Arrested Development's Homophobia, Racism, and Church-Bashing: Too Far?

A conversation about the show's sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-queasy identity politics

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This is a post in a series from Atlantic writers on Arrested Development's fourth season.

The Atlantic's sexes editor, Eleanor Barkhorn, has been making her way through the new, Netflix-released season of Arrested Development for the past few weeks. Entertainment editor Spencer Kornhaber finished the season a few days after it hit the Internet. Below, the edited transcript of a story brainstorming session that turned into a discussion of the show's identity politics.

Eleanor: Has anyone done a good piece on the gayness of Arrested Development?

Spencer: Not that I've seen. Did you just watch the second GOB eppy, the one where he sleeps with Tony Wonder?

Eleanor: Yes. But it only highlighted a theme that's been there all along.

Spencer: And what would you say about that theme?

Eleanor: That's the thing. It's kind of hard to work out who the joke is on. I mean, there are all the levels of deception. Tobias is gay but doesn't know it. Tony Wonder isn't gay but wants people to think he is. GOB isn't gay but wants Tony Wonder to think he is (but doesn't want anyone else to think he is). And along the way they find what they really want is friendship, which is one of the more poignant conclusions of the show: No one really has friends.

And then there's Lucille's comic homophobia.

Spencer: Yep. I thought about including something like "the gays" in my piece, where I list some of institutions/groups that are in the show that are kind of satirized but mostly exist as marks for the Bluths' cons.

Eleanor: But, then, beyond "the gays" as an institution, there is actual engagement with homosexual desire

Spencer: True, it doesn't quite work the same way, especially with the whole Tobias thing.

Eleanor: Right. The closeted dude is a classic comic character, but usually the jokes are on the character trying to hide his sexuality. This a character who is so clueless, he says things all the time that out him, even though he's not even aware he's in the closet in the first place.

Spencer: It's an extension of Tobias's cardinal flaw, denial, which goes along with believing he can be an actor. All the Bluths have their own specific kind of narcissism: Michael's is pride, Lindsay's is vanity, GOB's is a kind of sociopathic blend of insecurity and self-absorption, Lucille's is malice I guess, George Sr.'s is greed. Though I think I stole that idea from Dan Zak.

Eleanor: What about the sex scene between Tony and GOB where each guy thinks he's having sex with himself? Obviously the point there is narcissism—they're both turned on by someone who looks exactly like them. But the scene is also willfully blind to how sex works—since they're both supposed to think they're having sex with Anne wearing mask.

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Spencer: It's kind of a genius, if nonsensical, thing for the show to have happen. I mean you can obviously choose to see it all as problematic—the implication that homosexuality is an extension of male friendship, the idea that sexual orientation is not really innate at all, Tony Wonder's building a career on the premise that being gay makes it easier to get ahead in society. But that's not the point. It's not supposed to be commenting on reality or homosexuality but on the characters' self-involvement.

Eleanor: Which is kind of fascinating and definitely unusual. The headline could be "Arrested Development Is Obsessed With Homosexuality but Has Nothing to Say About It," or something. "The Least-Gay Gay Show."

Spencer: Ha, that's fun. Yeah, I could see that. But that's the case with everything the show's obsessed with.

Eleanor: Totes.

Spencer: I'd be interested to hear what you thought of its Christian stuff.

Eleanor: To me, that's more insidious. But I am sensitive, I guess? I think the show does have things to say about the church. Not very sophisticated things, but there's more of a point being made there than about race or wealth or homosexuality or parenting or the other issues the show touches on.

Spencer: Well I think with all these things, they're shown as available for abuse by terrible people and delusional people. Ditto the eastern religion stuff with Lindsay, liberal activism, etc.

Eleanor: Yeah that's true, that's true.

Spencer: At least in this season, I just felt bad for the Christians for everything GOB does. I'm not a Christian, but I remember gasping at GOB's Jesus stuff. Like, this is so bad. But that's obviously the point. This guy is saying literally the most sacrilegious things possible at a Christian wedding where he's the groom. It's the height of this family's narcissism being destructive... but maybe it's disparaging to have the Christians just sit there and take it?

