Friday, December 14, 2012

The Torrent of Homophobia on 'Misfits'

The title of Misfits has caused many to give it a pass on what can clearly be described as terribly problematic language and behaviour. There can be no doubt that the misfits are clearly to be understood as anti-social personalities but this does not excuse their continually contemptible behaviour and language. There comes a time when even the most tolerant viewer will move from, “I don’t like to admit it but this cracks me up,” to “this is beyond offensive.” In season four the last original Misfit left the show and in many ways, it seems that the writers/producers feel that increasing the problematic language and behaviour is necessary because the audience no longer has a long running relationship with the characters. Week in and week out, marginalised communities are in someway maligned or made the butt of a joke.

From the very beginning, sexuality has always been a problem for Misfits. Much of the ways in which Simon was verbally abused by Nathan, included clearly homophobic taunts. For Nathan, attacking Simon’s masculinity meant repeatedly calling him gay, thus implying that gay men are not suitably masculine or otherwise inferior and worthy of derision. And no, you can’t use “gay” as an insult without saying something negative about gay people.

Simon is not the only man who Nathan has used homophobia to attack. In season one, episode two, Nathan discovers his mother’s boyfriend Jeremy lying naked on the ground.  There are many conclusions that Nathan could have jumped to - drugs for example, but instead, Nathan decides that Jeremy has to be a gay man, with some sort of disgusting sexual perversion - and, of course, no straight people troll for sex. He then takes his suspicions to his mother and asserts that Jeremy must be involved in some sort of “rough trade.”  

When Nathan leaves the show, his character is replaced by Rudy, who seems to exist to increase the usage of the usage of oppressive language. Rudy’s target for homophobic attacks is Finn. Though the two men are clearly friends, these taunts continue to exist. When you are on a roll with using an ism to attack, why not up the ante?  Finn, is interested in fellow misfit Jess, who wants to date Alex. Determined to prove that Alex is no good, Finn photographs Alex accepting an envelope from a man in a garage and extrapolates that Alex must be gay, involved in some sort of rough trade, as well being diseased (personally, I would have assumed a drug a deal since it makes more sense than exchanging money for sex and not actually having sex). Finn actively encourages Jess to question Alex’s sexuality and though she initially does the right thing and dismisses Finn’s charges, when she sees that Alex has pictures of himself and another man on his wall, has colour co-ordinated clothing, and can cook, Jess takes the opportunity to question his sexuality. I suppose nothing says “must be gay” like having the knowledge to cook, so you don’t end up eating take away or starving to death. These stereotypes were tired in the 90s, it’s ridiculous that a show in 2012 is perpetuating them.

This constant homophobia is clearly meant to be funny - and that can’t be clearer than repeatedly using being gay as a punchline. In season two, episode 3,  Nathan becomes a victim of Vince, a tattoo artist who uses his power to make Nathan fall in love with Simon. This of course includes Nathan getting sexually aggressive with Simon and trying to take his trousers off. The whole episode is one long gay joke that we’re supposed to be chuckling along with - but what is funny here?  Why is a man being attracted to another man funny? Why is unwanted sexual attention funny?   To exacerbate matters, when Kelly rightfully calls Nathan out, believing that he is teasing Simon, Nathan responds, "gay, straight retarded, why do we have to put labels on everything?" This completely dismisses the label he has been constantly using to demean.

Even without a whole episode dedicated to the gay joke, we still get homophobic “humour” sprinkled liberally - such as Rudy stubbornly calling Simon and Peter gay in season 3, episode 3. These moments, including elements like Jeremy and the probation worker, Greg and the stereotyping of Alex, continually present being gay as something ridiculous or shameful or insulting and constantly demeans gay sexuality as the butt of jokes. This is not a new trope, gay men as the butt of jokes has been ongoing since long before Mr. Humphries sashayed his way across the shop floor - and decades later we’re still playing the same tired jokes.

To exacerbate the problem of using “gay” constantly as an insult or a joke, Misfits has virtually no inclusion. It wasn’t until Season 3, Episode 2 that Misfits finally decided to pair all its homophobia with an actual GBLT character - a bisexual woman. The problem is that Emma’s entire role in this episode is to improve Curtis’s sexual performance.  By having sex with Curtis in both his male and female forms, Emma draws attention to his selfishness and shows him how to be a much improved lover. The problem is that bisexual women’s sexuality is far too often used as a source of straight male pleasure - it’s a prevalent and demeaning trope. It would help if she were around for more than one episode, but she isn’t - she’s there to enhance and improve Curtis’s sex life before disappearing.

The second inclusion of a gay character wasn’t until Greg, the latest probation worker. In a moment that was, again, played for laughs, Curtis pretends to come on to Greg to distract him and, to everyone’s surprise, Greg seems to be interested but says no for ethical reasons. This is the first time Greg’s sexuality has been referred to and it’s used as a throwaway joke. It doesn’t help that Greg himself is a deeply unpleasant and a creepy character. Greg is aggressive, threatening, almost violent and a lot of his threats and creepy comments are uncomfortably sexual in nature. After three seasons of no gay men, this is not an improvement.

What was extremely surprising in this show was the inclusion of a trans character - the transman, James. While Nathan had previously used the suggestion of being trans to attack and insult someone (it was the reason he got probation and yet again it was played for humour), we never expected Misfits to break the near universal erasure we see on television.

And, it being Misfits, it wasn’t handled well. Alex, a cis man, is targeted by a predatory trans man who steals his penis. That’s right, the predatory transman stole his cock, because the idea of a GBLT sexual predator really needs more reinforcement. The story follows Alex’s desperate search for James to get his penis back - coupled with lots of threats of violence that culminates with Alex holding James at gunpoint. There is too much violence faced by trans people for this to ever be a comfortable scene.

The scene also shows us some of the effects of body dysmorphia - of living in a body that doesn’t feel right, of having the wrong genitals to what you feel in your mind, how that hurts, how it can cause depression and desperation. Unfortunately, we saw it all through the eyes of the cisman. Yes, we had a moving look at the terrible pain of the cisman’s dysmorphia caused by a transman.

This was served up with a whole episode of misgendering, no-one referred to James as “he”. For an added “bonus” we had Rudy and Finn mocking Alex for not having a penis and Rudy, upon discovering Jess was investigating SRS, deciding she was trans and that he should tell people.

There comes a point where any other examples you add are just plain redundancy. You end up watching a show, cringing and just repeating “stop, just stop” because it is now beyond ridiculous. This childishness and stereotyping isn’t funny and it isn’t harmless.