Recently, my lover and I agreed we couldn’t spend another evening watching yet another prime time special about anthrax and biochemical warfare. If only for an hour or three, we needed to escape, to get out of our heads, to tune out already — just to be out of earshot from the latest from the FAA, the CDC, and CNN.
So we switched channels and sought refuge in TV Land’s week-long I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Marathon. Even though we knew were going to see Lucy get her head stuck in a cup, pretend to be a kleptomaniac, and then dance the tango with her shirt filled with eggs, it was still the perfect diversion.
During a commercial break, I asked my other half what it was about I Love Lucy that makes it so, for want of a better word, “gay”. By “gay”, I didn’t mean “homosexual”, nor was I suggesting there is some underlying lesbian subtext in terms of Lucy and Ethel’s friendship (although they definitely do seem to have more fun together then when they’re with their husbands). What I was referring to is the show’s “gay sensibility”, which, I realize, is a vague term. Much like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, “. . .I know it when I see it”, I know the “gay sensibility” when I see it. The phrase generally refers to an overlap or connection between mainstream culture (i.e., a TV sitcom) and gay subculture.
Perhaps Lucy qualifies as gay television because most of the story lines typically involve Lucy masquerading as someone or something she’s not in order to get into Ricky’s act. Or to get more analytical, maybe Lucy appeals to gay men because on some level they can identify with Lucy and Ethel a pair of 1950s housewives who repeatedly take delight in defying male patriarchal authority and traditional male/female gender roles.
Further contemplating Lucy‘s gay appeal, I realized I needed to get a better understanding of why some shows qualify as “gay” and others, well . . . not. I decided on essentially two criteria: gay content (subject matter, characters, theme, etc.) and gay “sensibility” (though for the latter phrase I’m willing to substitute “style”, “tone”, or, in terms of comedy, “brand of humor”). Surprisingly, even in the age of Ellen, I discovered there is little overlap on television, if any, between gay content and gay sensibility.
Historically, the majority of TV programs with gay content are directed at a presumably heterosexual viewing audience. Television first introduced the subject into the living rooms of America in the 1950s when panel discussion programs and talk shows began posing the so-called “threat of the homosexual” to the morality and welfare of American society. To help alleviate the public’s fears of the “homosexual menace”, they featured a panel of experts, psychologists, lawyers and clergyman to educate viewers about homosexuality. On occasion, they even featured an actual, real-live homosexual, who sometimes had to conceal his identity for fear of losing his job.
Similarly, when TV dramas and sitcoms began to address the subject, they too assumed an educational role. Medical shows, police/detective series, prime time soaps and sitcoms explained the basics about homosexuality, challenged specific social myths (i.e., assured us all gay men are NOT effeminate), and instructed viewers on the proper way to react when a friend or relative comes out of the closet. With some obvious exceptions (like an infamous Police Woman episode about three killer lesbians who run a retirement home), they preached tolerance yet they fell short of promoting acceptance.
No doubt these shows did serve an important purpose, even for a gay audience. For example, television played a significant role in helping me understand and accept myself. I first learned about homosexuality at the age of eleven from watching That Certain Summer, a 1973 made-for-TV movie in which a teenager discovers his father is gay. Six years later, when I was a junior in high school and 99.9% sure I was gay, I saw an episode of The White Shadow, about a sexually confused basketball player who becomes the target of rumor and innuendo. Like most comparable TV programming, the episode ultimately took the safe route by using the player’s situation to deliver a more universal “to thy own self by true” message. At the time, however, it was something I definitely needed to hear.
Even when a show’s cast features a regular or reoccurring gay male character, he is usually a reflection of the straight male world. Producer Steven Bochco, who is responsible for such quality dramas as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and, more recently, N.Y.P.D. Blue, no doubt considers himself liberal and probably gay-friendly. His series frequently feature gay characters in supporting roles. But while lesbians and bisexual women are often in a position of power (as lawyers, police officers and detectives), gay men are either the efficient, loyal assistants or helpless, pathetic creatures who turn to straight men for help (like Eddie, the snitch who befriended Belker on Hill Street Blues). Among the regular cast members of N.Y.P.D. Blue is the precinct’s fey-to-the-point-of-fragile administrative assistant, whose involvement in the narrative is limited to the occasional reaction shot and doing what gay men do best, such as cutting homophobic Detective Sipowicz’s hair and babysitting his son.
Stereotyping is not limited to dramatic programming. There is a long tradition of gay male stereotypes in the cinema and on television. Even when there is no gay man around, a straight character can usually get a cheap laugh by doing his best impersonation of one. This usually involves big hand gestures and speaking with a lisp in a high voice. Once again, what we are getting is an interpretation of a gay man filtered through a homophobic, straight, male mentality. Will & Grace is perhaps an exception to that rule. The series can serve as a model for how to successfully integrate gay content into mainstream television without sacrificing gay sensibility. The show’s title characters Will, a gay, straight-laced lawyer and Grace, a neurotic, interior designer are basically an uptight, married couple who have an emotional, though not sexual, relationship. Their personalities are contrasted, or complemented, by two supporting characters whose personalities are pure id: Karen and Jack. Karen is rich, selfish, and content. Jack is not simply “just gay”, he’s hyper-gay. Yet, he’s not reduced to being “the joke” because all four characters are equally snide, particularly when it comes to slinging barbs at each other.
The show is certainly mean-spirited at times, but unlike the short-lived Normal, Ohio, in which John Goodman played a gay man who returns to his hometown, the jokes are not at the expense of homosexuals and homosexuality. More importantly, when I watch Will & Grace I feel I am in on the joke, rather than its target. I even find the show’s endless stream of gay pop culture references refreshing because it’s a way of acknowledging the show’s gay (and gay-friendly) audience.
Unfortunately, until Will & Grace is syndicated, my daily gay TV fix will be limited to Lucy reruns as well as the host of other women-oriented sitcoms it inspired such as Designing Women, The Golden Girls, and Absolutely Fabulous. Then again, there’s worse things I could be doing with my time than spending an hour or two a day with Lucy & Ethel, the Sugarbaker sisters, Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, Sophia, Edina, and Patsy.