Tuesday, December 2, 2008
30 Days in a Gay Parent Household
For my reality TV analysis, I watched an episode of the show “30 Days” which is developed by Morgan Spurlock, the creator of “Super Size Me.” Its purpose is to take Americans who have strong beliefs about a polarizing issue and immerse them in the “lifestyle” of the opposing side for thirty days. Morgan Spurlock often lives out such particular lifestyles as well, such as living in a wheelchair or prison, making it on minimum wage, or living on an American Indian reservation. I had heard of the show before but never watched it, and I decided a recent episode about gay parenting sounded interesting and relevant to our class. While researching the show, which aired weekly for forty-five minutes on the FX network, I learned that it has been cancelled after a three-season run. The episode I watched played out like a miniature documentary, including beginning segments with cartoons and quick flashes of clips that showed things like artificial insemination or stretched the limits of scientifically manipulated fertility to include Morgan Spurlock dressed up in a pink maternity smock, eating pickles with ice cream in a mock pregnancy shot. Add in a voice of God narration to present the views of both opinions, long walking shots and interviews and phrases like “will Katie be willing to put those beliefs to the test?” and it exemplifies a mainstream documentary and poses the question, “When it comes to the growth in gay parenting, is our idea of Mom and Pop outdated?”
To explore whether or not “our” idea was legitimate, a 41 year old, white, upper-middle-class Mormon housewife with two adopted sons travels from California to Michigan to live with two gay men and their four adopted sons. From the beginning, Katie is on the defensive and mentions that if two men were meant to have children together, God would have given them a womb. She often mentions the “gut feeling” she has that gay parenting is wrong and against God, and mentions the importance of her morality which leads her to feel an “icky factor” when two gay men live and “sleep together down the hall from children.” Her morality leads her to see gay parents as “affirming the option” to become gay, and that this is too free and easy and children’s access to “free ideas,” such as the acceptance of homosexuality, should be restricted. The gay couple that is the focus of this episode, Tom and Dennis, are both soft-spoken educators who patiently listen to Katie and want her to know that to deny other peoples’ moralities is wrong. The three participants’ understandings of gender roles are often on display, as Tom questions the argument Katie makes that “a single sex household doesn’t give two sides to the story.” Early on in the program he says “when people say every child needs a mom- if they mean warm, nurturing, unconditional support, that’s what we give our children,” addressing the heteronormative roles of father and mother. Katie wants to “see gender valued,” i.e. as it is in a heterosexual two parent household where the establishment of the binary between mother’s and father’s roles leads to a sense of “stability.”
At the end of the show, the two gay parents now see that simply being in their household doesn’t mean Katie will automatically change her opposing beliefs, but she instead sees it as an attack on what she has spent her whole life building. They want her to acknowledge that everyone has different moralities and that it’s wrong to pass laws to inhibit them, but she is constantly on the defensive by bringing her into multiple large groups of people where she had no ally. Regardless of her position, this immersion wasn’t ever a safe space for her and only made her more obstinately opposed to gay adoption as she constantly had to defend her opinion to complete strangers.
The juxtaposition between the woman on the defensive for her position and the two men, however effeminately they are portrayed, enforces male privilege. The gay men are vindicated as the angry housewife is belittled for becoming emotional and clinging to her beliefs without trying to educate herself. She consistently repeats that her position defending “the ideal nuclear family” against gay adoption stems from a gut feeling or from the morality she has cultivated as a Mormon, and this is in direct contrast to the intellectual teachers who represent the gay parents (Women’s Lives, 299). The fact that they bring Katie to a different, unfamiliar house in order to change HER mind positions her at a disadvantage in an uncomfortable situation. Her opinion is set up as less legitimate from day one, as the host interviews people who work for organizations that defend the legal definition of marriage between a man and a woman or legal restrictions of adoption by non-married couples. These interviews highlight the most extreme views and enforce the gendered critique of single sex parenting. They feature a man quoting academic data and hard facts and statistics about the health of children raised in a “gay environment,” while the woman interviewed has written a memoir about her experience growing up with a gay father. This woman’s interview includes her personal vignettes of being over-exposed to sex at a young age, intermixed with faded family photos and tearful shots of her emotional reactions. As the section on Motherhood and Parenting in “Women’s Lives” notes, “Mothers have been blamed for damaging their children psychologically, for bringing up children in poverty, for being lesbians, for divorce…” (Women’s Lives, 297). Even though the critique has turned from inadequate mothers to inadequate single sex parents, the gender binary is still enforced by Spurlock’s choice of interviews, by Katie’s efforts to wrestle with emotions while Tom and Dennis are mostly calm and collected and address her with academic arguments. Here Katie turns this prejudice against women around and enacts it on the single sex parents who she stays with. The ideal of the “mythic family” that Katie so vehemently defends as the only right way to raise children, “makes up only a small proportion of U.S. families, the prevalence of this ideal image has a strong ideological impact. It serves to both mask and delegitimize the real diversity of family forms” (Women’s Lives, 299).
Since I watched this show online, I was only subjected to one repeated thirty-second ad for J.C. Penney, which cleverly enough, reinforced all the gender norms that Katie felt so strongly about in her gut. As with many department store’s Christmas or holiday ads, it was full of snow and cheer and smiling hetero couples with their children happily opening the fruits of capitalism and ignoring any economic collapse. I believe this show is aimed at both sides of the polarized issues it addresses, with a clear preference for defending one side as more legitimate as the other, so the audience changes with each episode.
(The photo is of Tom, Dennis and their four adopted children. No pictures from the episode posted on the 30 Days website included Katie).