Justin Bartha’s character. These two stereotypical characters are the Yin and Yang for uneducated viewers. Many will think that all gay men are like Andrew’s character, so they show that extreme, while these same people will find it hard to believe that gays like Justin’s character exist, so they show THAT extreme.
    I have also witnessed plenty of black women behaving/dressing/speaking exactly like Nene Leakes. I live in New York– her character was practically lifted from the streets in my neighborhood.
    As much as we hate stereotypes, they are there for a reason. They hide a little bit of truth in them. And it may not make those of us in the LGBTQ community happy to see such stereotypes flaunted about like this, but I believe it provides an important lesson to those not in the know.
    I’ve been telling everyone, especially those family and friends not really close to me and our community, to watch this show. Why? Because it’s my life. I have been through so much of what they are going through, and I want people to watch with me in mind. I’ve cried at almost every episode because I can relate to everything so thoroughly. I’ve been told I’m disgusting and will get AIDS for simply holding my girlfriend’s hand. It’s my hope that my family and friends watching will put me in the shoes of the characters they are seeing, just so they can really start to relate to my life and some of the difficulties I have that they may take for granted.
    So if this show educates people and makes them realize that we are just regular people too, then I’m all for it. Stereotypes be damned.

  5. I really like Wendell’s distinction posted above about the difference between Barkin’s character and Archie Bunker. Bunker was a bigot, and got laughed at because of it, while Barkin seems to be a bigot, who gets laughs in spite of it. I do sometimes find “All In The Family” a little disturbing, but oddly enough, for a show that’s 30 years old, I think it handles these issues better than “The New Normal.”

    As for Mason’s claim that Louis C.K. was defending Daniel Tosh, I would point to a “Daily Show” interview in which C.K. claimed that his Tweet saying he “supported” Tosh was released without actually knowing about the rape joke incident. You can choose to believe him or not, but I do think his humor is miles and miles away from that of Tosh’s. I think Nico said it best here when he characterized C.K.’s show as, “using racially charged and politically incorrect humor as a way of critiquing societal and systemic norms, rather than supporting that oppression by being an a-hole.” Personally, I get very tired of the what is PC and what isn’t debate. Sometimes overt racism does get passed off as humor, as in the case of someone like Tosh. But I’m a firm believer that people like Louie C.K. are making a comment on political incorrectness, rather than using it for cheap laughs.

    But to go back to “The New Normal” for a second, I was actually surprised when I watched an episode of the show the other night at how un-offensive I found it. In fact, it was actually an episode dealing with the gay couple’s preconceived notion that they get a pass on racism just because of who they are. That being said, the show is full of overt stereotypes, which I think is the biggest problem in all of Murphy’s work. In his mind, I think he truly believes he’s starting a discussion, while in reality, he’s often holding that discussion back through lazy, one-dimensional caricatures. His intentions appear to be noble, but as Nico pointed out, tonal inconsistencies seem to prevent him from reaching his goal most of the time. Perhaps he’s better when he sticks to the creepy, campiness of “American Horror Story” and leaves the heavy lifting to other people. Alan Ball seems to be able to do both, following up the dead serious “Six Feet Under” with the ludicrous “True Blood,” although like Murphy, subtlety isn’t his strong-suit. Maybe the right people to represent the gay community just haven’t come to TV yet. If “Partners” is any indication, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick of “Will and Grace” fame certainly aren’t the ones to carry that torch. “The New Normal” really is a shame on an additional level too, because the cast of this show is so talented.

    As for “Modern Family,” my biggest problem with it tends to be less with it’s depiction of minorities and more with the fact that I simply don’t find it as funny as everyone else. I think Cam and Mitch are a fairly realistic gay couple (in their relationship, it’s the effeminate one who likes sports… so, I guess that’s something?) However, the problem with trying to accurately depict any group on TV or in film is that no two people are the same, and it’s all too easy not to create a character who’s just a human person, rather than a gay person, or a black person, or etc. I think they actually do a pretty good job of this with Gloria, and while I think the stereotyping of her character is a bit much at times, for the most part the comedy of it works for me because she is a strong, latin woman, or better yet, just a strong person. I think Sofia Vergara actually brings surprising depth to the role, and I think that as the show has gone on, the writers really have tried to paint Gloria as more than one thing.

    “2 Broke Girls” is garbage. I’m not sure what’s worse, doing a show with no minorities (“Sex in the City,” “Girls,”) or doing a show with token minorities (Winston on “New Girl.”) But I do know that doing a show where minorities are ONLY depicted as buffoonish, silly cartoons is worst of all, and that’s “2 Broke Girls” for you. Too bad, because yet again, the leads are actually kind of talented.

    It seems to me that trying to force minorities into a show just for the sake of having them there is going to hurt the groups of people that those characters represent, not to mention the overall quality of the show itself. But by the same context, most of the characters people really seem to care about on TV are white by a great margin, and there is something deeply disturbing about that.

    Television is such a powerful medium because we let it into our homes each week, and, in a very literal sense, it lives with us. It’s always hard to say whether it reflects or changes the zeitgeist. In reality, it’s probably a bit of both. Is it a good thing for straight people to watch “Modern Family” and realize that gay couples aren’t a thing to be afraid of? Probably. But on the other side, is it good if we look at every family on television and say, “Hey, we’re all alike!”? No, probably not. To reiterate, nobody is just one thing. I think true acceptance comes from the realization that we are all people, but we are all different from one another, and it’s not the things we have in common but rather the things we don’t that inspire fellowship. Groups and individuals are never all the same, despite their race or sexuality or anything else they may have in common. In television, and in art in general, it seems that depicting that will be the real challenge moving forward.

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  9. I was so eager to start watching the series but it is not but a failure. The jokes are bad and all I want to do is break the Tv screen. My main concern is the fact that Bryan is so stereotypical that makes me want to gag – and this coming from the pen of Ryan Murphy, who had a chance to write a really good series about the everyday life of gay couples without usint stereotypes, bad humour and characters so poorly written that it is unbearable. And traditionally his series are always inconsistent. I still watch Glee but it is so so so incosistent that as of lately I am having second thoughts about the show.
    The other hideous show – Partners – has similar problems. I don’t wanna judge based only on one ep. but the first ep. was so bad! Bad writting, flamboyant and hysteric stereotypical Michael Urie and…once again – really bad writing.
    Two new shows with lead gay characters and both are abominable. As I said – they really had a chance to make a difference and that is why I am so mad. Both shows are downgraded to bad American entertainment.
    As a whole, all of the new tv series are uninspired and that is why I am sticking to Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Modern Family and Louie.

  10. While you make several good points, the point where you lose me is when you quoted ‘Comedy is about censoring yourself’, it’s not, it’s never been. Comedy is about holding a mirror up to society and saying ‘see this? See how stupid this is?”. IN the case of New Normal we’re not laughing with the nana character, we’re laughing AT her, we’re laughing at how stupid her racism is and while people might complain about the sterotypes, they exist for a reason. I know many gay guys like this, they make me laugh because they’re awesome and funny, as are the characters in this show.
    Partners problem is much easier though… it’s Will and Grace with added straight people. The jokes are the same, the characters are the same, the sets look almost identical. It’s a bargain bin version of Will & Grace

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  16. If I don’t know anything else, I know Tricia who commented above is a white person.

    Only someone protected, at least in some respects, by white privilege would hold such a position.

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