Johnny Torso: Television as Reaction-Formation
by Mary Chino-Cherry
Television has only now begun to awaken to the realities of female sexual urges. This is perhaps best embodied by such recent innovations as Games of Crones, chronicling the aggressive sexual conquests of a group of powerful, elderly businesswomen, and Shirls, a sometime parody/sometime homage to '70s sitcoms set in working class Milwaukee. The recent upsurge in the normalization of female sexuality has been noted as both a sea-change in post-feminist entertainment and a needed corrective to decades of male-dominated TV.
Suzanne Bordeaux lauds the recent trend, noting in "The Suture Unsewn" that "depictions of female bodies have shifted from outward manifestations of idealized male images to the more realistic," and that "the satisfaction of women's urges" has become "normalized, a matter of course in the lives of major characters" (361). Thus we see both a purposeful championing of womanhood by a new generation of female writers and directors and the realization of new market opportunities on the part of the (usually) older and (generally) whiter men who make entertainment decisions at the executive level.
Of those men little has been written, and it seems a shame not to fully account for their role in what is going on. Rather than idealizing a deep commitment to feminist cause or an internalization of postmodern feminist theory, the actions of these men are better understood as reaction-formation (Freud). In other words, they're going feminist in order to compensate for their own misogyny.
Enter as evidence Johnny Torso from the UAE network, detailing the continuing adventures of a very well-developed male torso. The word "adventures" is used here with some caution: in true Weekend at Bernie's fashion, Johnny Torso is simply moved through various scenes and exotic locations, showing up randomly in the beds of and (impossibly) accompanying a variety of female celebrities as they make the rounds of vaguely fictional restaurants and clubs all over the world ( but mostly in New York and LA). Along the way, a mystery gets solved.
Johnny Torso is not so much a narrative but, like Baywatch in the '90s and Battle of the Network Stars in the '70s, simply an opportunity to highlight sexualized body parts—in this case, a good set of pecs and abs. In the current formulation of emerging female sexual awareness, Johnny Torso would seem to be part of a natural progression, the reduction of a cultural trend to the lowest common denominator, a contemporary and more female-aware version of good ol' fashioned T&A.
But not too deep within the (probably unintentional) layers of meaning within Johnny Torso is the subtext of what it says about women that we would even like the show. The executives who green-lighted Johnny Torso, rather than flattering women onscreen, appear to be assured that women are just like men, not merely prone to objectification but fully committed to the disintegration of the selfhood into the sexualized object. Only when taken to its extreme can the true origins of this reaction-formation be completely revealed. If someone incrementally gets better at something, say organizing her taxes, and then levels off, no neuroticism can be detected. But if a chronically disorganized person suddenly takes up a life of accountancy and begins advocating for the personal, professional, and corporate organizational schema, to the detriment of her family and personal happiness, a reaction-formation may be suspected.
And Johnny Torso is nothing if not extreme: in one scene, "JT," as he is referred to in the show, is seen paragliding into a pool in Miami, bobbing to the surface and being fawned over by Khloé Kardashian who, as she caresses JT's chest, realizes who "the true suspect is," solving the case of who stole her sister Kim's jewel-studded bra. Reaction-formation is described as being "found at the expense of excitations proceeding from the erotogenic zones, and they rise like dams to oppose the later activity of the sexual instincts" (Freud). In order to display the underlying erotogenic urge being compensated for, the women here must be seen as fully integrated, even preternaturally intelligent and effective, and the torso as merely the inspirational object, a muse made manifest through its intensification by the removal of all other offending male parts. Just as in a sitcom in which the father does not, in fact, know best, Johnny Torso's JT knows nothing at all, being demonstrably acephalic.
Reaction-formation, then, is baked right into Johnny Torso plotlines, and into the show's very DNA, pointing toward the reaction-formation of the show's executives themselves: by making the show's women supernaturally smart and competent and JT literally unable to do anything other than just sit there and be beautiful, Johnny Torso reveals the depth of the misogyny of those executives.
Only men who hate women would let Johnny Torso exist.
Disturbingly, Johnny Torso has proven to be immensely popular among women aged 35-50, the very demographic the UAE network was intending to catch, suggesting a reaction-formation on the part of its viewers as well. A straightforward reading of this phenomenon would suggest that Johnny Torso's female viewers are overcompensating for their own fading sense of sexual power in a patriarchal culture by living vicariously through the rotating cast of strong, celebrity women. "Aimee," a member of the Johnny Torso chatroom on the UAE website, writes that the show "makes me feel strong again" after her divorce from her husband "Michael," a corporate quality-assurance officer who ran off to Tahoe with his new trophy wife. "singlepromomJane101," another chatroom poster admits that "Johnny Torso is a guilty pleasure" but that "between the eye candy and the cleverness of the cast" she gets a sense of "deep satisfaction, now that the kids are in college and the house is payed [sic] off."
The analysand reveals much through recounting her dreams, and Johnny Torso has become a dream substitute for millions of women, surrealistically summing up, via reaction-formation, the lives they have wanted so hard and for so many years, only to lose too soon.
Bordeaux, Suzanne. "The Suture Unsewn." Critique 13.4 (2015). 354-72. Print.
Johnny Torso. Unlimited Action Entertainment.
Johnny Torso Official Chatroom. Unlimited Action Entertainment. Web.
Freud, Sigmund. "Character and Anal Eroticism." (1905). Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1962. 168-75. Print.
Aimee. "So Strong . . . ." Johnny Torso Official Chatroom. 17 June 2015. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.
singlepromomJane101. "Empty Nest." Johnny Torso Official Chatroom. 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.