How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

12
The Dick Van Dyke Show

Queer Meanings

QUINN MILLER

Abstract: The television sitcom is typically considered a conservative form that reaf-
firms the status quo. In particular, network era sitcoms’ normative constructions of
gender and sexuality are assumed to be antithetical to queer representation. In this
examination of an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show informed by historiography,
gender studies, and transgender criticism, Quinn Miller shows how textual and in-
tertextual details in the fabric of postwar sitcoms create a type of queer representa-
tion that differs from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) characters
TV producers commonly develop today.

Like many narrative forms, television deploys a hierarchy of characters. In addition to crafting main roles and a supporting cast, actors in minor appearances portray stock types. Comedy conventions allow secondary characters to deviate from norms in ways that main characters seldom do. With more minor parts, writers and actors have more freedom. As media scholar Patricia White has shown, such narrative conventions can produce queer meaning in popular texts.1 The term “queer” describes energies that protest norms and trouble conventional ways of thinking. A queer approach to television texts exposes the simplified understandings of gender and sexuality that make complex TV representations seem to fit conventional notions of what “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bi,” or “trans” identity and behavior entail. As a strategy for sparking radical change to social norms, which construct difference through dichotomies, queer criticism seeks to challenge conventional identity categories. Working with the minutia of television, this critical strategy reveals anti-normative perceptions, presentations, and desires within programming that is commonly understood as both “normal” and neutral.

This essay presents a queer critique of The Dick Van Dyke Show episode “I’m No Henry Walden” (March 13, 1963). The classic sitcom Dick Van Dyke (CBS,

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