It seems that the portrayal of gay characters on TV has come a long way. Where once we had TV shows like My Two Dads, Kate & Allie and The Odd Couple which seemed to be veiled attempts to present homosexual relationships, we now have shows like Modern Family and The L Word which both present happy, healthy and monogamous openly gay relationships.
It’s taken a long time, but progress has been made. First there was the famous and much-praised Ellen coming out scene, which nonetheless nearly destroyed Ellen DeGeneres’ career. Next, Friends contained not just a loving lesbian relationship, but lesbian parents. While this seemed very modern at the time during the deepest, darkest mid-nineties, in fact looking back on those scenes they are full of the sort of cheap lesbian jokes that reveal how far the portrayal of gay people on television has come today.
In fact, for all the radicalism of its modern, city-dwelling, non-traditional characters, Friends was absolutely full of homophobic jokes. There’s even a YouTube video dedicated to the homophobic moments in Friends; 50 minutes long!
Only a few years later in 1999, the televised portrayal of gay characters came on leaps and bounds with the UK TV show Queer as Folk. The US version came out just a year later. This show was light-years ahead of Friends in that it showed not just gay characters, but realistic gay characters struggling with homophobia on a daily basis, and graphic gay sex scenes.
The makers of the show have said that it was intended as a fantasy rather than a realistic portrayal of the lives of these characters. Its three leads were gay archetypes, the most outspoken of which constantly challenged homophobia as he faced it in spectacular fashion, even driving a rented car through a shop window at one point after its salesmen made a homophobic comment. If it was a fantasy, it was a fantasy that many gay men found extremely liberating.
However, it seems to me that television has never quite managed to repeat the honesty and realism of Queer as Folk again. Shows like Will & Grace and Sex & the City returned to a somewhat stereotypical portrayal of its gay male characters, who all act in typical high-camp fashion. The only exception was perhaps the Sex & the City Samantha lesbian storyline, but this was very far from being a real exploration of lesbian sexuality. Samantha seems to engage in lesbian sex just to see what it’s like, but quickly returns to the good old ‘normal’ penis. Purportedly a show about the spectrum of modern female sexuality and sexual relationships, it’s notable that real lesbianism or bisexuality is completely absent from the show, especially when one of its leading actresses is an out lesbian.
The L Word today is a far better example but, just like Queer as Folk before it, The L Word is so successful precisely because it is aimed at the lesbian market. Television still has a long way to go when it comes to including realistic gay characters in mainstream, prime-time TV shows.
The gay storylines on Glee have been praised, but Kurt is the original gay male stereotype and a sickly-sweet cliché. There is absolutely no comparison with his weak storyline and the triumphant leap into the gay scene that was Nathan’s in Queer as Folk.
The gay couple in Modern Family are both typically camp, comedy characters, and it seems to me that the show exploits what it seems to see as the underlying humour of their situation. Of course, the show is a comedy, but isn’t it time we grew up a little and stopped sniggering at the thought of a family with two dads?
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