Nov 16, 2012

Michael J. Fox/Alex P. Keaton

Michael J. Fox was the first celebrity I ever  met.  Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, I met a guy who knew him from acting class, and the three of us had lunch at a place on Melrose Boulevard.  He was very nice, and completely gay-positive (and heterosexual, even though my insanely jealous boyfriend Ivo claimed to have dated him).

 Unfortunately his sitcom Family Ties (1982-89) wasn't.

It was one of the 1980s "family values" comedies, like Growing Pains, Life Goes On, and Home Improvementabout liberal ex-hippies (Meredith Baxter Birney, Michael Gross) with politically conservative kids (Scott Valentine was daughter Mallory's boyfriend). Michael played the teen Alex P. Keaton, a Young Republican whose money-grubbing provides most of the jokes.

Gay people did not exist in the world of Family Ties -- if they did, Alex's ultra-liberal parents would certainly have had gay friends.  However, sometimes Alex plays the "is he gay?"  game.  In order to impress a girl, he dons an apron to cook dinner. When Dad criticizes this gender transgression, he counters "I hope you don't mind -- I borrowed your apron.  I got quiche on mine."  The joke plays with the expression "Real men don't eat quiche."

In "Little Man on Campus," he fails his first test, and asks his sister Mallory why she fails so often:

Mallory: When I take a mind starts wandering.
Alex: What do you think about?
Mallory: Boys.
Alex: (Waits for the howls of laughter to subside). Let's hope it's different for me.

Pretending to be gay as a joke only works if you don't have any significant same-sex friendships, so Alex carefully avoids sidekicks.  Wacky next door neighbor Skippy (Marc Price) hangs around because he has a crush on Mallory; they become friends anyway, but Alex carefully polices the relationship, even rejecting the standard sitcom stage business of sitting pressed together on a couch (so they can both be in a closeup).  In one episode, they somehow fall onto the bed together.  Skippy nonchalantly continues their conversation, but Alex recoils in horror and jumps away.  Since no gay people exist, this rejection has an even greater emotional impact than the homophobia of Teen Wolf, marking even nonsexual friendships as bad, wrong, and disquieting.

A few episodes suggest -- but immediately reject -- the possibility of romantic love between Alex and a male friend. In "Best Man," Alex's friend Doug (Timothy Busfield) gets engaged.  He treats Alex and his fiancee as emotional equivalents, hugging them and squealing "You're both so cute!", but still, Alex feels threatened by the new relationship and refuses to be his best man.  When he finally understands that he will still be an essential part of Doug's life, he hugs Doug so tightly at the altar that the minister, in "jest," asks which couple is going to be married.

In the two-part episode "A, My Name is Alex," Alex's friend Greg (Brian McNamara) is killed in an auto accident, and Alex is so distraught that he requires psychiatric help.  But after digging into his subconscious, the psychiatrist fails to find any homoromantic feelings, just guilt because Alex refused to accompany Greg on the errand that killed him, and the recognition of his own mortality.

How does someone who is so gay-friendly play someone so anti-gay on tv?

It was the 1980s?

See also: My Date with Michael J. Fox.


  1. Did he pay for the lunch?

  2. Those sound like pro-gay episodes, hinting that Alex is gay without actually saying it. What did you expect in 1985, Alex to come out and look for a boyfriend?

  3. The series was made for conservative Republicans - President Reagan liked the show - and so the series made episodes for its target audience. They did an episode on the failed ERA.

  4. In 1985 a family comedy was not going to have a main gay character


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