Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Dropping the Soap

My neglect of this blog has gone on for nearly a year, and I can blame this only partly on being busy with writing for school. But now that I've got some freedom, here's a comeback with something I decided to write on a rather unexpected subject.

Roommate Chris has gotten on a kick of watching Soap, and thus introduced me to it. I’m not sure whether or not I actually like it, but I’ve continued watching out of some kind of intrigue or other. The show started in 1977, and it’s incredibly dated. However, dated doesn’t always have to mean just one thing. I say this because I am a huge fan of a lot of things from the 70s, but none of them are exactly from the mainstream 70s. Rocky Horror, Bowie, glam rock, Bauhaus and post-punk– they are all part of alternative and/or queer subcultures, and I wouldn’t describe them as dated, at least not in the same way that a sitcom is. I think that the mainstream dates itself in a particular way that subcultures generally do not. This has only struck me since watching this show. It seems to me that the rift between subcultures and the mainstream used to be much wider than it is now, and this is the most dated thing about the show and the era. Being familiar with the avante garde alternative weirdness that was going on at the same time, I am aware that 1970s America was not actually a narrow, sheltered place if you knew where to look, though mainstream media may have adamantly represented it as such. The interesting thing about Soap is that it begins to close this rift; that is, it acknowledges something outside the mainstream, and does so with a clumsy combination of shock value interspersed with seemingly genuine sympathy.

Of course, I am talking about Billy Crystal’s character, Jodie Dallas. When looking up the Wikipedia page for Soap, I found it interesting that Jodie is the only character with a link to his own page. Jodie was allegedly one of the first openly gay characters on television, and this got the show a lot of attention, both positive and negative, but mostly negative. Conservative Christians flipped out, as did many gay activists, worried how this one character would come to represent them. (Initially Chris told me these things, then I read up a little bit; this clearly isn’t a formal essay so I’m not citing shit. Either take my word for it or look it up yourself. So there.) The pressure that fell on the writing of this character was frankly absurd, the way I see it.

The bulk of the criticism from gay activists was around the sex change plot, and I sure as hell can’t blame them. On one hand, Jodie’s desire for a sex change may show the writers’ extreme heterosexism and lack of understanding of the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. Many people have expressed this opinion, and I don’t really need to reiterate it. But I think the show’s writing also inadvertently reveals the extent to which gender identity is socially constructed. For a 1970s sitcom, this is a pretty complex concept and it’s doubtful that this was done intentionally, but that actually makes it more intriguing. Though usually read as blatant heterosexism and misrepresentation of what it means to be a gay man, the blunders of Soap’s writers actually end up revealing a surprisingly deep social commentary on gender roles.

Jodie is a director of TV commercials, and his boyfriend Dennis is a pro football player; we meet him when they are on a commercial set together, keeping their relationship in stealth mode (ironically, the gay characters were not allowed to touch on TV, so this stealth mode is twofold). I thought the choice to have his boyfriend be a high profile athlete was actually a rather bold, positive step, though. It’s a comedy, of course, but their plot around keeping up Dennis’s heterosexual image for the sake of his career actually comes off as legitimate; that is, two people dealing with a dramatic problem, just as every set of characters does in this soap opera parody.

This is where the sex change comes in. Jodie’s motivation for wanting to become a woman is mainly socially motivated, for the sake of turning his relationship with Dennis into a heterosexual one so that they can be openly together without ruining Denis’s athletic career. This is more important than critics seem to understand. The criticism that this plot suggests that “all gay people are also transsexuals” doesn’t really hold up, and if we look at it differently, this subplot can actually be seen as criticizing social pressure to conform to heterosexuality.

I have to say, dismissing the sex change subplot as implying that all gays want to be transsexuals really does bother me. I suppose this sort of pressure falls on anything that has a seminal role in the media; there is so much pressure for accurate representation of a real population that the character cannot simply be a character. A character should not need to be an embodiment of the group to which they would belong in the real world. But as the first of his kind on TV, the burden is inescapable.

Similarly, Benson, the crotchety yet sassy black butler, is a little odd to watch nowadays. The laugh track goes off every time he opens his mouth, and it seems that his characteristically black sass only garners this reaction because it is juxtaposed with the Tates, the all-white family which he serves. Does this mean that he is not actually, at times, funny? Must this be offensive? If it’s his sassy “disobedience” that is funny, does this actually question the power structure between blacks and whites, or confirm it? I would like to say that race doesn’t have to be a factor, or that the humor holds up even without the power structure. But that’s totally unrealistic, especially for 1977. Even if the humor makes me squirm a little, and is certainly politically incorrect, I am hesitant to say that there is something inherently wrong with this.

Another thing that comes to mind is Secretary, irrelevant though that may seem. I’m just talking about audience reactions to it, especially the audience from within the BDSM community. It is argued as one of the only realistic film portrayals of an S&M relationship, and acclaimed for this reason, but it also got a lot of criticism for implying that all submissives are cutters, sublimating this tendency into S&M. Frankly, many are and many are not (I say this going through a figurative roster of acquaintances), and Leigh (Maggie Gyllenhaal) just happens to be one who is. I feel that the viewer’s accusation that a character’s traits imply that “all [blanks] are [blank]” merely shows a generalization on the side of the viewer. The writers don’t even need to be implicated.

