The XY Factor: NBC’s “The New Normal” and the Nature/Culture Dichotomy

Within the last couple of months, I’ve been watching a sitcom on NBC titled The New Normal, which offers a fresh and daring reconfiguration of the traditional family. The show centers on Bryan and David, a committed gay couple, and Goldie, a single mother who decides to become David and Bryan’s gestational surrogate. In every episode, we see not only the trials and tribulations of surrogacy, but we also come to understand how the notion of family is rapidly changing in our present day and age.

Cast of "The New Normal"

Main cast of NBC’s “The New Normal”

There is one episode of this show titled “The XY Factor” that made me think deeply about the issue of the cultural and natural “split” that exists between women and men, and the implications of this split when it comes to gay couples who desire to expand their families. In this particular episode, Bryan and David find out that they are expecting to have a boy. This discovery deeply upsets Bryan because he does not engage in practices that reflect traditional masculinity. Bryan, who works as a television producer, tends to express characteristics that are typically feminine, such as a penchant for fashion, interior design, and pop culture. Bryan’s partner David, on the other hand, tends to engage in activities that are deemed more masculine: he watches sports, he coaches a junior football team, and unlike Bryan, his sense of style style is plain and subtle. Bryan’s desire for a girl rather than a boy stems from the fact that he believes that it will be more difficult for him to connect to a boy due to his so-called deviance from traditional masculinity. This fear of a possible lack of connection also stems from the fact that Bryan is not the child’s biological father since David is the sperm donor.

This episode instantly came to mind when reading Sherry B. Ortner’s discussion titled Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture, in which she posits that women are universally assumed to be more aligned to nature than men are. Due to the fact that culture is generally deemed superior to the nature in the sense that it tries to control and manipulate the natural, it comes to no surprise that women, and all expressions associated with the feminine, are seen as inferior.

Ortner’s ideas allude to theories postulated by Simone de Beauvoir and within the realm of  anthropology in order to highlight women’s association with the natural rather than the cultural. Among these ideas, Ortner points out that woman’s body and its functions (menstruation, childbirth, etc.) manifest women’s “animality” and align them to the natural, while men usually engage in practices that drift away from the domestic sphere and into the cultural sphere. Ortner furthermore posits that even when women tend to engage in cultural practices such as cooking, these practices are limited to the domestic sphere and they don’t extend to the realm of high culture. Ortner exemplifies this notion by illustrating how many women are the cooks within the home, but that men are mostly dominant when it comes to haute cuisine or avant guarde cooking.

Ortner also views woman’s ties with the domestic circle as a factor that associates her with nature. The constant association of women with children is part of the reason why, due to the fact that “infants are barely human and utterly unsocialized” (215), and are thus viewed as natural or animalistic beings. Ortner points out that woman’s association with the domestic context increases their association with a lower order of social organization, while men are free to pursue cultural endeavors because they lack a natural basis for “familial orientation”:

the family (and hence woman) represents lower-level, socially fragmenting, particularistic sort of concerns, as opposed to interfamilial relations representing higher-level, integrative, universalistic sorts of concerns. Since men lack a “natural” basis (nursing, generalized to child care) for a familial orientation, their sphere of activity is defined at the level of interfamilial relations. And hence, so the cultural reasoning seems to go, men are the “natural” proprietors of religion, ritual, politics, and other realms of cultural thought and action in which universalistic statements of spiritual and social synthesis are made. (216)

I was curious as to how the interdependent dichotomies of woman/man and nature/culture manifest in the case of a gay couple trying to start a family via surrogacy. Interestingly, the tensions depicted in this episode offered some very interesting insights when juxtaposed with Ortner’s perspectives. I noticed that the notion of having a boy was threatening to Bryan because he deemed that it would hinder his chances at connecting with his child, especially since he shares no biological connection to the child. Notice that if Bryan were a woman within a heteronormative relationship, this threat would be virtually non-existent, for regardless of the child’s gender, the fact that the woman gives birth automatically triggers a natural connection between the mother and the child.

Bryan takes over David's position as junior football coach in order to align himself towards the male end of the female/male spectrum.

Bryan takes over David’s position as junior football coach in order to align himself towards the male end of the female/male spectrum.

Bryan assumes that if the child were a girl, he would have no trouble connecting with her because he exhibits tendencies and affinities that are traditionally viewed as feminine. However, the fact that he is expecting a boy induces him to believe that he must align himself with the male part of the spectrum in order for his child to love him. In the episode, Bryan tries to achieve this alignment by taking over David’s position as a junior football coach, and he fails miserably. Thus, Bryan finds himself unable to comply with neither the cultural nor the natural demands that are expected from him as a parent.

We may perceive that Ortner’s dichotomies still sustain when applied to a gay relationship, which is why it is difficult to situate Bryan as a man and as a character. But, something very interesting occurs near the end of the episode. One of David’s football practices is cancelled due to bad weather, and he ends up bringing all of the boys to his home. Bryan then prepares a “make your own pizza party,” in which every kid cooks and prepare their own meal (wearing their very own chef’s hats). The party is a success, and Bryan realizes that even though he is expecting a boy, he can still find ways to establish a connection with the child–regardless of whether or not they share a “natural” connection.

Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan's "plan your own pizza party."

Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan’s “plan your own pizza party.”

This conclusion to the episode offers some very tantalizing ideas and suggestions. First and foremost, we see boys becoming active agents within the realm of the domestic, and in tandem, we seem them cross into the realm of the feminine and the natural. Secondly, we see that Bryan, rather than “succumbing” to the demands of his alignment between culture and the natural, acts as a mediator within this spectrum, highlighting the ultimate collapse and futility of this divide. By bringing cultural agents into the realm of the domestic, and by at least trying to break ground in the masculine practice of football, we see how a man is able to take part in the project of “creativity and transcendence” that is so important in the feminist movement.

Ultimately, this show offers a lot of food for thought when it comes to issues of gender and family. I shall continue to follow its development closely!

Source:

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 211 – 220

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