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The New Normal: Normal and Normaller

The New Normal, an NBC sitcom about a gay male couple and a surrogate mother parenting a baby, premiered on September 11, 2012.  It is produced by Ryan Murphy, best known for co-producing Glee and American Horror Story.  The pilot episode was widely advertised and available in advance through online links in a range of locations and publications, including the Huffington Post, the Advocate, and NBC’s own website.  The show, not surprisingly, generated immediate outrage in some quarters.  NBC-affiliate KSL in Utah (owned by the Church of the Latter Day Saints) pulled the show from its fall line-up, and “One Million Moms,” a conservative group monitoring television representations, called for a boycott of sponsors, since in their opinion The New Normal violates the sanctity of traditional marriage and contributes to the erosion of “traditional” family values.

As a gay viewer of the show, I recognize that I’m not supposed to side with Utah or the One Million Moms, but I would indeed like to see the show yanked from the air.  I recognize that in the tired battle of Religious Conservatives vs. The Gays, the compulsory positions are fairly clear: I’m supposed to see this as a “positive representation” of new kinds of families; I should dutifully articulate that “love makes a family” and, as my students often tell me, “there really is no normal, after all”; and even if the show has its flaws, I’m expected to see it, nonetheless, as a step forward (even a daring or cutting edge step forward).  I’d even go so far as to say I’m expected to get out my checkbook and send a donation off to some organization trumpeting what I’m obliged to call “marriage equality”—an organization like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which actually featured on its blog a series of (white) gay and lesbian couples labeled “Real Life Families Living the New Normal.”

Truth be told, I hate The New Normal.  Call me queer but, to me, the show reads as deeply conservative, offensive, and—indeed—normative.  And difficult as it is to put forward arguments against the show when, as I’ve implied, the mainstream media and the dominant lesbian and gay movement so thoroughly script the terms of the debate in advance, I think it’s important to do so.

The show, for instance, uses particularly problematic representations of disability and motherhood in order to spotlight and affirm its “positive” portrait of gay male parenting. In a key scene, our heroes David and Bryan (Justin Bartha and openly-gay actor Andrew Rannells) are sitting on a bench by a playground, watching children and their parents interacting.  Bryan directs David’s attention to a fifty-year-old woman (Ellen Ratner) who “dusted off her dinosaur eggs,” used “a whole lot of [fertility] drugs,” and ended up with triplets.  “I was a whore for a long time,” she explains to the camera.  She then concludes by saying she had finally stopped acting like a child and decided to have some.  The direct address to the camera functions to highlight the supposed truthfulness and sincerity of the woman’s confessional moment, establishing her narrative of development away from sexual exploration to single motherhood as a common-sense narrative of “maturity.”

As the sequence continues, an interracial Deaf couple (played by Deaf actors Michael Anthony Spady and Antoinette Abbamonte) also addresses the camera directly, with their words in American Sign Language (ASL) captioned for hearing viewers.  They explain that it was not very long ago that they were not even allowed to marry and have children.  Finally, a short-statured woman (Debbie Lee Carrington) walking with her daughter tells viewers that there was a fifty percent chance that her child would turn out to “be a part-time Christmas elf” like her, but that her husband insisted the child would be loved regardless, just like he loves his wife.

Spending thousands to make their dream come true.

The sequence allays David’s concerns about the challenges faced by children in “non-traditional” homes and allows Bryan to articulate one of the show’s direct theses: “face it, honey; abnormal is the new normal.”  The disability sequence, in short, is the vehicle that conveys Brian and David to the happy family space of the new normal; in the very next scene, they are meeting with a company representing women willing to be surrogate mothers, and they begin to spend the thousands and thousands of dollars that it will take to make their dream come true, eventually locating Goldie (Georgia King) who agrees to the job despite (or partially because of, in defiance of) the homophobic tantrum that her mother (Ellen Barkin) has about the possibility.

Despite the fact that this key scene employs disabled actors, who often struggle to find work in Hollywood and most other locations, it is relatively two-dimensional and offensive in and of itself, casting the “non-traditional” families as “abnormal” even as it purportedly embraces and celebrates them.  Disabled difference makes a cameo appearance in The New Normal but only to be submerged into the larger thesis that viewers must “face” about how widespread acceptance or tolerance supposedly are in the world we now inhabit.

Archie Bunker as insiduous invitation

Beyond that, however, the celebratory scene covers over the fact that the rest of the show is peppered with jokes that are ableist and fatphobic.  If abnormal is the new normal, that doesn’t keep Bryan and David from screening out ads and eggs from potential surrogates whom they perceive as undesirable, deficient, or excessive in some way, including fat women and women who have previously had abortions.  And despite the fact that Goldie’s mother is cast, Archie Bunker-like, as someone whose opinions are “obviously” bigoted (she makes racist comments, recoils from a lesbian couple she sees as the street, and expresses her discomfort at the fact that she rode the bus seated next to a man without arms), I would argue both that there is an expectation that viewers laugh at her and an insidious invitation to nonetheless find those she disdains comical because of their embodied differences.

