Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Places Even Adult Swim Shouldn’t Venture

Can you prescribe Nomolesterol to a TV show?

I watched last Sunday’s Venture Bros. and enjoyed it very much. I’ve been enjoying the show ever since the pilot, “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay.” However, upon watching this week’s, “The Better Man,” I had to think for a bit about what it was, exactly, that I liked so much. Then I realized: no pedophilia jokes.

Seriously, Venture Bros. has to take the prize for the most pedophilia jokes — specifically pederasty jokes — featured on any show in history ever. I, of course, have not seen every TV show ever made, but I have seen a lot of them. Even if I’m overstating my case here, anyone who regularly watches the show has to admit that it has packed more pedophilia jokes into its four short seasons that most shows could, would or should ever hope to. I mean, I’ve never watched Dallas, but I know it ran for fourteen seasons and I’ll bet it declined to find comedy in molestation more often than not. Dallas fans, please correct me if this is not the case.

You may be asking questions now. Perhaps it’s “Drew, what is this Adventure Bros.?” If that’s the question, I’d like you to close this tab and go back to editing the Facts of Life Wikipedia page. Perhaps, however, the question is “Drew, I watch the show pretty often and I’ve never noticed anything like what you’re talking about.” That’s not exactly a question, but I’ll answer it anyway. Simply put, the show references some sort of sexual activity between men and teen boys or teen-seeming men a lot more often than, well, any other show I can think of. And although I enjoy the show, I have to say that this peculiar theme is a little off-putting, especially this season with the promotion to lead character status of Sgt. Hatred — a reformed supervillain currently surviving as the title characters’ bodyguard as well as a recovering pedophile. I find myself asking, “What is up with the writing on this show?” While roundly very good, the writing — the vast majority of which is done by Doc Hammer and Christopher McCulloch, who also do voices for the show — seems to dwell on the theme of pedophilia unusually often.

sgt. hatred, courtesy of the venture bros. wiki

It’s not that such a theme is entirely out-of-place in the Venture Bros. universe. One of the show’s primary inspirations is the 1960s cartoon adventure show Jonny Quest, which itself featured quite a bit of homoeroticism — most of it inadvertent, I’m guessing, and most of it between Jonny’s dad, Dr. Quest, and the family bodyguard, Race Bannon. (Before Venture Bros. came along, this element was parodied in the pilot by another Adult Swim series, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. In it, Harvey represents Dr. Quest in a custody battle with Bannon over Johnny and Hadji. Is funny.) Another big inspiration: comic book superheroes. And that element is there, too, as Fredric Wertham noted in Seduction of the Innocent. Batman does have a tendency, after all, to dress teenage boys in short-shorts and force them to hang out with him in an insolated cave.

I suppose someone could argue that Venture Bros. explores all manner of relationships between male characters and more than a few of them would get sexual. In a way, it deals with relationships between men in a way that’s similar to what Buffy the Vampire Slayer did with relationships between women — and at the end of Buffy, it had addressed just about every way one woman can interact with another, including the sexual ways. However, a sexual relationship between two consenting adults is different from one between an adult and a teenager, and it’s the portrayal or insinuation of the latter that sets Venture Bros. apart from other shows and certainly other cartoons. Aside from Jonny Quest and superhero riffs, the first instance I can remember occurs in the episode “Past Tense,” which introduces Colonel Gentleman, a Sean Connery-sounding, Allan Quatermain-acting member of the Team Venture from two generations previous. He resides in Tangiers, with an eager-to-please boyservant named Kiki, who is in turn modeled after a similarly named, real-life lover of William S. Burroughs. As the series progressed, the audience learns that Col. Gentlemen is quite the libertine and, at least during his younger days, would have sex with anything that walked. Not sure if the historical basis or the later development of Gentleman as sexually omnivorous helps the matter any, but, really, he’s a minor character in the grand scheme of the show.

