Race and gay culture have always made for an uneasy mix. The black drag queens of Paris is Burning—exiled even from white gay culture—have birthed generations of gay men who’ve picked up the vocal intonations and mannerisms traditionally associated with black women. (Think of Project Runway champion Christian Siriano, for example, or Will & Grace’s Jack in full finger-snapping dudgeon.) For white gay men, a group perpetually exiled from the mainstream, identification with blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups goes hand-in-hand with a sort of mockery that’s as much about the jokester’s outsider status as it is about the target’s. This isn’t new—using the women of Sex and the City as his mouthpiece, Mr. King set an episode of the show in the milieu of black drag queens, with Carrie Bradshaw, known for her love of “ghetto gold,” screeching in faux African-American patois about her drag-ball-style “twirl.” And the camp humor aesthetic, from Paul Lynde through Will & Grace, has always used its practitioners’ outsider status as a pass for universal derision. It’s all in good fun—isn’t it? But the combined airtime given to 2 Broke Girls, The New Normal, the urbane gay couple of Modern Family (who were, admittedly, created by straight people), with their Spanglish-screeching harridan of a sister-in-law, and Andy Cohen’s bickering Atlanta Housewives (whose antics are somehow always more GIF-worthy than those of their white counterparts in other cities) adds up to a troubling conclusion: Now that gay marriage is a reality, any gay man with some disposable income and a sperm sample can become a parent and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is consigned to the history books, affluent white gay men have finally been granted admittance to the majority culture, and as such, they are seizing on a privilege long-beloved of their straight counterparts: trashing minorities!
They laugh at themselves, sure, but with the apparent belief that their flaws are cute. The gay men of The New Normal are gently chided for their affectations, particularly Mr. Rannells’s fastidious dresser—but they hardly come in for the worst of Ms. Barkin’s slurs. Those are reserved for random bystanders, like a black schoolteacher of whom she asks “Hablo English?” Sure, Mr. Murphy’s trademark nihilism means that he mocks just about everyone through her character—but isn’t it all a bit wearying? “It’s very clear that I have great affection for her,” Mr. Murphy told Vogue of Ms. Barkin’s character. “It’s like what I said about the [Christian advocacy group] Million Moms: Watch the show! I get that you feel marginalized and on the outside too! We have more in common than you think!”
Indeed. But despite the fundamental conservatism of much of the entertainment industry, no one’s granting the Million Moms the clout to produce a television show casting themselves as the heroes of their own story. Whatever happened in Mr. Murphy’s past, he’s now the consummate insider, with the social cachet to do whatever he likes in his career or his personal life; that Vogue interview notes that Mr. Murphy and his husband are, like The New Normal’s protagonists, considering having a child through surrogacy. He’s portraying the world the way he sees it—with minorities as window-dressing around gay men. (This seems to be a pattern: On Mr. Murphy’s Glee, Chris Colfer’s gay teen embarks on a lovingly portrayed relationship with a fellow singer, while two Asian students’ relationship gets the derisive nickname “Asian Fusion.”)
Mr. Murphy and some of his colleagues don’t mean any harm. And the shows are far from unwatchable: The New Normal earned a rave review from Slate’s television critic, June Thomas, who happens to be a lesbian. “When the whole of America is listening,” she wrote, “it’s tempting to deny the humor. But I admit it: I laughed.”
Meanwhile, 2 Broke Girls’s ratings success, and the availability of Oleg and Earl one-liners immortalized by YouTube users, indicates that there’s a large constituency who enjoy such ethnic sketches as filtered through Michael Patrick King’s tin ear.
That said, not everyone’s so forgiving of The New Normal and its ilk: Salon’s Willa Paskin wrote that the Ryan Murphy show’s jokes “can be momentarily bracing—this show is going there!—but they’re also unremittingly nasty,” while Asian-American cultural critic Andrew Ti wrote on Grantland that “The pervasive crime of [2 Broke Girls’s] Han Lee really boils down to his infantilized speech patterns, thrown in, I assume, just in case his Asian face didn’t drive the message that He Is Not Like You home enough, and you were starting to think of him as some kind of human being.”
But maybe it’s not just the gays who are taking their seat at the table and ingratiating themselves with a rude blast of ethnocentric realness. Take Mindy Kaling’s new series, The Mindy Project, which debuted Tuesday night, featuring the Office star as an obstetrician. While the Indian-American actress, who is also the series’s creator, doesn’t mine her own background for humor, she tosses stones at a Serbian character (a “war criminal”), Gabourey Sidibe (she’s still a punchline?) and her character’s immigrant patient base (“This office is not an inflatable raft!”). Characters like Ms. Kaling’s on The Mindy Project or the gay couples of Modern Family and The New Normal or the two broke girls may belong to groups that have been underrepresented on television until recently, but if they see any irony in their easy mockery of other marginalized groups, it’s not making it to the screen.
That said, The New Normal shows signs of growth; though its most recent episode has Ms. Leakes’s character talking about how black people are always late, and a deeply unsettling joke about Tiger Woods’s lust for white women, the plot, in which the central couple wonder why they have no black friends, manages to play on the edge and actually say something about privilege, rather than throwing jibes at those who don’t have it.
It may not be normal, but it certainly does feel new.
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