Visi(bi)lity: How the Savage U Premiere Barely Exceeded My Extremely Low Expectations
Throughout this series, I have tried very hard not to write about the gigantic elephant in the room: Dan Savage. He's a controversial figure, particularly when it comes to his statements on bisexuality, and though I quoted him in my post about Bi the Way, I haven't wanted to dwell on him. I find much of his commentary on bisexuality thoughtless and insensitive, but he insists he is not biphobic, and I choose to believe him. I may disagree with a lot of his ideas, but I like some of them, I respect his efforts to campaign against LGBT youth bullying and suicide, and I am not interested in making assumptions about what lies in his heart.
But in discussing bisexuality and the media, mentioning Savage is unavoidable. And since his new MTV show, Savage U, premiered on Tuesday, there's no better time to open this can of worms.
The basic premise of the series involves Savage visiting college campuses with his producer, Lauren Hutchinson. Hutchinson doesn't actually get to do much other than drive their van, emcee his Q&A sessions, and laugh at his jokes, but maybe this will change in future episodes. Savage, on the other hand, spends his visit (each one its own half-hour episode) answering questions at large Q&As, talking with students about their sex lives in man-on-the-street interviews around campus, and meeting individually with students who have written to him with specific concerns. Those private conversations are the moments I liked best, as Savage shows a sensitive and serious side that isn't typically part of his public persona.
The good news is that Savage U is not the utter disaster I had anticipated. The premiere is set at the University of Maryland, and much to my surprise, it actually addresses bisexuality twice—with mixed results. About halfway through the episode, a woman at the Q&A tells Savage that she recently dated a bisexual man, and asks him about the line between "guys trying out other guys" and guys being "actually into guys." Savage replies:
Most guys who try out other guys are into guys on some level. That's a pretty high bar in our very homophobic culture. Not a lot of mostly straight guys go, 'I think I'll put a penis in my mouth just to see, because it's an experiment, and I want to see what happens.'
Like many of Savage's comments, this one was aiming for laughs, and it received them. I'm not sure that I agree with reviews that say that the comment was specifically meant to imply that bisexual men are actually gay, but I wish he had broached the issue differently. For starters, we've already established that some "mostly straight guys" actually do experiment with other guys. Additionally, rather than pointing out how hilarious it is to suggest that men experiment sexually, Savage could have taken a moment to educate this student about bisexuality. The way she asks her question makes her seem nervous about the idea of bisexuality, and it may have been helpful for him to explain that being bisexual does not mean that her boyfriend would cheat on her or leave her for another man. But this is Dan Savage, so I can't say I'm surprised that his answer lacked thoughtfulness.
His thoughtfulness came through in the next scene, however. Hutchinson introduces Savage to Marty, a student who had written to him about his difficulty leaving the "friend-zone" with romantic prospects. Savage asks Marty if he is looking for a relationship with a man or a woman, and he reveals that he is beginning to come to terms with his bisexuality and is looking for a boyfriend. Rather than advising him to pick a side, Savage offers sensitive words, telling him not to let rejection get him down and encouraging him to feel confident and play up his assets. It's a touching scene, and at the end of the episode, we find out that Marty has moved out of the "friend-zone" with a partner. Though Savage's shtick is usually more abrasive and confrontational, particularly when bisexuality comes up, the one-on-one intimacy of this scene is a refreshing reminder that, yes, Savage truly does want to help people, and his biphobic statements are likely more intended to get a rise out of readers than incite actual bigotry.
The moments that bothered me the most during the premiere were not biphobic ones—they were sexist ones. A lot of the young men interviewed liberally threw around the word "slut" and shared various slut-shaming sentiments, and while Savage insists that he "was always challenging guys on that," the statements went unchallenged in the final cut. He also responds to a question about sex during menstruation by calling it "sex during Shark Week" and making objectifying jokes about vagina dentata. I imagine that Savage will be addressing women's issues more frequently than bisexual-specific issues, so I hope his attitude toward women shapes up fast. Otherwise, no amount of bi-sensitivity will outshine those failures.
Dan Savage's advice is often a mixed bag, so I'm not shocked that his show is similarly muddled. On one hand, I'm thrilled to see that Savage is addressing bisexuality and not completely dismissing the issue as he tends to do in his advice columns. On the other hand, his sensitivity toward bisexuality is still at the bare-minimum level, which doesn't exactly earn him a cookie. It's too early in the series to tell precisely which direction it is heading, and I'm honestly not too hopeful. But the premiere had moments that pleasantly surprised me, so I'll keep tuning in, just to see what happens next.
Did any of you watch the premiere of Savage U? What were your thoughts?
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