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Jodie, anyone?

Having joined the NetFlix cult, I’ve been watching the first season of Soap nearly every night for the last few weeks. It’s a wonderful show, and just right for watching before bedtime. It’s funny, and it’s mostly lighthearted, and there’s enough of a story arc to make us want to go back without enough suspense to keep us up late watching just one more episode. My Best Reader hasn’t seen the show at all, and I haven’t seen it in twenty years or so, so a lot of it is new to both of us.

The thing that makes me uncomfortable, though, is not the risible hair situation but the character of Jodie Dallas. For those of you who have forgotten, a young Billy Crystal played the gay son of Mary Campbell. For those of you who have really forgotten or who never knew in the first place, Soap is the story of two sisters: Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. These are the Tates, and these are the Campbells. Um, never mind. Anyway, Mary Campbell’s first husband, Johnny Dallas, died and she remarried Bert Campbell (who killed Johnny Dallas, but that’s not important now); Bert has trouble dealing with his two new stepsons: Danny, who is running with The Mob, and Jodie, who is gay. The boys have difficulty dealing with their new stepbrothers, as well, but that’s not relevant to my discomfort, either.

Anyway.

On one level, it’s strange and impressive that there’s an openly gay character in 1976 television. Of course, the joke in the first half of the season is how awful it is for his mother and particularly for his stepfather. On the other hand, Bert’s distaste is played for laughs; what’s funny is that Bert has to live in the house with this, you know, homo. Jodie is sort of a straight man (heh heh heh) for this bit. So there’s this cool thing where there’s a gay regular character, but there’s this uncool thing where it’s portrayed as awful to have a gay child, but again there’s this cool thing where parental lack of support for gay children is portrayed as comically bad. Mary, by the way, clearly continues to love and (reluctantly) support Jodie, which is nice, but I don’t want to make too much of that, because she also thinks that a gay son is her failure.

And then there’s the stereotype thing. Jodie is effeminate, appears to enjoy cross-dressing, and is comically dependent on his macho (pro quarterback) boyfriend. When the quarterback starts seeing a woman (as a beard), Jodie decides to have a sex change. Now, I know very little about transsexuals and transvestites, but I know that neither is correlated exactly to homosexuality, and it’s clear the writers just made Jodie a bundle of sexual deviancy stereotypes. Then, when the quarterback tells Jodie he’s getting married, Jodie attempts suicide and then gives up on the sex change idea. See, for all that there’s this more or less positive gay character, it does make it appear that the sex change is, well, a whim, not something he actually wanted, which makes it a bad transsexual character. I don’t want to make too much of the suicide, because, you know, it’s Soap, and they have to overload it with soap-opera stuff, because, you know, it’s Soap.

And (by the way, Best Reader, what follows is SPOILERS) over the four years of the show, Jodie essentially stops being gay. By which I mean first he sleeps with one woman, then he moves in with a woman, then he gets hypnotherapy, then the whole show collapses. Now, as I said, I haven’t watched the show for a while, so I don’t remember if, for instance, Jodie is treated as being bisexual, or what, but I have a vague recollection that it was really a betrayal of the character.

Why does all this matter? Well, and it doesn’t, really. Only I knew that Jodie Dallas was gay long before anyone I actually knew in real life came out to me. In fact, I think it was 1988 before anybody came out to me; looking back, it’s just possible that one of my high school chums hinted it, but not so’s I understood. When I was a teenager, the gay people I ‘knew’ were Jodie Dallas and Niko from The Mask of Apollo, and maybe that guy from Brothers. For YHB, who as they say is straight but not altogether narrow, there’s no doubt that my attitude towards gay men in real life was affected by the fictional gay men I came across. I know that Soap was a prisoner of its time, but there are things that not only make me cringe but make me wonder how I saw them back in the proverbial.

Do any of y’all, Gentle Readers, know if Jodie Dallas is one of those Stepin Fetchit characters that were embarrassing at the time to anybody with eyes and experience, or just one of those John Prentice types that are embarrassing mostly in retrospect? I was too young at the time to know, and besides, I grew up in the desert.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I used to love Soap back in the day. In my memory, Jodie is one of the least screwed up, most functional members of the Campbell/Tate family and I would've said the treatment of his character was positive (for the reasons you identified - that those who are embarassed about his orientation are portrayed as misguided). But I certainly wouldn't have said he was a positive role model in any way, again for the same reasons you gave. I'm not sure that anyone in a soap opera can really be a positive role model since the whole point of the genre is getting into outrageous situations and dealing with them badly.

SPOILERS

It's probably just my memory re-interpreting the plot into what I would have liked it to have been, but I remember the end bit where Jodie falls in with women as having more to do with his love of his daughter (conceived through a night of drunkeness or something like that) and his attempts to maintain custody of her than him turning straight.

END SPOILERS

But I haven't watched the show in years. Now I'm curious as to whether I too would see things very differently when watching it as an adult.


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