Tuesday, February 05, 2008
From "Seventh Heaven" to "Kyle XY": visions of "family values": an important lesson for GLBT issues?
In one episode of WB’s series “Seventh Heaven,” about Rev. Camden (Stephen Collins), his wife (Catherine Hicks) and seven children (including two young twin boys), teenager Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman) calls her oldest brother Matt, a medical resident (Barry Watson) at the hospital, complaining that he doesn’t care anymore about his own family. (Not true.) Later, Mrs. Hicks begs for him to get time off from the hospital to spend Thanksgiving with his “family,” as she is oblivious to the fact that medical interns can’t do that very often.
The series ended, but during its reign it certainly extended the “Ozzie and Harriet” ideal. Sometimes it could be progressive, as with episodes in which oldest daughter Lucy (Beverly Mitchell) became a pastor herself. There was one critical episode where Rev. Camden says to Simon (David Gallagher), “sex is for married people.” I don’t recall an episode where “Seventh Heaven” ever touched on gay issues or people (the program that often followed, “Everwood”, sometimes did). But the whole religious paradigm of reserving sexuality strictly for marriage tells us a lot about why homosexuality used to be seen as a sin as bad as any, and still is in many parts of the world or in some religious groups.
To be sure, if it were a sin, it’s not wrong the way other things are (like adultery – taking someone’s wife – or stealing, etc). It has much more to do with collective values that melt away once the principles of individual sovereignty are accepted. I certainly suffered severe consequences for accidentally outing myself at college as a freshman in 1961, and ever since, I have found myself wondering, what is the big deal anyway? There has to be something people want that they feel I am taking away from them.
I think that “Seventh Heaven” did dramatize the awesome amount of psychic energy a marriage commitment “in sickness and in health, etc.” demands. Husband and wife – and usually future parents – accept the regulation of the deepest intimacy in their lives – sexual intercourse – for the benefit of the family and the “common good.” In return for accepting that kind of channeling, they expect their committed relationship to be honored and revered by other people. The social supports are indeed critical. It’s even OK for them to demand sacrifices of other family members – even as adults – for the overall good of the family they have created.
That’s the rub, isn’t it. “Family values,” to work, seems to demand the subordination of single adults created by a family until they form families (usually biological, but sometimes by adoption) of their own. "Marriage and parenthood" (or "Love and Marriage") is what bridges adolescent "selfishness" to a necessary other-centeredness, with a modest amount of awareness of the transformation. Parents have additional children (by socially and legally supported intercourse) and have the right to make older siblings take care of younger ones as a result of their chosen intimacies. In practice, in many families, this mandatory filial responsibility extends to adulthood. As lifespans increase, society has to entertain the possibility of enforcing filial responsibility laws, where adult children could be required to support their parents (by “karma,” as if they owed it) when indigent. So it whole idea that sexual intercourse generates family responsibility is challenged. It does, but the idea of "mandatory" family responsibility can be imposed on children (even as adults) by the sexuality of parents anyway. They call it "loyalty to blood."
Modern individualism, the extension of radical individualism to its logical limits, and liberal notions and arguments around sexual orientation challenge this set of values. But so do other things, including expanded roles for women. Society has always had many adults who did not have their own children. In the past, they were expected to remain chaste and tethered to their own families, which were supposed to take care of them and given them “value” (the childless were always the first to be expected to come home and render eldercare) while discouraging them from competing in the “global world” without marrying and having their own families, supposedly earning the right to full respect. The childless were supposed to perceive themselves as intrinsic to families that the marital heterosexuality of their parents had created, and accept relief from having to compete as individuals on a world stage, which modern radical individualism promotes and celebrates (and which almost all singles now want). That hierarchal socialization, known from ancient cultures, seemed to support the psychological investment that parents made in their own marriages. During the past few decades, that "family hierarchy" has largely melted away. But many people find this unsettling, and say that the radical individualism makes it impossible for many people to form and keep stable families. Gay children (especially only ones like me) can challenge parental beliefs that biological lineage is a birthright. They can, therefore, challenge the safety and comfort of mentality that puts the welfare of the family and group above accountabilities of individuals within the family, and they can challenge the idea that the value of life is to be found in collective faith rather than individual adult choices with resultant individualized responsibilities.
Religious faith does lay down some rules to close off loops of existential reasoning. Not wanting to intrude too much here, I am still struck by arguments about the value of human life and how they could be correlated to an expectation of openness to "transmitting new life" or at least supporting those who do. Or, to put it another way, to have a rule that the "benefits" of experiencing sexuality must always engender the risk of responsibility (children) in order to be "fair" to the people who do take on parenting. But, the line about "... only for married people" could, if the show had wanted, have explored the possibility of committed same-sex relationships that do exist. The moral arguments could have dealt more nuanced ideas about self-absorption or narcissism rather than the idea of a single monolithic plan for family values. We come back, however, to a simple observation: traditional families sometimes feel so challenged by the practical demands on them that parents feel that they need a moral monopoly on sexuality. It does get back eventually to need. (The confrontation between outed gay Mormon missionary Aaron (Steve Sandvoss) with his mother near the end of the film "Latter Days" (2003) illustrates why parents can feel the way they do.) The moral compromise (between necessary family and community loyalty, and individualism, would be a philosophy of "pay your dues."
I say all this not to agree with the older traditional notions of family (as on this show), but just to make sure that we know how to articulate them. That is how many people saw things. Sexual intercourse, when managed by marriage, owned the right to drive the emotional lives of everyone else in the family. It even gives parents the right to strongly influences the choices their kids will make about what to do with their own lives, even when adults. (I, for one, hate to be told whose goals to follow when they aren’t my own.) On global terms, it even generated political alliances (throughout much of history – look at Marie Antoinette). It still can generate family vendettas (whether in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, or in the soap operas like “Days of our Lives” where the character Sami (Allison Sweeney) is the lynchpin for this kind of abuse.) People thought that this held society together. It did, but it also generated class privileges and helped hide racism (look at the two film versions of “Imitation of Life”, especially the second film by Douglas Sirk).
Not all “family friendly” paradigms support this, as we know from the gay marriage debate. There is a show on “ABC Family” called “Kyle XY” where a couple of middle aged professionals adopt what seems like the perfect teenage boy (Kyle aka Noah, played by a charismatic Matt Dallas, who completely [acting in the style of Tom Welling playing a teenage Clark Kent on Smallville] dominates the show, although Jean Luc Bilodeau is lively as the younger teen brother). Actually, he is found wandering, with amnesia and apparently autistic when they take him in, but in a month he is the star of his high school. I wonder what kind of comment the show really makes on the commitment of “family values” – to have the “perfect” kid, and then to find out that he was essentially manufactured in a laboratory rather than born of love. Interesting. In Smallville, the Kents raise “superman” Clark (who spends his teen years playing “don’t ask don’t tell” with respect to his powers and extraterrestrial origins) after finding him in a cornfield after a “mega disaster” meteor hit. That’s a pitch for the idea that accidental adoption can be expected of almost anyone. Again, from a moral viewpoint, interesting. ABC Family does represent "a new kind of family." (Just don't tell Focus on the Family!)