Aside from a touchy-feely Caligula in “Escape to the House of Mummies, Part II” — to which, notably, there is no part one — the next major instance of a character whose eyes seem set on abnormal sex would be Sgt. Hatred, who debuts in the second season, appears as a villain in the third and as a kida-sorta hero in the fourth. Especially once he enters the Venture household as a replacement for family bodyguard Brock Samson, Sgt. Hatred’s struggles with his urges become regular plot and joke fodder — his alleged deprogramming, his failed relationship with a woman named Princess Tinyfeet, and most recently his temptation toward Master Billy Quizboy, a now-37-year-old former boy genius whose body has retained the basic shape and appearance of a prepubescent.

Turning a pathetic sexual deviant into somewhat of a relatable character is maybe the most daring feat Venture Bros. has attempted. You feel bad for Sgt. Hatred because he means well, but he’s overall a miserable person with fairly monstrous tendencies. I mean, on one hand, pedophilia is a thing that happens and that ruins people’s lives, so I guess someone could argue that it’s noble of the show’s writers to introduce this concept to an over-to-top universe. On the other hand, Hatred’s placement alongside so many other comic book-style evil-doers — whose nefarious plans rarely end up causing much harm to the show’s main cast, often killing off only red shirts and other background types — makes his pedophilia seem less awful than it would actually be in real life.

Light-hearted though treatment of his affliction might be, making audiences feel sympathy for such a social outsider might have been the writers’ intent. According to the character’s Wikipedia page, Venture Bros. creators Hammer and Jackson Publick note in the DVD commentary for the episode “The Buddy System” that they once observed “a man with a crew cut at Starbucks, who appeared to be looking at foot-specific pornography on his laptop without regard for the comfort of those sitting around him. The man’s intense demeanor, coupled with his blatant disregard for sexual mores, inspired Jackson and Hammer to create Hatred. They view him as a sympathetic character and state that despite his urges, Hatred realizes that his attraction to minors is wrong and is attempting to keep them in check — an aspect of his personality that they view as redeeming and sympathetic.” Even someone opposed to any kind of amnesty towards people who prey on the underaged would have to admit that it would require a good deal of skill to write a character who has this trait but who also manages to be dramatically interesting. And if that’s honestly what the writers were going for, then they’re welcome to do that. I mean, it’s their show and all.

However, even in the midst of this newest season that has focused so much on Hatred’s pedophilia, the show still went for a completely unrelated pedophilia-themed episode that used the same themes just for laughs. In “Handsome Ransom,” Hank Venture ends up becoming the new sidekick to the superhero Captain Sunshine, who like Superman is powered by the sun but who like Batman keeps company with youthful heroes-in-training. Hank’s superhero sidekick name is even Wonderboy, which seems like a pretty clear reference to Batman’s sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder. Throughout the episode, an oblivious Captain Sunshine behaves in a way that makes everyone, Hank included, think that he has sex or wants to have sex with his sidekicks in addition to housing them and training them in the arts of superheroism. However, throughout the course of the episode, whenever Captain Sunshine seems like he’s making a move toward Hank, the following action is always something much more innocent. Thus, it’s a setup for a joke, the punchline being “Ha! You thought this was about pedophilia! But it’s not!” Which is kind of mean-spirited, given the show’s theoretically noble attempt to address Hatred’s plight and its history of man-on-man subtext.

In the end, I really don’t know what to make of this strange tendency to a show I otherwise find to be thoroughly clever and entertaining. I go back to my initial reaction: “What is up with the writing on this show?” Does someone find this subject especially compelling? Is there a humor in all this that I’m too uptight to get? And, finally, one that I debated whether I should even say but feel is justified: Is someone trying to work out some personal issue out in all this?

For what it’s worth, I feel I should note that the show doesn’t portray all gay men to be pedophiles. There’s quite a few gay guys on the show whose sexuality isn’t used to set-up pedophilia jokes. Among them: The Alchemist (a sassy magician), Holy Diver and Mile High (former OSI agents, now a couple with a tendency to bible-beat), and King Gorilla (an incarcerated, sentient ape who seems to be a parody of DC comics ape-villain Monsieur Mallah, who’s also gay).

