Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jodie Dallas of "Soap": The First Openly Gay Character as a Regular Cast Member"

During the late 70s American pop culture began to see many changes. Women were demanding more freedoms, we were exiting a horrible war, and homosexuality was becoming more noticed amongst our society. In 1977 a new prime-time sitcom hit the ABC line-up. This show was named Soap. Soap was a comedy that satirized soap operas that had become so popular during the day-time television program line-up. The story centered around two sisters and their equally outrageous families. The one sister (Jessica Tate) was rich, while the other sister (Mary Campbell) was a lower-middle class woman. The one thing these two sisters had in common was their equally outrageous families.

Throughout the four-season stretch of this show, until its eventual cancellation, Soap touched on every cliched and controversial subject ever used (or not used) in soap operas until that moment. The Tates and the Campbells dealt with murders, the mob, incest, adultery, cults, guerillas, prison breaks, UFO encounters, Satan-possessed children, suicide, inter-racial marriages, and homosexuality (just to name a sampling of the issues tackled in this show).

Because so much happens during the duration of this show, I decided to focus my film review on the character of Jodie Dallas, played by Billy Crystal. The character Jodie Dallas is still known to this day as being the “first openly gay character as a regular cast member”. The introduction of this character was met with a great deal of controversy amongst both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives protested against this show because of their views against homosexuality. Liberals felt that Jodie Dallas encompassed all of the stereotypes that a person usually associated with homosexuals.

Upon the first episode of Soap Jodie is introduced as the younger son of Mary Campbell from her previous marriage. Jodie is a gay man who is effeminate, dresses well (in men's and women's clothing), and loves show tunes. He's dating a star quarterback and must keep his relationship with him a secret in order to protect his boyfriend's reputation amongst the public. Jodie decides the best way for him to continue his relationship with his boyfriend is to undergo a sex change operation. In his eyes, if he becomes a woman the public will be more accepting of his relationship with his superstar athlete boyfriend.

In the end Jodie decides to not go for the sex change operation because his boyfriend broke up with him in order to marry a woman so that he could protect his image. After a failed suicide attempt Jodie is convinced by his family and other people around him to start dating girls. For the duration of the television series Jodie only dates women (unless you count the one episode where he goes on a date with a man, in which that never develops into anything more). He ends up impregnating the first woman he sleeps with, and they end up having a girl together.

Out of the problematic elements of this show what really impressed me was the storyline dealing with Jodie, the woman he impregnates (named Carol), and their daughter. After the birth of their daughter Carol runs off with the baby stating that because Jodie is gay, he is unfit as the father of their child. This storyline progresses into Jodie going into an international search for his daughter and taking Carol to court over custody of his child. Jodie ends up winning custody of Wendy (his daughter). In today's society men (let alone gay men) have a hard time winning custody of their children. I find it to be groundbreaking for a late 70s/early 80s television sitcom to tackle this issue and come out with a positive story ending.

Although Jodie's character was far from perfect he gave American television viewers a fresh point of view on issues dealing with homosexuality. Jodie might have been described as a gay man, but the progression of Soap's story line would suggest something differently. He was more of a bisexual man. Because American society at the time had a hard enough of a time dealing with homosexuality, it was easier to peg Jodie as being a gay man rather than a bisexual man. In today's society bisexuality amongst men is still considered to be a taboo subject that many consider to be an unheard of idea.

Jodie's homosexuality was also used as the comic relief during the earlier episodes of the show. Someone in his family was quick to call him a “fruit” or remark on his effeminate behaviors. The audience would laugh and the story would carry on into it's more serious moments. As the show grew though it became apparent that Jodie Dallas was one of the most sane characters in this outlandish storyline. He was a part of the backbone to this show's success. To this day Billy Crystal is still remembered for his portrayal of Jodie Dallas. Even though Jodie Dallas was a problematic character in many ways, he paved the way for more gay characters to be shown on American television. I'm wondering how many of our favorite shows and characters we wouldn't have today if it weren't for Soap. This show was way ahead of its time. If this show concept was reintroduced into society today I have no doubt in my mind that it would be more successful if a lot of these stereotypes were tackled.

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