Into the Mainstream

It’s finally happened. We have arrived. It’s official. We are now part of mainstream American culture. At least according to Vanity Fair. The cover of the December 2003 issue reads “TV’s Gay Heat Wave!” against a photo of the Will & Grace cast, Queer as Folk‘s Gale Harold, and Queer Eye‘s Carson Kressley, who are tastefully swathed (or in Harold’s case, unswathed) in various shades of white against a stylish eggshell-colored background.

Inside, contributing editor Ned Zeman declares 2003 the year of gay TV, yet at the same time he also admits finding the number of gay and “semi-gay shows” (those that have a few gay characters) a “bit overwhelming”. His article, “Gay-Per-View-TV” is accompanied by two sexy double-page photo spreads featuring the folks from the cover and their fellow cast members along with the ladies of Showtime’s new lesbian series The L Word and James Getzlaff, the leading man of BRAVO’s gay dating show, Boy Meets Boy.

The recent success of Boy and Queer Eye, which NBC, Bravo’s parent network, will air in prime time during November sweeps (on November 25th and 26th), is no doubt the reason behind the media’s unprecedented interest in gay TV. But gay men on reality shows is hardly news. Rremember An American Family‘s Lance Loud? The Real World‘s Pedro Zamora? The first Survivor winner, Richard Hatch?. But what separates the Fab Five from this summer’s Amazing Race winners, “Married Couple” Reichen and Chip, is that the Queer Eye quintet are not contestants — they’re the stars, and this entitles them to at the very least an extra 15 minutes in the limelight. Judging from their numerous appearances on everything from The Tonight Show to the MTV Music Awards, they’re not wasting any time.

I admit I am enjoying all the attention the media is suddenly paying to gay television. I applaud the efforts of TV producers who actually manage to get programs with gay content on the air (and the network executives who green light these projects for making it possible). I also salute premium channels like HBO and SHOWTIME for proving there is an audience for original programming and films like Normal, A Soldier’s Story, and the upcoming Angels in America that don’t necessarily appeal to a mass audience. We no longer have to settle for the occasional breadcrumbs the networks started throwing us in the early 1970s: like the “very special” gay-themed episodes which focused on a gay or lesbian character coming out to educate the presumably hetero audience (only to have the character disappear next week); or the gay-straight characters like Dynasty‘s Steven Carrington and Soap’s Billy Crystal, who, by limiting their romantic partners to mostly women, were only gay in theory.

There’s also no longer a reason to judge a series or film for “not being representative” of the entire community (no one single program could meet that criteria). Thanks to the combination of network and pay cable, television has given us choices — and for those unable to see or afford the latter, the programs are available on DVD. You can watch the funny, frequently over-the-top sitcom about the straight woman and her gay best friend, or the prime time pay cable soap about a group of oversexed gay men, or the homo-hetero makeover show, or the daytime talk show hosted by a lesbian. Or you can just skip them all and watch JAG.

Like the critical response by both the gay and the mainstream press, gay men are polarized when it comes to Queer Eye. I recently moderated a panel in Los Angeles on Boy, Queer Eye, and gay reality genre. The audience was split in half on Queer Eye. Some maintained it perpetuated negative stereotypes of both gay and straight men. Others see the show as a celebration of “queerness” and the camaraderie between gay and straight men. Based on the intensity of the discussion, the panel was pleased the show had opened up a dialogue on how we are represented and the implications of being part of mainstream culture; particularly how it can be used to fuel our enemies and send a positive message to the younger generation that it’s cool to be queer.

There is certainly room for improvement, particularly in regards to diversity. The majority of gay men on television are white, bourgeois males. There is a definite shortage of lesbian characters on prime time commercial television (the only lead lesbian character in a drama is ER‘s Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes). Still, I am optimistic about what lies ahead as the prime time closet door continues to open.