“I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaaaaaaming!”
– Homer Simpson
While Homer Simpson played the line for laughs, his statement accurately reflects contemporary attitudes toward gays on television programs. The history of gay representation on television has been a relatively short one. In only 40 years, homosexuality has changed from a subject of hushed documentaries to today’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Even so, the portrayal of gay characters has largely followed the same pattern as the representation of racial minorities: gays, like blacks, were initially represented in television as either a walking joke or as naturally inferior or psychotic, and decades later have advanced only into gaining token characters or shows that stress their status as “the other.” Television shows portraying gay characters positively, as well as advertisements geared toward gays and lesbians, have been targeted for backlash efforts, leading some networks and advertisers to be reticent on the entire issue. While gays have made great strides in television representation, it is doubtful that they will advance beyond mere tokenism any time in the immediate future.
The first mentions of homosexuality on television were tentative and often based on fearmongering. A short documentary aired on a Florida television station in 1966 talked to a man who considered himself a former homosexual. The man reportedly “giggled when asked if he thought gay couples could live happily over the long term” (American Television 2).
One of the first portrayals of gays on national TV was called, simply, “The Homosexuals.” This 1967 documentary, narrated by Mike Wallace, was very much of its time: a closeted gay man, in order to protect his identification, was depicted with his face behind a potted plant. Clergy and other anti-gay people discussed the “illness” of homosexuality and footage of gay bars spoke of a secretive gay lifestyle, dubbed “the homosexual underworld,” something to be feared rather than understood or accepted (GLAAD Alert 1). One man lost his job the day after the documentary aired. For many Americans, this was the first time they had seen homosexuality discussed as anything more than a casual reference to a man being a bit “light in the loafers” or film references to transvestitism.
Television began to depict gay men on fictional television shows beginning in the 1970s. Perhaps the most famous of these happened on the sitcom All in the Family, when stereotypically bigoted Archie Bunker, who has been joking about the effeminate behavior of one of his friends’ sons, discovers that his most manly and macho friend is in fact gay. This reversal of stereotypes may have been one of the first television portrayals of homosexuality that made Americans think past their fear. Billy Crystal also played an openly gay man on the show Soap, and while the character was initially played as a walking stereotype of a gay man, eventually, his stereotypical behavior gave way to real human drama (Queer in Living Color, p. 2)
Even after these portrayals, though, documentary filmmaking regarding gay culture remained sensationalist and lurid, focusing primarily on the sex lives of the men and the prurient interests of those watching from home. ABC News and CBS News produced documentaries in 1979 and 1980 that concentrated only on scandalous aspects of gay culture – ABC News on suicide and depression among gay men, and CBS News on sadomasochism, which was supposedly practiced by most gay men, in spite of the network having filmed its outrageous footage at heterosexual S&M clubs (American Television, p. 2).
The issue of lesbianism was largely ignored by the media in documentary forms, but lesbians were portrayed in fictional television in the 1970s – often as psychopaths. If gay men were thought of as effeminate and passive, lesbians were thought of as manly and extremely aggressive. A 1974 episode of Police Woman exemplified the way lesbians were commonly thought of during this period: three lesbian nurses kill and rob patients at the nursing home where they work. One of them is described by another character as “someone who ought to be driving a diesel truck” (Lo, p. 2).
More barriers were broken in the 1980s, including the first depiction of a same-sex couple in bed together, but real, nuanced portrayal of gays and lesbians remained essentially at a standstill until the 1990s. One of the most sensational occurrences in gay television was on the show Ellen, in which the main character, played by actress Ellen Degeneres declared she was a lesbian – both on the show and in real life – in 1997 (Lo, p. 3). The show was soon cancelled, but its effects were wide-ranging: soon, gayness was a much more acceptable character trait on television shows. Ellen’s portrayal of lesbianism as a normal, healthy lifestyle was a leap forward, but unfortunately, this type of honest portrayal has never since been duplicated.
