A naïve eavesdropper, a clever and sinister best friend, and a young reporter trying to make a name for themselves are the only ingredients needed to create the impression someone is gay. This is exactly what happened in the Seinfeld episode “The Outing” to both Jerry and George. Seinfeld was a sitcom airing on NBC during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. Championed for being “the show about nothing,” its episodes rarely build upon each other as they tell the insignificant but relatable experiences of friends Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. In “The Outing,” situated in their usual dinky diner, Monk’s, Elaine notices an eavesdropper one table over and intends to play a trick on her. Casually making a remark about Jerry and George’s imaginary gay relationship, Elaine gets the men to play along. However, unaware to Jerry, this eavesdropper turns out be the same woman that is writing an article on Jerry for the NYU newspaper. After a wave of false publicity, Jerry and George spend the rest of the episode vehemently denying their alleged homosexuality, yet always following up with, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as to not appear homophobic.
In addition to Seinfeld, the current NBC sitcom The Office deals with anxiety towards gay men as well. These two shows do not often devote entire episodes to this dilemma, but instead it is a recurring theme throughout their series that exposes homosexuality in an embedded light. Seinfeld and The Office do not aim to promote widespread apprehension toward gays but, instead, intend to capitalize on male anxieties about their own sexuality, masculinity, and gay men.
In “The Outing,” Seinfeld reveals the heterosexual male quandry–one does not want to be seen as gay but at the same time he does not wish to be perceived as homophobic. Both Jerry and George’s actions and emotions depict their dilemma. One staple of acting recurs throughout the episode. When denying their alleged homosexuality Jerry’s voice rises and passionately rejects the accusation then quickly follows up with a calm, collected, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” and a crossing wave of both hands. It is evident that Jerry wants nothing to do with the allegation that he his gay and almost disgustfully shakes his head. This type of nervousness emerges in men, as they yearn to both be in control of their situation and protect their masculinity. Jerry and George control neither, of course, which prompts them to ardently refute the accusations placed about them. Arlene Stein, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, states that the reason why so many men are homophobic is because it permits them to confirm their own masculinity and heterosexuality (602). In other words, some men, like Jerry and George, are so insecure about their virility that they use gayness to prove to themselves what they are not. Stein accurately portrays Jerry and George’s apprehension because of their incessant need to affirm their masculinity.
Jerry and George must use their denial as being homosexual in order to confirm to the audience and the reporter that they are indeed heterosexual. In an article for the British Educational Research Journal, Mark McCormack expresses that, “homophobia often serves as a form of heterosexual and masculine social currency” (338). What McCormack is trying to define about straight male culture is that the more homophobic a man is, the more masculine or heterosexual he is perceived to. Fearing social judgment of being unaccepting, however, they aim to abolish this idea from the reporter’s mind. Stolidly delivering the infamous line, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” illustrates Jerry and George as serious about being tolerant of gays and lesbians. Their double-hand, crossing wave slash strikes down any opposing belief. However, a stark contradiction is evident between their passionate denial and composed reassurance. Jerry and George, like many men, are perplexed at the battle to balance their heterosexuality with their homophobia. Within their own insecurities lies the true cause of their fretfulness towards gay men.