I don’t expect that I’ll ever get a satisfying answer about why the show’s writers chose to dwell on this particular theme, but I still think it’s worth putting out there, even if only for the chance that doing so will make someone else stop and say “Hey, that is weird. Now I also wonder why they do that.” Not that anyone would actually say it in those words, but still. Venture Bros. is an outstanding show in so many ways. I only wish I understood why the powers that be chose to make it additionally outstanding in this way. If anyone reading this has any insights one way or the other, I’d love to hear them.

Reservations and questions notwithstanding, Go Team Venture.

9 comments:

  1. One other interesting episode is Episode 207: Love Bheits in which the Venture Brothers manage to dethrone Baron Ünderbheit. In this case it deals with young adolescent pedophilia with a female apparent character as Dean is dressed up like a girl from a Halloween party. Ünderbheit mistakes Dean to be a girl, forcing him into marriage to become the attempts to make him the 8th Baroness of Ünderland. Venture Brothers is interesting in a lot of respects and I think it's an academic wet dream to pick apart. Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick are masters at tackling insanely heavy issues in the most amusing way humanly possible. Regarding Episode 207 the subtle commentary on gender as it pertains to Dean and Girl Hitler as well as the pedophilic lust Underbheit feels for adolescent "female" Dean. However, since Dean is actually a male it adds yet another twist. Publick and Hammer's perspectives of women in the show is often very original and they tend to stay away from making any meek female characters. The two "major" (read as most portrayed) female characters of Dr. Girlfriend and Molotov Cocktease are both sexual dynamos. Even Triana, who is supposedly as young as the twins is a strong female character in charge of her sexuality as are the other adolescent girls, in Season 3, Doctor Quymn's daughters Nancy and Drew. The only possible meek character could be Professor Impossible's former wife, Sally. Anyways, sorry, just some thoughts.

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  2. Most people need sex to have meaning because the alternative is too frightening: being sexual in an existential vacuum. Sex without meaning would require participants to float freely in sexual experience, rather than being snugly anchored in a cognitive framework.

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  3. Anonymous11:14 AM

    I think any good discussion about sexuality on Venture Bros. should point out that the show's most prominent female character, Dr. Girlfriend, has a deep, masculine voice. Now that is weird, possibly precedent-setting for the entire show. As strange and as frequent as the jokes are about homosocial relations turning into or seeming like homosexual ones, the show's use of female characters is even more interesting to me.

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  4. Southpark also features a lot of pedophelia jokes. Perhaps not quite the volume that Venture Bros. seems to be amassing, but I'd guess that over it's run it's done at least as many, if not more jokes about it.

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  5. Daskaea: Good points on the women and the Underbeit episode, which I'd forgotten about. I do think the show does a good job with its female characters, and, really, everyone else as well. It's just the awkwardness of these jokes that I can't get past.

    Chatline: I'm not sure I get what you mean.

    Anonymous: Yes, Dr. Girlfriend being physically womanly but vocally masculine does queer the whole deal, so to speak. And again with Dr. Orpheus's wife appearing in mentioned non-pedophilia episode and sounding like H. Jon Benjamin, though that was with good reason.

    Jesse: But at the same time, South Park doesn't compel me to watch and doesn't have story development and character development like Venture Bros. does. For me, it's more of a joke machine than anything.

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  6. Anonymous6:02 AM

    The mark of a good show for me is one that, through clever disguise, imparts extremely subversive social commentary... specifically, that of preconceived notions and over-simplistic categorizations.

    Venture Brothers genius lies in its constant misdirection: The face value, book-by-its-cover, outer appearance of a character is, through dialogue, carefully undermined by a subtle unveiling of the very different and more complex story that lies beneath the characters costume or accent; In the simplest ways, like Dr. Girlfriends unexplained deep voice, to the more complex psycho-sexual eccentricities of it's other characters.

