Over the past 15 years the prevalence of LGBT characters on television has increased dramatically, but any representation does not always mean good representation. Many television producers have yet to figure out that there is a difference between having a “sassy gay sidekick” for their female lead, and having a well rounded supporting character who just happens to be gay.
It’s 2013. Many states have legalized same-sex marriage (and hopefully my home state of Illinois will soon follow suit). So why does it seem like every portrayal of a gay person or a gay relationship on TV right now seems to fit into one of two main stereotypes? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills every time a major movement in the field of equal rights happens, and no one seems to tell the television universe.
For scripted shows where the main characters are gay, it seems that the most popular “types” of gay men are the sassy, over-the-top, fashion-conscious stereotype, or the closeted/in denial or “straight-laced” type. Will & Grace is a dated show in many aspects, but it is a strong example of these characterizations. Jack is very flamboyant, embracing all of the assumptions made about gay men in Manhattan, and wearing them like an in-your-face badge of honor. He is a theater actor, one of the professions where out gay men are most accepted. Will is a lawyer, who does not deny or lie about his sexual orientation, but is determined to have a life and career outside of it.
Although it had its drawbacks in terms of stereotypes, Will & Grace was still a pretty monumental show when it comes to gay characters on television. When it first came on in 1998, there were virtually no other gay characters in popular sitcoms, and it famously featured the first gay kiss in scripted television sitcom history. Since it went off the air in 2006, there have been few shows focusing purely on characters that just happen to be gay, and not have that as their main personality trait.
Similar but more “meeting in the middle” versions of these characterizations are Mitchell and Cameron on Modern Family. Cameron is more openly emotional, but is not so extreme as Jack. He enjoys music and theater, having worked as a music teacher, but is also a former athlete and an extremely passionate football fan. Cameron is currently adopting the role of stay-at-home dad, which many people would be inclined to see as the more “feminine” role in a relationship. Mitchell also works as a lawyer, and dresses less colorfully and loudly than Cameron, but many of his mannerisms are more similar to Jack than viewers would probably expect.
It’s refreshing to see that Mitchell and Cameron are more well-rounded as characters than Jack and Will; yet it’s still frustrating to know that their personalities are based on existing stereotypes. Although, you can see the beginnings of progress if you look close enough.
Reality TV is a different beast. Even though I don’t believe for a second that reality shows are not scripted at all, I do believe that they rely more on people’s inherent personalities and less on professional writing and acting to create fictional characters. That being said, the gay characters appearing on reality shows often fall into almost identical characterizations as the fictional examples listed above.
There have been about 800 seasons of MTV’s The Real World at this point, and yet they all seem to feature either flamboyant gay men who inevitably clash with the token religious Southern conservative, or young, religious, Southern conservatives who are obviously battling closeted issues about their own sexual orientation.
Bravo is a very gay-friendly network, but I’m not sure that it does much to break away from portraying the same stereotypes less friendly networks employ. Top Chef: Just Desserts has had two seasons and each one seems like the casting call was cattier than the last. I’m not sure what exactly Bravo is playing at here, but I know that it continues to frustrate me with its fabulousness.
Lesbians, bisexuals, and Trans* people on television are an entirely different story, and deserve entirely different articles altogether. Even less progress has been made to help buck the stereotypes that these groups have attached to them, and it seems like television writers really have no interest to help this at all. Television is the main form of media that reaches millions of people days, and has the ability to really force social change to happen by bucking stereotypes that so many people seem to have regarding the LGBTQ community in this country.
Now, I get this in theory and from a logical standpoint. Television is universal, and the more people think they can relate to it, the more inclined they are to watch and follow shows regularly. I still think it’s pretty ridiculous, though, that TV representations can’t change as fast as the political climate (or maybe they just won’t or don’t).