House of Lies: Perks and Pitfalls of the Exploration of Pansexuality and Gender Expression
More and more often in film, TV, and literature we are seeing sexual orientation portrayed as being a spectrum instead of as being comprised of definitive categories (which is the notion our society most often perpetuates). One show that currently promotes such a view is House of Lies. House of Lies is a satirical take on corporate America, featuring a team of management consultants who take any means necessary to obtain and retain clients. The show’s reception has been itself been on a spectrum, with some folks who despise the show for its lack of novelty and depth along with its overuse of unnecessary sex, and other folks (like me) who adore the show for its raw and satirical humor, its colorful characters, its stimulating exploration of pertinent issues (race, sex, gender, etc.) and its commitment to kink.
There is such a wide array of intriguing characters: Marty Kaan (played by Don Cheadle), who is famous in the world of management consulting because of his ability to never fail to persuade clients to just take the deal; Jeannie van der Hooven (played by Kristen Bell) who is his right-hand woman, and who has a lot of psychological issues but also a form of resilience that keeps her dominating in the business along with the men. The list of characters goes on, of course. Perhaps the most intriguing character is Marty Kaan’s son, Roscoe.
In the first season, Roscoe was perceived by most viewers as a being a bisexual cross-dresser. He dresses in girl clothes and wears makeup. He likes a boy and a girl simultaneously, he tries out for the female lead in a school play, and he tries to kiss a boy at school and is accused of sexual harassment. In the second season, we see him developing a sexual attraction towards Jeannie, followed by his attempts to win her affections. In both seasons, he is sweet, and caring, he’s completely unique, and he doesn’t care about societal norms.
In the third season, more layers of complexity are added to Roscoe’s character. Roscoe tells his dad that he has met someone, “Lex”. Given the androgynous nature of the name, Marty displays an obvious uncertainty about whether his son’s new “friend” is a boy or a girl, but he doesn’t press for further information, because he doesn’t want his son to think it matters (or, more correctly: he doesn’t want his son to think he thinks it matters). That’s what is so cool about the role Marty has taken on as Roscoe’s father up to this point—while he sometimes seems uncomfortable and hesitant about some of Roscoe’s choices (and we have witnessed this from their first interactions in season one) he is hardly ever unsupportive and he doesn’t usually try to make fusses out of the things he perceives as not normal.
After Marty meets androgynous looking Lex, he asks his son if Lex is a boy or girl, and Roscoe explains that Lex is a “boiiii” or a “grrrrrl” (hopefully, that comes across well phonetically) and that she was born a girl but prefers to express himself as a boy. Knowing that the two (Roscoe and Lex) are sort-of dating, Marty asks Roscoe, “So what does that make you?” He is obviously hoping for some sort of self-defined label, but Roscoe responds with a smile and a confused look and says, “Roscoe?” Labels are irrelevant to him.
Still, audience members continue to wonder…what is Roscoe? What, in plain terms, is his sexual orientation? What can we label him as being? AfterEllen did an interview with Donis Leonard Jr. (the kid who plays Roscoe) and Matthew Carnahan (the creator of the show), discussing the fluidity of sex and gender in the show. Donis Leonard Jr. describes feeling “honored” to be able to play a role of a character who is so comfortable with himself. When AfterEllen asks if Roscoe’s sexuality has been clarified, Donis says, “Roscoe is Roscoe. He’s too young to put a pushpin in him.”
Although the show and those associated with the show have not offered a label for Roscoe, we might presume him to be pansexual, or as being sexually oriented towards people of all sorts, regardless of their gender identities or their biological sexes. The Roscoe/Lex relationship supports this thinking. Perhaps Roscoe shouldn’t have a label: labels often do more good than harm (as Donis’ quote infers). But, if we can use labels in the effort to disturb thinking that is dictated (and caused to be narrow) by other labels, then we might consider doing so. Promoting the term pansexual is a rhetorical move to promote alternative thinking—thinking beyond the definitive categories that the man/woman binary encourages.
As long as we continue to use the terms gay, straight, and bisexual—we might be excluding certain individuals from groups (intersexed, transgender, transsexual, etc.) from the choices these terms offer. With gay, straight, and bisexual—you either like men, women, or both—there is no in-between or beyond. Roscoe isn’t influenced by the man/woman and gay/straight/bisexual categories: he thinks between and beyond them. Should the audience members (specifically the audience members unfamiliar with the sex and gender-related topics explored) be given a label so that they might more effectively work through and explore some of the ideas that this show is promoting? Or would this label limit their thinking? This is an interesting question to ponder.