    I think it quite clever to use an Action genre to unpeel and discuss the more complex set of the human motivations that that actually drive people to actions, literally.

    Violence, for whatever reason, is intrinsically linked with many other primal human psychological and emotional precedes...and at that basic level, there aren’t that many besides eating, procreating, seeking shelter and comfort, loving and hating (post-industrial cultures have been especially adept at fostering a very tight meshing of sexual and violence centered mental frameworks).

    I'm trying to think about what is up with Sgt. Hatred same as everyone who found this blog. I saw that Pedophile and Pederast were used interchangeably and it made me take it to Wikipedia; I found out some pretty lengthy history behind the two words. I now think that with Hatred, VB is trying too (among other things) make a distinction between the two terms: Hatred may be classified as exhibiting signs of a homosexual pederast, while Captain Sunshine could be categorized a homosexual pedophile. (Words matter e.g. The Necromancer, not the Necrophiliac).

    Through his interaction with Hand, Hatred’s character seems to riff on thousands of years of warrior class male pederasty (Ancient Greeks, Romans, Moorish Spain, and Imperial Persia, China and Japan. Captain sunshine seems to deal with a somewhat different set of infantalistic based pedophilia. (dressing Dean in those PJ's, the balloon wallpaper)I don't know how old Hank is supposed to be but I'm guessing that Hatreds intentions might actually be LEGAL in some European countries. However, if Hank were as old as Sunshine wanted him to be, the insinuation is that there is no country where it would be legal.

    Now I know why Captain sunshine made me MORE uncomfortable than Hatred. The specter of the potential societal risk that Sunshine poses has been uniformly rejected by modern societies, while Hatred represents a less deviant sexual classification. To that end, Colonel Gentleman represents another take on male sexuality, in his brown boy-toy type relationship with Kiki, (think Palm Springs). Many of the homosexual characters on the show stand to rudely diffuse the conceptual mutual exclusivity of, on one hand, machismo, violence, militarism and heroism, and on the other, homosexuality, effeminacy. Heterosexual male leads on the show, through their sexual behavior or inadequacies, also make commentary on their psycho-sexual profiles. Think Brok and his polyamourous but purely physical relationships, or Dr. Venture and his overt sexual confidence, and underlying neuroses.

    Hatred seems to be to be neither a sympathetic nor an unsympathetic character, like all the main characters in the show…that’s their power as archetypes, you can’t write them off. His presence highlights that of a of sexually repressed, cold war, Kinsey report, Saigon girls brothel, Bangkok boys brothel, militaristic-fetishistic(foot), McCain/Palin BS.

    It is a FACT that sex workers get more work when the RNC, not the DNC comes to town. (Hatred probably pays his RNC dues early). There are some really fascination psychological reasons behind that fact. Larry Craig is tragic and funny for his anti-gay crusade and then for the fall. Sgt Hatreds pederasty is not independent of his being a Sgt. Either. I think it helps to look at it through that prism.

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  7. Anonymous6:06 AM

    Correction "Through his interactions with HANK" (not Hand) yipes,ha!

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  8. Anonymous11:15 AM

    I've long believed that Doc Hammer is gay (is he openly gay?) and also believe that the writing is a way of catharsis for something he is currently dealing with or has dealt with in the past. Was he molested at some point in his youth so making jokes about it now is a way to make it seem ok? An atempt at proving to himself that he can deal with it? Does he have pedophilic desires now and by making pedo jokes it helps him feel and seem more normal? Is he hoping pedastry will lose it's taboo/stigma by continually joking about it to an audience that is mainly male teenagers? In any case, I feel that his writing is an atempt to trivialize a very serious and horrific phenomena--pedastry. I have been such a massive fan of the show (a member of T-shirt fan club), but I am questioning whether or not to continue watching the show, as this season is overflowing with very awkward and puzzling pedophile jokes/scenarios.

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  9. That's where you lie in the woods doing drugs and end up getting stung by a scorpion, right?

    I think I've done that. It was totally "gay
    when I did it, though

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