TV Corner: Everything Sucks! (and I Don't Care About McQuaid)

In the final scene of Pitch Perfect, do you want to know how many times the camera cuts away from the nine women performing on stage to Beca's (Anna Kendrick) on-again, off-boyfriend, Jesse (Skylar Astin), who is watching in the audience?


Seven times.

In what is supposed to be a moment of triumph for the Bellas as they perform their winning routine, in a span of less than four minutes, somebody made the decision to give us seven shots of Jesse's silent, emotional progression from disinterested pouting, to slow realization that a song was a reference to himself, and finally to a victorious, happy raised fist.

Jesse watching. Always watching.
I watch Pitch Perfect at least once per year and, during this scene, my wife somehow tolerates me yelling at the television, "I don't care, I don't care, I DON'T CARE about Jesse's boner!"

It's not just that I think the Beca/Jesse relationship is superfluous (which it is), it's that Jesse himself is superfluous to the major theme running through the Pitch Perfect series. Via competition in a capella, the women in the Bellas come to understand the power of using their authentic voices. This theme of women-finding-themselves is subverted when the camera continually cuts away from the women, just as they've found their voices, and onto a man's reactions. It is unnecessary coddling of the male viewer who will only watch women's stories if the stories are somehow really about a male character's inner landscape.

With this intro, we come to one of the final scenes of Netflix original, 1990's nostalgia/coming-of-age series, Everything Sucks!

(The rest of this post contains spoilers for this series)

Now, I should preface this critique by saying the following. First, I thought the performance of Kate (Peyton Kennedy) as a nerdy lesbian teenager in 1996 was pretty great, as was the decision to make her one of the two main protagonists. Secondly, I also understand that the portrayal of Luke (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), a biracial boy, as the other protagonist might be meaningful to a lot of people (even if the show takes a subtle "I don't even see race" perspective where Luke and his mom's Blackness is never mentioned by anyone in this apparently predominately-white Oregon town).

Lastly, I tend to like nostalgia series, even as I notice (what I view as) their imperfections. As I watched Everything Sucks!, for instance, I had to chuckle at the clothes. Why did we wear such big jeans, flannels, and sweaters in the 1990s? How did we function with dial-up Internet that bumped you offline anytime someone called your landline? How many other queer girls had coming-of-age moments in the queer-adjacent spaces of Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, and Indigo Girls concerts?

Season One has led Kate and Emaline (Sydney Sweeney) to an important moment in the finale. Over the course of the season, Kate has realized she's a lesbian and has developed a crush on Emaline. Because we are less privy to Emaline's interior, we aren't 100% sure what she's feeling but she seems to go from disliking to being intrigued by to developing a crush on Kate.

These events culminate with Emaline leading Kate back to the empty auditorium, where they begin slow-dancing together, on stage. As a queer viewer who came of age in the 1990s, I couldn't stop thinking of the many things that could go wrong here. Somebody could walk in! It could be a trap! Oliver could come back at any time! Was he back already, in fact, hiding in the wings?!

Yet, magically, everything actually seemed okay. It could all turn to shit later, sure, but in that scene, Emaline pressed play on the boom box and started to dance just dorkily enough to suggest that she (kind of awkwardly) actually reciprocated Kate's crush on her. As they danced together, it was sweet. It was also a moment that very few queer kids likely got to experience in the 1990s.

But then, enter male nerd, McQuaid (Rio Mangini), who has an unrequited crush on Emaline.

Immediately after Kate and Emaline share their first kiss, the camera perspective widens and we see McQuaid storm into the auditorium. The camera then focuses on him watching the girls, while his face is fixed in agony over being confronted with the reality that Emaline is kissing someone else. After several seconds, he goes into the hallway, and we go with him, and he slumps back against a locker as if in visceral pain.

So, in what should be a triumphant moment for Kate, Emaline, and their respective self-discoveries, we are instead left watching a tangential heterosexual male nerd experience angst about what he has just watched the female characters do. We are implicitly invited to empathize with McQuaid.

It is a profoundly befuddling choice, although not surprising. It's said that "women watch themselves being looked at," but it's more than that. Time and time again, we watch male characters slowly, painfully realize that women and girls are beings with our own agency and desires. And, we watch men get very upset about this.

Ironically, we are given almost no backstory or insight into McQuaid. He's a flat stereotype but we're just supposed to feel for him, because um?

We do know that he's part of a slightly-misogynistic male nerd trio of Luke, Tyler (Quinn Liebling), and himself. For instance, the trio initially talk as though girls are not human beings with agency, but a series of achievements to unlock in a video game. McQuaid has somehow calculated all of their odds of leaving high school as virgins (how? with what statistics?) and the progression seems to be: get a girlfriend, have a first kiss, have sex. Which girls these activities might occur with seems much less important, at least initially, than the fact that these activities occur.

Earlier in the season, Luke quickly develops a crush on Kate and it gets complicated fast. Kate tells him she thinks she's a lesbian and they stay in a fake relationship anyway, for the sake of appearances, because what could go wrong. Yet, to Luke's credit, in addition to earning some lesbian bona fides by going to a Tori Amos concert with his lesbian "girlfriend" in 1996, he gradually comes to appreciate that Kate has an interior of her own and that her lesbianism doesn't have anything to do with him. (He then directs a movie in which lesbians are aliens from outer space and this is supposed to be a big character development moment for him, but I have questions).

Yet, we see no development for McQuaid. In fact, what little we do know about him aside from being in the nerd trio, is that for the two episodes leading up to the season finale, he starts lusting after Emaline.

It's not that McQuaid's lust for Emmaline is bad, per se. It's more that we've been given so little reason to care about his lust. Also, as infatuated as TV/filmmakers are with the "socially-awkward male nerd who lusts after a girl" character type, new spins or reboots on this type are rarely done, let alone done well.

The nerd genre has long had a tidy "every male nerd deserves a girl in the end" entitlement, Stranger Things included, and it's difficult not to see that here. When this entitlement is shown in the context of two queer girls kissing, the suggestion seems to be that this guy's hetero angst, a representation that's a dime a dozen in the nerd genre, was more profound than the angst of being a queer girl in 1996 when kids were trying to find out what the hell we were by sneaking peaks at clinical textbooks in the school library.

The big take-away from the bizarre pivot to McQuaid, because we know so little about him other than his lust for Emaline, is that the mere existence of male lust is thought as of "enough" to make us give a shit about a male character over the main female character. To de-center queer girls in a coming of age show in favor of re-centering male heterosexuality, quite frankly sucks. Female and queer characters deserve better.

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