Gays of Our Lives: My Mother's Queer TV
I have a certain unsolicited, unwarranted and ultimately unwanted pity for this youngest generation of saplings coming of age in the now (or the RN as they might call it—I’m honestly not sure, I try to avoid anyone who falls between the ages 10-20 as assiduously as possible). Sure, this generation of youth of the nation gets to enjoy all the good pods (what’s crackin’, Tide) while completely bypassing all the bad pods (the 95 pound iPod Classic that you could bludgeon your siblings into a coma with; P.OD.; etc.), and they get to revel in all the fascinating dystopic technological adornments that are meant to distract them from the earth rapidly atrophying because of human negligence and overpopulation (environmental diaspora is kinda scary but NOT AS SCARY COOL AS THIS VR HELMET PUT IT ON PUT IT ON IT’LL ALL BE OVER SOON).
But despite being the generation that never lived through a time where it made perfect sense to write an earnest letter to Monica Lewinksy to take into first grade show and tell (look, I was a feminist and an epistolary-enthusiast from the moment I was C-Sectioned, OK, it made SENSE then), there are some pretty profound, now seemingly archaic phenomenon that this generation noticeably missed out on that fundamentally shaped my personhood. The relentless anguish of pulling the piping hot Pochahontas VHS out of the VCR to discover the magnetic tape film innards pooling out of the video’s butthole and sobbing to your mother who told you FIVE TIMES TO STOP RUNNING THE DAMN VCR. Learning that there can be no joy without pain by regularly nearly asphyxiating on and also defecating out various Lego body parts and Lego infrastructure pieces (this may still be a thing that younger generations, but I think the safety measures have really intensified since my peers and I choked on and had a seizure to basically every “fun” toy). The orgasmic elation of receiving the AIM alert that one of your friends or weird chatroom dick-pic pals had finally returned from their “brb” journey. And the frenzied delight of scrambling to and living for your favorite television shows every on a regular, nearly religious schedule.
Of course, ritualism and obsession aren’t altogether dead in modern television-watching—the agonizingly lachrymal fixation with This Is Us; fantasy leagues based on algorithms for the best possible incest plot on Game of Thrones; and eagerly tuning in each week for years to see if Big Bang Theory stumbles upon an enjoyable plot. Certainly, too, the explosion of Netflix Original Series has catalyzed an unprecedented sort of new fandom, the over-elation to compulsively binge watch and re-watch as abruptly and frequently as your severely depressed and sporadically agoraphobic little heart desires. However, the infinite and immediate accessibility to nearly any show you can fathom, and the ability to start, stop, rewind or screenshot and splice all your favorite boob scenes from every Showtime show together for an avant-garde boob montage has diminished the voraciousness with which we consumed television, and, importantly, the way in which we had to make an event out of watching television. The sheer scrambling exhilaration of hearing your parent, sibling, friend, pet (some of us had that kind of connection, okay?) scream to you that the show was on, and knowing that you had to destroy anything and everything in your path that prohibited you from seeing the first few, sacred moments of whatever show you were watching (that, in the 90s, it seemed like YOU MAY NEVER HAVE THE CHANCE TO SEE AGAIN, EXCEPT PROBABLY FOR RERUNS, BUT STILL, NEVER AGAIN) was the epitome of the television experience growing up.
Importantly, and most importantly for this post, television shows, for previous generations—MINE specifically, because I’m a malignant narcissist who can really care the most for the things most relevant to me—served as an inheritance from our parents, or grandparents, or siblings etc. The tv shows we were forced to watch (or voluntarily joined in watching) that our family members introduced us to functioned both as artifacts of what culture and life performed as, in addition to serving as a sort of common language and connection with our family.
My mother is most responsible for passing down the television that made me queer (because, importantly, my father grew up in a predominantly television-less age—but he was very good at reenacting radio shows from the 30s and 40s!), and the following post is meant to honor the shows that dictated our lives in a way that is no longer relevant, but also impacted my queerness in ways I can never (and would never want to) change.
My Doctor, My Lover
At a disturbingly young age, I developed an uncontrollable and unparalleled arousal to doctors—both human. Not only did I cravenly need to be dominated (look, I wanted it to be hot, but we’re talking about eight(ish) year old me, so, really, it’s sad and related to something traumatic. I’M SORRY. IT’S JUST FACTS), but I had a bizarre and intense need to know minutiae of every grotesque virus and diagnose myself with everything from diphtheria to polio. Doctors as metonymic figures satisfied most of my carnal impulses, in addition to having stethoscopes (which I can think of at least sixteen different sexual uses for) and could unlock the secrets to the epiglottitis I was certain I was always dying from (in my defense, my dad nearly did die from this, so). But what really revved up my doctor-fetish, that very importantly coincided with and informed my queerness, were the flamboyantly melodramatic medical dramas that my mother begrudgingly loved and, consequently, inflicted on me so she could have someone to share in her reviled adoration of these saccharine shows.
