Six Feet Under is unique among American television shows in its depiction of sex and gender. Because it is an HBO cable series, the writers are offered considerable leeway in the use of partial nudity and coarse language. Ironically, however, Alan Ball, the writer/executive producer/creator of Six Feet Under, keeps the show relatively free of gender bias or stereotypes. Moreover, depictions of sexuality in the series are realistic and tasteful, not nearly as sensationalized as they are often shown on network television. Episode 13, entitled "Knock, Knock" aired November 16, 2003. This episode is particularly revealing in demonstrating that Alan Ball's critically acclaimed show Six Feet Under quite accurately reflects the mores, folkways, and values in American culture, including those that have to do with sexuality and gender. While most shows on network television do drive American culture by imparting a sense of consumer-based identity on male and female viewers, Six Feet Under happens to be one show that mirrors reality in all its dysfunctional splendor.
In the opening scene, a female executive is shown on a golf course, the casual business arena usually reserved for men. Yet she berates and taunts one of her managers, thus taking on the role of the man both in her body language on the course and in her speech. She shouts, "Growth is the only thing that's acceptable!" And later belches, both gestures that in American culture are considered to be masculine. Unfortunately, a woman in power is shown not to exhibit positive character traits. Rather, she has taken on the negativity, insensitivity, and immorality of her typical male counterparts. This scene is more a critique of corporate culture than it is of gender roles, but it remains unique in that depicts a total gender role reversal. While this is not a common phenomenon, wealthy, power-hungry females do exist and thus the show attempts to show that women in power can be as ruthless as men.
This is the only example of total gender role reversal in this episode; however, the character of Parker McKenna also depicts women in a negative light. Parker is a "bad girl," a high school femme fatale. A classmate of Claire Fisher, Parker throws a huge party at her father's mansion while he is out of town. At the party, Parker exhibits promiscuous behavior and assumes the dominant role in her relations with men. For example, when Claire walks in on her and the first man she is with, Parker is on top of him on the bed. Later, Parker flirts with a man on the couch, obviously in control of the situation as she runs her long fingernails down his tattooed arm. Parker's character reflects the very real desire in American teenage girls to think and act like adult women and to transform the stereotype of their gender from being submissive to being dominant.
A minor character on the show, Tracy plays a larger part in this episode because her aunt died and she requires the services of Fisher and Sons Funeral Homes. Tracy is shown to be a desperate, annoying, highly materialistic and shrill woman. Again more a reflection of economic class, Tracy's character nevertheless does reflect the stereotyped (or real) tendency for American women to obsess about "resplendent" festivities, even for something as somber as a funeral. At the end of the show, Tracy's softer nature emerges as she cries over her loss. However, when she asks Nate if he is married, Tracy fulfills the stereotype of the emotionally needy, clinging woman who seeks a husband not necessarily for genuine intimacy but to fill a psychological void.
On the other hand, Claire Fisher and Brenda do not neatly fit into any stereotyped gender roles. Like many young women in modern American society, Claire and Brenda have formed unique and complex personalities that at once embrace their femininity while denying any need to ascribe to gender-based roles. Interestingly, Brenda briefly undergoes a crisis of character in this episode that leads her to pursue the marriage issue with Nate. The relationship between Nate Fisher and Brenda is depicted as being genuinely loving and totally egalitarian. When Brenda calls on Nate to support her while visiting her bipolar brother in the psychiatric ward, the quality of their relationship emerges on screen. Here is where Six Feet Under excels in truthfully reflecting heterosexual relationships where other television shows fail. Nate and Brenda are both emotionally weak and drained; they turn to each other for solace and support in ways that many loving couples do. Many couples in their thirties, as Nate and Brenda are, exhibit this type of egalitarian and mutual support, especially couples in urban centers like Los Angeles. Six Feet Under also reflects, rather than drives American culture, in its depiction of Nate not being emasculated by his displays of sensitivity in this episode. Although the stereotypical male is afraid of showing emotion, in reality, especially younger men are expected be "strong and sensitive." Likewise, women in modern America are supposed to be strong and yet sensitive: both sexes are encouraged to break free from the stereotypes that trapped their parents and grandparents into unhealthy sexist patterns. After the car accident, Nate and Brenda discuss marriage as a mutual decision, not as a proposal the woman passively accepts from the man.
Claire Fisher and her boyfriend Gabe demonstrate teenage sexuality. The two obviously care deeply about one another, but Gabe struggles with unresolved emotions over his dead brother. At the party, their interaction reflects the conflicted emotions inherent in adolescent romance. Gabe returns from a beer run with his friends, and asks Claire, "Did you miss me?" Claire, who is full of pride, responds, "Not so much, ego man." Many American teens do glean what they know about sexuality from television; Six Feet Under mirrors that reality by showing the products of TV culture on the small screen. However, like many independently-minded teens, Claire struggles to assert her identity and extricate herself from mainstream society.
The most insightful display of human sexuality in this episode of Six Feet Under is between Mrs. Fisher and Nikoli. Rarely will an American television show depict love, romance, and intimacy between mature adults. Yet Alan Ball does this with aplomb. Ruth Fisher, like most widows her age, still long for intimacy. In a culture that is biased toward youth, older people are sometimes seen as being sexless. However, most mature men and women continue to desire sexual intimacy, a reality reflected in this particular episode of Six Feet Under. Gender roles are also totally different for their generation, as is shown in Ruth, Hiram, and Nikoli. Unlike the younger women in the episode, like Claire, Brenda, and especially Parker McKenna, Ruth Fisher demonstrates old-fashioned gender roles and stereotypes. However, like many women her age, she struggles to overcome those obstacles to happiness. Ironically, one of the most overt depictions of human sexuality in this episode is between Ruth and Nikoli, not between Claire and her boyfriend or Nate and Brenda. Ruth's boss at the flower shop happens to be one of her two boyfriends. His impassioned nature leads him to fire Ruth out of jealousy, which later leads to passionate lovemaking that is tastefully not shown on-screen. This display of emotion is reflective of his romantic and typically masculine nature. Nikoli tells Ruth, "You are the kind of woman who needs a good lover." His ability to read her mind and heart seduces Ruth; the entire scenario more realistically reflects love, romance, and sexuality among older people in our culture than most shows on television.
In a particularly humorous moment, Ruth confides in her daughter as their roles as parent and child were totally reversed: Ruth acts like the spurned girlfriend while Claire stares on in awe. In…