Spies Among Us: Queering the 1980s Family in FX’s The Americans

Curator's Note

The FX series The Americans follows Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who serve their country under the guise of American travel agents. On the surface, the Jennings enjoy a pleasant domestic situation, following Reagan-era calls for conservative family values; however it is a necessary facade for their commitment to the KGB.

In this scene, Philip has just returned from shopping with his children Henry and Paige to find Elizabeth preparing brownies intended for the new neighbors. The Coppertone walls offset the bright white cabinets and the afternoon light bathes the couple as it shines in through the window. This picture-perfect 1980s domestic scene is quickly interrupted by Elizabeth’s allusion to a captured Soviet defector they are holding hostage. The tension escalates to aggression as Elizabeth swiftly turns the knife on her husband and questions his assertion of their married roles. This reference to their sham marriage and false identities lingers as the Jennings family meets the Beamans across the street. The interaction seems to bask in the neighborly obligation both families feel as brownies and awkward introductions are offered. As a viewer, it’s difficult not to chuckle a bit as Elizabeth and Stan’s wife Sandra excessively apologize for the intrusion and mess, respectively, and Philip and Stan assume their fatherly roles with introductions and talk of morning commutes. And Philip’s “FBI? Wow!” is a darkly comedic moment in an otherwise violent spy thriller, fraught with mortal danger.

While this serious moment pits KGB spies against their FBI agent neighbor, this scene also captures the queerness of two families living in a Reagan-era D.C. suburb. Beyond the awkwardness of a first meeting, there is a certain strain on both sides to appear casual, happy, and, most importantly, normal. Whether through secret identities or infidelities, neither family can claim any of these qualities. Showrunner Joe Weisberg has repeatedly claimed that more than a spy thriller, he set out to create a story about marriage and family. He has definitely succeeded in this arena and, in doing so, has also found a way to offer a fresh critique of Reagan-era policies while he’s at it.

Comments

Elizabeth Wuerffel's picture

clothes and food

You could write an essay on the clothing choices, and the food. (Also, does it count to say “homemade” if it was out of a brownie box?)

Molly McCourt's picture

The Jordache!

Yes! It seems like Keri Russell was meant to wear Jordache jeans and those sheer, fuzzy V-necks. I plan on exploring this much more, especially since these characters (Elizabeth and Philip) change their appearance so often as KGB operatives. The knife she uses to cut those brownies is laughable as well. A spatula would do, but obviously doesn’t have the same effect.

Molly McCourt's picture

The Jordache!

Yes! It seems like Keri Russell was meant to wear Jordache jeans and those sheer, fuzzy V-necks. I plan on exploring this much more, especially since these characters (Elizabeth and Philip) change their appearance so often as KGB operatives. The knife she uses to cut those brownies is laughable as well. A spatula would do, but obviously doesn’t have the same effect.

Bridget Kies's picture

Queerness and Domesticity?

I’m struck by your categorization of queerness here, since what we see is a scene of performed domesticity. Is it queer because it is purely performative then? As you say, we are supposed to chuckle at their performance, but don’t we also venerate heteronormative domesticity, both by performing it and by making the “good guys” normative?

Molly McCourt's picture

"Evil Empire" playing house

Thanks for your questions, Bridget. While the “good guys” are, in fact, performing heteronormative domesticity, I see it less as a veneration and more as a necessity. In order to blend in, Elizabeth and Philip need to convincingly play their roles in a nuclear family, a construct glorified by1980s policies. Performance, compounded with the protagonists’ actual fidelity to “the Evil Empire,” as Reagan called the Soviet Union, are factors that lead me to categorize this presentation of the family as queer.

R. Gabriel Dor's picture

Queer Domestic Masquerade

So the queerness comes as masquerade of domesticity to cover over subversion? Is it frequent for The Americans to use this tension as a source of humor?

Molly McCourt's picture

In a word, yes.

Well said, Gabriel! And to comment further on your second question, I’d say that the first season invokes this subtle humor often.This can be seen, for example, by cutting from a strained domestic scene in the Jennings household to the portrait of a smiling President Reagan in the FBI office. However, as the fourth season approaches, a sense of imminent danger to the protagonists has done away with most of these playful nods.

Zach Finch's picture

Critique of Reagan era

I think your suggestion that the show critiques the cultural values and politics of the Reagan era reveals how timely this show is, given that Ronald Reagan is probably now regarded as the #2 Republican all-time next to Abraham Lincoln by Republicans. Anyone following the Republican debates should be struck by the invocation of Reagan as a near-sacred figure to conservativism. Strange times.

Molly McCourt's picture

Bingo, Zach!

Two of the shows I watch at the moment are revealing their timeliness in very different ways regarding this primary season. As you point out above, The Americans is speaking to the current moment of Reagan nostalgia many Republicans seem to be experiencing. The other, Scandal, almost mirrors this primary season by having certain characters and storylines match current political events in an almost uncanny way in some alternate reality. It’s fascinating how a period spy drama and a primetime White House soap can speak to today’s political climate so directly.

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