Of the myriad shows that eroticized diagnosing life threatening illnesses and post-amputation bed-rot, the most persuasive to my persuasion, shall we say (but maybe we shall’nt) were Providence and Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. Providence—which features a nearly pre-pubescent Jon Hamm as a firefighter so profoundly moronic, it’s horrifying that even factiously he was allowed to be responsible for people’s lives—was a classic modern parable of woman abandons family to be a super-successful plastic surgeon; woman’s disapproving mother dies, so woman returns to her small town to be a much-less successful family practice doctor; woman is haunted by dead mother and fails at essentially all romantic entanglements (which dead ghost mom of course predicted, lol). I’m not entirely certain which parable that is, other than the standard “WOMEN, AMIRITE” extended metaphor parable, but WOW was this show that really AWAKENED a primordial force within me. The series was decently written and well-acted, but, more importantly, Providence introduced me to Melina Kanakaredes (who I had the chance to introduce myself to in person as a full-grown, presumably fully functioning adult and WOW, did I bungle it), who played lead WOMAN, AMIRITE, Dr. Sidney Hanson (side note: Sidney is a name I have found inherently attractive my entirely life, which was particularly confusing growing up when my cat’s name was Sydney…I don’t know what to tell you, I’m not stable).
Kanakaredes was one of the first instances of my developing a “crush” or attraction to another female-identifying person that felt normalized and healthy (and also rabid—like from ages nine to eleven I was VERY aroused and infatuated and like, maybe therapy would’ve been good, but it was the end of the 90s, ya know). So much of what made my real obsession with the fictious doctor feel so normal and healthy was the ritualism and routine of making a big deal of gathering with my mother and tuning in every week to follow the story of the show. It goes without saying there is both an inculcating and calming effect that repetition and routines possess (as someone with OCD WOW BOY IS THIS TRUE ON A LOT OF LEVELS), and watching Providence every week—and writing very fantastical, very romantic fan fiction in the days in between the episodes (look, I never said I was a cool or popular child—in fact I think I’ve emphatically stated the opposite)—was a method of me soothing and inculcating my frantic, repressed child-brain to my sexuality and self-identity. It was a safe-space with my mother, and it allowed her to develop an implicit understanding of who I was and who I was attracted to without us having to discuss or articulate anything (which neither of us were perhaps capable of—or certainly my stunted ass was not). My mother was able to recreate and pass on a tradition of excitedly making an event each week with her family to watch a beloved television show—and let me impress upon all the super cool, emotionally fluid families out there: joining together by way of television is a MASSIVE DEAL when you have rocky communications or shy interpersonal dynamics. And I was able to inherit her passion and convey integral parts of my identity through the ritual of the show. Both of these things felt deeply queer, and profoundly shaped my sense of queer self.
Oh, and Melina Kanakaredes. She is basically the reason I came out as queer. I mean.
For those who didn’t watch or who are we saplings and have no clue, Doctor Quinn: Medicine Woman was a WHOLE BIG SITUATION. Even the name is like a hyperbolic announcement some Gay would make—Chad and Aaron: NEWLYWEDS ON THE CAPE; or Doctor Leslie Burkowitz: NEW KNITTER; or Margie Hampton: POWER BOTTOM. The show centered around Doctor Michaela “Mike” Quinn (ain’t nothin like a down dike named Mike, huh? No? Yeah, it’s awful, I apologize), played by the ever-brooding, never-not-seducing Jane Seymour, epitomized every facet of “my type” in my formative developmental years—beautiful; wardrobe filled with brown leather and lassoes; smoldering eyes; the ability to treat a rattlesnake bite AND diagnose polio in under 5 minutes; unattainably straight; aloof in situations that required absolute seriousness; amazing fucking hair. What’s more, her romantic interest throughout the series, Sully (which, okay, Old West Leather Daddy), typified everything I found (and still find) attractive in a man—abundantly emotional yet terminally unable to communicate; skillful with a throwing axe; long, Iron Maiden in the ‘80s type hair; and bone structure that I both envy and find deeply fuckable.
