Since Ellen DeGeneres and her prime time alter ego Ellen Morgan stepped out of the closet on that historic Wednesday evening back in April of 1997, there has been a steady stream of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters on television. More importantly, the advancements made have extended beyond the sheer number of characters. During the last five years, well-developed, three-dimensional gay and lesbian characters have been included or added to the ensemble casts of popular series like ER, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Dawson’s Creek, and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Some characters, like ER‘s Dr. Kerry Weaver and Buffy’s Willow Rosenberg were already established before coming out, while the sexual orientation of others, like Six‘s David Fisher and Dawson’s Jack McPhee, is no longer an issue.
Not everyone is pleased with the current state of gays and lesbians on television. The Advocate recently criticized the producers of Will & Grace for the lack of romance in Will’s life (a problem that could be remedied by his attraction to Karen’s cousin, Barry). Many of my friends believe Will’s love life (or lack of one) is not the problem it’s just Jack, who is too flamboyant and over-the-top (not to be confused with Dawson’s introverted pal Jack, who some complain is not gay enough).
Queer as Folk has also been criticized for its gratuitous nudity as well as the emphasis placed on the sex lives of its characters. For example, Ted’s venture into the on-line pornography industry last season, which came out of nowhere, seem to be less about developing the character and more about parading eye candy across the screen. Furthermore, the city of Pittsburgh is depicted as some sort of gay microcosm where life resembles a twenty-four hour circuit party.
In spite of all these criticisms, I believe we need to remind ourselves just how much progress has been made over the years by re-examining two of the more popular portrayals of gay men on television from the late 1970s through the late 1980s: Soap‘s Jodie Dallas and Dynasty‘s Steven Carrington.
As characters featured prominently in large ensemble casts of two high-profile ABC series, Jodie and Steven had great potential for breaking through the usual stereotypes and in the process, potential for becoming well-rounded, gay male characters. Like their heterosexual counterparts, their lives could have been explored in storylines in which their sexuality did not necessarily have to be problematized.
Unfortunately, interference from the network brass, particularly broadcast standards and practices, as well as pressure from the religious right, forced the producers of both series to “heterosexualize” their homosexual characters. In other words, both Jodie and Steven would not only be denied fulfilling and lasting relationships with other men, but their identities as gay men would be filtered through their positioning as heterosexuals within their respective plotlines.
Before it even hit the airwaves, Soap became the subject of controversy after the first two episodes were screened at the ABC network affiliates meeting in the summer of 1977. A Newsweek article reported the affiliates’ shocked reaction to the pilot’s adult content, which reportedly touched on such themes as adultery, homosexuality, transsexualism, impotence, and the mafia (which now can all be seen regularly on Sunday nights on HBO and Showtime). When several major newspapers published similar stories on the upcoming ABC sitcom, it caught the attention of several religious organizations, including Reverend Donald Wildmon’s National Federation of Decency. As a result of Wildmon’s campaign, ABC reportedly received over 20,000 letters calling for Soap‘s cancellation before it even hit the airwaves. Consequently, twelve ABC affiliates chose not to air the show’s first two episodes.
Religious groups were not the only ones to voice their objections. Newt Dieter, head of the Gay Media Task Force, understood the tone of the show’s humor, but felt Jodie was too much of a wimp. He suggested to the producers that they make the character stronger by turning him into a militant gay activist (nice try, Newt). The National Gay Task Force made an even stronger statement by taking an ad out in Variety expressing their anger by dubbing the character a “gay Stepin Fetchit.”
In the show’s first few episodes, Jodie was a fey, somewhat narcissistic gay man who decided to have a sex change operation so he can marry his boyfriend, Dennis, a closeted pro-football player. But Dennis decides to marry a woman instead and a despondent Jodie attempts (and fails) to commit suicide. Apparently his break-up with Dennis had a lasting effect (or maybe it was a chemical reaction from the overdose of barbiturates?) because from this point on, Jodie is transformed into television’s first heterosexual homosexual a man who will repeatedly declare (to the point where it seems like he is reminding himself as well as the audience) that he is gay, but will never be emotionally or sexually involved with another man. For the remainder of the series, Jodie is linked with several women, beginning with a mantrap named Carol, who seduces him, agrees to marry him, abandons him at the altar, and then has his baby.
