Exploring the Margins on Television

Watch this show.

Is anyone watching Masters of Sex on Showtime?  I just watched the season finale, and it’s pretty brilliant.  It’s definitely way more than simply Mad Men with frontal nudity.  It touches on all issues of gender and sexuality; the final episode last week delved into universal pap smears for women, male myths about sexual dominance, and the ways in which a contraceptive pill would impact women’s liberation.  Lizzy Caplan needs an Emmy for her portrayal of Virginia Johnson, and I’m sure they’ll try to shuffle the superb Allison Janney into a guest starring category where she’ll win by a landslide.  (FYI: Allison Janney is superb only when she’s not singing.  For evidence, please listen to a song or two of the original Broadway cast recording of 9 to 5 the Musical.)

Janney’s supporting role as a sexually starved upper class wife to a closeted gay man (as solidly performed by Beau Bridges) obviously struck certain chords in me.  In the season finale, I couldn’t keep my eyes from welling up with tears as she and her husband explored the various conversion therapies available to them in the mid-twentieth century.  It’s a story we’ve all heard dozens of times before in a variety of media.  Our recent societal fascination with exposing the underbelly of nostalgia for the more wholesome days of the 1950s and 60s is a favorite of shows like Mad Men.  My husband and I watched the recent HBO film Behind the Candelabra a few months ago, and watching the dramatization of Liberace’s self-hatred and deprivation was far too ghastly for us to actually enjoy seeing Matt Damon play a gay man.

This constant barrage of how awful it was (is still in some contexts and locations) started to feel a little much tonight watching that season finale of Masters of Sex.  This fall I started teaching professional development for teachers in anti-racist professional practices.  The work is rooted in helping both students of color and white students see the ways in which our society conditions them to prejudge others and themselves.  One of the many teaching suggestions of the course is that when we are teaching students about the racial atrocities of our past–the institution of slavery for example–we always couple these lessons with the significant positive cultural contributions of the oppressed group.  I just finished teaching Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for example, and my students are paralleling Celie’s journey from oppression to independence with actual stories of blacks surviving the Jim Crow South without the aid of a white savior.

Tonight, I started to feel that the balances were a bit out of whack in my personal television viewing habits when it comes to the oppression of homosexuality and women.

While I’m a fairly somewhat emotionally healthy thirty-six year old man who is a publicly gay man living openly with his husband and two children, there was a time I would have done anything not to be gay.  I remember meeting my first group of happy gay men when I started doing community theater as a senior in high school, and one of them finally asked me about my sexuality.  I told them that I was attracted to men but that I couldn’t imagine my life without a wife and kids.  Thank you America for implanting that dream in my mind at such an early age that I struggled so much with coming to terms with the realization that I would live my life on the margins.  (Did I already write about this on my blog?  I can’t remember!)

And now that I do professional work in this area for racial identity development, I struggle with waiting for my kids to deal with this in their own ways.  We are doing everything we can to show our daughter that she is a gorgeous young smart black woman with incredible potential, yet there will come a time when she will wish she looked like the images of beauty she is assailed with in commercials and television and movies.  (It’s already happened in some ways sadly.)  We’re doing what we can to show our son he is far more than a preternaturally coordinated athlete, and at some point he will probably feel little more than a mascot for his white friends in this suburban town.  Tonight I wonder how much of this is due to the well-meaning lessons on slavery and racism they will sit through over the course of the next dozen years in school.  How often will they here about the horrible ways in which dark-skinned people were relegated to less than human beings.  How will they feel when they realize it was written into our country’s constitution?  How far will it set them back?  I know I’m tired of hearing about all the ways in which gay people were are forced to hate themselves.  How quickly will my daughter learn to detest the ways in which people of color were deemed intellectually and socially inferior to the white race?

While an accurate shared history of oppression in any minority group is important, at some point–some point soon–we have to let it take a back seat to the joys and happiness of celebrating who we are and how we have made this world better.

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