An interview with Karen Tongson, author of Normporn: Queer Viewers and the TV That Soothes Us
What does “normporn” mean?
There’s a very specific meaning to “normporn” and a more general one, and the book describes and explores both. First “normporn” refers to a subgenre of hour-length dramedies, sentimental and realist in style and tone, that have been featured on network television since at least 1987, starting with the show, thirtysomething.
More generally, “normporn” also points to a lurid, almost shameful fascination with the norms and norminess featured on these shows, especially for viewers who are thought to exist outside of those mainstreams, like sexual and racial minorities, and people who are not of a privileged class. As a type of TV viewing practice, we watch normporn to soothe and comfort us against our better aesthetic and political judgment. Even though some of us like to believe we’re above these mainstream styles and sentiments, we can’t help but surrender—usually through shedding abundant tears—to the very basic feelings, desires, and worlds these shows present to us.
What inspired you to coin this term and write this book?
After I went through an awful period of losing loved ones—five close friends and family members in a single year—I watched a lot of television. When I binged Parenthood, a primetime network drama, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably at scenes and situations that seemed totally corny and mundane, and that reinforced certain cringey norms about what family and intimacy mean. Up to that point, I thought my entire life as a queer person existed on another emotional plane, and a more expansive universe of political and social possibilities. Yet here I was, crying against my will and better judgment at the totally normal stuff my entire career has been devoted to critiquing. It was disorienting to seek comfort in depictions of norminess that weren’t even really meant for people like me.
I had to delve deeper into that disidentification, into that twisted sense of desire, repulsion, and the thrills that inevitably turned into a sense of self-loathing. To put it bluntly, I cringed at surrendering to such basic ass shit both aesthetically and politically. But I had to give myself license to explore what all of it meant, especially when, just a couple of years after my first dive into normporn, Donald Trump was elected and U.S. cultural discourse refocused on “norms” and their importance (given Trump’s purported aberrance from political norms). What began on an intimate scale of (self) examination, then expanded to a broader political and cultural inquiry.
How would you explain the difference between “normporn” and “normcore”?
There’s a very clear distinction between the two, though “normcore” as a style and trend factors into the aesthetics of normporn, and the way we think about norms in end-stage capitalism. “Normcore” is the name manufactured by a trend forecasting company to describe a set of attitudes and fashion sensibilities in the late-aughts to early 2010s that works against “being special” or, in their words against “specialization.” Normcore applies to fashion and lifestyle choices, whereas my term normporn describes both a subgenre of television and a type of viewing practice where someone watches certain soothing, boring, or “vanilla” shows for emotional release. Sometimes in secret. Sometimes in (as Shakespeare famously said) “a waste of shame.”
Can you describe these feelings of loss and comfort, or watching and binge-watching, during and beyond COVID-19?
Normporn isn’t exactly comfort-watching. Or more accurately, it’s not only comfort-watching, because our enjoyment in normporn casuses some friction and discomfort. It’s also not always linked to binge-watching, though the motivation to soothe one’s self often results in watching normporn shows in batches.
Truth be told, the book is also not explicitly a “pandemic” book, insofar as it wasn’t written about the pandemic, nor is it focused exclusively on how these emotional responses are framed by Covid. Nevertheless, the circumstances of Covid, and our collective bereavement throughout this extend period of the pandemic, mixed with isolation during its earliest stages, allowed me to apply a larger sense of scale to normporn, especially when I returned to writing it during that period.
As I mentioned earlier, I began exploring the idea of normporn back in 2015 on a more intimate and personal front. But because Covid called even greater attention to the inequality of our lives under late capitalism, it also made me reflect with increased clarity on how those who had the time and space to grieve, isolate and obsess over banal details weren’t pressed by the same urgencies of subsistence and survival. In other words, the pandemic pointed me to how privilege operates in our consumption of normporn—both as an aspirational lifestyle, and as a reflection of the privilege some of us have attained.
Why do queer viewers feel guilty about watching this kind of television? What does it mean to reconcile an understanding of “privilege” with one’s TV viewing habits?
The guilt is driven by both aesthetic shame (i.e. how could a fabulous queer possibly want to consume something so banal, treacly, obvious and normal), and political embarrassment (i.e. we should want something more than these ideal bourgeois family structures, even if the versions of family we’re being offered are slightly more expansive). Add to that a healthy sense of disavowal about one’s own material advantages and privileges, and that drives us to conceal our consumption of these “bad objects”—in this instance, TV shows—that reflect our most cloying and basic desires. All of this contributes to the “porn” part of normporn, insofar as we are driven to conceal our “bad habits” and questionable desires, and to cry our tears in secret.
True Blood doesn’t seem to fit the bill of “normporn” as you’ve described it, because it’s a dark, horror-fantasy show. What role does it play in the book?
I turn to True Blood as a kind of funhouse mirror to the realist, normy shows that serve as my other case studies. True Blood is perfect for this, because even though it’s far from normal—it’s about horny and murderous vampires and other supernatural beings wreaking havoc in a conservative, southern town, and not a “coastal liberal elite” setting—one of the main themes of the show is about the pursuit of normalcy. Some Vampires want to be normal, to “mainstream” like Vampire Bill and the AVL (American Vampire League), and their self-conflict and internecine struggles point in clarifying ways to similar struggles within queer communities.
True Blood also shows us that no matter how hard one tries to shoehorn themselves into assimilationist agendas by reproducing social norms, such efforts are inevitably bound to fail, even when it looks on the surface like they’ve succeeded.
Gilmore Girls is a beloved TV show that’s been regarded as a groundbreaking feminist family show, but you have a slightly different take on its politics.
First of all, let me say that I absolutely love Gilmore Girls. But like other cultural critics and journalists, its reproductive politics became more conspicuous to me after SCOTUS’ Dobbs decision effectively overturned Roe vs. Wade. My chapter about Gilmore Girls revisits how the show grappled with the question of “choice” (or failed to), and how we were willing to overlook that to inhabit the “snow globe world” (as Lorelei describes it) of Stars Hollow. Even while looking at some of these hard truths about the show, I’m also very insistent on keeping open our capacity to love a pop culture object that is, for lack of a better word, problematic. I also underscore the fact that however many alternative versions of normy worlds like Stars Hollow we make for TV, and however “new” we try to make certain norms, it will never compensate for the harm norms cause overall.
You end your book with This is Us, and call it “the end of normporn.” What do you mean by this?
Without completely giving the ending away (because even books of criticism deserve a little suspense), I explain how This is Us is at once the culmination of normporn and also its end. The fact that the show shares numerous production ties to thirtysomething and Gilmore Girls (Ken Olin plays a pivotal role as a director and producer, and of course Milo Ventimiglia migrated from Stars Hollow to Pittsburgh to serve as the Pearsons’ patriarch), it’s the obvious inheritor of normporn’s legacy. Yet, This is Us also accomplishes various things with its formal structure and its politics that leave behind some of the easy ways that normporn absorbed racial and sexual difference. Because of its looping timelines and layered relationship to memory, This is Us forges its own multiverse in ways that are surprisingly queer. I’ll leave it at that so people are motivated to read more to figure out what I mean!