In a show whose tagline is “Nuclear. Family.”, I should not have been at all surprised at the way that sexuality was incorporated into the show.
Aside from heteronormative affection, the first sign of non-normative sexuality we see is Dr. Glen Babbit’s implied gay identity. Never at any point in the show does he come out and say “I’m gay,” nor does anyone name him in such explicit terms. Instead, there are a series of pauses, looks, and assumed knowledge about other individuals. Frank, Glen’s friend and current supervisor, is surprised when he finds out, not because of Glen’s identity, but because he thought that Glen would have told him about such things. When Frank returns home, he tells his wife (again, without naming it as such), and she merely replies saying that she knew.
Glen’s gay-ness surfaces periodically throughout the show, although not in visible displays of affection toward another man. Shortly after we learn that he’s gay, the scene cuts to Glen painting in his room. Later on, his painting returns and we see him pull a canvas from out of a spaced wedged between other paintings that show’s a man roughly his age. After previous conversations we’re meant to understand this to be his ex/lover/beau, who had defected to Russia and attempted to persuade Glen to do the same. Glen mentions that ironically, his ex/lover/beau is now married with children, and that “they actually punish that sort of thing over there.” While it’s clear that Glen’s identity is a taboo subject (they can’t even name it!), now, decades after the Cold War has ended, the US is still presented as a “land of freedom” in contrast to Russia and the then-fight against Fascism.
In one other scene, Glen attempts to ask something of the polygraph tester, eventually getting his answer through stating and acknowledging their shared positions as “lonely middle-aged bachelors.” This is the only other instance in which someone else is presumed to inhabit the same position as Glen.
While the representation of gay men focuses on asexual “middle aged bachelors,” female sexual relationships are shown more intimately. Abby Isaacs, the wife of Dr. Charlie Isaacs who is working on the Thin Man team, begins work as a censor-ing switchboard operator (all calls in and out of “Manhattann” are monitored and censored). On her first day she meets Elodie, the wife of another scientist who incidentally is sort of Charlie’s nemesis. Eventually, she and Abby grow close, and end up developing a sexual relationship with each other. Through several episodes it becomes clear that Abby feels conflicted about this relationship, yet does not see it as “cheating” on her husband. From Elodie we do not sense the same qualms, and even get the sense that she has developed relationships like this in the past. There is also an added layer that Elodie is originally from France, thus perhaps adding an undertone about perceived difference in social norms between American and French cultures. Abby at one point says that she’s not cheating and doesn’t want to cheat, and Elodie appears offended, asking what it is that she thinks they’re doing anyways. Neither of them say anything about how their relationship or actions affects their identities or how they view themselves. Yet these two young, twenty-something women, are the only people who we see display a queer physical relationship.
Their relationship, and Abby’s time working at the switchboard, opens up the Manhattan Project’s world of little secrets. At the “bar” on-site, a departing couple asks Abby if she would like to join them, and she appears a little flustered and confused saying no, she has to be heading home. She turns to Elodie who replies that she (Abby) of all people should know by now, in part from working at the switchboard, that everyone has their secrets. These secret worlds continue to unravel throughout the first season as Reed Akley thinks that Charlie (Abby’s husband) and Helen Prins are having an affair, Liza Winter admits she has a mental condition, Elodie’s husband sexually assaults Abby who tries to keep it secret but tells both her husband and Elodie, and that G-2 is constantly trying to uncover a spy amidst the project (who is revealed to the viewer in the season finale).
Despite some of these unconventional representations (at least for a major TV network), there’s still a sense of being bounded by heteronormativity. The question that I keep coming up against is is this normativity a result of assumed values and search for TV ratings from today (that we can’t name gay-ness on TV and that a physical, sexual relationship between two women is not perceived as threatening to men), or an attempt at replicating what would have been “authentic” to the moment of the Manhattan Project? Yet for all the male scientists (and surely, they are all male except for Helen Prins), there is not one display of physical affection between two men, even after we know there are at least two gay men on the project, while Abby and Elodie’s relationship seems sensationalized for the audience.
Rusty Bartels, PhD teaches in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition.