Daddy Issues: The New Normal, the Same Old Bigotry

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Diane Shipley
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Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom who writes about pop culture for publications on both sides of the pond. Her bylines include the Guardian, Lit Hub, and the Washington Post. She loves podcasts and photos of miniature dachshunds. She tweets @dianeshipley.

Two men and a woman stand in front of a bathroom mirror, looking at a pregnancy test. A slogan says: The New Normal: A post-modern family., The New Normal isn’t the first time we’ve seen gay dads (in this case, dads-to-be) on TV. But from Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland to LeRoy and Hiram Berry on Glee, they’re usually non-custodial fathers or secondary characters. The aughts brought sitcoms It’s All Relative and Normal, Ohio, both of which centred around gay fathers, but neither found an audience.

It wasn’t until 2009’s Modern Family that a successful network sitcom showed gay men being full-time fathers — and even there, their portrayal is stereotypical and desexualized. That’s something Glee and The New Normal creator (and out gay man) Ryan Murphy publicly criticized in 2010, stating that if he were to make a show with two gay leads, their kissing would be shown as no big deal.

And now he has. Whether Murphy conceived The New Normal in response to Modern Family or not, marketing materials have promoted the show as a bolder, more progressive alternative, with pointed taglines like “A post-modern family”. And Murphy was true to his word: his gay characters kiss, hug, and flirt, and we even see them (talking) in bed. In short, their relationship is given the kind of respect and the amount of screen time sitcoms have previously reserved for straight couples, which shouldn’t really be revolutionary, but is.

However, Murphy shouldn’t start patting himself on the back just yet. The show’s central couple, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) fall into the same tired dynamic as many hetero TV couples (with one responsible parent and one fun one, usually the woman and man, respectively) and are comprised of one flamboyant, artistic type and one uptight professional, just like the couple on Modern Family and Will & Grace pals Jack and Will. Worse, The New Normal showcases the kind of retrograde opinions not given prominence in prime time since All in the Family went off air.

Ellen Barkin plays offensive grandma Jane, who is horrified that her granddaughter Goldie wants to act as a surrogate for Bryan and David. We learn in the pilot that her homophobia stems from catching her husband in the act with another man, but I’m less clear on the explanation for her free-floating bigotry, except perhaps that you know how older people are. Among her putdowns (brace yourself), she refers to a Mexican employee as “Hombre,” addresses an Asian-American woman as “Hello Kitty,” and calls gay men “fruit”, “salami smokers”, and “cheesepackers in that Sodom and Gomorrah fudge factory”. (Is somebody on a diet?)

To watch Jane suggest (whether tongue-in-cheek or not) that Bryan’s African-American assistant Rocky might use a separate bathroom feels more like a re-enactment of America’s recent past than the thrillingly controversial bon mot it’s intended to be. The in-real-life progressive Barkin knows her character is meant to be unsympathetic—she’s compared Jane to Archie Bunker—but the show is still, through her, giving space to bigoted sentiments too many people believe in.

Like 2 Broke Girls showrunner Michael Patrick King, Murphy seems to believe that being gay means he can be an “equal-opportunity offender”. The idea that membership in one marginalized group gives you the right to insult all others totally ignores how structural inequality and privilege work (both men are rich, white, cis and able-bodied) and how offensive this type of hipster racism is.

The theme of the show, that because we’re all so diverse there’s no such thing as “normal,” is admirable, but its execution is questionable. In a scene in the pilot, Bryan tells David, “Your definition of ‘traditional’ might need a refresh.” Then we flash to an older single woman who says she was too busy being “a whore” to conceive sooner, a mom with dwarfism who references her seasonal elf work (!), and a deaf Asian-American couple who sign that they can’t hear their kids crying. (Apparently Murphy thinks being deaf is hilarious.) While all of this plays lip service to equality, clumsily pointing out which groups are marginalized and perpetuating stereotypes about them for cheap humor simply encourages prejudice, and glosses over the fact that oppression isn’t just a state of mind.

Lesbians are a frequent source of so-called comedy in the show’s early episodes, but Slate’s June Thomas has suggested that we shouldn’t be offended, since the fact that The New Normal’s co-creator Ali Adler is gay means that even if we don’t personally relate, we’re laughing with lesbians, not at them. But while the lines may be self-deprecating, it’s still men who are speaking them. In fact, lesbians and bisexual women make up just 25 percent of the portrayals of LGBT people on network TV. Three current network sitcoms feature one or more gay male main characters, but there hasn’t been a lesbian lead in a sitcom since Ellen, which was cancelled in 1998 after the actor and her character came out.

Of course, Murphy loves to shock and we’ve seen this kind of insensitivity from him before. But his refusal to portray members of marginalized groups as more than walking punch lines is especially disappointing due to his perception of himself as inclusive and the fact that his previous shows have won GLAAD diversity awards.

When it’s not being crass, The New Normal is surprisingly sweet with some great performances, so the fact that the humor is too often limited to cheap shots and outdated stereotypes feels like a lost opportunity.

