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See: Baggage or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jerry Springer

2010/07/09 3 comments

I‘ve been hesitant to write about my new favorite TV addiction, Baggage (the dating game show hosted by Jerry Springer on the Game Show Network), because it is the most mind-boggling combination of insulting, terrible, refreshing, subversive, and normative. I’ve flip floppped back and forth in my mind how best to watch the show, and I think I’ve reached a tentative hypothesis. But first, let me explain a little how the show works for the uninitiated.

The show features an eligible bachelor or bachelorette who is looking to find love. It is assumed that said single is at least a little bit desperate. The single has a deep dark secret however, his or her baggage, contained within a large, red suitcase. Jerry tempts the studio audience by offering three possibilities for what the case may contain, one of which is true. Then three possible future mates are brought on stage for the eligible bachelor(ette) to select from. Only, each of the three suitors comes with three suitcases, ranging from small, medium, to large. The size of the suitcase corresponds to how dramatic the secret baggage is. Generally the small baggage is something along the line of “I have smelly feet” or something of that ilk, while the bigger bags contain things like “I left my wife to date her younger sister”, etc. In the first round all the suitors open up their smallest bag and explain/justify/minimize it. Then Jerry opens up the medium cases which have been placed randomly, so that the single and looking contestant has no idea whose baggage is whose. He or she must then pick which of the secrets is a deal breaker, and that contestant is eliminated. In the third round, the suitors open up their biggest cases and try to explain them. The bachelor(ette) decides which of the two remaining has the most acceptable baggage. But it doesn’t end there, as the bachelor(ette) must open his or her big red case, revealing their own enormous baggage, and the suitor is now given the chance to say if all this baggage is too much to handle. So, it’s a bit like the other popular game show, Deal or No Deal, what with all the cases opening and people rejecting things.

Let me try to explain my hypothesis, which is that Baggage is possibly the closest thing we’ll ever come to subversive queerness that we will ever get to on a game show. Yes, even more so than shows like “Big Brother” or “Survivor” that frequently feature gay and lesbian contestants. And here’s why I finally feel confident saying that: Baggage demonstrates that the “otherness” of queer individuals is really just a figment of society’s imagination. Through the guise of a heteronormative dating show (to date there has not been an episode matching up same-sex  partners), Baggage reveals that there is no such thing as “normal” and that you can’t always pick out the queer by their asymmetrical haircut. I don’t just mean that is shows us that normal is a construct because no one on the show is normal, what I mean is that queer sexuality in all its forms (not just same-sex attraction) has infiltrated a show designed to pair up men and women.   

Of course, this is still mainstream television, and so any baggage that is nonheteronomrative is met with a studio full of “oooooo’s” and gasps. However, the important part isn’t whether or not a studio audience condones the baggage or not, but that seemingly normal singles are suddenly revealed to be even just a little bit queer; it pulls the rug from under our feet, in a good way. The power of Baggage, unlike Big Brother is that you really never know when queerness is going to spring out at you. In Big Brother there is usually the gay contestant, and he or she (99% of the time HE) is cast very specifically as the gay one. While visibility is a good thing, game show visibility is usually mere tokenism disguised as acceptance. Baggage dispenses with the empty gestures of false acceptance and just bombards the viewer with visibility, saying to hell with what people think. The people with queer baggage in the show aren’t there as token others, but as regular people floating about in the straight-world dating pool.

For example, my favorite pairing ever in the show’s brief history was a couple consisting of a woman who did not believe in monogamy and a man who feels sexiest when dressed up as a woman (the show ran its credits over a picture of him in drag, wearing his wig, makeup, and a slinky red dress that episode). That pairing does more to dismantle assumptions about straight coupledom than any other show I’ve seen on TV. Or last night, one single didn’t believe in the institution of marriage. Straight men have admitted to gogo dancing in gay bars to pay for college, people admit to enjoying sadomasochism in the bedroom, selling sex toys, dating a transsexual, preferring group sex, and having sugar mommas. It’s a queer, queer world out there!