The show, which was set in perhaps my favorite time period for diseases (pioneer west era—SO MUCH TYPHUS AND SMALL POX!) was a veritable hot-sick-bed of wanton flares of campy hysterics, exposure to weird, now-dormant ailments, and UNBEARABLE sexual tension. The show had….a plot? I think? There were some….orphans? The hot older orphan was a very attractive, very gay boy (so, my type in high school)? I honestly can’t recall most of the episodic plots or overall details, but what I DO vividly recall is the outlandish sexual energy and melodramatic romance that radiating from the television set every week, particularly from the leading lady and dude. I distinctly recall too my mother exaggeratedly attempting every week to act as though she found the romance and exuding sexuality sickening—and, I think, on some level she absolutely did, we’re repressed WASPs after all—but recognizing on a very deep level her matched passion for all the amorousness on screen. There was a discrete language of understanding and acceptance that was transmitted when we watched. Much like with Providence, I learned crucial, perhaps ineffable things about my mother, about her tolerances and desires, and she, in turn, learned that I thought the pretty people were hot, gangrene was NEAT, and I wanted a horse (a bit of an oversimplification, but you get it). Watching Dr. Quinn routinely with my mother was tremendously significant too because so much of the show’s melodrama and camp informed a lot of my early understanding of reading queerness in media. But most importantly, the show allowed me to be a rampant bisexual with a hard-on for maladies and illnesses.
If Sitcoms Are So Funny, Why Do I Have This Broken Heart?
To be honest, there isn’t a lot to say in this section. But as a kid growing up queer with Asperger’s and not a lot of friends, television was responsible for most of my personality-building, and most of my understanding what my “types” were. And if there was one thing that my family and I loved, and that the 90s excelled at (other than putting WAY too much misplaced trust in Dell), it was sitcoms. Sitcoms were great for not only diffusing tension over the Gulf War (there was a lot!), but for being a mecca for some questionably queer, wildly neurotic and quirky weirdos who I fell deeply in love with as a small bean. So, this is an homage for the sitcom women who ushered in my queerness: vest-clad, Jimi Hendrix-loving hot moms (Jill Taylor on Home Improvement, lookin’ at you, MA’AM); the socially inept, scrunchie-hoarding nerds (hey, Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) from Full House—you DO know you’re gay and that we were married, right?); smartass but smart as hell, unreasonably beautiful Older Sisters (hey, hi there Laura Lee Winslow (Kellie Shanygne Williams-Jackson) on Family Matters, I know you’re just rebuffing Urkel so you can tutor me); and the incomparably gorgeous, Rebel Children (Denis Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) on The Cosby Show, I have no words except “are we sharing a tent at Lillith Fair?”)**.
Oh, and a nod to the men of sitcoms who helped my bisexuality along, specifically soft butch Randy Taylor on Tool Time and sweet, perpetually-frazzled daddy Paul Buchmann on Mad About You, who, to this day, drives me insane with his ability to pull off a simple black tee/jeans combo (which, Jonathan Van Ness will tell you, is much harder than it seems for straight, cis men).
**(NOTE: I do not have the space here to properly address the painful complexity attached to my fond memories of The Cosby Show and how the importance of the show to my family and I has been tarnished in the past few years. I’m still unclear if it’s my thing to comment on, but know that it is with a burdened heart that I mention it, but I cannot erase the indelible impact the show itself had on me (I used to cure my insomnia as child by replaying Cosby Show episodes in my head. It was huge for me.)
The Hens Won’t Come Home to Roost Because They’ve Got Cocks of Their Own.
Look, I have absolutely no idea what that title is about (I’m finally having a stroke?), but I know I meant to imply that there were some TV women that my mother raised and ritualized me to worship that I know for sure strapped up every now and again, okurr (definitely having a stroke)? These women were audacious, savagely witty, abundantly sexual (and in control of their sexuality and desires), and so staunchly “take no shit” in their attitudes, they probably got colonics twice a week.
The first group of women that my mother passed on to me vis-à-vis the television that had a fundamental and irreversible impact on my queerness—not so much in terms of attraction, but in terms of attitude—were the broads of Designing Women (1986-1993). Designing Women was one of those shows, like Hart to Hart that my mother would have me watch with her with unwavering enthrallment (often while she did the Jane Fonda stepper workout after working all day and finishing her dissertation…COULD MY MOTHER HAVE BEEN MORE FUCKING 90S BOSS BITCH) that was in NO WAY appropriate for a child my age, but that she capitalized on my childish ignorance to enjoy her downtime while still being in mom mode. A show that weirdly could never be successfully or enjoyably recreated in any era but the 80s/90s, Designing Women centered around five bawdy, career-minded (usually), sex-positive (and sex-enthusiastic) middle-aged women and their sexually ambiguous assistant (Meshach Taylor) who ran an interior design firm in Hotlanta owned by the Sugarbaker sisters (best and perhaps gayest last name of all time? Yes. 169%).
