Recently my girlfriend and I have been plowing through a TV series that came out about 8-9 years ago. 8 Simple Rules starred John Ritter, who very sadly passed away in the middle of season 2, and the show was never the same after that. I remember watching it when the show was brand new (9 years ago!) with my mom and my brother after school, and we found it hilarious. It still is quite funny, especially because many of the jokes spell out true occurrences in my family. But it’s amazing to see how backwards that show is and society was at the time, if we take TV to reflect the current state of its culture.
1. Simple Premise
It’s about a family – a father, mother, two teenage daughters, a younger son – and their everday troubles and tribulations. The major premises that the show revolves around are: working woman, stay at home father, teenage girls being teenage girls, teenage boy being a teenage boy, and just overall being a white, working, wholesome middle class family in the suburbs of midwestern USA. But here’s what the show is really about.
2. Working Woman
Yes, this is an actual tension-bearing problematic point of conflict, and one of the major themes throughout the show. Cate, the mom, has gone back to work as a nurse, and the father Paul has given up sports writing and now writes a family life column from home. Criticisms about this are flung from Grandma and the neighbors. The family struggles to adjust not only to the new schedule and lifestyle, but to the very idea that their mother is not a stay-at-home fulltime mom anymore. Apparently nine years ago it was still a big deal to not be a working (non-desperate) housewife. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised that in many homes it’d still be a big deal today, although at least it seems to be less so on TV.
3. Teenage Love
A main story line is that the two teenage girls, Kerry and Bridget, are budding into womanhood – too fast for the father’s liking. They are starting to have crushes, dates, boyfriends. Even the young son Rory, who is barely a teenager, is starting to kiss other girls and have feelings for them.
4. Heterosexual Teenage Love
This is all fine and dandy, but in today’s world, there’s a big chance one of those kids will be gay, or at least one of their friends will be gay, or one of their neighbors even. At least one person in the fricking show would be gay! But obviously that wouldn’t be wholesome. So there are a total of zero characters who are even remotely gay. The G word is never mentioned, not once, ever.
5. At least some progress
If there’s one thing we have to give credit to the TV and movie industry for, it’s for bringing gay and lesbian characters to mainstream media. It’s impossible to flip through even basic cable channels like ABC or NBC without coming across one “wholesome” family show that happens to have a gay character. Even mainstream shows aimed at teens feature strong gay leads, and now leading transgender characters too! This is when a decade begins to feel like a century.
6. Gender Roles
It’s sad to note that a good chunk of the jokes (if not the majority) revolve around gender roles: stay at home dad who has to play mom, abstentee mom because she is always at work; teenage girls vulnerable at the hands of sex-crazed boys, the oft-mentioned double standard for dating; boy in a play who wears a dress and the neighbor sees him, boy who is sappy and has feelings, boy who likes to cook. Essentially the disparity of gender roles or the misattribution of gender roles, and the laughs that ensue, hinge on established stereotypes which are not only the bane of any transperson’s existence, and very outdated, but the propagation and mockery around them are dangerous and detrimental towards understanding and acceptance of transgender and gender variant people into greater society.
7. No Laughing Matter
In my opinion the actors are all great, so even though the joke is hurtful and mildly offensive in terms of gender, it’s hard not to laugh at their delivery. All the more reason to emphasize the importance of TV and other media and its depiciton of gender.
If we laugh at a boy who likes to cook maybe I am just laughing because his performance was funny, but you are laughing because he’s a boy who likes to cook. Because of the gender reversal, of the apparent inappropriateness of the situation – which should not by any means be inappropriate at all! This is teaching everybody that it’s OK to laugh at your neighbor’s son, who likes to cook. And maybe he happens to be gay as well, so maybe it’s OK to laugh at that too right? And your friend at school, you caught him wearing a dress, and he likes it, so now it’s OK to ridicule him, right?
8. Turning Negative into Positive
Film and television are fast becoming the prime role model from which everyday folk formulate their cognitive schemas of the outside world. Negative exposure of gender variance fosters an unsafe environment for gender variant people.
I picked this show because it’s a fresh example that so elegantly highlights the importance and need for media to take on LGBT and gender variant issues seriously. They don’t have to always be solemnly exposed in an all-out drama; these themes can be funny, as long as they are not the object of ridicule. A boy who cooks can be funny, as long as it’s not just because it’s a boy that cooks. In the long run this causes much harm, and it’s especially poignant when it has so much potential to cause the most good.