Jun 26, 2015

Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide

Nickelodeon may be somewhat less beefcake-heavy than the Disney Channel, but it makes up for it with lots of gay subtexts.  ICarly, Zoey 101,  Drake and Josh, and today's Marvin Marvin and Supah Ninjas are particularly strong in the subtext department.  Unfabulous, not so much.

But the all-time winner is Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide (2004-2007, and still airing in reruns), about a boy (Devon Werkheiser) who offers tips for surviving middle school.

1. Inclusivity. Ned regularly advises his viewers, “When you like someone,” not “When a boy likes a girl,” and a school dance is depicted full of groups and trios rather than boy-girl couples.

When a Life Studies class requires students to pair up as "parents," two boys are paired along with the boy-girl couples.

 An episode about puberty discusses hair in weird places and sudden fits of rage, but not "discovering the opposite sex."

2. Same sex couples. The bully Loomer (Kyle Swann) and his sidekick Crony (Teo Olivares, who would later star in the gay-themed Geography Club) hang on each other in a manner that would elsewhere signify romantic attachment, and high-five each other obsessively, for any reason and for no reason at all except that it allows them to momentarily clasp hands.

In one episode, Crony struggles to “come out” to the other students about his gender-transgressive interest in fashion design, a veiled metaphor for coming out as gay; he is particularly apprehensive about telling Loomer, for fear that the revelation might destroy their friendship.

3. Same-Sex Dating. Jennifer (Lindsey Shaw) has a crush on school hunk Seth (Alex Black), and begs her buddy Ned to ask him out for her. Seth believes that Ned wants the date, and replies “Sure, but just as friends. I like you, Ned, but not in that way.” The statement rather boldly implies that being gay is unremarkable at Polk Middle School; Seth could only misinterpret Ned’s intent if he knows about same-sex dating, and respond so nonchalantly if there is no stigma attached to it.

Seth eventually agrees to a date with Jennifer, but he expects to keep the "date" with Ned, too.  He spends the rest of the day grinning at him, hugging him, accidentally sabotaging his own attempt to date a girl.

 In the last scene he tells Ned, “I’ll pick you up around seven tonight. We’ll catch a flick and get a corn dog.” Ned starts to protest, but when Jennifer assures him that she doesn’t mind, he shrugs and acquiesces: a date is a date. The scene fades with the three friends walking away, Seth trying to put his arm around a squirming Ned.

4. Same-sex Romance. When Ned tries to cheer up a depressed boy, Marc Downer (Ronald Patrick), he reasons that “opposites attract," and introduces him to the cheerful Martin Qwerly (Tylor Chase). Names often describe character personalities on Ned’s Declassified, so one cannot help but suspect the name “Qwerly.”

They fail to hit it off, so Ned tries again, this time with a Goth girl. The two “downers” fall in love instantly and walk away, happily discussing the meaninglessness of life. Although a heterosexual relationship was effective, Ned tried matching Downer with a boy first, and obviously considers same-sex relationships equally valid.

5. Acceptance of gender diversity. Girls are good at shop class; boys study fashion design.  When Loomer beats up a boy in drag, he is careful to explain that the drag is not the reason.

Jun 24, 2015

Beefcake and bonding in "Bringing Up Father"

When I was a kid, all of the good comic strips -- Peanuts, the Wizard of Id, Doonesbury -- were  in the Moline Dispatch.  In Rock Island, all we got were bargain-basement knockoffs and doddering relics last popular before the invention of radio: Out Our Way, Our Boarding-house with Major Hoople, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.  They were unfunny, incomprehensible, and downright disturbing.  And the most disturbing of the lot was Bringing Up Father by George McManus, which got its start in 1913!

It starred Jiggs, no first name, an elderly, pudgy person, and his wife Maggie.  They both had pug-dog noses and scary, pupil-less eyes and used dashes instead of periods to end their sentences  -- see how bizarre that looks -- it's just wrong --

They had a daughter, drawn as a 1920s glamour girl, who didn't have a name -- her parents called her "Daughter."

Other male characters were drawn as beady-eyed scarecrows, and the women were all glamour girls.

Jiggs and Maggie were noveau-riche. Jiggs longed to return to the old neighborhood, to have working-class corned beef and cabbage at Dinty Moore's diner.  But Maggie doted on her newfound status.  She kept going to teas, receptions, operas, and dinners with people whose names were horrible puns.

When Jiggs got out of line, Maggie unlashed a torrent of abuse, calling him an "insect" and a "worm," and assaulting him with pots and pans and a rolling pin from the kitchen.

Obviously a critique of the myth of the heterosexual nuclear family as most evolved, most stable, most normal of all family types.

For some crazy reason, toy producers in the 1920s thought that kids loved the stories about Jiggs trying to sneak out of the house to drink with Dinty Moore. They produced toys of all types, including dolls, cutouts, and Big Little Books.

There were dozens of movie adaptions and comedy shorts, beginning in 1915.  In 1928, Daughter (named Ellen) got a boyfriend played by Grant Withers (top photo). The last film appearance of Maggie and Jiggs was in the The Man Who Hated Laughter, a 1972 installment of the Saturday Superstar Movie, based on yet another ludicrous belief that the ancient strip attracted child readers. 

By the 1960s, the writers were throwing in contemporary references -- or at least references that were only about 10 years out of date, like this beatnik from 1968.

Anachronisms that merely added to the discomfort.

Recently I bought From Sea to Shining Sea, a compendium of strips from 1939-1940 written primarily by McManus's assistant, Zeke Zekley.  It featured a continuity in which Daughter marries a British nobleman, Lord Worthnotting.  The family celebrates by taking them an extended cross-country honeymoon.

Wherever they visit, Maggie and Daughter go shopping, leaving Jiggs and Lord Worthnotting to go skiing, hiking, camping, and sightseeing on their own.

Before the continuity is over (and Lord Worthnotting vanishes from the strip), the two have buddy-bonded so extensively that one could almost mistake them for the newlywed couple.

Apparently Zeke Zekley knew something that McManus didn't.

When McManus died in 1954, Zekley was in line to take over the strip, but the syndicate gave the job to Vernon Green instead, who returned to the nuclear-family-foibles.

Zekley went on to draw his own strips, including those used in The Tab Hunter Show (1960-1961), with the gay beefcake actor playing a horny "bachelor cartoonist."

He died in 2005.

See also: The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie
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