I’m assisting my advisor, Katherine Sender, on an undergraduate gay media course here at Penn, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of gay representations, particularly on television, for decades the chief battleground for gay media advocates.
Right now, gay characters are in abundance, but series focusing on sexual minorities are a dying brand, relegated to gay networks of lesser quality, Logo and here!.
We live in an odd time.
On the one hand, it is cliche but true to say there have never been more gay characters on TV. That’s true for broadcast and it certainly feels true for cable, though those numbers have been declining over the last three years. Of course, it’s very difficult to count. First, GLAAD’s number excludes the glut of reality television series, which offer arguably more and better portrayals of lesbian and gay men. In addition, the characters of late tend to be more white and male, for what it’s worth (or not). Still, whatever characters are present, especially on cable, are increasingly high quality and complex, fully fleshed-out characters.
Yet I can’t help but think counting characters is only part of the story. Years ago, we had a number of shows explicitly focused on the lives of gays and lesbians: Queer as Folk, The L Word, Will & Grace and Noah’s Arc. At the same time you had — admittedly trashy — gay reality shows Queer Eye (Girl and Guy) and Boy Meets Boy. All of these shows, with varying degrees of quality, starred gay and lesbian characters. Yes, none of these were especially well-written or well-conceived (though Will & Grace remains one of my all-time favorite shows). Yet there were about the gays.
Today, we probably have more intimate, complex and interesting gay characters than ever before. There’s the very odd, comical relationship on Modern Family between Cam and Mitchell, a similarly well-drawn one on Brothers and Sisters (Kevin and Scotty), the flamboyant Kurt on Glee, Cassie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, and even Ugly Betty‘s clown, Marc, is becoming more complex (note: most of these are on ABC). On cable, we’re getting gay cops (Southland), gay black characters (Greek‘s Calvin), and refined closet cases (Mad Men, a period piece, so it’s okay). Now, four lesbians have their own talk shows: Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, Wanda Sykes and Suze Orman.
But notice: all of the characters on scripted shows are part of ensembles; none have their own shows. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I suppose. Ensembles breed wonderful surprises, like The Wire‘s two great gays, Omar and Kima (above, let’s hope David Simon’s Treme, pronounced tre-MAY, has some gay too!), both of which offered rich and provocative stories.
Networks have pulled back on explicitly gay content. Why? If you make a 100% gay show, with few or no straight characters on the side, you run the risk of losing straight audiences (the vast majority of viewers). At the same time, gay people will still watch your show if there’s just one or two side characters they can identify with — and you won’t lose those straight people.
It’s simple industrial math. Even in the era of niches, gays and lesbians are not a big enough niche to warrant their own series anymore.
Couldn’t we just be post-gay? If identity need not be foregrounded in the way it once was, maybe we don’t need The L Word, right? Maybe, but I don’t buy it.
If gay wasn’t so much of an issue, instead of just having side characters, we’d have gay characters as leads, but on shows about other things (other than their sexuality). This is happening already, in places, two British sci-fi shows, Dr. Who and Torchwood, have had and currently have lead characters who are bisexual.
But this is still very much the exception. In truth, while cable television is starting to develop shows with black leads (with a mostly non-black cast), like HawthoRNe and Sherri, both moderate successes, we still haven’t seen a significant gay American show with the same perspective.
The “gay show” is an anomaly of the first half of the aughts, spurred primarily by Will & Grace. Networks tried it and felt it had worn out its novelty. This may be true, or perhaps ratings declines were tied to same trends that ruined most television series. Maybe. More analysis is required.
It’s worth examining in greater detail what “progress” for gays and lesbians really means. I’m not a huge proponent of plus ça change; without a doubt, culture can improve and progress. Nor is my fundamental disposition nostalgic: the past is always ridden with more bad than you can remember. Yet progress happens in circuitous and surprising ways, and it isn’t always linear.
Can we imagine the day when a well-written, multicultural, gender-balanced Queer as Folk reaches basic cable or broadcast television? I can, but that day has not yet come.