It is important to keep in mind that Soap is not only a sitcom, but a parody of soap operas, and the humor in this situation obviously lies in the fact that a man who continues to insist he is gay is not only seduced by a woman, but admits to enjoying it. Unfortunately, rather than offering some critique of the rigid labels we use to self-identify in terms of gender and sexuality, Soap used Jodie’s sexual liaison with Carol as an opportunity to have his character function as a heterosexual on the level of plot, yet simultaneously maintain his position as the show’s “sexual other.”
Consequently, Jodie never develops a close relationship with another man, yet he is forced to defend his suitability as a gay parent when he tries to gain full custody of his daughter. But when Carol’s homophobic attorney attempts to humiliate Jodie by asking questions about his sex life, our heterosexual homosexual rises to the occasion and delivers a passionate speech about how his homosexuality has nothing to do with being a loving and caring parent. Jodie wins the case, but when Carol kidnaps their daughter, he hires a female detective and falls in love with her. When we last saw him (before ABC pulled the plug on the show), he was seeking help from a psychiatrist, who mistakenly hypnotizes Jodie into believing he is a 90-year-old Jewish man (too bad he wasn’t hypnotized into thinking he’s a 90-year-old gay Jewish man).
Ironically, a variation of Jodie’s story could be seen a few years later on Dynasty. While the popular prime time soap is not a parody (at least not intentionally), the life of 23 year-old Steven Carrington, heir to the Carrington family fortune, bears a striking resemblance to Jodie’s. In the two-hour premiere of Dynasty, Steven Carrington returns home from New York for his father’s wedding. There is tension in the air due to their political differences. Steven is a liberal democrat who disapproves of his capitalist father’s business dealings. But the real issue here is not money or power, but Steven’s homosexuality.
According to a 1981 Esquire magazine article, Dynasty co-creator Esther Shapiro originally conceived the character of Steven Carrington as an anxious and confused young man who would experiment with his sexuality for the first two seasons, and then go on to be a well-rounded gay character. Unfortunately, it would take the entire run of the series (nine seasons) before Steven would finally be able to decide what an ABC press release referred to as his “sexual persuasion”. Shapiro was adamant that Steven “was, is, and always will be gay”, but like aversion therapy, saying it doesn’t necessarily make it come true.
Prior to living happily ever after with Bart Fallmont, Steven was romantically linked with two men. His first lover, Ted Dinard, was accidentally killed by Blake when he walks in and sees him embracing his son (actually Steven just broke up with him and was saying goodbye). The second, Luke, was killed by terrorists during the famous Moldavian massacre.
Steven is also married twice. He has a child with his first wife, Sammy Jo, and like Jodie, ends up in court to gain custody. Only it’s not his ex-wife he’s suing, but his own father, who believes his gay son is unfit to be a parent. When he is on the witness stand, Steven delivers the same passionate speech as Jodie, defending his gay lifestyle.
The custody storyline provided the producers with the perfect opportunity to use Steven as a pro-gay mouthpiece and let America know that he’s gay, he’s proud, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, ABC assumed the role of both judge and jury in this case and refused to allow gay Steven gain custody of his son unless he married Claudia. With his son in his hands, Steven and Claudia publicly profess their love to one another in front of the judge, who, seeing the newly formulated nuclear family standing before him, puts his homophobia aside and gives the newlyweds full custody.
The cancellation of Dynasty did not mark the demise of the heterosexual homosexual on television. For instance Melrose Place‘s Matt Fielding became involved in a series of bad relationships with men (one beat him up while the other framed him for murder). While everyone else in his apartment complex were playing musical beds, he was forbidden by Fox to even have an on-screen kiss (I saw him say goodbye once to his boyfriend by shaking his hand! ). The only happiness Matt Fielding had was when he entered a green card marriage with a Russian doctor, a single mother with a young daughter, and when his sister-in-law gave him custody of his niece.
So maybe Will of Will & Grace could be going out more and the guys on Queer as Folk could be going out a little less (maybe they should do something more cultural, like visit the Andy Warhol Museum?), but I, for one, am grateful for the fact that today’s homosexuals on television are just that: homosexuals who have their feet firmly planted on the Kinsey scale.