Thursday, October 15, 2015

Memoirs of a Gay Man (watching Knots Landing)

I posted the essay below at the Knots Landing Forum in the fall of 2011, just a few months before my husband birthday-gifted me this blog. Two friends whom I know from my days posting there suggested I reprint it here. I resisted, because the post was meant for avid Knots viewers, with a keen knowledge of the characters, and I try to keep my posts here pretty general-audience friendly (e.g., my write-ups of Knots Landing Season 3 and Knots Landing Season 14). But I do like this post, so I'm breaking (my own) protocol. Maybe all you need to know is that a poster at the Knots Forum, Montyc, had written a tongue-in-cheek post called "Is Knots Landing the Gayest Show Ever?" It inspired some spirited discussion, much of it equally amusing; a poster named Cambeck, a gay man, said he always felt like he'd be welcome on Seaview Circle, the Knots Landing cul-de-sac, and another poster, Sunshineboyuk, listed some of the show's most intolerant characters to prove him wrong. Ultimately, and sadly, some of the comments turned distinctly homophobic -- and the moderator closed the thread. I discovered it late in 2011, and decided to start my own follow-up post, one that was not tongue-in-cheek, but more autobiographical. And so I wrote:

I haven't posted here since -- oh, I don't know -- sometime before the Crimean War. But I was alone in my office today, sort of lost and blue and dazed, a little like Paige in Season 14's "Lovers and Other Strangers," without the somber music. And I decided to revisit the Knots Forum, for the first time in years. And nine hours later, when I finally found the frigging Knots Forum, I hunted far-and-wide for a post that would inspire comment. And there, buried inauspiciously near the back, was Montyc's "Is Knots Landing the Gayest Show Ever?" post, fishing for "gay subtext" in Seaview Circle. Now that thread interested me. And it was closed.

So I figured I'd write about it anyway.

FYI, I don't believe for a second that Knots had "gay subtext." But that wasn't really the point of the original post; that was Montyc being flip and funny, and good for you, Montyc, because the Knots Forum could use a kick in the ass right now. But Knots did -- and does -- have a certain appeal to gay men; it's an appeal to which some respond and some don't -- but it's precisely because that appeal is so understated, yet resonates across decades of viewing, that it's worth discussing here. I was 20 years old when Knots Landing premiered; it was 1979, and the gay world hadn't changed much since Stonewall. I moved to New York City in the summer of 1981, and over the next few years, most of my gay friends were watching Dynasty. Of course they were: it had the catfights and the bitchy repartee and the gay-for-a-while character. It had the "camp." I've never really been into "camp," so Dynasty had little appeal to me.

The gay people I knew who watched Dynasty used to watch in groups and clumps; they'd cheer and laugh at the small screen. Those of us who watched Knots Landing did so alone, and if a friend asked to join us, no, that wasn't allowed. Our attachment to Knots couldn't easily be explained to an outsider; they wouldn't have understood what it was we saw when we watched. Sunshineboy's post about gay people not being as welcome on Seaview Circle as Cambeck might presume missed the point, I think. No gay person watching in 1979-1993 thought a gay couple was suddenly going to show up on Knots Landing. But we did understand, subtly and intuitively, that someday, sometime -- when timid network executives and a hostile public were ready -- there would be gay people on something like Knots Landing. And that's where we'd settle. And we were right, of course, because when Knots morphed into Six Feet Under, we were there; and when it morphed into Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters, we were there, too. Knots wasn't a haven -- but it was the promise of one, and in the 1980's, very few shows were.

Knots Landing didn't have the campy women with their big shoulder pads to which gays are stereotypically drawn (well, except for two seasons where William Travilla oversaw the costumes, and turned out one monstrosity after another), but the importance of the Knots ladies -- Karen and Abby and Laura and Paige and Claudia -- in "drawing us in" can't be overlooked. Although Knots began as a traditional gender-role soap, headwriters Ann Marcus and Peter Dunne -- starting in Season 3 -- turned it into a show about the emergence of women. Not, as is so simplistically stated too often, a show about woman (to contrast it with Dallas, a show that was indeed "about men"), but a show about the emergence of women: the gratifying results of the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s. And if you were gay in the 1980's, and felt too often that you had no real place in society -- a time when, in the early years of the AIDS crisis, your country's own Administration decided it would be better if you all died -- then there was something deeply comforting about seeing women come into their own. Because we could be next. (And of course, we were right about that, too.) Seeing Karen take over Knots Landing Motors after the death of her husband Sid and find she had a head for business; looking at how Laura thrived once she emerged from a suffocating marriage to her husband Richard; and of course, watching Abby grow more and more comfortable in her own skin-- it was enormously pleasurable and gratifying to see a movement toward equality and freedom actually work.