The best episodes are arguably the special “cougar editions” in which a cougar (a woman of a certain age) chooses between three sexy twenty-something men, all vying for the chance to be with an older woman.  I know the whole cougar culture thing has been absorbed into heteronormative culture, but it still belongs in the category of cross-generational sex. Unsurprisingly, the Cougar episodes are the most highly sexual, with almost every comment and secret focusing on what the cougars and their “cubs” would shortly be doing in bed together. Interestingly, the term cub has long been used in the Bear subculture before it entered the Cougar vernacular.

It all reminds me off an oldie but a goodie foundational text in sexuality studies, Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex”, in which she outlines Western culture’s “charmed circle” of “good/natural sex”. Watching Baggage is like checking off the list of “bad sex” and “unnatural acts”:

Unmarried, Promiscuous, Non-procreative, Commercial, Group sex, Casual, Cross-generational, With manufactured objects, Sadomasochism… Transvestites, Transsexuals, Fetishists (11-12).

I‘ve seen all of those on Baggage! I’m not arguing that there isn’t yet a long way to go on TV, nor that Baggage is indeed a beacon of queerness in the wasteland of heteronormativity, but as far as game shows go (and trust me, I watch a lot of them), Baggage at least shows us that queerness is not necessarily reserved for those society deems other.

Categories: Television Tags: ,

Just a Question…

2010/05/26 Comments off

How is it that Glee, arguably today’s most watched, highest praised prime-time television show with out queer cast members (Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer) consistently disappoints me with its insistence on heteronormativity and then (sort of) wins me back by the end of each episode? Particularly this week’s Lady Gaga themed episode, “Theatricality”, which had the highest potential to date for radical queer politics. Half of the show relied entirely on reenforcing gender norms, with “the girls” (including Kurt, the young gay teen character) dressing like and performing songs by Lady Gaga. “The guys”, however, uncomfortable with the idea, don KISS costumes and rock out in a more “acceptable” version of glam. I suppose painting a lightening bolt on your face is femme-y while painting on cat whiskers is butch?

Meanwhile, Finn struggles to cope with the idea of sharing a bedroom with Kurt, the result of their parents moving in together. He is troubled by Kurt’s omnipresent queerness, claiming he “puts [his] underwear on in the shower every morning” because he’s uncomfortable with Kurt’s sexuality. Finn is even physically repulsed by Kurt’s attempt to help him remove his KISS make up with a moist towelette. While Finn’s reaction is probably a realistic representative of how many highschool boys would respond to queerish contact, it’s a story we’ve all heard ad nauseum.

Unfortunately, however, Finn can hardly be blamed; Kurt’s character has taken a rather creepy turn in the past few episodes, concocting a scheme that pairs up their parents in order to position Finn as a kind of brother/room-mate/ object of desire. The whole dynamic has a problematic incestuous vibe to it. Kurt is simultaneously the creepiest and the most emotionally realistic character in the show; his coming out to his father was one of the most emotional scenes of the entire season, but his continued efforts to get Finn into his bedroom are borderline disturbed. And, again, isn’t the story of the gay boy hopelessly infatuated with the straight jock another narrative past its expiration date?

Conversely, the scenes with Kurt’s father have continued to be heartwarming and reasonably progressive. When Finn refers to Kurt’s choice of decor as “faggy”, Kurt’s father bursts on to the scene demanding that Finn leave his house immediately and reassuring Kurt that the room looks great. It’s standard fare, yes, but it’s about as good as I’ve come to expect from the average television show. The episode concludes with Finn defending Kurt’s right to be different from a pair of football players, wrapped in a red shower curtain (which I guess is the straight boy version of a Lady Gaga outfit).     

So my question is, it is alright to be completely essentializing and heteronormative on the one hand, and moderately progressive on the other? Is Glee giving viewers the queer-lite version of progressiveness (“Being different is fine! We’re all different!”) while continuing to propagate what it means to be a “real” man/woman? And perhaps most importantly, am I asking too much from a television show that one can watch on basic cable?