In 1999, a British series called Queer as Folk became popular across the Atlantic, and a year later, an American version became a hit on the premium network Showtime. Queer as Folk delved into the lives of several gay men and a pair of lesbians and featured many graphic sex scenes. While some in the gay community argued that the characters were not good role models, others thought that it was a fair – though sexed-up – version of actual gay lifestyles. The show itself parodied this viewpoint in a second season episode, in which a show-within-a-show, Gay as Blazes, depicted the type of role model gays and lesbians critics of the show demanded: characters who had classy dinner parties and discussed the novels of Jane Austen (Davies, season 2 episode 1). The Queer as Folk characters decry this depiction as more unrealistic than the notion that the gay life is all about sex. Though Queer as Folk and Showtime’s currently-running lesbian themed show, The L Word, may have been more daring because of their placement on premium channels, the same placement makes them shows that most Americans have not seen, even in passing.
In 2000, Survivor began a new primetime television craze: the reality show. Because producers of reality television often tried to assemble extremely diverse casts, gays and lesbians were given a new chance for representation. Reality “improvement” shows also began, including the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which five very stereotypical gay men (who all happen to be good at interior decorating and hairstyling) make a straight man more appealing. Queer Eye is distinctive in that it was the first gay show that it was truly okay for straight people to watch; that is, the first gay show that didn’t cause straight people to become defensive about their own heterosexuality. However, the show in concept is little better than a minstrel show: its five gay men fawn over and serve the straight man, preparing him for his big day, while ignoring anything about their own lives outside of their sexuality and expertise.
Today, many television shows have discussed the issue of homosexuality, but other than the occasional “gay show,” where sexual orientation is the primary focus of the program, gays are generally relegated to secondary, “token” character status. While there is now a gay network – LOGO – it seems that most television producers are afraid that having multiple gay characters on one show would turn it into a show focused only on sexuality. Gays and lesbians are still, for the most part, waiting for shows to represent them as more than tokens or objects of humor.
Another role most gays and lesbians wish to get away from is the role of the sensationalist marketing ploy. Television programming is, of course, dictated by advertising and sponsorship. While the first forays into discussion of gay culture were unable to find sponsors, lately, the high ratings associated with a well-marketed lesbian kiss can make or break sweeps week for a sitcom.
“The Homosexuals,” the original 1967 Mike Wallace documentary, was considered such taboo territory that advertisers wouldn’t touch it (GLAAD Alert, p. 1). Instead of commercials, the station ran public service announcements. At that time, while films found it perfectly natural to mock cross-dressers or effeminate men, actual, living homosexuals were monsters, too menacing to even be sensationalistic ratings fodder.
As time went on, though, American sentiment changed from fear to a certain revolted fascination. So long as homosexuals were funny, and non-threatening, and so long as they acted flamboyantly, Americans would tune in. Ratings for the talk show Donahue did well in the early 1980s when Phil Donahue had homosexuals on as guests (American Television, p. 3). While Donahue took the subject more seriously than later, completely sensationalistic hosts like Jerry Springer, gays were still regarded as something of a freak show, deserving equal parts disgust and wonder.
Because many religious people are against homosexuality, any advertiser who advertised on a show featuring gay characters is fair game for boycotts and letter writing campaigns. Most advertisers, however, remained undeterred in the 1990s and more recent years. While those who are religious may be shocked and dismayed, the truth is, “outing” a character is a fantastic way to raise ratings, at least temporarily. Roseanne used this technique to great effect when Roseanne’s mother outed herself as bisexual. Shows like L.A. Law and Ally McBeal used lesbian kisses, advertised weeks in advance, to prop up their sweeps week ratings (Lo, p. 4). The religious right may have been appalled, but the rest of the American public lapped it up.
Even these ratings spikes, however, demonstrate that gay people are largely seen as curiosities. If being gay were regarded as normal, viewers would not watch a show in large numbers just because of a lesbian kiss or the prospect of a character being outed as homosexual. Just the same, since the other reaction of many Americans to a gay character is revulsion, perhaps these sensationalist ratings ploys are the only way to convince advertisers to support television with prominent gay characters.
