by Stephen Dixon
In the run-up to the Forum’s Feb. 4 Conversation on Same-Sex Marriage, there is one question I have been particularly interested in: the relationship between gay television characters and public opinion for or against same-sex relationships. According to NPR’s Morning Edition, a recent content analysis by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation shows that the percentage of gay characters on television (4.4%) is now greater than the percentage of gay men and women in the general population (3.3%). Even without relying on that disproportionality, the study raises an issue that’s hard to deny outright: that gay characters and themes on television are in demand. The spate of seasonally renewed series in recent years–Glee, Modern Family, The New Normal, etc.–leaves little doubt that networks are gearing programming with the belief that gay characters are, if nothing else, an opportunity to boost ad revenues.
This of course leaves the door ajar for cheap exploitation of shallow gay stereotypes and abuse of an important social issue for cheap entertainment. Programming centered around gay characters whose sexual orientation is their primary trait can sometimes portray gay characters as an “other” with little depth. Is this problematic in the formation of public opinion for same-sex marriage? Writing in the Huffington Post in 2011, Zack Rosen argues that one of the common stereotypes of the gay television character, “the effeminate glitter boy,” isn’t an offensive stereotype so much as it is lazy television writing.
This is probably not an altogether bad thing. Might the fact that popular culture broadly embraces a stereotype–so long as it’s not an overtly offensive one–be a cultural victory in the battle for social equality? In other words, network television often traffics in stereotypes, consistently broadcasting lowest-common-denominator content to gain mass appeal. This is the nature of their business. And though this can result in poor storytelling, it also signifies that a large portion of the American public is ready to face the issue in a casual but supportive way. Appearing on the same broadcast of Morning Edition mentioned above, Will & Grace co-creator (and panelist for the Feb. 4 Conversation) Max Mutchnick pointed out that Cam and Mitchell on ABC’s Modern Family light-heartedly confronted the issue of “gaybies,” or same-sex couples adopting children. And while Modern Family‘s writers don’t necessarily shy away from the use of stereotypical catty comments or effeminacy, Cam and Mitchell are both extraordinarily endearing characters that encourage viewers to consider same-sex marriage in a positive light.
In sum, the real battles for social equality and same-sex marriage rights are going to occur where you’d expect them to: in the courts and the legislature. On television, one shouldn’t necessarily be offended by the “lazy storytelling” that stereotypes of gay characters and theme might bring about. Even if popular culture might sometimes focus on sexual orientation as if it’s the only important aspect of character, it’s hardly discouraging that mass audiences have embraced–at least in part–prominent gay themes on television.