Kissing Cousins

by Bianca Caraza

“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” says Norman Bates, Psycho’s chillingly creepy
villain. More interesting than Norman’s campy habit of cross-dressing to look like his
mother (a shocker to a 1950s audience for sure) is his obsession with her. Though the
late Mrs. Bates and her seriously demented son never share the screen, the Hitchcock
classic suggests some heavy Freudian themes between them. What makes Norman such a messed up dude is that he, like Oedipus, killed his father (or step-father, as it were) and wanted to “marry” his mother (psychologically).

In the fifties, just the whiff of that mother-son relationship was enough to chill
audiences, but to a generation with little off-limits, writers have few taboos left to play with onscreen. Today’s favorite flavor of deviance is incest. Incest itself used to be more loosely defined, a fact at which Tina Fey pointedly pokes fun in cult classic Mean Girls. Karen talks about her first cousin being a “good kisser,” and tries to explain why it’s not, in her eyes, forbidden: “you have your cousins and then you have your first cousins…” to which her horrified friend replies, “No, honey, nu-uh.”

In HBO’s booming series Game of Thrones, the entire first season’s mystery revolves around (spoiler alert) the fact that the Lannister twins, Jaime and Cersei, are totally doing it. Somewhere in the HBO sexy-fying shuffle, the title of Uncle-Father migrated from the provinces of the backwater American South to high-class Westeros
royalty. Similarly, Showtime’s Borgias delves into the depths of the sibling incest trope by pairing up Cesare and Lucretia Borgia. No, honey, nu-uh.

As with any industry, the themes and tropes of cable programs leak into TV’s lower forms. FX’s American Horror Story: Coven dealt with enough mother-son incest this season to make even Sigmund’s head spin. Evan Peter’s character, Kyle, starts off as a nice guy jock from a single-parent home. We quickly realize, however, that his life’s not as clean-cut as it seems: his mother has been sexually assaulting him—and the results are disastrous for all parties involved. Though this issue is left unresolved for the rest of the series (aside from a bloody reckoning in which mommy earns a final rejection), it’s clear what Glee writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are trying to convey: she’s a bad lady.

Bates Motel takes us full circle back to Norman Bates’ mommy issues. In A&E’s spiffy reimagining of the Psycho story, Vera Farmiga gives a fabulous—if sometimes exhausting—performance as young Norman’s manipulative and explosive mother, Norma. It’s easy to see how Norman could go from cute little Freddie Highmore to a demented Tony Perkins, as Norma smothers him with her capricious hot-and-cold approach—screaming at him one minute and sharing a bed the next (he’s sixteen!). It’s disturbing even to write, but the sexual tension between Highmore and Farmiga is incredibly palpable, and it makes for a train-crash effect: both impossible to watch and to stop watching.

Writers use exaggerated character flaws to show us what we don’t like, to give us villains we love to hate. Plato wrote that stories are cathartic: they inspire pity and fear. And the incest trope is the perfect platform for both emotions. In shows like Bates Motel and Coven, the incestuous relationships are on unequal footing: we can pity the victim and fear the villain. Sure, it’s pretty sick, but it makes for a campy story. The real issue arises with illicit relationships on equal footing, as with the Lannisters. Why watch something which thoroughly disgusts us?

I’d posit that we’re fascinated by deviance. Sociologists who study deviancy agree that every social group must have corresponding deviants: a group of outliers who violate the norms, mores, or ethical codes of the larger in-group. Deviants exist to bring the in-group closer together, much like a common enemy in times of allied
war. They’re a group we can collectively point to and hate, sighing, “At least we’re not them.”

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the term “defining deviancy down,” which refers to the idea that deviancy isn’t immutable, but a set of flexible boundaries depending on time and cultural shifts. In short: today’s deviancy is tomorrow’s normalcy. Today, much of what was considered deviant fifty, thirty, even ten years ago is the norm. Deviancies have been defined down, and it’s harder to pinpoint behaviors (from a politically correct standpoint) that we are allowed to publicly revile. Perhaps the reason television presents incest on such a wide spectrum, from the serious to the downright campy, is because it’s one of the last taboos left to us, the last dark cave of humanity that can be explored and—across the board—condemned.

Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.