Technological developments have greatly aided gay representation on television – as well as representation for most other minority groups. When television began, the number of major networks was small, and the number of broadcast channels extremely limited. The advent of cable television allowed for a number of special interest networks and also increased the sheer number of channels available for consumption. Cable networks also opened the field for new advertisers, since cable advertising rates were considerably lower than equivalent broadcast advertising rates. LOGO, the new gay cable channel, could never have existed in the days of broadcast television.
The internet has had both positive and negative effects for gay programming on television. While it has made it easier for organizations to campaign for more gay characters on television and for gays and lesbians to band together to promote their favorite gay-friendly shows, it has also made it easier for conservative elements to organize. Internet form letters, mailed to members of Congress through web forms, can make a movement of only a few dozen people appear to be much larger than it is. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the internet is that it means that gays and lesbians do not have to rely on television to feel accepted by a community. The internet offers many support groups and discussion forums based around gay and lesbian issues, making gay programming perhaps a less important tool for gays and lesbians craving acceptance of their sexuality.
The advent of shows like Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy also means that television with gay characters can jump on the product placement bandwagon. Queer Eye is an almost non-stop parade of hair care products, gourmet food items, designer label clothing, and chic modern furniture. Advertisers don’t like the Queer Eye guys because they’re gay. They like them because they tell hetero men that they should be making more expensive purchases, and tell women that they should be able to expect a man to dress in expensive clothes and show off a perfectly decorated apartment. They aren’t expected to pontificate about actual issues facing the gay community – it might cut into product sales. Instead, they ignore any issues of gay rights or the many political issues surrounding their sexuality in favor of presenting gayness as a nonstop shopping spree. Rather than making a case for gay rights, the Queer Eye guys are making a case for consumerist standards of beauty and desirability.
Premium networks, like HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime, have also been at the forefront of gay television programming. Because these networks are not beholden to advertisers, they have taken more liberties with sexual topics. HBO’s Real Sex documentaries show many strange or different sexual practices – homosexuality alone is nowhere near strange enough to merit inclusion, but gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are all portrayed in various fetish practices. HBO’s Sex and the City also addressed gay issues and bisexuality with relative frankness and realism (Lo, p. 4). Showtime’s Queer as Folk was the first television show to have extensive depictions of gay and lesbian sex, but if it had been on normal cable television, it would have been incredibly difficult to find advertisers.
Another reason only premium channels can show such explicit content as Queer as Folk or Sex and the City is that FCC regulations forbid indecency or obscenity on broadcast and basic cable channels. Obscenity is banned at all times, and is defined by the FCC as material which:
· An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
· Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
· Taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (FCC, p. 1)
Indecency is defined as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities” (FCC, p. 2). However, programming regarded as “indecent” may be broadcast between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.. Because homosexual conduct may be different according to “contemporary community standards” than similar heterosexual conduct, this definition gives conservative politicians and regulators a great deal of leeway in deciding what conduct is obscene or indecent.
The power that the FCC can have over gays in programming was exemplified by the early 1980s. Soon after Ronald Reagan entered office, the FCC began soft censorship of programming with liberal values. For several years, no gay characters were shown sympathetically on television (Capsuto, p. 86).
However, obscenity has always been difficult to define and may be shifting back toward a more conservative view as conservatives take charge of the FCC. No official regulations exist that define exactly what is and is not obscene, and obscenity penalties and definitions seem to change regularly, with no real indication before a fine or warning is issued. For this reason, networks and basic cable channels must, to an extent, “play it safe” or risk losing money or their broadcasting license (Ziff, p. 2).
It is difficult to say whether FCC regulations will become more or less strict over the next several years. However, another influence must be considered from the religious right and the Parents’ Television Council, a fringe group of mostly right-wing ideologues who believe that television should be subject to stricter controls regarding all sexual conduct and profane language. Because some conservatives seem to believe that discussing orientation is inherently sexual, this could mean that, in the worst case, even mentioning a character’s sexual orientation could be tantamount to showing him or her in bed with a member of the same sex. Television censorship is a bigger and bigger worry as obscenity laws become more vague.