Maintaining stigmatization and hierarchization while appearing to embrace or celebrate (or at least market to) difference is a fairly standard move for neoliberal capitalism.  What queer scholars, following Lisa Duggan, have dubbed “homonormativity” (a normativity that does not contest but instead upholds dominant values) is functioning in The New Normal with raw efficiency: a rich, white gay male couple is represented here as living the consumer lifestyle (and that lifestyle is, in turn, positioned as representative of 21st-century homosexuality). The child itself is the latest commodity that they simply have to have.

There is plenty for the house, for the clothes, for the newly-purchased infant.

In fact, in the scene where Bryan realizes he wants to be a father, it’s initially not clear, as he moves through a store, what he’s excited about—viewers think it is a new outfit, but it turns out to be a baby in a stroller.  Throughout the show, Bryan and David are represented as living the gay California dream. In contrast, actually, to the vast majority of disabled Californians who have seen public services and benefits cut drastically during the last two (Republican and Democratic) gubernatorial administrations, Bryan and David reflect back to viewers an entirely privatized family of seemingly-endless resources.   There is plenty for the house, for the clothes, for the newly-purchased infant—and undoubtedly, to spin back to where I started, for the compulsory check to support “marriage equality” and the HRC.  The New Normal hasn’t yet represented that checkbook moment, but it’ entirely imaginable.

Family forms and kinship networks have obviously taken many different forms historically; I certainly don’t share the One Million Moms’ concern, expressed on their website, about a threat to “how families are designed and created.”  I am concerned, however, about how queer and disabled people and movements continue to be bought and sold, and sold out, by neoliberalism and its normative demands.  I am also concerned, to borrow another word from the One Million Moms, that we might be “desensitized” to such demands.  The New Normal can be just as oppressive as (if far more insidious than) the Old Normal. It raises the very basic question: why should a movement founded in a celebration of range, excess, and difference now somehow be expected to be grateful when reduced to a mass-market, normative, formula? For that reason, queer ways of seriously redesigning and recreating the culture we inhabit are as urgent as ever.


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  1. This is an intriguing piece with valid critiques, although I don’t think that those drawbacks negate the positive influence of the show entirely. I take a more pragmatic perspective on what the show does. Your evidence is not wrong, it is simply outweighed.

    If the intention of the show really is to change the minds of people not in California, but in small-town Utah, then you have to make the characters legible to them. Without the Bryan character, Joe Smith, who thinks he knows no LGBTQ people, will not recognize the characters as realistic. To “that guy,” LGBTQ means gay cis-male professional class educated residents of the coastal states. We add in David as a character that Joe can think “Oh, well, he’s more like me. Maybe that’s not so bad.” If we can then get him to bridge the gap between accepting David and accepting Bryan, who is to say we can’t get him to go further? And if we get him to accept a same-gender couple as parents, a deaf couple as parents, and an interracial couple as parents – each on their own – that gets us a lot closer to getting him to accept a family led by Maria, a “butch” lesbian blind woman who recently immigrated here, and her effeminate but pansexual trans-woman common-law spouse Sue.

    The follow-up critique is often one about why getting Joe Smith’s approval should mean anything. For better or worse, though, his opinion and those of his friends and fellow thinkers (who are still trying to wrap their head around this whole idea of gay people not only being “out,” not only wanting their relationships legally protected, but wanting to raise children) determine policy, which determines what the state and other organs of society, on which we all – at some point – rely, do.

    Yes, the hypothetical Joe Smith and his friends are wrong. They are misguided and afraid of change. But humans are risk averse by nature and that’s what got us to the top of the food chain in spite of our small muscles and lack of usable claws. Yes, NBC and Ryan Murphy are in this primarily to make money and this cute little normative affluent gay male family is what they think will do that for them. And modern trends say they’re probably even right. But if David, then Bryan, then David and Bryan together can build a bridge to get Joe to the point when he realizes that maybe even a family led by Maria and Sue is worthy of protection by and services from the state, then I think the show does something right.

    Bryan and David are, at best, a crack in the glass. Making the world see them as competent parents won’t solve inequality of treatment for every non-normative person. But you can’t break the glass if you don’t crack it, just like you can’t shatter all the norms if you don’t shatter one first. Critique its flaws, by all means, point out where it falls short of portraying what should be portrayed, but don’t call for its cancellation because it fails to critique every problem a show theoretically could.

  2. I have recently been involved in academic debate over this show. Reading this article, which was strikingly similar to a perspective raised in class, helped me to crystalize my own critical perspective on this show.

    The New Normal does employ stereotypes, but it does so in a self-consciously motivated way. That should be the topic of discussion here. Looks like there are many smart people talking about this show in different terms, here people are raving about the show’s apparent self-contradictions. This is the genius of the show. There is intentional ambiguities demonstrated in the characters that raise all the most important questions, and hot buttons have been pressed. I would hate for the writers and producers to change course, compromising their original vision in order to satisfy the confused and outraged who just don’t get it. This show is in fact itself critiquing consumerism among many things, and it is doing so in a much more thoughtful and creative way that those who are critiquing it.


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