Sunday, July 6, 2014

Full House and the Discovery of Gay TV

My kids have discovered 1990s TV. Their summer of 2014 can easily be described as the summer of “Friends” and the summer of “Full House.” I’ve been watching them watching these sitcoms with some interest and trepidation. Because, after all, these shows are 15-26 years old, and the basic assumptions about the world were quite different even that short time ago.

I’ve been preparing myself for conversations with my kids about the portrayal of gender roles and sexism. And homophobic jokes. My daughters, though, have learned in their 11 ½ years that their mom can ruin anything they’re watching by pointing out the underlying assumptions. Now, they barely let me in the room when these shows are on – especially “Friends.”

My guess on the latter is that they don’t quite understand everything that’s going on. I just walked by during the scene in which Ross discovers his red sweater – the MacGuffin that reveals him to be the father of Rachel’s baby. I asked the girls what the sweater meant, and why Monica, Phoebe and Joey reacted as they did. The girls looked at each other, and then at me, and said, “We honestly don’t know.” They missed the MacGuffin. They know how babies are born, but missed the subtle line that someone had stayed overnight about a month before and had left the sweater. I was relieved at this. But a bit disappointed that they had missed such an obvious piece of symbolism. I mean, aren’t they supposed to be studying this in Common Core?

“Full House” tonight was another story. Bob Saget’s character, Danny, had been dating... I don’t know who, because I confess I had never watched the show when it was originally on, and had no interest in going back and watching the episode again. But it was late in the series, sometime in ’94 or ’95, and Danny, the father of the girls in the show, who had rarely dated anybody the first few seasons, finally got a love interest. In this episode, he discovered that his girlfriend was seven months older than him. This bothered him.

In the scene I caught, set in the kitchen, Danny was struggling, in his nice guy way, with his feelings of emasculation at dating an older woman. He said he had grown up with the idea that men were supposed to be older and taller and stronger than women. The joke in the scene was that he was absent-mindedly trying to open a jar of spaghetti sauce as he said his lines, then slammed the jar on the table to emphasize his impotence. And, of course, his girlfriend, soothed him verbally while absent-mindedly picking up the jar and twisting it open. Then she had to put the jar down, and go to him, pleadingly, assuring him that nothing was different, that she’s always been seven months older than him and nothing had changed between them.

At that moment I spoke, which was probably not the smartest thing in the world, as my daughters then became aware of my presence, and intuited the dangerous didactic situation they had just found themselves in. Shit. We’ve been ambushed. Mom’s going to talk to us about the “serious stuff” in this scene. And we were innocently sitting here!

“Mom! Don’t say anything.”

I walked away.

When they were younger, what I talked about mostly was how badly the shows they watched were written. But it was mostly Disney. Kind of easy pickings. I also have pointed out shows and movies I thought were written well. “Wizards of Waverly Place” was kind of a stupid show, but the writers ended up doing a good job of adhering to the given circumstances of the world in which they created. Creating a world, and then breaking your own rules – not on purpose – is a huge writing pet peeve of mine. I told that to my children. Perhaps before they knew what the word “peeve” meant. But I knew they’d understand.

I also am a big fan of the movie “Lemonade Mouth.” It is – as I tell the Dixelaney every time we watch it – the first kids’ movie in which the girls don’t compromise themselves to please the boys. There’s actually a line in which one of the main characters, having learned something already on the journey the story has taken her on, says to her ex-boyfriend that she’ll consider being friends if he respects her and her music, if he puts her first. He’s desperate, and promises her that he’s learned his lesson. This is not used to set up a joke, or an evil plot twist. The girls in this movie are strong and smart and talented. They drive the plot. This pleases me so much, I’m more than willing to overlook the fact that they can just pick up instruments and knock out a well-rehearsed piece when they had never even met each other before that scene. Implausibility is another thing that drives me crazy in writing. But hell, we watched “Glee.”

Here’s the thing about what my kids are watching now: they’re actually good shows. I had known this about “Friends,” which I had watched a bit in the ‘90s. It’s very well-written, and the ensemble acting is pretty wonderful. (Did you know that before the second season, the entire cast negotiated with the network together, and David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston actually took a pay cut so all six of them could make the same salary?) The thing I worry about with “Friends,” are all the sexual innuendos. But as long as someone isn’t kissing, my girls seem to be OK with it right now.

“Full House” – now that’s the surprise. It is beloved among people who were young from 1988 to 1995 – a favorite memory of childhood. I’d never been fully aware of the show until this summer. It truly only entered my consciousness around 2009, when my kids started watching the Olsen twin movies. Thank god for IMDB.

But as I surreptitiously watch it standing behind my children, I have come to realize that this show did a great deal to move along the idea of gender equality, and to set us up for the explosion of gay characters to come in the mid-late ’90s.

“Full House” is a show about three men raising kids. Two of the men are brothers-in-law – sharing the memory of a dead sister and wife. The third is the widower’s best friend.

What I find fascinating about this is that only the brother-in-law (John Stamos’ character) spends any time dating women. In most of the series he has a steady girlfriend. The other two rarely date. According to the series rundown on IMDB, Danny only starts dating seriously in season five. Stamos’ character is the wild card, the crazy uncle who usually does the wrong thing, while Danny and Joey are the steady parental figures, worried about cleaning and cooking and teaching the kids good lessons. Yes, Joey’s kind of a dope – the “dumb blond” character. And yes, there are a lot of opportunities for cheap laughs as one of them comes out of the kitchen wearing an apron, or doing some sort of chore normally ascribed to the wife. But, seeing this late 20th century show through the lens of the early 21st century, I find a portrayal of the normality of a family of men raising children. “Full House” was the 1990s answer to the 1980s sitcom, “Kate and Allie.” Networks could show same sex couples raising kids, as long as they didn’t acknowledge that they were same sex couples raising kids. And a whole generation of people grew up not quite realizing what they were seeing.

I don’t know how much the Dixelaney consciously understand what they’re seeing. At this point, though, I’m very much aware that they don’t want me to interpret. Perhaps it’s time to step back and shut up. They’re smart. And they’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas in their 11½  years that will need time to gel. So far, neither of them have given the slightest indication that they are putting themselves away in order to fit in and be liked. So far, all of their friends have been pretty strong. The next few years are going to be treacherous, but our storyline dictates that it’s time to start letting them learn more without me. These are the given circumstances of our world. I do take solace, though, in the fact that every time they turn on one of their favorite shows, they hear the words, “I’ll be there for you.”

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