George’s confusion with gay men as well as his own sexuality, epitomize male anxiety towards these subjects and reveal his insecurities. In the episode “The Note,” George receives a massage, from a man, that is obviously portrayed to the audience as uncomfortable and unappealing for George. As George discusses the torturous details with Jerry later in his apartment, he fearfully confesses that, “I think it moved.” George’s neurocity consumes him so deeply that he believes a simple massage from a man could turn him gay. Seinfeld illustrates a suggestive and relevant idea from George’s seeming overreaction. Some insecure heterosexual males relate with George and his trepidation towards gay men because they fear the unknown. This angst towards gays was especially prevalent in the late 80’s when the AIDS epidemic was being labeled as the “gay disease,” and about 70% of Americans believed homosexuality was “always wrong” (McCormack and Anderson 24). Even to date, not much is known about the origins of homosexuality, so in the 90’s when this episode was made, Seinfeld played very much to the uncertainty surrounding homosexuality at the time period. This prevalence of gay characters on television shows has increased sharply over the past few years however. In a study done by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the amount of recurring gay characters on television shows has risen from 1.1% to 4.4% in the last 5 years (Carter et al. 3). Seinfeld, whether it intended to be or not, was way ahead of its time in confronting gay issues. Nevertheless, Seinfeld does not set out to cause gay panic but instead, through their portrayal of the neurotic character George strives to reveal male anxieties. Later in the episode, in an aim to redeem himself, George professes that he, “doesn’t even want to sit next to a man on the airplane because our knees might touch.” George, a stumpy, balding, shell of a man, obviously lacks all the qualities and aura of the stereotypical confident and womanizing heterosexual man. Stein states that, “heterosexual men are troubled by male homosexuality because it represents feminized masculinity” (602). Of course George does not want to be touched by another man because it threatens his own masculinity in the eyes of himself as well as other straight men. Because of his inability to take on the qualities of the stereotypical man, he aims to confirm his heterosexual desires by fearing gay men. So in order to satisfy his own questions about his sexuality he avoids male contact at all costs. Seinfeld appeals to the average male in this way, exposing their subconscious insecurities and presenting them humorously.
Contrary to George’s neurotic attitudes towards gays, Jerry seems to ignore seemingly emasculating situations. In “The Boyfriend” episode, after working out at the gym and showering together, Kramer asks the question on most men’s mind “Did you sneak a peek?” The showering naked together and suggestion that they looked at each other are two apparently gay situations that the three of them must confront. The first, showering naked together, can easily be argued that it was another instance in Seinfeld outwardly showing their heterosexual leanings. Showering communally has been expressed in male professional sports for decades as a sign of being comfortable and confident around other men. The second situation, Kramer asking if Jerry and George had “snuck a peak,” reveals Jerry’s protection of his masculinity. He resolutely denies that he “snuck a peak,” expressing he made a conscious effort not to look, purely not wanting certain information about George and Kramer’s bodies. His apathetic mindset towards other men’s bodies aim to prove to the audience Jerry is straight (Gantz 141). Jerry, confident about his sexuality around his best friends, is free from anxiety. However, Katherine Gantz disagrees with the notion that Jerry is straight, but instead claims Seinfeld is actually riddled with gay themes that question Jerry’s true sexuality (140). Gantz suggests that Jerry is actually gay through analyzing several episodes and common themes. This would mean that Jerry does not truly have anxieties about gays like the stereotypical straight man, but instead he is faking it to cover up his true feelings, something this type of man would not do. There are several reasons why Gantz is incorrect on her assumption that it is really Jerry who is gay, leading some to believe that Seinfeld is not relating to men’s apprehension towards gays and their own sexuality. Gantz expresses in her essay that she has analyzed Seinfeld with a “queer reading.” Like most essays that are written with a “queer” mindset, she appears to be clawing for examples to further support her point. Many of Gantz’s examples have been heavily overanalyzed. Seinfeld, after all, was created to make audiences laugh and find humor in everyday situations, not to be a show about gay men. Furthermore, everybody has gay or effeminate tendencies at some points in their life, but that does not necessarily mean they are gay. Additionally, Jerry has 38 different girl friends over the course of the series (Seinology 1). This blatant expression of heterosexuality confirms Jerry’s true sexuality; however he is still not invulnerable to nervousness about gays, his masculinity, and sexuality.
While Seinfeld was created over two decades ago, its accuracy in depicting the stereotypical straight male’s anxiety of gay men still resonates today on some of TV’s most popular shows. Even though progress has been made in the acceptance of gays, which has in turn limited a bit of the nervousness towards them, some apprehension still remains. However, there is a stark contradiction to how gays are portrayed in gay based sitcoms, like Will and Grace or The New Normal, from today and in the 90’s. A clear example of this contradiction between Seinfeld’s portrayal and the present is Oscar from the popular NBC comedy The Office. In Seinfeld, once the rumor got out that Jerry is gay, everybody confirmed this false belief because he was thin, neat, and single. This is a common stereotype placed upon male homosexuals because they are portrayed as being effeminate. On the other hand, Oscar, who is actually gay, is a straight-edged, out of shape Mexican accountant that resembles little of the stereotypical gay man portrayed in the media (See image 1). The fascinating and revolutionary thing about Oscar is that he is one of the first gay characters on television that does not let sexuality define him (Hilke). Until recently, Oscar did not come across as blatantly gay in contrast to characters like Jack and Bryan from Will and Grace and The New Normal, respectively. Those shows are reliant on the gay characters’ flamboyance. It is because of Oscar’s defiance of gay stereotypes, neatness in particular, that he is outed because he stays home for the office’s spring cleaning day (Hilke).
