The People at the Airport Took it Well

[14 May 2008]

By Michael Abernethy

When Ellen Morgan announced to the people waiting at airport terminal gate 35—and the rest of the world—that she was gay back in 1997, the role of gays and lesbians on TV changed forever. There was, finally, a show starring one of us, if only for a short time.

However, the cancellation of Ellen only a year later seemed to be an indication of how unaccepting US culture was of lead gay characters. Ratings for the series’ last season dropped amid complaints that the show was “too gay” with the development of a same-sex relationship for Ellen. An easy assumption would be that viewers preferred the a-sexual Ellen Morgan, whose humor came from her interactions with her friends and parents, not from her romantic relationships.  Yet the debut of Will and Grace in 1998 made it clear that gay and lesbian characters could succeed on American television, and they have, so that the argument has shifted from whether to allow gay and lesbian characters on TV to how much gay representation there should be on TV.

Several years ago, Entertainment Weekly asked in a cover story “Is Your TV Set Gay?”, and the question is still relevant. GLAAD complains that GLBT persons are underrepresented on TV, while some (mostly conservatives) respond with generalizations such as the one posted in response to TV Squad’s reporting of the 2007 GLAAD report, “as far as I’m concerned, there are way too many gay people on television…”. (Varun Lella,“Study Says TV Not Gay Enough”, 8 August 2007)

I can see where GLAAD might have a point. Even as I sit and write this, on my TV is VH1’s I Love the ‘80s (because, well, I do love the ‘80s). One joke about the Arquette family included Rosanna, Patricia, and David, but excluded transgendered Alexis.

Now, Further Off the Straight and Narrow: New Gay Visibility on Television, 1998 - 2006, a new educational DVD from the Media Education Foundation, explores how the representation of homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered persons has increased over the last decade. The DVD presents an academic and fascinating examination of the subject; those interested in just seeing clips of their favorite gay-themed shows, characters, and reality show stars will be disappointed. 
The DVD is divided into five segments, looking at gay narratives on networks, gays on nonfiction TV, the role of cable in gay visibility, transgenders of TV, and a contextual analysis of what all this gayness on TV means. The most important impact of this representation is best summed up on the DVD by Howard Buford of Prime Access, Inc, who notes, “(America is) a country where you don’t exist unless you’re on TV.” 

Still, the implication that gay and lesbian characters on TV are something new isn’t quite accurate. David Wyatt of the University of Manitoba has compiled a fairly comprehensive list of the GLBT characters who have appeared on TV at Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Television Characters, beginning with the 1970 BBC series The Roads to Freedom. Wyatt’s criteria are that a character must have appeared in at least three episodes and be explicitly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, as opposed to implicitly gay (effeminate men or masculine women whose orientation is questionable but not clear). His list of shows is divided by show name and by decade. It is the latter list that truly demonstrates how much gay representation has grown, as each decade’s list is progressively longer.

A large part of the reason for that growth is the increase in reality programming. Some reality shows, such as Project Runway, have a high percentage of gay contestants, while others focus on gays and lesbians specifically (Working Out, Boy Meets Boy). Other shows feature gays and lesbians without sexual orientation being an issue, such as Survivor and American Idol.

But it is Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that has been most significant in the reality genre, according to Further Off. Although the five queer eyes perpetuated the stereotype that all gay men are fashion-savvy, which I can assure from personal experience isn’t true, the importance of the show was the fact that it showed the viewing audience a series of straight men turning to gays for help and embracing these gay men when the their work was finished.

Despite the increased presence of gays and lesbians on reality programming, it is the rise in GLBT representation on fictionalized programming that is most notable. According to Wyatt’s site, almost 100 fictionalized shows have featured one or more GLBT characters in the last year. That’s about four times as many shows as there were in the ‘70s, and twice as many as there were in the ‘80s, when many shows featured gay characters in AIDS storylines. Today, one show may feature numerous gay characters, and feature them in a variety of storylines.
 
Still, the image of gay and lesbian characters on fictional television today isn’t quite an accurate one. As Suzanna Danuta Walters of Indiana University argues, working class gays find little representation, and most gay and lesbian characters live beyond their means. (Yet, the same could be said for many straight characters on television, as well.)  More intriguing is Further Off‘s argument that one can tell a “good” gay from “bad” by the degree to which he or she conforms to “middle class norms of respectability.” For example, “bad” boy Brian on Queer is Folk rejects gay marriage and even gay coupling, as it is an adoption of straight society’s moral code of behavior, while “good” boy Michael settles into a committed relationship and adopts a child to recreate the heterosexual nuclear family. 

Queer is Folk‘s also represents the explosion of gay and lesbian characters on cable television. Cable allowed more sexual gay / lesbian characters to appear, as networks like Showtime and HBO don’t have to meet FCC or community standards nor appeal to the whims of advertisers. Cable stations make their money off subscribers, so it is in their interest to hook viewers so that they renew subscriptions. Showing more adult content keeps viewers coming back.