Previously: Modern Family’s Old-Fashioned Values; The Incomparable Influence of Non-Dad “Dads”.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Right on point

Great piece. Don't even get me started on the gender identity/presentation issues they danced around in the episode where Bryan and David deal with their desires for having a male or female child. I think it was a real missed opportunity. Also, the Ellen Barkin character is horrible. It's a variation of the Sue Sylvester character from Glee. I had to stop watching Glee because it seemed the writers were only interested in giving Sue snappy racist one-liners which took over the whole show. I hope that The New Normal doesn't go down the same path.

Thanks! Yes, if I'd had more

Thanks! Yes, if I'd had more space I would have gone into that episode, as it was so disappointing the way it wasn't about challenging the idea of what having a boy meant, but about how a man with non-stereotypical interests could relate to a boy, which just confirmed so many retrograde ideas. And then of course there was the ep where they tried to prove they weren't racist because they voted for Obama, which... what?!

The trouble with Sue Sylvester was that she wasn't purely exaggerated and evil but that she was supposed to be kinda sympathetic at times, as well, which conferred some legitimacy upon her bigotry, and I think Jane in The New Normal is the same. Such a shame, because both actors deserve better.

Misogyny in gay male tv couples

I don't watch a lot of TV, but I've seen both "The New Normal" and "Modern Family" a couple of times each. My limited experience with both included a scene where the gay male couple was squabbling over which one of them was "the woman" and making clear that gay or straight, masculinity is innately superior to femininity (well, unless a woman is perceived as masculine, then she has no value even as an object). Public acceptance of same sex relationships should help bring about broader understanding that couples can come in many forms and there doesn't have to be a dominant, independent, competent "husband" and a dependent, submissive, overly emotional "wife." Instead, gay male couples are being used as pawns to sustain patriarchy and further marginalize women. The upper class white gay male couple as been chosen as the lesser of the evils that the privileged class will tolerate in order to maintain its overall dominance. These stereotyped portrayals (almost always accompanied by borderline hysterical female supporting characters) do not get us any closer to freedom and acceptance for all. Then again, we're talking about network tv, which exists for the purpose of selling consumer products and reinforcing the dominant ideology. It's all BS.

Great points

You're so right about the inherent misogyny in both The New Normal and Modern Family (plus there's racism and class prejudice and ableism, etc) and the whole "which one's the woman" idea is so tired and inaccurate and buys into outdated stereotypes that too many people still believe. I tried to touch on that a little on my blog posts, but you expressed it more eloquently here.

I do believe in trying to look for the positive where possible, though, even if only because I enjoy TV and want to believe it's becoming more representative. I do think it's progress that we have three sitcoms featuring gay male leads (the other one being Happy Endings) where previously we only had Very Special Episodes (and before that, nothing) and that there's an outcry about Girls being whitewashed that we never saw with SATC or Friends. But progress is slow and yes, dominated by a capitalist kyriarchy.

Different take

If I may, my critique of the Ellen Barkin character is a little different. To me the problem is that she isn't entirely unsympathetic - quite the opposite. The show frequently arranges scenarios in which viewers are force-fed the notion that either progressives are just as bad as people like the Barkin character, or that Barkin's character is a wise elder making good points (even if she's totally racist, homophobic, classist about it). The problem, to me at least, is that the basic idea is "oh, look how silly arguing is, let's all drink wine and be rich white people together, no matter our differences."

You may :)

Yes, that's a good point, and the comments on this and yesterday's post have made me realize I have to tackle class in a little more depth before this series is out!

Murphy often seems to frame being bigoted and being discriminated against as just another difference two people can have, ignoring the fact that one of those things is a choice...

New Normal does seem really committed to the heteronormative

gender roles. I do wonder what point Ryan Murphy is trying to make because he is the Bryan character. He has said as much. The new normal is supposed to be about Mr. Murphy and his partner's life. Ryan Murphy has made the point over and over again that he is in support of effeminate gay men.

Yes, it's always clear who

Yes, it's always clear who the Murphy surrogate is in his shows (Kurt in Glee), because they're the most sympathetic characters ;) I can't speak for him, but I suspect he thinks he's pushing boundaries by allowing gay characters to be light-hearted and "effeminate", and truly, he is. It's just a shame he relies so much on stereotypes of all kinds, instead of subverting them — especially as he's clearly capable of creating weird and intelligent TV.

The New Normal

I tried watching this show in the beginning but Ellen Barkin's character is disgusting and I knew that if I continued to watch the show, I would end up hating the actress in real life. And I love, love, love Ellen Barkin. One particularly unnecessary moment occurred with they were either talking about black people or Obama and she said something to the effect that I remember when your people were still in chains. I think that's when I said enough that was that.

I think they difference between her character and Sue from Glee is that Sue has some limits and she tends to mock everyone equally while everyone on the show despises her. While the same just isn't true for Ellen's character. She is loved by her great grand daughter and is needed by her daughter. It's just sad. There's still hope that the show goes into another direction.

Yes, exactly. The things that

Yes, exactly. The things that they have her say are SO offensive, and their use of these jokes suggests the writers think we're living in some kind of post-discrimination paradise or something... And the fact that Jane (Ellen Barkin) has some status in the show — Rocky is becoming friendly with her and as you say, her family still needs and wants to spend time with her, makes it seem like the more sympathetic characters approve of her, at least to some extent.

I have seen a couple of eps where her role was minor, and they were much more enjoyable, but I suspect Murphy enjoys shocking people too much to give her up.

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