Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Worst Homosexual Ever Created

The Prosecution: Mr. Dallas, are you a practicing homosexual?
Jodie: I don’t have to practice. I’m very good at what I do.

Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered characters are everywhere on TV these days, but before these fictitious individuals get caught up in congratulating one another by holding a Pride Parade, they must always remember from where they came and who laid the groundwork: Jodie Dallas.

Jodie Dallas, for those of you with short memories, is largely credited as being the “first openly gay character as a regular cast member” on a TV series, and that series was the late 70s/early 80s spoof sitcom Soap. He was played by Billy Crystal, and remains one of the actor/comedian’s greatest acting achievements to this day.

But exactly how gay was Jodie Dallas?

When we meet Jodie, in the very first episode of the series, he’s busy dressing up in women’s clothing and by episode two he’s expressing to his mother his desire for a sex change operation, primarily so he and his lover Dennis can live a “normal” life. Dennis is a star quarterback, and having an out-of-the-closet relationship with a man would be unthinkable for a pro-football player (in that respect, I guess times haven’t changed all that much). The solution the couple agrees upon is for Jodie to get the chop. There’s also the baffling implication in the opening episodes that gay men feel like women on the inside, and therefore desire to be women. I know many gay men – none have ever expressed this, or at least they haven’t to me.

Now I don’t think I have to point out to even the most close-minded conservative that 25 years after this was considered a reasonable situation, not only would it not fly in the real world today, it would be laughed off our TV screens before it made it past episode 3. Gay men everywhere would be in an uproar at the very idea – even in a show like Soap - of removing their manhood in order to validate a relationship (as well they should be).

The operation never happened and Jodie and Dennis broke up halfway through Season One (good thing he didn’t get the sex change), only for Jodie shortly afterwards to fall for Carol, a woman. Bisexuality wasn’t a word uttered on the show – Jodie considered himself gay until the very end. Instead the writers opted for him to marvel at having feelings for a woman for the first time in his life. He impregnates Carol, decides to marry her, only for Carol to flake out, leaving him at the altar as she runs off with their unborn child.

After his relationship with Dennis and the subsequent Carol debacle, Jodie never again had a relationship with a man – for the entirety of Soap’s four season run – although the writers continued to hammer us over the head with his alleged homosexuality.

Jodie’s next relationship was with a lesbian, Alice. They were platonic friends and that’s all they ever could be (because clearly it’s harder for a lesbian to “turn” than it is for a gay man), but decided to move in together for reasons of practicality. In the midst of this, Jodie obtained custody of baby Wendy, at which point Alice moved out.

(A detailed analysis of every Jodie plot point would result in much tedium on both our parts, so assume I’m telling you everything you need to know.)

The idea of a single gay man raising a child may well have been the boldest move ever made with Jodie Dallas and it’s the biggest thing Soap ever got right where he was concerned. It’s his most touching ongoing storyline and huge chunks of the series revolved around this and the problems that ensued.

For instance: Carol kidnapping the baby and Jodie going after her with private detective Maggie Chandler, who along the way – guess what? – Jodie falls in love with and proposes to!!! He decides to see a shrink to figure out if he’s capable of a real relationship with Maggie, only to emerge from hypnosis thinking he’s a 90-year old Jewish man.

And then Soap was canceled, and 90 years old Jodie remains for eternity.

So there’s a thumbnail history of the “first openly gay character as a regular cast member” on a TV series. Nearly every character on Soap was to some degree or other totally nuts. To writer/creator Susan Harris’s credit, this was not the case with Jodie as he was one of the most levelheaded, intelligent characters on the show (this also made the 90-year old Jewish man plot all the more dramatic), which in itself was a feat of sorts given his place in TV history. Crystal fumbled with Jodie only in the first few episodes when he’s forced to prance around in a dress and a bad wig singing show tunes. Once that was gone, Jodie Dallas shines, even when Billy Crystal’s selling you on the idea that he needs a sex change or that Dennis leaving him would drive him to attempt suicide.

Jodie was a strong man with conviction and ideals. He didn’t appear to lead any kind of deviant lifestyle nor did he seem promiscuous (he often seemed almost asexual). He genuinely loved and loved strong, never more so than his baby Wendy. The lengths to which he was willing to go to protect her and what they had together are some of the strongest moments for the character.

The meat of Jodie was so much more important and worthy than the baggage with which he was saddled. When you look at all the facts, it’s hard to call him TV’s first gay man. He’s clearly bisexual, as evidenced by his relationships with women, and the near sex change along with the cross-dressing basically qualify him as TV’s first TV as well (no, Klinger doesn’t count).

It’s unfortunate that the character didn’t have more realistic storylines written for him. It’s as if nobody associated with the show’s writing actually knew anybody who was gay, only that they had a vague idea of what gays were about and wanted to portray them in a sympathetic light.

Soap was hugely controversial when it was on the air (watching it now, you’d never believe there were actual protests!), some of it due to Jodie, and perhaps in order to deflate some controversy, the team decided to give him female love interests. If so, I have to wonder what the point was of keeping him gay at all? They certainly had no problem constantly revising aspects of what made him gay in the first place. It smacks of tokenism in hindsight and I suppose there are big reasons why people (gay or otherwise) don’t speak much of Jodie Dallas these days.

To say that Soap is an imperfect show is an understatement. To say it was never any good at all would be just as unfair. I’m a huge fan of the series despite its faults, and as it’s slowly been released on DVD (all four seasons are now available), I’ve looked forward to playing each disc less and less, as the quality of writing declined sharply over the years. The first two seasons are outstanding and well worth viewing. One can oddly pinpoint almost the precise moment it began to derail – when Robert Guillaume’s Benson left the series (Episode 3 of Season Three) to have his own sitcom. Had he stayed, I doubt the series would have remained great, but like Jodie, Benson was a voice of reason amongst the madness. Only difference is, Benson had the shit to back it up.

ADDENDUM: After writing this, I found this article which seems to comfirm some of my ideas.