By Douglas Evasick
Homosexuals! It remains a controversial word, no matter how far as a society the United States likes to think it has come.
Still things are much better now for gays and lesbians than they were only forty, thirty, even ten years ago. As hard as it is to believe, there is an entire generation of people living today who were young at a time when being a homosexual was considered a disease. For the most part it was never discussed in public life and when it was, it was never in a positive light. However, television consistently has been an accurate reflection on this society’s attitudes and beliefs toward the gay community. Despite what conservative activists say, TV is actually more conservative than liberal; conservative advertising dollars drive the revenues for most of these shows and their parenting stations.
Despite the fact that TV has been around since 1939, gays were not portrayed at all on sitcoms for over 20 years. During the ultra-conservative ’50s, television wouldn’t touch the subject of homosexuality with a ten-foot pole, and by the ’60s sitcoms were still ignoring gays and lesbians as best they could. Stephen Tropiano, a gay man himself who teaches courses on the history of gays on television, says that in ’60s sitcoms “there were no gay men or lesbians living next door to the Ricardos and the Kramdens, or waiting to be rescued on ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ Gays were invisible and gays had to accept it, because no one was sympathetic toward their cries.”
The ’70s can be viewed as Suzanna Danuta Walters puts it: “the medieval 1970s.” A lesbian herself, Walters came out during the decade and remembers the ’70s as still being heavily steeped in homophobia. She remembers losing friends, being told she could never have children, being taunted and learning to expect less from life than straights. More importantly she remembers not having very much to connect with in popular culture. There were “no advertisements that featured gays, no gay TV stars, few out gay actors…no gay glossy magazines.” As for TV, it appeared to be just as desolate when it came to featuring gays. “I can remember vividly scouring the TV guide for any television program that might give me some indication that I existed.” While African Americans and feminists seemed to finally be gaining ground, it appeared as if gays were still left behind.
Change came slowly.. Not surprisingly, the always-groundbreaking “All in the Family” became the first sitcom ever to not only feature a gay character, but tackle homophobia and misconceptions of gays as well. During a particular episode, a friend of Mike and Gloria’s (the son-in-law and daughter of renowned bigot Archie Bunker) invite their friend Roger over for lunch. Roger, who behaves as the stereotypical gay man does, becomes the focus of Archie’s intolerance. Through various discriminatory jokes and denigrating slurs, Archie seeks to make Roger feel as unwelcome as possible.
The plot twists, and it turns out that not is only is Roger not gay, but Archie’s bar buddy Steve, a ruggedly handsome, former all-American football player, is. The moral-of-the-story point was clearly stated in the title of the episode, “Judging Books By Covers.” In the end, while Archie is shocked and surprised by this turn of fate, he never grows or matures as a person, instead remaining a mean-spirited bigot throughout the rest of the series’ run. What is important, though, is that this was not only the first television depiction of a gay man on a sitcom, but it was also the first time an openly gay character was actually handled kindly and with some respect by the writers and, therefore, the characters. That was revolutionary enough for the times.
A liberally-minded spin-off from “All in the Family” appeared soon after, starring Beatrice Arthur of “Golden Girls” fame. “Maude” dealt with many controversial topics, such as abortion, so it didn’t take long for homosexuality to come up. In a 1974 episode entitled “Maude’s New Friend,” her new friend Barry is gay. They enjoy hanging out, but Barry calls Maude out on the fact that while she is tolerant of gays, she might not be too accepting. Maude is angry with Barry, but accidentally calls him Mary in the heat of the moment. She realizes she does have certain assumptions and learns to get over them.
A more controversial episode came in 1977, even using a controversial term for its title, “The Gay Bar.” Maude’s neighbor, Dr. Arthur Harmon, is totally against the opening of a gay bar in town, because he feels it is disgusting and would taint the entire community. Dr. Harmon’s claims against gays are just as ignorant and hateful as Archie Bunker’s were, even though, as a doctor, he is expected to be more educated. By the end of the episode the gay bar opens, but only because it is built outside the town’s boundaries and therefore can’t legally be stopped.