Cable also allowed the advent of the all GLBT network.  Here!TV launched in 2002, while Logo premiered in 2005. Of the two, Logo is available in fewer markets—26 million to Here!TV’s 50 million. As a subscription channel, Here! is able to show more adult fare, such as the lust-ridden gay vampires of The Lair. In contrast, Logo features more comedy, such as the gay puppets Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World.

One of Logo’s anchor shows is The Big Gay Sketch Show, which has recently released “the complete unrated second season” on DVD, joining the first season already on DVD. The inclusion of the word “unrated” in the DVD’s title implies that these sketches are ribald and salacious, when actually, all TV shows are “unrated.” The series is commendable for providing sketch comedy with a gay slant, but like many variety shows, it is uneven, with as many unsuccessful and unfunny skits as successful ones. 

The Big Gay Sketch Show belongs to one of television’s oldest genres, the variety show, ala The Carol Burnett Show or SNL. Starring straight and gay cast members, the show doesn’t present a singular perspective, all straight or all gay humor. Thus, viewers are exposed to such diverse sketches as a parody of Sally Field’s acceptance speeches as well as a satire of the stereotype of the quickie lesbian relationship in a skit about Lesbian Speed Dating. 

Still, the show’s biggest mistake is the assumption that adding a gay twist to well-known straight narratives automatically makes the narrative amusing. The series has done this in parodies of TV sitcoms All in the Family, which made Archie and Eddie a gay couple; Three’s Company, featuring Jack as Mr. Furley’s bondage boy; and Facts of Life, about the secret lesbian relationship of Blair and Jo.  None of these skits works. Two of the series’ best parodies, of Dynasty and an Extreme Home Makeover of Grey Gardens, with Christine Ebersole reprising her Broadway role as Little Edie, play it “straight”, so to speak, highlighting the shows’ inherent flaws instead of attempting to reframe them in a gay context.

Many of the sketches focusing on celebrity impersonations also fail to entertain. While Colman Domingo’s Maya Angelou is enjoyable, some of the series’ worst humor results from weak parodies. A sketch about celebrities complaining about there less-desirable partners, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, turned into a protracted vomit joke, and a skit about a drunken Liza Minnelli assuming the role of superhero wasn’t even mildly amusing. 

Where the series succeeds is in its creation of new characters. Most amusing is Latanya (Erica Ash), a “Chicago-style”—read, confrontational—fitness instructor.  Latanya operates under the idea that the human body “is composed of four chakras: your sex chakra, your hair chakra, your attitude chakra, and your Chakra Khan. Ash is delightful to watch as Lantanya meets Steven, Jonny McGovern’s recurring character, an exceedingly obese and naive man. Equally amusing as Latanya and Steven is Fitzwilliam, a young British transgendered lad who dreams of getting his own vagina. Kate McKinnon, Fitzwilliam’s portrayer, is the breakout star of the series, with incredible comic timing and a broad range of characterizations. 

Unfortunately, the extras that come with both the first and second season DVDs don’t illuminate, as silliness and jocularity dominates. Interviews with cast members are painfully brief and reveal little. For instance, Paolo Andino jokes he was hired for his looks, and the frequency that his tight body is featured on the show would seem to validate that assumption to a certain extent. His interview segment would have been an ideal opportunity to present him as something other than beefcake.

The Special Features DVDs also contain behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers, extra sketches, and cast member Julie Goldman’s Celesbian interviews, which is pretty much what it sounds like, interviews with celebrity lesbians. Missing is discussion of the thought process in balancing the characterizations between gay and straight or how the series has reshaped the traditional variety show. 

One sketch on the Features DVD for season one involves the V. P. of Programming for Logo wondering how to increase the network’s straight viewers. Consequently, he decides the network should air The Big Straight Sketch Show, and the skit follows the cast and writers trying to adjust to all straight humor.  The skit is too long and loses momentum quickly, but it raises an important idea. How do gay programs and networks increase straight viewership?

If Buford is right that gay visibility on TV equates to recognition of existence, what happens when that visibility is relegated to subscription cable networks? The way to attract straight audiences is simple—provide quality entertainment. Straight viewers watched Will and Grace because it was well-written and acted; it was funny. Much of what is on cable that is intended for gay audiences fails to meet a standard of quality that would make most anyone other than avid fans seek them out. Certainly this is the case with The Big Gay Sketch Show; it has its funny moments, but not enough to cause most straight—and many gay—viewers to stray from their established viewing habits. 

Gay visibility may have increased significantly in the last three decades, but consigned to secondary roles on network shows, the impact of that visibility is weakened. Lead gay characters must be sought out, leaving most viewers unfamiliar with the wide range of gay characters on TV, from a lesbian secret service agent (In Her Line of Fire, Here!) to a gay detective (Third Man Out, Here!), a gay African-American screenwriter (Noah’s Arc, Logo) to a deaf lesbian artist (The L Word, Showtime). Nonetheless, we have at least reached a point that if we can’t ride in the front of the bus, we can go out and get a bus of our own.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/the-people-at-the-airport-took-it-well/