Monday, June 11, 2012

Budding Bromances and the Female Gaze (Why Common Law Sucks)

When I heard that USA had a show coming on called Common Law, where two buddy cops had to go to marriage counseling to resolve their differences, I really, really thought they were kidding. Because that does not sound like a real show. No. That sounds like what the internet says a show on USA would be.

But it's a real show. A real, mediocre show.

It's also really, how do I put this? Gay. It's super gay. And I've reached the point where I'm pretty sure that's what they were going for.

Let's look at the evidence:

In the past couple of years, the buddy comedy has evolved from a couple of bros talking about girls (Wedding Crashers), to a bromance (Superbad). Instead of getting men helping each other out with their woman problems, now the "romances" are between men themselves, focussed on the relationships that they share. And that's fine. Good, even. I like movies that deal with loving friendship, and I enjoy seeing men actually talk about their feelings.

But there came a moment when I was watching Pineapple Express and seeing Seth Rogen carry James Franco away from a burning building, sans pants, that I thought, hang on a second. This is all a little, well, intentional.

Like, are the studios making bromances gayer because women like them?

I'm not sure I'm cool with that.

I believe in characters. They're what make stories work. Bromances, buddy stories, those are male friendships based entirely on the interactions between two characters. These characters need to be strong and interesting for the partnership to be appealing and to hold the audience's interest.

Just like how I hate it when writers diminish female characters by giving them only one personality trait, or defining them by their male relationships, or whatever's pissing me off this week, I really hate it when male characters aren't written well too. And when a bromance is written with the express interest of enticing the female gaze, that's not a whole lot better than a close female friendship being written to appeal to the male gaze. Think about it.

There are bromances that work outside of this framework. White Collar is a good example, as it's both borderline homoerotic (Peter chased Neal for years, finally caught him, and now they enjoy a strangely close relationship that amuses Peter's wife), but also very much a real friendship (Neal sacrifices his own interests to help Peter and vice versa, Neal befriends Peter's wife, Elizabeth, Peter befriends Neal's forger, Mozzie).

It works because while there is a homoerotic element, the characters exist independent of that. It's clearly a show with a strong male relationship that happens to stray into homoerotic territory sometimes, and that's fine. The female characters on the show are excellent, from the ever clever Elizabeth to Peter's partner, Diana and her lovely girlfriend. The show is built on the relationships between these people, so it never suffers.

Contrast that with, say, Common Law. Here, the characters are intended only as foils for each other and titillations for the female gaze. They're both fit, attractive men, who appeal to different demographics. One of them is a flirty playboy who lives outside of the rules and needs more structure in his life. The other one is a neurotic, tightly wound, mash of stereotypes. They don't have a clear bond, or any real chemistry, but they are forced to make their partnership work in the most homoerotic of ways: couple's counseling. This was a plot point on Bones too, remember. And that ended with Booth and Brennan having a baby.

The show's okay, not great or terrible, just a puddle of mediocrity, where the two male leads fluster and grimace their way through a plot contrived to make them appealing to women by hinting at the possibility of sexual interest. It's a form of objectification that I don't think we should be so easy to accept.

So I don't hate bromances. I want to be clear on that. Sometimes they're great, even with the extreme levels of homoeroticism involves. Supernatural has, for years, thrived on its female fanbase and the tickling possible repressed bisexuality of one of its main characters (Dean), while reveling in the "profound bond" that Dean shares with Castiel, an apparently male angel. But this isn't an offensive example because Dean and Cas' story is good whether you view it sexually or not. The characters are so fully realized that even occasional nods to the fans belief in their relationship come off as organic, instead of painfully self-aware. And the hope that the two of them will end the show in each others' arms isn't just a fangirl's fantasy, it would make sense for the characters, too.

In the end, it all comes down to characters. Do they make sense? Are they well-written? And if you get rid of the outsiders gaze, is this a story that's appealing to the gender about which it's written? Male friendships should make sense to men, just like female friendships in fiction should make sense to women. If we're going to be all het up about one, then we have to care about the other.

No double standards, and no external gaze. Just characters, story, and friendships that feel real.

Also, you should watch White Collar. Because it's great.

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