I don’t understand what Ryan Murphy’s deal is. When his latest creation, The New Normal, premiered last September, the program landed in hot water (from moi and from TV critics like Maureen Ryan) for being “gaycist.” The term was coined by Lauren Bans of GQ to describe a trend she saw in gay-produced television — of gay writer-producers employing pervasive racial stereotypes on their programs. Bans was describing the “stunningly racist” oeuvre of Michael Patrick King — who brought us Sex and the City and Two Broke Girls, a show whose major comic weapon is a yellowface stereotype named Han. He’s at the forefront of the minstrel avant garde.
Like King, Murphy’s characters reify old-school stereotypes, and on The New Normal, Nene Leakes often looks like she’s posing for an Aunt Jemima bottle or a Lana Del Rey album. Leakes purses her lips a lot, looks sassy and makes jokes about stealing her boss’ credit card — all while chastising the more overt racism of Ellen Barkin’s token racist grandma. Barkin provides most of the comic relief for the show by making lazily racist comments about Asians, blacks, Jews and just about anyone else she can think of, and we’re expected to laugh because she’s being naughty. The show tends to have its racist cake and eat it too.
While the tone of the show hasn’t changed, nor has Nana, the program’s hipster racist tendencies (of using mock racism to disguise plain ol’ racism) have moved to the margins. Racism’s still there, but it no longer occupies the foreground of the show, because Murphy knows he can’t get away with it. So, instead of racism being a major plot point, Nene Leakes now tries to steal someone’s money off camera, and Nana makes off-handed comments about bad Asian drivers and the other characters just ignore her. Her granddaughter even states that she’s so used to Nana’s racism that she can’t hear it anymore, an odd metaphor for the show in general.
While we may see this as a victory, it’s not that different, and the show’s new racist normal only serves to enable further bad behavior. Ryan Murphy seems to think that if he’s not being overtly racist, he’s allowed to get away with other things — like mocking young mothers for having “low-self esteem” and implicitly excusing partner rape, both of which actually happened in the last episode, “The Goldie Rush.” It’s a show that tends to give its critics an embarrassment of ammunition to attack it with.
However, the coup de grace of “The Goldie Rush” is a segment mocking intersex individuals. In the episode, Christopher Guest regular Michael Hitchcock plays Gary, the director of the Los Angeles surrogacy agency that’s helping Bryan and David have their child. As everyone in the show is wowed by the greatness of Bryan and David’s relationship, their baby bliss forces Gary to lament his own sad singledom. Gary then whines that he never can find the right guy — because he always gets paired up with “losers.” In Family Guy fashion, the show responds by cutting away to one of Gary’s “bad internet dates,” which in this case is with a man who reveals himself to be intersex. After this revelation, the show then cuts back to business as usual.
But what was the point? What good does this do? It’s barely even a joke.
In addition, the show continues its trend of under-the-radar racism by making its intersex character short, chubby, vaguely androgynous and Asian — for which Murphy’s not allowed to overtly make fun of him. (Note: He just so happens to look like a gay version of Two Broke Girls‘ Han.) This Han II stands in stark contrast to Matt Bomer, the episode’s ever-shirtless guest star, who stands for everything desirable to Gary. Bomer is a square-jawed replica of a Ken doll with chiseled abs, who (spoiler alert!) Gary will end up with after stalking him. Like I said, you don’t have to look hard to find problematic material in this show. It’s like shooting fish in a racist barrel.
In the past, Murphy has been reprimanded (with a GLAAD seal of disapproval) for his shows’ lack of inclusion of trans folks. One choice Glee episode omitted the word “transsexual,” while elsewhere opting to use the word “tranny,” a term considered by many in the trans community to be a hateful slur. (It’s analogous to using the “n-word.”) Murphy has attempted to repent for being transphobic by including a trans woman of color in the newest cast of Glee, and his shows have more or less laid off trans folks. Like a dog and an invisible fence, Murphy knows if he crosses that line, he’ll be shocked.
Because he can’t outwardly make fun of trans people or people of color anymore, targeting intersex people now occupies the discursive space they took up. It’s a shrewd move on Murphy’s part — who wrote the episode — because making fun of intersex folks is a seemingly safe bet. The intersex community, only recently visible in the queer spectrum, isn’t nearly as mobilized as the trans or POC communities in responding to these kinds of damaging comments. In Murphy’s mind, he might as well have set Gary up with a Visigoth. Because, what, is the Visigoth community going to get offended now?
However, just because Murphy doesn’t know any intersex people — and some viewers might not have known “intersex” was a thing — doesn’t make the joke more morally sound. What this mockery does is serve to further marginalize a group that’s already marginalized enough, even in their own community. (The last time I checked, there’s no I in “LGBT.”) In her article on hipster racism, Lindy West wrote on the subject, “People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That’s why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor.” In the case of intersex people, Ryan Murphy isn’t making fun of the janitor. He’s making fun of the people who aren’t even allowed inside the building.
Murphy sees himself as a champion for the inclusion of queer people, and shows like American Horror Story have done a great job of including gay and lesbian actors and characters in lead roles. On this season of AHS, out actors Sarah Paulson and Zachary Quinto are two of the leads, and the entire purpose of The New Normal is equality — arguing that queer people deserve the same rights as everyone else. In the next year, Murphy will be bringing Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to HBO, a landmark play by the pioneering gay AIDS activist, to whom Murphy clearly looks up.
But if Murphy wants to truly be a pioneer in his own medium — at a time when we need more queer voices in film and television — he needs to put his money where his mouth is and actually be inclusive. To do so, Murphy must rethink who his media politics include and who they marginalize, who his audience invites in and who his imagined community leaves out. This Tuesday, a lesbian friend of mine tuned into The New Normal for the first time — only to change the channel after the intersex joke. If Murphy wants to keep queer viewers, he needs to make a show that doesn’t divide and mock our community — and bring it together instead. This is not what equality looks like.