Sunday, March 4, 2012

Apparently, homosexual stereotypes will never die

Smash's Ellis Tancharoen, played by Jaime
Cepero. Photo courtesy of Yahoo! TV.
After last week's episode of Smash drew only 6.6 million viewers and a 2.3 rating - which are good numbers in the context of everything else on NBC, but show a drastic dropoff from the 11.5 million people who gave the premiere a 3.8 share in the all-important 18-34 demographic - Ken Tucker wrote a piece where he attempted to explain the ratings drop. His answers, unfortunately, both failed to account for the vast gulf between critical appreciation and audience interest, and also displayed some remarkably stereotyped notions about homosexuality.

The first problem is that, although Tucker frames the piece as an exploration of Smash's precipitous ratings decline, it really just turns into complaints about the show's direction from a TV critic's point of view. This would be totally fine - while I'm quite enjoying the show, the narrative and characterizations undoubtedly have their frustrating aspects - but for the fact that Tucker offers these criticisms as an explanation for viewers' wandering eyeballs. Apparently he's forgetting that, if critical love had anything to do with ratings, Fringe and Community would be drawing numbers not seen since the days of The Cosby Show, rather than attempting to scrape together enough viewers to stave of cancellation.

The bigger problem with the piece, however, is an unfortunate remark about the character of Ellis (Jaime Cepero), scheming assistant to Christian Borle's Tom. Tucker asserts that it's "slightly odd" that Ellis has a girlfriend, due to the fact that "he signifies, and is perceived by many in the show's enthusiastic fanbase, as gay in every other way." The piece continues,
What may factor into this is the theme of Ellis shaping up to be the series’ villain: the guy who’s going to gum up the Marilyn musical by claiming the idea was his (which it sorta was). Perhaps Smash and/or NBC wanted to avoid a gay bad guy in a way that Glee, for all its looniness, frequent narrative incoherence, and regular detachment from reality would never have had a qualm about.
Let it be said that I quite like Ken Tucker. I think his reviews are generally sharp and well-written, even when I don't agree with him. That doesn't change the fact that there are about a million things wrong with this analysis, the most egregious being the notion that Ellis has to be gay because he acts gay. Tucker claims that Ellis "signifies" as gay, but the only evidence I could find that points to the character's homosexuality is his dapper wardrobe, involvement in musical theater, and love of Marilyn Monroe. In the era of Happy Endings' football-loving, beer-drinking, slovenly Max Blum, is it really necessary to fall back on a stereotyped love of musical theater and designer fashions in order to determine whether a character is gay?

In addition to perpetuating stereotypes, Tucker's analysis of Ellis' sexuality relies on the cliche that TV Tropes calls "no bisexuals." The trope refers to many shows' complete elision of the existence of bisexuality, which has been so successful that Tucker completely ignores the possibility. Of course, that other musical theater show to which he unfavorably compares Smash is continually guilty of perpetuating this trope, to the point where, when Ryan Murphy was asked why Blaine's brief flirtation with bisexuality ended as abruptly as Rachel Berry's likeability, Murphy apparently stated that Blaine needed to be firmly homosexual because gay kids need "to know this character is one of them." (Kudos to the TV Tropes commenter who answered this assertion by saying, "Cause bisexual 'kids' don't need characters who are 'one of them'?")

That brings me to the other worrisome part of Tucker's analysis, where he claims that Glee would never shy away from presenting a gay villain. That may be true (there weren't any gay villains the last time I watched, but that was a while ago, and I hear this Sebastian kid is stirring up trouble), but the show more than makes up for any nefarious gays by the canonization of Kurt Hummel. Ryan Murphy's attempts to combat prejudice work by Guess Who's Coming to Dinner logic: create a character so morally unimpeachable, so perfect in every way, that anyone who shows them prejudice looks not just bigoted, but blind. (And to go back to an argument made earlier, when Kurt isn't being defined by his moral fortitude, he's being defined by his love of musical theater and designer fashions.) Which sort of undermines Tucker's claim about Glee's high ground.

Later in the review, Tucker claims that pop culture is "ageist," citing negative reviews of Billy Crystal's Oscar gig and Smash's slumping ratings as evidence. (Because apparently, the reason people don't like the show is the presence of Anjelica Huston, despite the the fact that the rest of the cast is composed of pretty young things. Also, I'm 23, and I think Huston kicks ass.) Whether or not that assertion is true, Tucker's arguments about Ellis hinge on gay stereotypes and models of reconciliation that date from the era of Marilyn Monroe and JFK. Smash might be trying to bring back Marilyn, but I hope the sexual politics that kept her confined to the role of "slutty blonde" stay firmly in the past.

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