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Gay TV Characters: What Are We Watching?

It’s a gay old time on Primetime. In the past few years, there’s been an influx of gay characters on Primetime television.

There’s Marc St. James on “Ugly Betty,” Kurt on “Glee,” and Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Transgender actress Candance Cayne became the first transgender actress to play a transgender character for her role on “Dirty Sexy Money.”

Even less than respectable reality shows like “The Real World” and “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” have focused on the lives of LGBT Americans.

Relegated for years on the sideline as the butt of jokes, the guest spot character, or the focus of those “After School Special” episodes where at the end of the hour the audience thinks: “Aw, gays are just like us.”

We can thank sitcoms like “Will and Grace,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Greek,” and TV personalities like Rachel Maddow, Suze Orman and, of course, Ellen Degeneres for making room in the American living room for gays and lesbians.

And, while networks should be praised for this diversity, there’s something slightly—well, really—off about their depiction of gays, particularly gay men. It’s more about the disarming level of commoditization, not of gay culture, so much as gay men themselves.

It mirrors the zeitgeist of the 90s and early 2000s of white Americans wanting a black friend, the respectability and cultural cache that comes with having a minority acquaintance.

There’s a sense within that white (or heterosexual) person that having this minority in your circle of friend reveals how accepting you are; plus, let’s not gloss over how popular culture makes a group of people (or a particular image of a group of people) trendy.

Your black friends are supposed to be up on rap, your slang translator and allow you to touch their fro, cornrows or weave (I still don’t get the fascination with black hair).

Your gay friends are supposed to be fashionable, empathetic and full of zingers to enhance every conversation. (Does this make me a two-for-one special?)

The cultural atmosphere seems to be that every girl needs a gay. A gay. Not a person so much, as a prop, an idealized version of what gay men are, when in fact gay men can be just as boring as their heterosexual counterparts.

In fact, the only successful vehicle for gay-themed programming on network cable seems to be comedies. Off the top of my head, I could only think of “Will and Grace,” “Ugly Betty,” and “Glee” (I had to look up the rest) as a popular series with regular gay characters. But, even though Will and Jack talked a good game, they were ultimately about as sexual as a box of kittens. Sure they’ve got claws, but you can still watch and go aww.

It doesn’t help that cultural images are largely created through a heterosexual male lens. Male viewers can’t be offended or made uncomfortable.

We can help heterosexual society from frumpy to fabulous, we can hang around the dinner table and talk about James Merrill’s poetry one minute and end with a quip about Kathy Griffin the next, but the sex in homosexuality (particularly between two men) still makes a lot of people uneasy.

If a man and woman are watching a film and a naked woman appears then neither is likely to be uneasy. Men are allowed to look at naked women, and it there’s not a heavy stigma attached to a woman seeing a naked woman. Switch the sex of the nude: women are allowed to look at naked men, but there’s usually a twinge of discomfort among heterosexual men about viewing the male form.

It’s just not kosher for a man to do such a thing. So to make gay men more palatable to a heterosexual male audience, one simply desexualizes gay men.

But, herein lies the rub: Cultural depictions of gays are obviously off, but how responsible is the media, especially escapist television shows, in what they depict?

No group of people wants their cultural cast in an unfair or inaccurate light; but, why are we turning to fictions for images to venerate? TV is made for fun and who are we to start policing a creative medium?

Obviously, TV is a powerful cultural object, and everyone seeks their reflection in its glow. I know I’m looking for validation as black man and a gay man: Hey, look at that, there’s someone like me on the TV screen and people know someone like me exists.

But, I’m pretty sure no one wants be thought of as a disposable pop culture trend.

Derrick Austin can be reached at daustin@ut.edu.

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