And that's why Abby's success in the boardroom in Season 5 meant so much to gay viewers, as did Claudia taking the reins at the Sumner Group in Season 13. (If her brother Greg won't take the meeting with Burton Biotech, she'll take the meeting -- and do a damn good job at it.) Knots was proud of its women's achievements. It was also highly protective of them; it understood that real change takes time, that equality is tough. (It's still tough for gays: our country seems to repeal our rights as often as it grants them. Hell, it's still tough for women.) But Knots knew that, and Knots consoled us. Go after your dream. Realize your potential. Break down those barriers. No matter how you've screwed up, Claudia, Greg will still get you that teaching job in Monaco in the series' final moments; no matter how much you've duped and offended him, Abby, Gary Ewing will still be there for you in the Season 5 finale, chasing after your limo when you've been kidnapped. Sure, it was soap opera fantasy, but it was a lovely dream; the Knots women's achievements became empowering for us all.

Seaview Circle wasn't "gay-friendly" -- who the hell was gay-friendly then? But it was "accepting." Knots Landing was about a community, and as others have noted, it was a community full of unlikely friendships and alliances: not a community where no one was judged, but where everyone was judged equally. (As Eric Fairgate learned when he started to date a black girl and was visibly disappointed that his family and neighbors weren't scandalized, no one in Seaview Circle cared about things like that. On Knots, there were worse things than bringing home a girlfriend of color: you could bring home a sociopath, like your sister; a criminal, like your cousin; or a rapist, like your next-door neighbor.) It was a show that understood that in a crisis, we all become equal -- and if it's a funeral, we all become awful. And because Knots Landing was better written and better acted than the other prime-time soaps, because the characters were so much deeper, we felt we knew them, and because we felt we knew them, then they must, by extension, know us, understand us, accept us. If you grew up gay -- if you were bullied and beaten, or just excluded and "different" -- then the concept of an embracing community was deeply comforting. (Lilimae: "I just don't wanna see you get hurt, sweetpea." Karen: "People should be nice; nice should be the norm.")

The week of the final Knots episode, People Magazine ran a full-page ad: "There Goes the Neighborhood." I had it enlarged to poster-size, and even today, it hangs in my office. "After 14 years together," it says, "Say good-bye to all your old friends." Who would have said that about Dallas or Falcon Crest or Dynasty: "Say goodbye to your friends"? But that's what Knots communicated, all the way to the final scenes of the 1997 special ("Nothing lasts." "We do.") -- we're all part of the same beautiful, torn tapestry. We're all worthy, and we're all flawed. Our achievements should be celebrated, and our failings will be forgiven -- by our friends, our family and our community. When producer Joseph Wallenstein wrote, in one of the show's best-remembered episodes, "We're all just china dolls," he spoke to our shared humanity -- that mixture of fragility and fortitude that cuts across race, class, gender and orientation. In 1982, it resonated deeply with me. And remarkably, it still does.

5 comments:

  1. i'm not familiar with this series, but i was interested in this observation: "It was a show that understood that in a crisis, we all become equal -- and if it's a funeral, we all become awful. "

    there's something remarkably 'true/raw' about soaps which often more serious drama wastes time beating about the bush to get to

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  2. Very interesting post, glad you brought it back from the dead so that we can all enjoy it.

    I'm a gay of a different era, I think. I was born in 1990, and I feel blessed to have grown up with accepting parents and friends. I've never felt judged or felt homophobia directed towards me.

    I agree with your points that even if there weren't any overt gay characters on KNOTS, the feeling of the cul-de-sac was that one would be welcome even if they were gay.

    Also, maybe now would be the perfect time to ask: How many young gay boys in the 1980s got in touch with their sexuality by drooling over Michael Fairgate in his incredible '80s short shorts and those FABULOUS shirts he would wear that were cut off in the lower half and showed off his belly button? Mmmmm.....yeah.

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    1. I was born in 1959 (heaven help us, we were raised over a generation apart!), and I don't think you could grow up gay when I did without experiencing some bullying and harassment. It's lovely to hear how growing up gay has changed so dramatically for some in just a generation. Knots when it first aired was truly a haven: and really, not so much because it seemed "gay-friendly" (nothing much did then), but because of the way it looked after its female characters, the way it fought for their rights and equality at a time when we gays were fighting for ours. The overriding "message" of Knots was that everyone was worthy of a certain dignity and respect; it spoke to so many of my gay friends, and it certainly spoke to me.

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