Eleanor: Yes, the non-response was odd. The Christians on the show are in general weirdly gullible and passive. Like, when Ann and GOB get engaged, no one asks any questions... the parents don't point out that it's strange for their daughter to marry a guy she hasn't been dating, not to mention a guy who's the uncle of her ex-boyfriend. Of course that wouldn't happen in real life. But that's not all that different from how the show treats other groups—the gay guys on the Queen Mary and the various activists, both liberal and conservative, that Lindsay encounters are also very willing to be manipulated by the Bluths.

In general, I've found myself more unhappy with the little moments—not the over-the-top wedding scene, but the cheap, one-liner shots at Christians. Probably because they're so close to the kinds of things that pop up in less absurdist shows. The exchange between Tony Wonder and GOB in the most recent episode I watched, where they were talking about how he's a Christian celebrity magician, that felt like a more real thing: let's all laugh at Christians and their weird celebrities. Or, as I said before, the Veals' reaction to the Ann engagement.

Spencer: I could see being annoyed as a Christian at the way he gets engaged to Ann.

Eleanor: YES

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Spencer: Like, that's a joke on the stereotype of evangelicals marrying young, etc.

Eleanor: And all the family members-coming out of the woodwork: haha huge families and their credulousness.

Spencer: Yeah, that's definitely spot-the-stereotype humor.

And also, of course Ann will sleep with him the minute she turns 18? And then get married? So lol hypocrisy?

Eleanor: Right, and then the later reveal that she had sex with Tony Wonder. (re that... I was confused that five years had passed.)

Spencer: Yeah that whole plotline is hazy to me still. But ok, yes, AD obviously relies on gross stereotypes for some of its humor.

Eleanor: Right

Spencer: And that includes homosexuality. A la the dudes on the boat in the very first episode. But I'm almost never actually offended because this is such a cartoon world.

The only thing that's really made me queasy this season is the China Garden character, who fits a certain kind of unpleasant racist depiction of Chinese people. I'd like to think that I missed some joke that absolves the show on that count. But the more interesting thing, either way, is that the arguably problematic stuff is rarely what's actually hilarious in an episode.


Eleanor: Yes. They're just eye-roll moments.

Spencer: Though it's funny to see these horrible characters be blithely racist or homophobic or whatever.

Eleanor: But then the joke is on the racist or homophobe. Like when George doesn't tip black guys, it's like, George is an idiot... not black people don't need tips. Same with Lucille when she scapegoats "the homosexuals" for her problems.

Spencer: Yeah of course. One of my favorite eventual reveals in this season is in the final episode. There was this one element that had had me worrying this whole time that the show was racist, but it turns out, nope, just the characters are. You haven't finished yet, right?

Eleanor: No.

Spencer: OK well go home and watch then. There's a whole horde of other things to talk about.

Eleanor: So, in the end, how are we supposed to react to the show's outlandish homophobia, racism, and religion-bashing? Is it really ok for this all to be about the Bluths' narcissism?

Spencer: Well, I love this show, so I'm inclined to say yes, it's ok. The things that bother me are few and far between. And the idea of that the Bluths' wrongheaded, sick views on the world extend from selfishness is actually a really great, useful satirical point. It's not just equating racism, etc. with bad people (which Ta-Nehisi has pointed out many times is a racist fallacy in itself). It's equating racism, etc. with self-interest and a lack of empathy. Which feels right on.

Eleanor: I hear that. I've always been a bit more skeptical of the show than you've been—it's felt too much like one of those dark, mean-spirited, everyone-is-bad comedies like Seinfeld, which I really don't like. For the first three seasons, I could get over the moments of mean-spiritedness because, yes, the show is hilarious and generally does a decent job of sending up the institutions it's skewering. The Christian "inner beauty" pageant in Season Three was funny, and made a point that I could take to heart: that Christians (and other do-gooder types) can be so eager to show the world they're good that they'll crown a girl who's pretending to be paralyzed as queen of the pageant.

But the cynicism seems more dominant this season, and (unsurprisingly) I feel that the most when it's directed at a group I'm a part of. I keep watching... but with more and more ambivalence.