Nov 17, 2012

Boyfriends Down Under: Skippy the Bush Kangaroo

Since I couldn't see many movies, video games hadn't been invented, and I didn't like sports, you might think that I spent the first 20 years of my life staring goggle-eyed at the tv set every day from 3 pm to bedtime.

Actually, I was quite busy: LOTS of church activities (choir, prayer meetings, Bible studies, youth groups), plus school clubs, orchestra, cross country, and judo.  But those were sites for indoctrination into heterosexism, not sites of freedom.  When I liked a boy, every adult, from my Sunday school teacher to my orchestra director to the sensei at the dojo, insisted that we were "pals," if they acknowledged the relationship at all, but when I befriended a girl, they could barely restrain their congratulatory shoulder-pats and misty eyed proclamations that I was "growing up."  

I could discuss dreamy boys with female friends, but only teen idols. If I mentioned the boy with dark curly hair and a nice smile who sat behind me in Social Studies, they got blank, uncomprehending looks and changed the subject.   

I could discuss muscular men with male friends, but only if they were spies or superheroes.  If I pointed out a high school hunk playing basketball shirtless on the playground, they would order me to "stop fooling around"  and probably punch me in the stomach.  Of course, no gay people existed; I was just being silly.

So I returned, again, and again, to the tv programs, movies, books, and comics that hinted at the existence of a "good place."

Like the Australian outback.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was syndicated in the U.S. from 1969 to 1972, but it appeared only sporadically, at weird times like Sunday morning or Saturday afternoon, so I only caught occasional glimpses.  

Enough to know that it was about a 10-year old boy named Sonny (Garry Pankhurst) who lived in some sort of national park with his dad (Ed Devereaux), a forest ranger, and his pet kangaroo.  Like Lassie, or Flipper.

Except Sonny had two hunks in his life: his older brother Mark (20-year old Ken James, left), an ever-smiling practical joker; and tanned, handsome Jerry (25-year old Tony Bonner, right), a park ranger who flew a  helicopter.  I was pretty sure that Mark and Jerry liked each other.

In most kid-pet dramas, the kid needs rescuing all the time, but in Skippy, Jerry and Mark were always getting into trouble, requiring Sonny and Skippy to save the day.  In one episode, they were being held hostage by a young juvenile delinquent.  In another, they both ate spoiled fish, so Sonny had to actually fly the helicopter to bring them to the hospital.

What could be cooler than rescuing your brother and his boyfriend in a real helicopter?

I don't remember a lot of shirtless shots, but Ken James made up for it later, on many Australian tv series (the only one airing in the U.S. was Barrier Reef).  He even had a nude shot. 

 Tony Bonner briefly pursued a teen idol career before returning to his true loves, acting and life saving.  Gerry Pankhurst has retired from acting, and manages a Lutheran senior citizens home.

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.

Nov 13, 2012

The Beefcake Star of "Life Goes On"

I disliked most of the heterosexist "family friendly" comedies of the late 1980s  -- Home Improvement,Growing Pains, Family Ties, The Hogan Family --  but  Life Goes On was my least favorite of the lot.  It was depressing, with way more tears than laughs -- did they have to have someone dying every single week?  And besides,  the other channels offered  the bonding-heavy Parker Lewis Can't Lose (starring Billy Jayne), Eerie, Indiana, and Great Scott (starring Tobey Maguire).

Besides, the opening featured my least favorite Beatles song of all them, the execrable "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

I only watched if I thought an episode might feature some beefcake. But I heard about it all the time.

The family consisted of Mom (singer Patty Lupone),  Dad (Bill Smitrovich), and three kids:  Paige, Becca, and Corky (Chris Burke), who had Down Syndrome.

Lots of movies and tv series, such as Shawn Cassidy's Like Normal People (1979),  involved mentally challenged teenagers proving that they could do everything a "normal" person could -- and more.  But never before had the character been portrayed by a mentally challenged person.  Chris Burke became a star, sought-after for interviews and speaking engagements.

Chris didn't get much teen idol attention, so the producers added Tyler Benchfield (Tommy Puett, previously of Aaron's Way), who bonded with Corky (but only as a big brother) and eventually began dating Becca.  The teen magazines went wild over him.

Unfortunately, during the third season the producers decided that Tyler wasn't depressing enough, so they killed him (in an auto accident) and gave Becca a new boyfriend, Jesse (Chad Lowe).  Corky didn't like him, Becca didn't like him, but he was HIV positive, and therefore could be gloriously depressing.

Jesse didn't die during the run of the show, but in the last episode, a 40-year old Becca informs us that he did die a few years later, and she married someone else. Life goes on, brah.

There were no gay characters on Life Goes On, though Jesse was occasionally the victim of a gay-bashing, so the producers could have their cake and eat it too, address homophobia while insisting that no gay people exist.

So all we had were Tommy Puett's muscles.  They weren't enough.

Nov 12, 2012

Twister: Sex in a Box

How many times have you wanted to talk to a cute guy or girl at a party, but you were too self-conscious?  Or you talked to them, but they didn't respond.  Or maybe you liked each other, but you couldn't show it, because you were supposed to like the "opposite sex."

Wouldn't it be great if someone invented a way to "get physical" with hunks or babes while everyone around thought you were just friends?  Or even the two of you thought you were just friends?

That's the whole point of the game "Twister."

It was introduced by Milton Bradley in 1966 as a "wild party game" for heterosexual grown-ups, but teens soon became the primary audience.  

You play on a large plastic mat covered with red, blue, yellow, and green circles.  The leader spins, and then announces "Left foot -- green", "Right hand -- yellow", and so on.  Players (up to 4) try to place the proper appendage on the proper circle.  If they can't, or if they fall down, they are out of the game.  The last player standing wins.

You might expect that, as players squirm and twist to hit the proper circles, intimate body parts would be pressed together, and in fact the game's critics called it "Sex in a Box."  But the mechanics of body placement really gives you about the same amount of intimate contact you would get in a wrestling match, or an extended hug.

But you do get that hug!

Teenage boys in the 1970s were forbidden touching, except for  brief, stylized handshakes and the aggressive contact of sports matches.  If they touched by accident, they were expected to jump back and feverishly brush off invisible contaminants, too disgusted for words.  So having license to touch at all was liberating.

It was no fun in mixed-sex groups, but you could often convince sleepover buddies to play.  It would have been even more fun in swimsuits at the beach, but that was hard to arrange in the Midwest, 2000 miles from the nearest ocean.

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