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Schitt's Creek: Defying Patriarchal Stereotypes

How the popular TV show breaks boundaries with the portrayal of its characters.

Schitt's Creek (Image Source: The Irish Times)

Media has since forever, portrayed men in a binary. They are either the rough, stoic, unrelenting symbols of machismo- or the frail, timid, suppressed embodiments of effeminacy, tame to the extent of appearing out-rightly ludicrous.

The heterosexual-homosexual binary is overly reinforced and cemented by depictions in popular culture to strengthen the archetype of quintessential heterosexual masculinity- that jovial, hard-spirited guy, ever-ready to take on challenges in life, and boasting of his sexual prowess and adventures along the way.

The description might come across as an exaggeration, for the rise of feminist sentiment in popular culture and literature has played its part in compelling writers and directors to focus on the need of revamping the erstwhile model of masculinities time and again. But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that modern masculinity is still very much in a state of crisis.

Devoid of its traditional roles of being the sole breadwinner or protector; to evolve fresh and nuanced versions of manhood on television and media is indeed a creative struggle, for it would be difficult to speculate whether the definition of the quintessential man has changed at all with time.

Not surprisingly, the flux and rifts across the notions of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, as well as ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’, has become more characteristic within the depiction of female characters, where lies a greater scope of evolving more fluid, empathetic and humane sensibilities. Men however, are still stereotyped into a box. Feminist intervention and politics of critiquing systemic injustices and traditional male domination may have poked and challenged the persistence of hegemonic masculinity, but it hasn’t done away with the fundamental essences still unfortunately tied to maleness.

Express too many emotions, and you are a sissy. Admit to somebody that you are afraid, and you may be appreciated by a woke community, but your chances of being seen in the light of a hero has mostly faded.

Schitt’s Creek, a comedy-show on Netflix that charts the adjustments that an ultra-wealthy family has to make with respect to their lifestyle choices after shifting to a small town, rife with melodramatic outbursts of characters from the Rose family, is noteworthy for multiple reasons. The peculiarity of one of its central characters, David Rose, being the primary one. David is as unlike the popular imagination of a typical man, as a character could get. He uses a number of skin-care products and pays attention to his grooming to an obsessive level, and he is proud about it.

He does not shy away from voicing out his needs for comfort, both emotional and physical, and is vocal about his sensitivity. Make no mistake, though. His is not the kind of gentle persona that would easily get silenced by the weight of traditional manliness. He is upfront and unapologetic about his thoughts and opinions.

A fully grown man approaching his thirties, he is truly comfortable in his own skin with all his peccadilloes, who barely ever feels the need to act stoic and invincible or ‘perform’ masculinity in a traditional sense of the term.

The narrative of the show is majorly constructed within the shallow materialism of a rich family compelled to psychologically adjust to the frugality of their altered financial conditions turned around overnight; and the hedonism in each of the characters, barring perhaps the father Johnny Rose, is intentionally overdone for comic effect. So, humility certainly isn’t a strong trait among the Roses. What is uniquely remarkable about the show though, is that it overturns the power-hierarchy and imbalance across the traditional binary between traits and mannerisms which a patriarchal society rigidly boxes into the categories of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.

Take Johnny Rose for example. To look after and support the whimsical tantrums and fits of his wife Moira Rose is no easy job; and while in no manner does this article hint that theirs is an ideal example of a wife-husband equation; yet in a world where we are constantly fed with depictions of entitled, demanding husbands whose wives are compelled to toe the line and acquiesce to every demand with a smile on their faces, it is refreshing from a comic perspective, to witness a couple where the husband dotingly gives in, and works hard to financially sustain the eccentric demands and lifestyle of his wife.

Coming back to David, the attribute most remarkable about him is that he fits in, and yet defies all the boxes. He is very fussy about his cosmetic self-care and deviant dressing styles, such that you know it the moment you see him, that men like him who do not bother to retain an uprightness in their posture and body-language, clearly reveal how carefully constructed and arbitrary, markers of conventional masculinity are.

