One of my great shames is that I like to read Us Weekly. Especially while traveling. In my carry-on bag, I’ll wedge a copy between the Economist and First Things.
It always reminds me of that bit in Bananas with Woody Allen at the newsstand: “Get a copy of Time magazine and I think I’ll take Commentary and The Saturday Review and… let’s see, Newsweek… I’ll just… grab one of these.” To which the newsman responds, “Hey, Ralph, how much is a copy of Orgasm?”
One of the most hilarious features in the magazine is called “Just Like Us.” (I’m talking about Us Weekly, not Orgasm.) In it, celebrities are pictured as normal people with lives similar to yours and mine.
They pick up spare change! They browse the prepared food aisle!
Is it really newsworthy that celebrities take breaks from exposing their ladybits, shaving their head, and doing lines of coke off a stripper’s posterior to fill up on gas and take the kids to the park?
Okay, don’t answer that.
As argument, the feature fails miserably. Under “they take romantic getaways,” for instance, you see Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky lounging at a five-star resort. “Just like Us” is, however, a great ironic pleasure. And I mean ironic, as in the opposite of what is most likely true. New Yorker reporter Tad Friend blew the lid off the idea that celebrities are normal in his article on Hollywood public relations five years ago:
“Middle America can’t relate to a story about you in your movie trailer,” one publicist said. “So you pretend you don’t have three assistants and a chef, a limo, a plane. No, no, no. You tell a laundry story, bring yourself down to the level of everyone else — I’m clumsy, bad at math, can’t deal with insects.”
Celebrity appeal depends on our ability to relate to them and relating to them helps us believe we could be rich, good looking, or famous. It’s a win-win situation.
This trope is getting around. In recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of stories about how people with non-traditional sex lives are also just like us.
A recent New York Times treatise on gay parents and their reproductive donors forming multi-parent families had one theme: how normal everyone was. The story featured such typical domestic arrangements as that of a separated interracial lesbian couple, one of whom was impregnated by an opposite-race gay man and the other of whom left and found out her hetero tendencies were still intact. This former lesbian, it turned out, liked penis just fine.
Over and over again the article emphasizes how normal, if not better, these arrangements are for the children.
Ending the story with the wholesome image of a family cookout, the author writes: “Eight conversations were juggled as children came and went, screaming, laughing, crying, demanding juice boxes, spilling juice boxes, getting sand on the frosting on their mouths and so on.”
I don’t think people who question the sanctity or durablity of multi-parent or gay-parent families are under the impression that their children don’t like juice — which is why that style of reporting is so ineffective as argument.
The New York Times ran another feature in March about Joe Darger, a young college basketball star whose parents are in a polygamous marriage. The well-written and interesting story ran in the sports section and claimed that, at games, the player’s family appears “no different from any other group in the UNLV family section — only larger and louder.”
Really? I thought they would have had horns and green skin!
Now again, unless we’re talking about those communal-living inbreds in Utah who abandon their young boys on the side of the road as soon as they hit puberty so Uncle Enos won’t have any competition when he takes his sixteenth underage wife, I just don’t think people assume that folks who take more than one spouse are weird. They just have moral objections. Perhaps they think these non-traditional formations entrench male power or harm marriage or undermine society in general by messing up everything, from complicating life insurance claims to making parent-teacher conferences really awkward.
The article compares the basketball player’s family with those of other players: The other players have parents in jail, in shelters, or even missing entirely. Darger, however, grew up with three parents in the house. And three is better than none, clearly. People quoted in the article say that Darger’s is a most loving family. Again, not a surprise. One of the wives has the final word: “‘We are just people,’ Carollee said. ‘We are normal people.’”
A Washington Post story about how polygamists are attempting to use the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision to legalize their lifestyle (just as Sen. Rick Santorum said, no?) had roughly the same quote:
“All the while, the petite brunette with a smile as bright as Utah’s sky has insisted that she’s just like you and me: ‘I’m a soccer mom. My kids are in music lessons. They go to public school. I’m not under anyone’s control.’”
Okay, we get it. Polygamists put their pants on one leg at a time. People with unorthodox marriages are normal. Adultery, incest, animal-human sex, pedophilia, necrophilia, etc.: It’s all normal. It’s less threatening than the Red Hat Society! It’s been beaten into me. I relent.
But this “everyone is normal” theme is just overdone. There have to be more ways to write about polyandry, polyamory, and bestiality than by noting that the people who participate in such behavior are, well, people.
Literary objections aside, such advocacy fails to persuade. Things should be legal not because they can be convincingly portrayed as normal, but because people have a legitimate right to them.
Besides, if everyone is normal, everyone is boring. Normalizing sex, no matter how deviant, kinky, or bizarre isn’t good for sex. Sex is more fun when it involves a bit of the taboo.
Consider the time-honored fantasy about the Catholic school girl. Uniforms constrict the body, suggest discipline, and help define roles. Part of the allure is, certainly, the imagined youth of the object of desire. But more than anything, it’s the implied sexual repression of the subject.
In Europe, the knee-jerk critics of American sexual mores say, no one makes a big deal about breasts. Nude beaches flourish there, it’s true. And you know what? American women have hotter boobage. If it’s our pietism that produces more erotic beachwear, let’s institute annual readings of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
The media should find a new way to talk about non-traditional sexual groupings. And advocates of polygamy and other marriage alternatives should be more honest about why they support legalization. But more than anything, people who like weird sex should protect it by making sure it never becomes normal.
Mollie Ziegler is a writer in Washington, D.C.