Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Out of the Closet and In the Living Room


Gays on TV 3-26-13

  This week, the US Supreme Court will hear two different cases involving equal rights for same-sex couples.  It’s been a long time coming, getting this topic so far up the legal food chain, and the ultimate decision will be historic, regardless of the Court’s ruling. 

  And, on the periphery of the legal battle is the battle of opinions that is being waged from podiums to social media.  Depending on who you listen to, you’ve either got a majority of folks who oppose this equality who are being bullied by the liberal media to go along, or you’ve got a majority of folks who support this equality and are railing against the God-fearing conservatives who are trying to keep the country trapped in the past.  Which, of course, got me to thinking that both sides can’t be right.  If there is a majority opinion, it can only exist on one side or the other, and it seems unlikely to me that the populace is split right down the middle.

Then, all of that thinking got me thinking about same-sex representations on television, and wondering if that could give us any clue about how the public really feels.

When I was growing up, you didn’t really see a whole lot of gay characters or storylines on television.  Not all that often in the movies, either, but surely not on TV.   When stories did show up (and this was later in my youth), they tended to be more of the “very special episode” types.  You know: a kid comes out and gets bullied.  Or a cherished adult is outed after death.  Or someone has AIDS.  You’ve seen those types of television episodes or movies of the week, right?  Always the teachable moment.  Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a teachable moment, but that sort of approach still makes things seem like once-in-a-lifetime occurrences and puts so much weight on one single aspect of a situation that it’s hard to internalize it into something more common.  And, seriously, let’s not kid ourselves; gay people have been common as long as there have been people. 

But, eventually, things began to shift.  Gay or lesbian characters were no longer relegated to a one-off episode or only used to make a point.  Eventually, they simply started showing up and being around.  I’ve tried really hard to remember the very first program I watched that had a regular character engaged in same-sex relationships, but it’s harder than it seems.  I don’t think I can remember anyone any further back than CJ Lamb on LA Law.  CJ was actually bisexual; maybe that made her a little less problematic as a character, I don’t know.  But, while LA Law premiered in 1986, it was several seasons later before CJ showed up, in 1990.  It seems almost unfathomable to me that she could have been the first one, but that’s as far back as I can remember.  (You’ll tell me, won’t you, if you remember someone earlier?)

My So Called Life had Ricky as a regular gay character, but that was several years later still.  Around that same time, ER brought us Kerry Weaver, though I think it was a while before we learned she was gay.  Later still in the decade, we had Ellen DeGeneres coming out both in real life and on her show, Ellen, and Carter Heywood on Spin City.  Through all of this, gay characters were finally simply showing up as characters who happen to be gay, rather than their sexuality being their entire defining characteristic (though I have to say, I think Ellen went a little overboard, though, when you’ve got someone who finally just recognized and admitted their true self, maybe that is just about the most important thing in their lives at the moment.)  Anyway, the point is, we were finally getting to know some gay and lesbian people in the shows we watched regularly.  They were becoming part of the landscape.

Then, in late 1998, we would be introduced to Will and Grace.  Now, gay characters had often been an easy way to get some comic relief, but Will and Grace was set up as a comedy about a gay man and his female best friend; it was clear Will would have to be more than a stereotype to carry a show.  And he was.  A successful professional, an intelligent and kind-hearted man, he was a good guy.  He happened to date guys, but so what?  And, probably just to show how normal Will really was, we also had his friend, Jack, who was just about the most stereotypical, flaming gay character you could hope to have.  But he was a good guy, too, even if the good was buried a little deeper than it was in Will.  If it was television’s intent to create a “gay show” to turn the tide a little bit and help mainstream America recognize that “gay people” are really just “people”, I think they had a major home-run with Will and Grace, as it became immensely popular.  It didn’t really have too many teachable moments, and it took some heat for maybe not making better use of its platform to truly educate people and help erase some stereotypes.  I don’t know.  Maybe if they’d done things differently, we wouldn’t still be arguing about same-sex relationships seven years after the show ended, but I still think they did more good than bad, just by creating characters people could know and enjoy.

So, the nineties started laying the groundwork, and things have been building since then in terms of inclusion of LGBT characters.  And, if you look around the television landscape now, it’s very different than it was a decade ago or even less.  You’ve got Modern Family and The New Normal practically serving as poster children for the LGBT crowd but you’ve also got primary characters (and storylines to go with them) on Glee, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Fire, and my very own favorite, White Collar.  Not too long ago, such things would have been unthinkable.  Or they would have been dealt with in a much more circumspect manner.  Or brought out into the forefront for yet another very special episode, and then put back into the background again, only gay when it’s convenient. 

But that’s not the world we live in.  LGBT people are in all walks of life, and their orientation is what it is all the time, not just when it happens to fit with others’ schedules or concerns.  They are our neighbors and co-workers, friends and family, and even if we might forget that from time to time, TV is there to remind us.

I think one of the very best things about television is that it gets to not only reflect the world, but maybe every once in a while help make the world better.  And I think bringing these characters to the forefront of our television viewing so that we can all see that they’re people just like everyone else is a good thing.  And, given the popularity of some of these shows, I have to believe there’s an awful lot of people out there who agree.  Does it reach the majority we were talking about earlier? I don’t know, but I bet it’s a whole lot more than it was a decade ago.  And, I bet even some of the Justices watch, too.