But, back to Jodie. He oscillates between claiming that he has always been meant to be a woman, and insisting that he is only going through with it to be with Dennis, but would rather they could be together as men. Is this inconsistent writing or nuanced character development? Possibly the former, but if we read it as unified and intentional, these are actually not contradictory but deeply suggestive of gender as socially constructed, which I mentioned earlier. The scene that really made me think about this in depth is when Jodie explains to his mother why he genuinely feels he is meant to be a woman. I will probably grossly misquote: “Remember when I was a kid and you and dad gave Danny and me those little shaving kits for Christmas? Well, he went to shave his face like dad, and you know what I did? I tried to shave my legs.” Cue audience laugh. In harkening back to childhood and trying to prove that his femininity is innate and essential, he really confirms that it is social and relational. The shaving kit is a great example of how kids’ toys train them for the roles that they are supposed to grow into, and Jodie uses his gendered toy to mimic the “wrong” role. I kind of wanted to punch the laugh track. Because, so what if his femininity is somehow innate? Must that lead toward a need for femaleness? For example, I know men who shave their legs, and have no literal desire to be female. And I guess David Bowie shaving his legs in the 70s just wasn’t enough to get that point across.

When Jodie checks into the hospital for hormone treatments, Dennis can’t take the pressure of knowing that he going through with it simply so they can be together. He says that he is marrying a woman because he is afraid for his career, and regretfully breaks up with Jodie. At this point, Jodie begins to embody the old media standard of the suicidal gay character; he ODs on pills while the sympathetic old Jewish man with whom he shares a room tells him inspirational stories of overcoming lost loves. Now, this is only about as far as I’ve seen, but I do know that he doesn’t die and also doesn’t become a woman.

The external pressure to conform to heteronormative structures is the cause of their problems; that is to say, being gay isn’t the problem, it’s the world they live in. If we see this as commentary on heterosexism, it’s actually pretty bold for 1970s mainstream TV. And the fact that it is not preachy–and may even be unintentional–makes it all the more insidiously yet light heartedly profound, in my opinion. But people have a hard time looking past the fact that Jodie is conflating homosexuality with transsexuality.

Another aspect worth mentioning is Jodie’s family’s reaction to him; not only to his potential transsexuality, but to his existence. His stepfather, Burt, who is a constant source of comic relief throughout the show, is openly disgusted by him. He won’t look him in the eye or touch him, and invites his masculine sons on fishing trips while intentionally excluding Jodie, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. In a similar reaction to Benson’s humor, it’s kind of uncomfortable to be amused by these scenes, but that doesn’t mean they fall flat.

The most irksome lines spoken about Jodie are the more subtle ones, in which Mary rattles of the problems with her family, including, “One of my sons is gay.” This is lumped in with murder, infidelity, involvement with the mafia, etc. It’s hard not to be offended by that, because it’s so dismissive, and also seems to establish that his existence is a problem for his family.

Nowadays, a show involving a gay person dealing with homophobia in his family would undoubtedly be much more serious. It’s not the situation that’s uncomfortable to me as a modern viewer, but the fact that it’s comedic. However, after a tiny bit of speculation, I really came to admire it. This is a comedy, but it’s also very dramatic; the reality of Jodie dealing with his normative middle class family actually seems surprisingly realistic. Though my initial inclination was to be indignant that the main characters were written as homophobic, it wouldn’t really make sense for their characters to be otherwise. More importantly, his family’s difficulty accepting him does not encourage homophobia in its viewers. The scene in which he forces his brother Danny to come to terms with him as a gay man is monumentally touching without being sappy, especially for a show that parodies soap operas.

However, possibly the most disturbing aspect to me as a viewer is admitting that Billy Crystal was mildly attractive back in the day. Especially in drag.


  1. That was a very enjoyable read.

    I must say that I can totally see why Mary includes “One of my sons is gay” along with the laundry list of problems her family faces. She's a parent who has discovered that her son has embraced a lifestyle that is completely alien to her. This is the 70s and she's a (relatively) normal, sheltered housewife. She (along with most of the viewers) has had no television shows or celebrities to observe that might serve to help her understand this situation. She's probably never heard of that David Bowie, guy. She has doubtless never had any exposure at all to this at-the-time almost completely hidden culture/orientation. Maybe some crude jokes or whispered stories.

    We, as a national culture, have now had decades of examples to try and relate to and achievements observe, but poor Mary only knew that her son has turned out to be someone that she just is not yet equipped to understand. Someone inherently scandalousness and different from her hopes and expectations. She's not going to be seeing any grandchildren from this son, just a lifetime of tense situations and cruel comments and gossip. It's hard for her, it is a problem, and I admire that she tries to be understanding and supportive even though it frightens her.

    I also was touched by Jodie's conversation with his brother.

    Hee, I like that even Burt has tried, in his bumbling way, to be more understanding.

  2. I don't disagree with your explanation of where she is coming from. That's a good analysis of it.

    It's still irksome. The problem is that she's not able to understand that it doesn't need to be a problem. The argument I often like to make is that being sheltered is the problem; but that's almost completely irrelevant to discussing a mainstream sitcom. I don't know if I mean to fault her, or her writers, or just point out my aversion. But I do maintain that everything else on her list falls into a very different category.

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  4. I found this concept really interesting:

    I think that the mainstream dates itself in a particular way that subcultures generally do not.

    I think it tends to be true. I wonder if that's because "mainstream" stuff is susceptible to fads and trends, while any art or media about a subculture is really just going to focus on itself.

  5. this was a nice trip down memory lane for me :)

    Soap did a little tapdance along all the highwires of good taste/bad taste, humor/seriousness, scathing satire/silliness. a lot of what made you feel uncomfortable, IMO, is exactly what they wanted to make you feel uncomfortable.

    also, a lot of times, a trope of teevee is to make characters really closedminded or awful, so they can have an arc and come around to being better. I think that's also going on.