August 1, 2015 — In the penultimate season of 30 Rock (2006–13), the sitcom’s resident kinkmeisters and genderqueer lovers, Jenna and Paul, are faced with a profound sexual crisis: after chatting about their day, they pass out fully clothed, nestled beneath an afghan. Unable to accept this egregious lapse into normalcy as a simple result of long-term companionship, they conclude that “normaling” must be a “whole new fetish,” a heretofore undiscovered playground of genuine perversity.
Within two years, life—or at least the New York Times’ version of it—began to imitate art. In 2014, a new lifestyle trend called “normcore” caught the eye of various fashion observers, from London and New York to Los Angeles. Trend-forecasted by (in the Times’ words) “a theoretically minded” group of brand consultants at a company called K-Hole in New York, normcore eschewed avant or of-the-moment fashions, instead embracing off-the-rack basics: untrendy clothes easily sourced from big box shops, which suburban tourists might wear unwittingly, and definitely unironically, to Times Square.
Jenna and Paul were right—or at least Tina Fey and her team of 30 Rock scribes were prescient enough to comment on the fact that “normal” was becoming a thing. Indeed, the televisual landscape was littered with references to a “new normal” long before normcore began to trend, not least of which was The New Normal, a short-lived sitcom about a gay couple and their surrogate (2012–13).
As sitcoms like 30 Rock and The New Normal make apparent, all the hoopla about these purportedly “new” varieties of normalcy are bound up with the sense that queer lives have been absorbed into the matrimonial and reproductive matrix. Meanwhile, scholars and cultural observers have argued that heterosexuality itself—the baseline for normalcy—has become more flexible. Gay marriage is legal across the land, queer folks in all configurations are popping out “gaybies” left and right, and we are homo-gentrifying urban neighborhoods all over the world, while lifelong heterosexuals are now officially allowed to call themselves “queer.”
If the 1990s were about imagining the possibility that “we are all queer,” the postmillennial teens have told it to us straight: we are all, in fact, normal.
What are queers to do—what is anyone to do, really—when we are forced to confront the fact of our own normalcy, and our own privilege, inherited or attained?
Like the heteroflexible Jenna and Paul, many queer academics—myself included—who enjoy the privileges that come with tenure have become increasingly normal, but want to keep alive the fantasy that we continue to speak in the name of perversion and subversion, albeit from the lumbar-supported comfort of the ergonomic office chairs purchased by our departments. In the spirit of this fantasy, and with an eye toward the imperceptible next horizon, I’d like to devote the remainder of this essay to describing a perverse, potentially subversive (though not really) televisual viewing practice that also describes an emergent TV micro-genre: normporn.
The idea of normporn provisionally and somewhat cheekily answers the question: what are queers to do—what is anyone to do, really—when we are forced to confront the fact of our own normalcy, and our own privilege, inherited or attained?
Normporn, by way of a quick definition, takes up the tone, style, and structure of a dramedy, or a serial-length (42 minutes and up) “drama-comedy.” Whereas earlier, prototypical dramedies like Ally McBeal (1997–2002) explored the outsize imaginations of individual protagonists contemplating their singledom, normporn focuses on the family in a moment when we can no longer assume that TV is “playing to Peoria,” to the straight, white, middle-class, middle-American nuclear family with 2.5 kids. With the erosion of the middle classes since the 1980s, and the dissolution of the nuclear family since the 1970s, normporn—a genre that sprouted in the last decade, with important precursors like thirtysomething in the neoliberal 1990s—has assembled more capacious ensembles of privileged, liberal, mostly white, but more often than not mixed-race families to populate its worlds.
Modern Family is inevitably the first show that springs to mind when I mention normporn to anyone who bothers to listen. Though Modern Family fits the bill for many reasons—it features a large clan, with blended units cobbled together through gay transnational adoption, and May–December interracial remarriage—the fact that it is a sitcom instead of a dramedy precludes it from counting as normporn. Its situations skew humorous, while normporn’s baseline is sentimentality. Also, the fact that there are actual gay characters on Modern Family keeps it from fitting neatly within the niche of normporn, which revels in its post-1990s versions of enlightened and reconstituted heterosexuality
The award-winning Amazon series, Transparent, is another show that comes up whenever I raise the question of normporn. On the surface, Transparent is a worthy normporn candidate: it is a contemporary show set in the liberal creative-class enclaves of Los Angeles, like Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Echo Park, with occasional detours to the more traditionally affluent Pacific Palisades on the Westside. Transparent is, like Modern Family, an ensemble-driven show about a large-ish family of LA Jews, the Pfeffermans, whose patriarch (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is gender-transitioning from male to female. The show is also more dramedic than Modern Family, and revels in realist touches like mumbly, naturalistic dialogue, despite the fact that it shares the sitcom’s 30-minute format.
Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that stylistically, and also substantively, Transparent is descended from the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. The vérité grit of the opening title sequence visually announces Transparent’s indie genealogy. Its intersecting storylines of multiple coming-out narratives, sexual reconfigurations, and gender reorientations is in keeping with New Queer Cinema’s focus on sexual fluidity and erotic chaos. On the production side of things, Transparent is also avowedly indie and experimental, from its consultants Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who are local transgender performance artists and filmmakers, to its writers (including the queer author and poet Ali Liebegott), to its inclusion of characters and extras from within LA’s queer and transgender communities.
Whereas normporn, if it bothers to deal with LGBTQ issues at all, is about the emergent normalcy of queers, and the absorptive quality of normalcy in general, Transparent remains fundamentally a show about how queerness interrupts familial business as usual, from Maura (formerly Mort) Pfefferman’s gender transition, to the relapse of the eldest daughter, Sarah, into lesbianism despite being married with children to a cisgendered man. In other words, despite its affluent trappings and contemplations of white creative-class privilege, Transparent remains too queer, if sometimes nostalgically so, to fit squarely within the normporn designation. Transparent’s exclusion from the category brings me to another crucial characteristic of normporn, which I alluded to earlier: the genre actively refuses to be about queer people. Instead, normporn focuses on coteries of enlightened “regular” (meaning mostly heterosexual) people, in what is supposed to be a post-queer, post-racial contemporary moment that sanctions our reinvestment in the (usually bourgeois) dramas of everyday life.
Because of its commitment to the pleasures and pains of the everyday, normporn derives its release, its expense of spirit if you will, from the involuntary tears elicited by realist sentimentality. My favorite normporn specimen, and arguably its Platonic ideal, is Parenthood (2010–15), a series helmed by Jason Katims, who is best known for show-running Friday Night Lights (2006–11). Parenthood is very loosely based on the 1989 film of the same name directed by Ron Howard, the extended clan at its heart being rechristened “Braverman” (from “Buckman”).
Set in Berkeley, California, Parenthood features a substantial brood by contemporary standards, with four grown siblings and innumerable grandchildren, the ranks of which continue to swell throughout the show’s six seasons. Like other shows focused on large families, Parenthood matches up the siblings’ archetypal personalities with their birth order. The stalwart yet sensitive older brother, Adam Braverman (Peter Krause), is struggling to manage his stress with the demands of a growing family. The eldest daughter, and second sib, Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham), is a divorced single mom trying to get her life back together after a series of missteps and bad romances. The youngest brother, and third of the four children, Crosby Braverman (Dax Shephard), is a creative goofball with a heart of gold forced to rethink his Peter Pan–dom after discovering he’s the father of a mixed-race kid named Jabbar. The youngest sister and youngest child, Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen), is a successful lawyer with a gorgeous house and a robust but tender contractor husband who is willing to stay at home to raise their little daughter, Sydney. Their patriarch, Zeek Braverman, played by Craig T. Nelson of Coach fame, presides over a large, rambling, and artfully distressed estate in the Berkeley hills. The Braverman clan’s matriarch, free-spirited painter Camille Braverman (Bonnie Bedelia), is the very picture of a Berkeley boomer earth mother, who sports flowing robes and dreams of painting idyllic scenes while traveling across Europe.
The series teaches us how much drama can be wrung from the simplest, slightest of life’s unexpected yet also predictable turns involving birth, marriage, sickness, health, and death.
Throughout the series’ run, the Bravermans, a flawed but lovable lot, suffer some of life’s predictable indignities, large and small: professional failure, catastrophic illness, financial precarity, and romantic humiliation. But it is the show’s slow-moving and more understated plot developments that hold its audience’s attention. Sure, Parenthood can get a little bit soapy, but only as soapy as a Berkeley-approved, scent-free, non-sudsing cleanser, never as outrageously frothy as a Shonda Rimes show, Netflix’s House of Cards, or Lee Daniels’s Empire. Despite all its mumbly cross talk—another realist tic indebted to ancestors like thirtysomething and the works of Aaron Sorkin—Parenthood is also comfortingly smooth. Indeed, binge-watching the show assumes the pace of the soothingly mundane peccadilloes of white privilege often depicted in its storylines: Adam’s younger boss is a jerk. Kristina (Adam’s wife) misses going to work now that she’s a stay-at-home mom. Joel (Julia’s husband) misses going to work now that he’s a stay-at-home dad. Crosby misses partying all night with the ladies now that he has a little dude to take care of part-time. Sarah wishes she had a better job than bartending and a better boyfriend than her deadbeat ex. Even the one queer blip in the show—in the penultimate season, Adam Braverman’s oldest daughter, Haddie (Sarah Ramos), comes back after her freshman year at Cornell with a college lady lover—is seamlessly assimilated into the narrative, becoming a non-event within a single episode. Haddie heteroflexibly admits she just falls in love with remarkable people of all varieties, before the subplot is utterly forgotten. Within three episodes, we find neither hide nor hair of what’s become of Haddie’s Ithacan experiments in sapphism, nor is there any further reference to such a thing even happening.
