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HBO’s LGBT History: All Aboard! (2006)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at a couple of mid-2000s HBO comedies to discuss various gay stereotypes in Da Ali G Show, The Comeback and Entourage, a mere week after discussing complex characters in HBO dramas. Today we look at quite possibly the most surprising entry in this history: All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise. Yes, this is a documentary about the maiden voyage of Rosie O’Donnell’s all-inclusive (pun-alert!) LGBT family cruise. I dreaded watching this. I mean, that promotional image alone was enough to make me queasy and that was before I even pressed play.

Well, color me surprised. Not only is All Aboard! a pretty decent documentary but it is a fascinating document of LGBT life and politics in the early twenty-first century.

All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise (2006)
Directed by: Shari Cookson
Featuring: Rosie O'Donnell, Kelli O'Donnell, Esera Tuaolo, Pam Elliott, Judy Gold, Megan Jacoby and Jane Skorina. 

From Tidy Endings to Angels in America, from If These Walls Could Talk 2 to Stranger Inside, we’ve mostly been focused on couples and single gay men and women. Yet family has been in the periphery. Notions of family in past HBO productions, though, have been limited to how heterosexual families react to LGBT individuals: think of the supportive wife in Normal, the doting mother in Citizen Cohn or the brave families in Common Threads. The issue of what an LGBT family looks like (while metaphorical in Kushner’s work, yes), finally comes to the fore in All Aboard!

The film pats itself on the back for showcasing the traumatizing homophobia that greets the cruise in the Bahamas and crafts a narrative out of two wedding ceremonies out at sea clearly setting up the same-sex marriage debate front and center, but the most potent political position the film takes is in its commitment to expanding the very concept of family. The film makes us privy to conversations about surrogacy, about adoption, about in vitro fertilization, about foster parenting, and shows the very malleability of the term “LGBT family.” They come in all shapes and sizes.

It is in this plurality that the film succeeds, by displacing the representability of any one family -- precisely what shows like Modern Family and The New Normal inevitably do by narratively structuring a gay (male, white) couple as the figural “modern” and “new” type of family. So while yes, the documentary necessarily focuses on a certain demographic (ie. those families who can afford a Bahamas cruise), it nevertheless mines any and all sorts of diversity to avoid precisely what so many of these families and kids bemoan: the need to uphold a certain standard, as if only their upstanding character would merit them equal treatment.

But the idea that the cruise affords them a kind of blanket safe space is also one of the unintentional pleasures of the film which makes the cruise appealing precisely because it encourages a type of candid comfort (no one asks you to explain your own family’s quote unquote odd dynamics). That it also features Broadway-type singing and dancing (Rosie opens the cruise and film with an Anything Goes inspired number) makes it all the gayer, and that’s even before an all-male version of Dreamgirls hits the stage.

And yes, that is Gavin Creel (he of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hair and Book of Mormon fame).

In the end, while I foresaw myself cringing at the homonormative rhetoric that would pepper All Aboard! (It’s all about love! And family!), I found myself oddly moved by it precisely because it seemed to really understand ideas of love, couples and family in such non-normative ways, stressing the ways the gay community has always needed to craft its own narratives about what it means to be and live as a family.

Fun Awards Fact: Her producing nomination for All Aboard! was O’Donnell’s fifth Primetime Emmy nomination; she’s only won one Primetime Emmy (as host, she shared the award won in 1999 by the 52nd Annual Tony Awards telecast). That said, she was a powerhouse in the Daytime Emmys in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning eleven (!) of her fifteen nominations.

Next Week: While “How do you follow Angels in America?” seems to have been met with a surprisingly barren LGBT movie/miniseries slate, the documentary branch of HBO films was clearly picking up the slack. Next week we look at Antony Thomas’s Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She, a documentary on gender variance; how timely! (stream on YouTube).

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Reader Comments (2)

I actually can't imagine anything I'd rather watch less than this documentary.

September 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

I have quite the "fond" memory about the first time I saw this.

I was at home, scrolling through the channels and saw a lovely view of the Bahamas, namely, Nassau, where I'm from. I go "ooh!" I leave it there and go to get something to drink in the kitchen with the remote still in my hand.

While I'm in the kitchen, I hear someone scream very loudly "YOU NASTY SISSY" and I pretty much drop the remote in horror and run back to the TV just to see what the hell was happening on my TV. It was beyond embarrassing (but honestly, not unexpected) to see how enormously hateful and ugly some of the Bahamians came off in regards to Rosie's cruise docking in Nassau. The doc also showed some Bahamians in a more understanding and sympathetic light but the previous display of rampant homophobia completely overshadowed it, at least to me.

September 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

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