There is nothing specific that one could point out about David and call it an outlier, except in certain episodes where he wears a skirt, which clearly is a defiance of gender-norms. Other than that, however, is it hard to fit him into a box. One could call him effeminate, but his behaviour pushes us to challenge our very notion of effeminacy. He is ambitious and career-driven. He comes up with a business idea based solely on his passion and interest in fashion and cosmetics, and his headstrong opinionated nature clearly indicates that strength, conviction and a high degree of affiliation towards achievement; need not be the bastion attributes of the archetypal conventional masculinity; that is both stoic, and emotionally numb.

Most importantly, for all his steadfastness, David has flaws. He is so full of himself that it is difficult to persuade him to see things from viewpoints other than his own. His level of self-obsession, just like that of every other character, is palatable only because it is a comedy-show where everything is always over the top. But the character is also humanized, as he feels tremors of anxiety at certain key moments such as before a drivers’ license test, or before the impending possibility of marriage with the man he loved. He has some unresolved childhood complexes.

David may not be a very relatable and likeable character for all viewers, but his portrayal is still a defiance of prevalent stereotypes. It is established somewhere in the middle of the first season that he is pansexual, and the one night of drunken casual sex he has with a woman who later turns out to be a platonic best friend, proves the point that the performance of conventional masculinity need not be essential for a man to be in a heterosexual encounter.

Patrick, the guy who eventually turns out to be David’s lover is a gay man without any stereotypical traits of effeminacy attached to him. He is one of those guys that one might typically assume to be straight unless his sexuality is not explicitly stated, given how stereotypes in popular culture function.

The most unusual and adorable part about the series was that a gay relationship was shown within a comedy, without reducing it to a trope of caricature, the way television normally does. For once, instead of manipulating queer lives and representations to suit the eye of a typical heterosexual viewer, the tables were turned. We get to witness a tale where hetero-romantic equations are in the periphery, and David and Patrick’s love-story blooms in a gradual and sustained manner, retaining the limelight for the remainder of the show to itself. There is ample comedy, without reducing any character to a bunch of negative stereotypes.

This shows that it is possible to provide comic relief to the audience without exploiting stereotypes related to gender and sexuality that are detrimental to the self-concept, mental health and well-being of queer people.

The other character named Ted, who plays Alexis’ love-interest for significant durations of the narrative, is somewhat fluid as well. In the first season, he comes across as a soft-spoken and sweet-tempered guy who gets heartbroken after his wedding proposal gets rejected. Later however, when he makes a comeback, he is shown with a very athletic and muscular body-build. Although his body-image is a marker of conventional masculinity, the show stays true to its pattern of defying expectations, in two remarkable ways.

Media has conventionally catered to the demands of a heterosexual, male gaze by focusing the lens of the camera explicitly on the female body in a sexual manner. In Schitts’ Creek however, it is the female or a queer male lens through which we are looking at the screen, for at several instances Ted’s muscular physique is displayed in a non-objectifying manner. Moreover, even after attaining the muscular body-build, Ted’s basic disposition as a soft-spoken and sensitive guy does not change. Which is crucial, for otherwise the show would have delivered a problematic message, had it shown a guy getting rejected for being mild and gentle, and eliciting interest from the girl only after becoming rugged and stoic, much like the conventional man that has occupied too much screen-space, for ages.

Patrick is gay with a penchant for baseball, whereas Ted is a straight guy and a lover of animals. The portrayal is there, silently dismantling the internalized misogynist and homophobic assumption that heterosexual maleness alone triggers interest in sports, while developing a warm and sensitive side to one’s personality in too obvious a fashion would necessarily make a man gay.

Schitt's Creek defies the conventional piece of wisdom that comedy isn’t possible if one is politically correct all the time, for here is a show that challenges multiple patriarchal stereotypes and assumptions, and gives room to female and queer characters to uninhibitedly express their flaws and quirks.

It is specially a must-watch relief for all those boys and men, who have perpetually struggled to fit into the contours of normative masculinity, that is bolstered by the mainstream media.


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