Categories: Television Tags: ,

TLC: Traumatizing Little Children?

2010/05/13 Comments off

I love reality television. I truly do. But I have come to one conclusion over my years of couch surfing: TLC ruins lives.

I‘m not saying anything new, I don’t think. I, like everyone else, is sick of hearing about John and Kate Gosselin and their babies, and I don’t quite understand TLC’s recent obsession with little-people families. What started innocently enough as Little People Big World has blossomed into The Little Couple and most recently The Little Chocolatiers (personally, I would like to see a show based on little person construction workers. They could call it From the Ground Up). But that’s all beside the point; regardless of height, TLC provides our daily dose of Schadenfreude via the slow demise of its “stars”.

This piece isn’t particularly invested in defending the “family unit”–people get divorced and families fall apart,oftentimes for good reasons–but rather questions the ethics of filming, editing, and airing a family’s downfall. More concisely, I worry about how the children of TLC families will be effected by their participation on the show. (I know, the “what about the children?” card is a cheap one to play, and I’d typically avoid it. But I happen to find this situation one that warrants it). First of all, the notion of informed consent gets thrown right out the window when it comes to children on these shows. I understand that parents have the right to speak as legal guardian for their children in certain situations, and I’m willing to bet that many of the kids in TLC are excited just to be on television, but the boundaries of consent seem awfully iffy to me. Most of the nineteen Duggar children (from 19 Kids and Counting) have no choice as to whether they appear on our television screens, and though they don’t seem to mind it, I wonder how they will feel when they’ve all grown up and they realize that their fondest childhood memories all involve television cameras?

And what about their not so favorite memories? My beef isn’t the fact that some families on TLC are falling apart (Jon and Kate plus Eight has now become Kate plus Eight, and the Roloff family of Little People Big World has not been the picture of domestic bliss in its fifth season) but that we and the entire family will have audiovisual documentation of the entire affair. Imagine! The ability to watch your parents fight and divorce each other on a deluxe DVD box set and in off-season syndicated reruns! I have always had respect for parents that know how traumatic these kinds of things can be for children and so go off and fight in the car, or attic, or wherever, but life in front of the camera doesn’t exactly have room for private drama.

I wonder what will happen when the kids on TLC shows, even those from stable, loving families, have the cameras taken away? Our culture’s past treatment of child stars has shown that when you grow up in the public eye, it has an effect on you when the cameras get taken away. Will we reach a point when audiences no longer care about the Gosselin children (if we aren’t already there), and does someone have to tell the kids “you aren’t cute enough anymore”? Will we soon after get a spree of Duggars on reality game shows in desperate attempts to be famous forever? (You could cast a whole season of Survivor just from that family. Now wouldn’t I watch that!) I’m merely hypothesizing, and may be completely off base. It’s possible that when their show is cancelled the children will heave a sigh of relief, and go off to leave perfectly boring lives.

Ten years from now, or however long it takes, we’ll find out exactly how our relatively recent obsession with TLC families has affected these kids. I propose we name whatever it is they’ve got Post-Reality Stress Disorder (trademarked) or PRSD. It can be the big thing of their generation, like the phantom vibrations I suffer from due to my constant carrying of a cell phone. 

I think I’ll leave you with this tidbit from the Discovery Network’s (the monolithic parent network of TLC) ethics statement. It has that wonderfully vagueness all businesses have:

Discovery is committed to managing its business activities in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and to ensuring honest and ethical behavior by its directors, officers, employees and contingent workers.  To facilitate and encourage the prompt reporting of suspected events of non-compliance, and to provide employees and contingent workers with a confidential, anonymous, toll-free avenue for reporting suspected events of non-compliance, Discovery has established a toll-free Ethics Hotline, operated by a third-party provider, The Network.

Don’t you feel better now?

Categories: Television Tags: ,