When AfterEllen asked Matthew Carnahan about his inspiration for including Roscoe, he said that he has friends with a genderqueer son, who he’s “watched grow from a child into a remarkable person who had the incredible good fortune of never being pushed in any one direction, so he gets to be uniquely himself.” He says that that was his goal for Roscoe, “…to let Roscoe be uniquely himself.” His reason for including the Roscoe/Lex relationship in the third season was to “show the importance of what’s in your heart rather than what’s between your legs…”
In the latest episodes of the show, we see Marty struggle to accept his son’s relationship with Lex. Marty is no longer the “cool” father we saw before who allows his son to do what he wants without expressing disapproval or his perception of his son’s “un-normalness”. In one recent episode, he refers to their relationship as a “circus”, and in the latest episode (which came out this past Sunday, February 23) he seeks to end their relationship because he views it as Roscoe retaliating against him (against his fathering). Indeed, when you read Matthew Carnahan’s blog post regarding his motives for including Roscoe as Marty Kaan’s son, he reveals that the decisions that went into the creation of Roscoe revolved around the need to create a character that would “unbalance” Marty’s character:
“When I set out to write a son for Marty Kaan, Don Cheadle’s ethically challenged character on House of Lies, I thought, “What kind of kid would just undo this guy? What kind of kid would unbalance and upend Marty? What kind of kid would take him out of his role as smug superman who can solve any “case” using a variety of consulting tricks and genuine analytical genius?” And I came up with Roscoe, based loosely on several children I’ve met over the years whose gender identities have come differently from those of the majority of their peers. He’s a kid who’d rather play Sandy than Danny Zucko in Grease — for now. And in creating a challenge for Marty, I’ve also encountered a barometer for the varying attitudes and preconceptions of the audience. An entire segment of the audience simply dismisses Roscoe as gay. Another immediately jumps to pushing him into a transgender role. Some just think he’s weird. How about this: he’s just Roscoe.”
It will be interesting to see the direction this show takes from here with regards to the sex/gender/sexual orientation topics. While it seems that Matthew Carnahan apparently has good intentions behind his portrayal of Roscoe (and Lex), there is also a worry about their gender and sexual explorations being portrayed as symptomatic rather than natural. This is often the case with portrayals of characters crossing “typical” sex and gender boundaries in television and film (and some literature—although literature does a much better job with these sorts of things). Think of, for example, the transsexual character on Sons of Anarchy—who is shown to have acquired her transgender “condition” as a result of child molestation. There were arguments about whether the inclusion of such a character was helpful or hurtful to the transgender community.
While there are cases of transgender being circumstantial (as is the case in SOA), there are also completely natural cases of it. Does the media help the transgender cause when transgender is only portrayed in a “symptomatic” light? Here this question must also be asked with regards to other sex and gender related topics. Does the portrayal of Roscoe as using his gender and sexual exploration as a means to call out to his unavailable father help to disrupt audience members’ “typical” and limiting notions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation? Or does this portrayal just make Roscoe’s explorations seem to be no more than symptomatic of his being a neglected child? Does this whole scenario help or hurt the cause?
Roscoe is a tremendous and fresh character, possessing qualities that surely make him a favorite to many. But it seems that we need more characters like Roscoe, who really are just “Roscoe”—just because. No reason. Naturally. There are people like Roscoe in the real world, and they are the way they are because they weren’t pushed in any one direction (as Carnahan’s friends’ son was), because they were born that way, etc., and not because they became that way as a cry for help or as a result of unfortunate circumstances. If shows stop making these kinds of topics of a symptomatic nature, this might lead to more of these so-called “issues” being normalized (or, at least, being more accepted or tolerated).
A lot of us can appreciate what Matthew Carnahan had to say about what’s in your heart being more important than what’s between your legs. We can only hope the show delivers this message somewhat well (or, from an optimistic stance, we can hope the delivery does really well, although as this article shows some of us may have doubts). And from here perhaps more writers will join the effort to make this message known. My personal takeaway from my experience with sex, gender, and sexual orientation: How you define yourself is more important that how you are predefined, and loving (and lusting) for a person should arise not because of what they are, but because of who they are.
What do you think? Leave a comment.