"What Color Was He, Exactly?": Tobias and the Glass Closet

Curator's Note

Tobias’s sexuality, full of innuendo and winking-eye suggestions, epitomizes Eve Sedgwick’s notion of the “glass closet”: it’s something we think we know but don’t know we know, something universally suspected but never officially confirmed. By never resolving the question—having Tobias either definitively come out or more persuasively perform heterosexuality—the show wields a certain kind of power. Keeping Tobias’s sexuality on the audience’s mind allows other things to fly under the radar the way releasing mice into a store distracts from shoplifting. 

Deborah McDowell argues that the racial themes of the novel Passing keep the lesbian themes hidden—that like the protagonist, the book itself “passes.” When it comes to the character Tobias, Arrested Development is also a passing text, in exactly the opposite way: we are less likely to notice Tobias’s ambiguous race, because we are preoccupied with his ambiguous sexuality. Alia Shawkat once said in an interview, “I remember they were going to do this one [storyline] about Tobias… where he would have this rare disease and was actually black." This storyline is not just a discarded idea. There are numerous moments, unremarked upon by the other characters and perhaps unnoticed by much of the show’s audience, when Tobias is obscurely referred to as a black man. The lack of attention paid to Tobias’s unstable racial identity in large part results from the extreme amount of attention paid to his sexual identity. Several of the hints about Tobias’s race even occur tangled up with hints about his sexuality, such as when Lindsay flirts with Ice and Tobias says “I am surprised that she’s going after somebody so similar to my own type” (“Good Grief”).

As I await Arrested Development’s return, I hope the show reveals Tobias to be black but stays silent on the issue of his sexuality. Although they work together, they are not narratively parallel issues. If Tobias is revealed to be gay, he will be shown to have been passing as straight, and the revelation will be the end of that passing, the dismantling of the glass closet. But if Tobias is revealed to be black, it’s probable that his family knew his race and only the audience didn’t—that he wasn’t passing at all, but the show was. The first revelation would confirm what we’ve already seen. The second would show us how much we’ve missed.

Comments

Yashoda Sampath's picture

Nella Larsen

I could never have expected anyone to make a plausible link between Passing and Tobias Funke, so well played :).

In truth, I do wonder whether the “closet Tobias” story could really play today. It’s one of those things that teeters on the edge of being offensive, though never quite crossing the line.

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