An irreverent look at the love-hate relationship between queer viewers and mainstream family TV shows like Gilmore Girls and This Is Us
After personal loss, political upheaval, and the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us craved a return to business as usual, the mundane, the middlebrow. We turned to TV to find these things. For nearly forty years, network television has produced a constant stream of “cry-along” sentimental-realist dramedies designed to appeal to liberal, heterosexual, white America. But what makes us keep watching, even though these TV series inevitably fail to reflect who we are?
Revisiting soothing network dramedies like Parenthood,Gilmore Girls, This Is Us, and their late-80s precursor, thirtysomething, Normporn mines the nuanced pleasures and attraction-repulsion queer viewers experience watching liberal family-centric shows. Karen Tongson reflects on how queer cultural observers work through repeated declarations of a “new normal” and flash lifestyle trends like “normcore,” even as the absurdity, aberrance, and violence of our culture intensifies. Normporn allows us to process how the intimate traumas of everyday life depicted on certain TV shows—of love, life, death, and loss—are linked to the collective and historical traumas of their contemporary moments, from financial recessions and political crises to the pandemic.
Normporn asks, 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? The fantasies, the utopian impulses, and (paradoxically) the unreality of sentimental realist TV drama creates a productive tension that queer spectators in particular take pleasure in, even as—or precisely because—it lulls us into a sense of boredom and stability that we never thought we could want or have. .
Karen Tongson is Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies, English, and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Why Karen Carpenter Matters and Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, as well as co-editor of the Postmillennial Pop book series at NYU Press.
The analysis presents bracing assessments of network TV touchstones, and Tongson’s wit is a treat. Thought-provoking and full of fresh insights, this entertains and enlightens.
What begins as a searing cultural critique of the prevalence of sentimental, whitewashed television shows—This is Us, Parenthood, etc.—unfurls brilliantly into a soul-stirring reflection on personal and cultural grief and the palliative effects of plainness. Tongson exquisitely captures what it means for queer people in particular to find solace in the quotidian.
Emotionally cathartic. The critic’s wrestling with the compromises that the pleasures of mass culture inevitably demand is heartfelt. In a word, it’s normal.
A personal and heartfelt ode to the problematic pleasures of normalcy. Insightful, relatable, and funny, Tongson is a master at twirling the personal around the political, giving us a layered, brainy investigation into this sneaky cultural manipulation.
~Michelle Tea, author of Valencia
Normporn is a funny, bracing and unrelentingly smart journey through the pop culture of the last twenty years to explain the confused, damaged state of American identity. Karen Tongson takes a look at everything from WandaVision to True Blood to parse out the conflicting ideas of what America is and should be. It’s that rarest of books, a searingly intellectual cultural analysis that’s fun and dishy enough for the beach.
~Guy Branum, author of My Life As A Goddess