In watching Locke & Key on Netflix, my kids showed me how the normalization of sexual diversity works. And they showed a whole bunch of meh.
I have twin boys who turn 12 in a week. Having worked our way through the first two seasons of Netflix’s Locke & Key, we were happy to see the new season drop the other day. The series is certificated 15 in the UK, but it’s pretty appropriate for them. I am no puritan, but I make sure I check imdb.com and Common Sense Media before we watch anything. You know, because parenting.
It’s a pretty enjoyable supernatural romp, tailor-made for my kids. The show revolves around a mother and her three children moving out to a big gothic Massachusetts mansion that had been in her recently-murdered husband’s family’s possession for generations. A house that holds many intriguing secrets.
One of the supporting characters, the children’s uncle, gets married in episode 2 of the 3rd season. He’s gay and gets married to another man (a person of color, indeed).
This is standard fare for 2022 and will invite discussions of tokenism versus normalization. What follows is an advocation of and for normalization.
“Standard fare” almost sounds dismissive here, but this is exactly the right phrase. When things become standard fare, they are already (or are in the process of being) normalized. Here, we have both ethnic and sexual diversity.
The more conservative-minded viewers—probably older (but without wanting to be ageist)—might whinge about having X or Y “shoved down their necks.” But here is just a small anecdote of how such programming is entirely successful in achieving its objective. This is evidence of moral progress.
My boys watched the wedding scene, with its build-up and introduction of the gay fiancé.
They didn’t bat an eyelid.
They watched as the two men had an onscreen kiss.
They didn’t bat an eyelid.
Then one of them poked his head up and asked a question.
It had nothing to do with sexuality, and something to do with some plot element from five minutes previously.
What we can learn from this is that sexual diversity has been normalized with my children to the point that scenes like this don’t even register. They couldn’t have cared less. And when you consider the plight of such demographic segments in society in their quest for equality, this is wonderful news.
The challenge, of course, is seeing if my kids still react (or, indeed don’t react) in this way in a few years’ time, after journeying through puberty. When they become sexually aware, will their upbringing and present social environmental priming be enough to stand them in good liberal stead in the melting pot of secondary school?
It’s interesting to juxtapose their reaction with my own. I am in my mid-40s and am avowedly socially liberal. This is a combination of my moral-political psychological position and decades of philosophizing. And yet I still have (an admittedly much diminished) intuitive reaction of something akin to the very mildest discomfort in watching such sexual interaction. But this is absolutely not a reflection of socio-sexual moral evaluation. I couldn’t give two hoots as to the socio-sexual proclivities of those different from me if they have no moral dimension. And homosexuality certainly has no negative moral dimension.
So why this reaction? Well, I always like to question myself before questioning others, to understand what flicks my switches.
Instead, what is probably happening here is empathy and intersubjectivity (and I am a very empathetic viewer). When we watch anything on TV, we are consistently putting ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists we are watching. Our mirror neurons fire such that when actors on the screens in front of us do something, we feel as if we are doing that something. Just turn and watch the facial expressions of others in a room during an evocative televisual moment. They are often personally living and experiencing those moments.
So, in a sense, my brain is very quickly putting myself in the shoes of the person kissing or being kissed here—both men. As a heterosexual, this is not my sexual preference. In other words, my reaction is one of “that’s not my sexual preference” rather than “that is morally wrong.” This is a vitally important difference. An analog might be someone who hates thrill-seeking watching a base-jumper launch themselves from the top of a skyscraper. They might show discomfort, and have a gut reaction, as it’s not the sort of thing they would do themselves.
My children at the moment probably have little understanding of their own sexual mores, so this event will not have registered in an intuitively sexual manner, but rather in a social one. And, for them, the event contained no negative social-moral elements.
And “meh” is exactly the sort of reaction that society needs. You’re black—meh. You’re white—meh. You’re heterosexual—meh. You’re gay—meh. Right, let’s get on and tell a good story.
Of course, this is pure armchair psychoanalysis, and I am very open to being shown in error. But I can’t help thinking that this is progress. And for me personally, my reaction is so very slight now compared to what it once must have been, that my own intuitive psychological normalization is also taking place. That I still have this mild weird feeling is merely because I haven’t viewed enough instances for my psyche to be fully used to it.
An interesting question is whether a homosexual person ever feels that same “discomfort” in reverse. Of course, heterosexuality is so obviously and completely normalized and prevalent in every element of society that this would be highly unlikely. We might call this “exposure therapy.” It should be able to work both ways.
So, no, this isn’t tokenism. This is about turning something that was once a sexual taboo into a sexual norm with no negative moral or psychological connotations. My kids have got there. For now. Let’s hope we all do, sooner rather than later.