Altogether, Parenthood teaches us how much drama can be wrung from the simplest, slightest of life’s unexpected yet also predictable turns involving birth, marriage, sickness, health, and death. The series finale, almost universally described by TV critics as whole-tissue-box weepy, drives this point home—literally—by showing the entire family spreading Zeek’s ashes on a local baseball diamond, then playing a game there, as flash-forwards to the near future assure us everything will be all right with the surviving Bravermans.
The bulk of the finale, however, is devoted to Sarah, the oldest sister and most precarious sibling at the start of the series, and her marriage to her former boss, Hank Rizzoli (Ray Romano). Like many family- and ensemble-oriented series finales, Parenthood ties up its loose ends by using the wedding as a convenient promissory device. When are we more buoyed by possibility than at an event where people promise themselves to each other forever?
At the resplendent yet casual-chic Northern California wedding situated in what looks like a fantasy tree house in the redwoods, it is insinuated that everything will be OK, not only for the bride and her groom (who found love and happiness despite realizing late in life that he suffers from Asperger’s), but also for Sarah’s nephew, Max, whose struggle with Asperger’s has been a key plot point throughout the series’ run. Max dances with a girl who isn’t a relative for the very first time, and thus a future of romance—and implicitly of normalcy—becomes possible for this boy who has suffered the prejudices of his outward “abnormality.” We also learn at the wedding that all of the siblings are poised to follow their dreams: Crosby will keep running his boutique recording studio, The Luncheonette, which also ensures that their single, pregnant niece (Sarah’s daughter, Amber) will keep her job there and have the potential to build a future career in sound-engineering at the studio. Julia and her hunky hubby, Joel, separated in the season leading up to the finale, have reconciled and are continuing to expand their family by adopting another Latino child, thus triumphing over their reproductive as well as other relationship challenges.
Despite the show’s liberal veneer and commitment to the capaciousness of the family form, all of these outcomes are predictably gratifying, and super normal—love, family, and marriage save the day! The critics were right: the finale was an absolute weepy, and I ugly-sobbed openly, albeit by myself, since I made sure to watch it while my partner was away at work.
After this spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, I joked that Parenthood was my normporn on Facebook, a social networking platform that only people in their 40s, like me, still deign to use. It was after this public admission that I truly began to understand the “porn” part of normporn. As I discovered from the overwhelmingly confessional responses from my FaceFriends, many of whom are also academics and/or urban creative-class queers and queers of color with a decidedly left of left slant:
a) We are all actually watching shows like Parenthood, or Lisa Cholodenko’s NBC miniseries, The Slap, another recent contribution to the micro-genre, no matter how we much we mock and purport to loathe such normy sentimentality.
b) We are consuming these shows secretly, shamefully, often concealing our activity from our partners and friends by viewing them alone, late at night, on a laptop or some other portable device, with headphones on. A younger Latino gay friend shared the story of “walking in” on his white Jewish boyfriend while he was watching The Slap on the DVR one night. The latter apparently behaved as if he had been “caught in the act.”
Our shame, of course, is tied to the sense of gratification we obtain from the emotional release afforded by normporn’s realistic, if also deeply sentimental, explorations of human, if also ultimately bourgeois, “events” like cancer, autism, racism, reproductive difficulty, sibling rivalry, love, death, divorce, home-buying, and home-selling. We find this enjoyment shameful because it suggests that we have ourselves acquired the privilege that endows life’s incidents with “eventness,” that we have bought ourselves the time and space to cope, grieve, and mull over every last detail otherwise lost to the urgencies of subsistence and survival. Even though recent queer programming like Transparent or The Fosters, an ABC Family drama about interracial lesbian parents, may share some of normporn’s thematic concerns, Neiman Marxist frameworks, and stylistic elements, their residual commitments to LGBTQ critiques (of marriage, cis privilege, etc.) still sustain a fantasy of the alternative that normporn has absorbed into its post-everything big-tent universe. Whereas new queer family programming still exceptionalizes queer familial experiences, normporn speaks the truth of queer families’ incorporation into the status quo. Thus our pleasure in normporn is thick with the guilt of assimilation.
As Catherine Zimmer, media scholar and author of Surveillance Cinema (2015), confessed on Facebook about Parenthood, “I must admit that I also watched every stinking episode of this crapfest and resented every tear it wrenched from my cold, dead eyes.”
Given the emotional force of my own response, I was forced to confront the perverse possibility that nothing tickled my fancy more than watching white liberals adopt or sire mixed-race children and kids of color, giving them lives of creative-class bliss in Berkeley.
Emily Raymundo, a PhD candidate in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, commented on that same Facebook thread: “[Parenthood] somehow creates that longing in me for something I never had and know is deeply fucked up.”
I came to understand, in light of her remarks, that perhaps it is that gap that comes from never having had, then ultimately acquiring, that creates the sweet, sticky frisson of something like normporn. All we can do when we are awash in it, left soaked in the shameful fluids it induces in our spirits and bodies, is try to remind ourselves that even when we want those things—even when we have those things—we are still NOT those things. Or are we?