An example of the vagueness of obscenity laws can be seen in the reaction to Ellen Degeneres’ groundbreaking announcement in 1997. Conservative groups lobbied for censorship of any lesbian displays of affection, and the network caved, fearing pressure from regulators. From then on, any episode showing even the most casual lesbian content was opened with an “explicit content” warning – even though no television shows displaying a similar level of affection between heterosexual couples displayed the same warning (Stockwell, p. 93).
However, television gays have seen, since the documentaries of the 1960s, some laws very distinctly change. Illinois was the first state to take anti-gay sex laws off the books. In the recent Supreme Court case, Lubbock v. Lawrence, anti-sodomy laws were effectively repealed nationwide. Several states have also begun to allow domestic partnerships or even marriage for gay couples – meaning that to a certain extent, the relationships of gay characters have become more legitimized.
In 40 years, gay people and characters on television have gone from monsters, to caricatures, to tokens and – on rare occasion – real people with real lives. But the trends of gay television have largely been a matter of taking baby steps. Black television reached a similar point in the early 1990s, with the advent of numerous black shows and the popularity of multiple cable channels devoted to programming for black people. But in the decade since, little further progress has been made, and the “big” broadcast networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX – have fewer predominantly African American shows than they did ten years ago (Aubry, p. 2). If gay television shows follow a similar path, there could be a true dearth of gay-friendly programming within 10 years.
Another obstacle to gay programming gaining ground over the next decade may actually be continuing acceptance of gays. If homosexuality isn’t considered abnormal or scandalous, making a character gay will no longer be the instant ratings spike it currently is. Acceptance of gays and lesbians could actually push gay programming out of people’s minds as something worth watching.
And yet, even if gays remain in their current status – not fully accepted, but allowed as quirky characters or in minstrel show settings to amuse straight people – it will not bode well for gay characters in television programs. At that point, gays will have the same problem as black people: while not explicitly forbidden on a show, a show with more than one gay person would be a “gay show,” while no one would find a show without a gay character to be particularly out of the ordinary. Gays would find themselves represented only as they are currently: completely passive and non-threatening, declining to talk about the issues and instead choosing to talk about fabulous hair.
In this way, gays may be in trouble whether or not homosexuality gains acceptance across the United States. The very things that make gays attractive to audiences and advertisers – the way they are different without being threatening, the way they are perceived as having preternaturally good taste, and the way any sexual contact seems more titillating and scandalous – are the very things that signal a lack of acceptance.
At this point, it is doubtful that gay roles in television will become more humanized and real, because television audiences, for the most part, prefer what is shocking. Gay television may end up “segregated,” cast out only to a few cable channels that serve as islands in a sea of heterosexual programming, or it may continue apace with silly caricatures serving as excuses for characters. Either way, real advancement will take a breakthrough show with very human gay characters who aren’t just played for laughs, and who don’t fit traditional heterosexual stereotypes of a homosexual person, that also manages great ratings and critical acclaim. While this sort of show may seem unlikely, it’s the best hope for real equality in programming – the genre is ripe for revolution. Whether the revolution happens in the next programming season, in five, or never happens at all remains to be seen.
American Television, News. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from http://www.glbtq.com/arts/am_tv_news.html
Aubry, E. J. (1999, August 6). Homeboys from Outer Space and Other Transgressions. L.A. Weekly. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from http://www.laweekly.com/ink/printme.php?eid=7486
Capsuto, S. (2000). Alternate channels the uncensored story of gay and lesbian images on radio and television. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Davies, R. T. (Producer). (2001). Queer As Folk [Television series].
FCC Consumer Facts. Retrieved December 7, 2005, from http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/obscene.html
GLAAD Alert. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from http://www.glaad.org/action/al_archive_detail.php?id=1665
Queer in Living Color. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from http://www.teletronic.co.uk/gay.htm
Stockwell, A. “Yep, She Rules.” The Advocate 20 January 1998.
Ziff, D. Sworn to Decency. Retrieved December 6, 2005, from http://www.motherjones.com/news/dailymojo/2004/05/05_513.html