While there are differences between Seinfeld and The Office’s portrayal of gays, there are even more similarities that depict the straight male’s reactions to them. In Seinfeld, Jerry and George are concerned about others’ opinions of their false portrayal of being gay as well as uncertain about their own sexuality. They know they are straight, but because they lack the qualities of the stereotypical self-assured and successful heterosexual man, they are a bit doubtful. Twenty years of education about the normality of gays and lesbians and waves of acceptance across the country have done little to alter the straight male’s anxiety towards gays portrayed on network television. In The Office, Dwight learns of Oscar’s sexuality in the episode “The Gay Witch Hunt” (a telling sign in its own accord), and immediately orders the fictional device “GAYDAR” from Jim. After testing everybody in the office he finds nothing unusual until he is putting the GAYDAR away. He inadvertently swipes it over his belt buckle causing the converted metal detector to beep. A sign of shock and fear crawls across Dwight’s face. Dwight, seen with several women throughout the show’s history, is known to himself and the audience as straight. But the influence of even the slightest suggestion of homosexuality can cause the stereotypical straight male to question his own sexuality. Just as George questioned himself after getting a massage from a man, Dwight panics as a metal detector tells him he is gay. These fearful responses to otherwise insignificant events illustrates how well sitcoms like Seinfeld and The Office exploit straight male nervousness about confidence in their own sexuality.
Up to this point, nothing has been said about a female’s response to gay men. Elaine, the main female character on Seinfeld, acts much differently around gay men than Jerry and George; instead of being fearful and weary of them she is actually attracted to a gay man. In the episode “The Beard,” Elaine goes to see Swan Lake with a gay man because he fears his boss is homophobic and unaccepting of his lifestyle. However, after spending the evening with him, she really starts to like him and ponders the possibility of getting him to “change teams” or convert to heterosexuality. This is a definitive contradiction to how Jerry and George reacted toward gay men. However according to Mary Kite and Bernard Whitley of Ball State University these differing attitudes among sexes are not uncommon. They have seen from their research that women tend to be more accepting of gay men and women than men are (336). Instead of being fearful, Elaine is actually infatuated with this gay man and seeks it as a challenge for herself and her sex as a whole to convert his sexuality. Elaine’s confidence in her sexuality to convert this man is starkly different than Jerry and George’s trepidation towards anything gay. This unease comes from the difference in men and women’s obedience to gender roles (Kite and Whitley 344). Where Jerry or George might be petrified of seeing the ballet Swan Lake, Elaine sees nothing wrong with going to it with a man because he seems sensitive. Seinfeld again in this way accurately represents stereotypical straight male anxiety towards gay men while at the same time plays to female confidence in dealing and interacting with gay men, making Seinfeld applicable to both sexes.
Seinfeld and The Office demonstrate, through male anxieties about their own sexuality, masculinity, and gay men, relatable male behavior towards these ever-present conflicts. In “The Outing,” Jerry combats his angst about being seen as a gay man by the world and desire to be seen as accepting by his close friends and family. While in “The Note,” George’s neurotic nature overcomes his mind to question his own sexuality. Seinfeld did such an accurate job depicting these emotions that almost two decades later The Office aimed to recreate this gay anxiety in their character Dwight. Additionally, Elaine’s enchantment with the gay man in “The Beard” further emphasized the conflicting opinions in gay men and sexual confidence differences between men and women. The overarching comedic intent of these two shows is too powerful to stimulate apprehension about gay men, but they do exploit male anxieties about their own sexuality, masculinity, and gay men. Seinfeld and The Office not only depict these stereotypical male concerns but display them in a comedic medium for with audiences can relate and understand.
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