Normporn: Queer Viewers and the TV That Soothes Us – Karen Tongson
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.