To say Designing Women was transcendentally, unabashedly “of a queer spirit” is putting it mildly (and putting it in a way that is somewhat difficult to contextualize for anyone who didn’t come of age in the 80s and 90s (or have a particular type of Boomer era parent) but I’ll give it a whirl). But Designing Women wasn’t the aggressive, flagrant gay of Will and Grace or Queer as Folk or The L Word or even Xena: Warrior Princess (we’ll get to that soon, don’t you worry), it was a show that embodied the attitudinal force, autonomy, intractable humor, sexual vivaciousness, and confidence of being queer (these characteristics were importantly linked to stunning and poised older women). The women Designing Women suffered no fools, found no joke too scathing, and never turned down a meticulously patterned floral blazer, and their robust refusal to be anything but themselves became intertwined with the gay pastiche, and the women and their endless quips were easily appropriated by The Gay Agenda to represent the fearlessness and cutting wit that was crucial for coming out in the Bush/Clinton/Bush The Sequel eras.
It should be noted, that while Designing Women enjoys continued adoration across queer communities—see Autostraddle’s lovely ode—it is a show is most ravenously celebrated in gay cis male and drag circles. Indeed, clip mashups, music video dedications, and full on marathons devoted to Designing Women are mainstays at cis gay male bars and drag spots (especially New York, D.C., and Atlanta), and a soundbite of Designing Women is as ubiquitous in the gay male repertoire as “Boy is a Bottom” and any Whitney lyric. I think the correlation to the gay male community is important and uniquely relevant to my queerness, though. My parents, who I often and unapologetically describe as an established middle-aged gay male couple from Berkeley, bestowed upon me an inheritance of television shows, musical artists, theatre obsessions, and general life-approaches that so eerily resemble the tenets of older gay male culture, that I can’t help but think they were acting purposefully. But perhaps more to the point, my parents, specifically my mother, fastidiously raised me on television that espoused a confidence, style, and hilarity that transcended all conceptions of gender and sexuality. Moreover, my mother very carefully curated content for us to watch in that safe, ritualistic way that centered around predominantly female-exclusive narratives. Designing Women not only taught me the pizzazz and fierceness that is core to my queerness, but provided a literal modernized Island of Lesbos, where I could cherish and pine for female homosociality.
And speaking of raucous ass women in their element who answered to no man and no social construct, my mother’s greatest televisual inheritance was, perhaps beyond a shadow of a doubt, The Nanny (1993-1999). With a premise that made the queeniest elder gay scream—IT’S BASED ON PYGMALION, BITCHES—The Nanny is immortalized as the Ur cult-television show that embodies a gay spirit unlike no other (but, because it was the 90s, it was also hugely commercially successful, unlike our cult tv shows, which often flatline). I won’t mince words—I certainly found Fran Fine (the unparalleled Fran Drescher) sensationally attractive with an ass for days. But I didn’t glom onto the show when my mother made me watch it with her on a weekly basis because of physical attraction. Rather, I watched The Nanny with my mother (and continued watching as much as I could into adulthood) because of the overall gay-aura the show put out, and because of the message of acerbic fortitude the show taught me.
The Nanny was another instance of a show my mother and I watch routinely that not only provided us a platform for bonding, but also allowed us a space to taciturnly express a generational knowledge. My mother intimately knew the kind of sarcasm and cleverness that was tantamount to surviving and persevering as a smart but awkward woman; and my mother could also sense the additional absurdity and ribaldry that I would need to survive as that type of woman who was also queer. Somehow, The Nanny proffered all of the snark, deviant sophistication, cultural knowledge, and campy bravado that my mother could not necessarily communicate I would need, but could show me through the nasally wisdom of Fran Fine. The Nanny made me the queer that I am today, and I think my mother sensed that would be the case.
(Oh, and Maxwell Sheffield made me the bisexual I am today. I’m only human, after all).
I certainly never want to besmirch or call into question the social importance or cultural growth that any one person or demographic experiences, especially since other people doing so to me invokes endless ire. However, I cannot imagine kind of identity-making and self-affirmation I experienced growing up around a television in the 90s, where tricky emotions and prescient life issues were articulated through a cable-box medium happening in the Netflix and Hulu-centric, immediacy/binging based media environment in which we currently live. And that’s fine! Queerness of today is not dependent on third-parties and lenses like it was for me and the generations before me. But I’m the hot queer mess that I am because of these shows, and because of the insistence my mother had on making me watch them (and what she was really trying to do by forcing me to watch them so regularly).
And aren’t we all grateful for that? (Don’t fucking answer that, actually).