What’s important to note about these shows is that while the gay characters might be given respect by the writers, they receive terrible treatment and judgment from many of the shows’ characters. Also, while these shows purported to teach audiences a lesson about tolerance of gays, it doesn’t seem that the people (Archie, Arthur and others) learn anything at all — they are allowed to remain the same and keep their prejudices.
However, there was one occurrence during the early ’70s worth mentioning where a gay character being gay was not seen as a problem. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the first show to feature a single career woman as the lead of her own sitcom, and Mary’s show included her single working gal pals, such as Rhoda and Phyllis. In an early episode, before both characters spun off onto their own shows, Phyllis tried to set Mary up with her brother Ben. Instead, it appears as if Rhoda and Ben are hitting it off, though it is later revealed that Ben is actually gay. For the first time, being gay doesn’t offend any of the characters involved. It’s also the first time where someone being gay is not considered wrong, or even all that different.
As the ’80s got under way, gays continued to make advancements on television sitcoms. Unlike the ’70s, however, where the steps were substantial, the ’80s saw only baby steps. AIDS became the new topic for dealing with gays, and the center of medical shows and made-for-TV movies like 1985s “An Early Frost.”
Sitcoms tried to avoid the topic, since it wasn’t something that could generate laughs. Instead, they kept on using the same tired one-episode plot devices for dealing with gays, such as mistaken identity — coming out and pretending to be gay to get something that for some reason cannot be achieved while being straight.
The smaller progress that marked the ’80s came in other ways as well. One example is that many new sitcoms featured casts full of women, such as “Kate and Allie,” “The Golden Girls,” and “Designing Women.” In fact many viewers read the shows as very lesbian themed from the start, since they featured females living together in close quarters. They also all had very direct episodes that involved one-shot lesbian appearances. In “Golden Girls,” a former college roommate of Rose comes to visit after her lover dies. She develops a crush on Rose without Rose suspecting a thing, since she has no idea that her former roommate is a lesbian. Rose’s eventual realization and response is not of disgust like Archie and Arthur, but one of compassion bordering on complete understanding. “I don’t understand these kind of feelings,” she says. “But if I did understand, if I was, you know, like you, I would be very flattered and proud you thought of me that way.” She shows that she still cares for her friend, even if she doesn’t completely understand her lifestyle.
“Roseanne,” a show that broke family traditions by featuring a strong female lead, helped bridge the conservative ’80s with the so-called Gay Nineties. It chronicled the day-to-day goings-on of what looked like a real-life, blue-collar family, and it would go on to depict lesbians and gays in ways that had never been seen on network television. The real life Roseanne said, “My show seeks to portray various slices of life, and homosexuals are a reality.” During its final season, Roseanne’s mother came out of the closet at a Thanksgiving dinner and admitted that every time she had to have sex with Roseanne’s father, she had to look at a Playboy magazine in the supermarket beforehand. This revelation made “Roseanne” the first show ever to feature a lesbian grandmother.
The show was breaking a lot of ground for gays and lesbians even before granny came out. Roseanne also had a boss named Leon at the diner, who happened to be gay. He also didn’t fit the stereotype of a young and sexually attractive gay man, and he was eventually shown being married to his companion (in and of itself not a common occurrence on sitcoms). Another cast member who came onto the show in 1991 was Sandra Bernhard, who played Nancy, an outspoken bisexual comedian. She came out of the closet on the show, and when she invited Roseanne to come with her to a gay bar in the episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the show opened itself up to lots of controversy. During Roseanne’s trip to the bar she ends up kissing another woman, which forced Roseanne, as well as her husband Dan, to look at their own prejudices. Dan admits that he likes the idea of two women kissing, but the thought of two men disgusts him. Roseanne is challenged for her more accepting views on gays by Nancy, the woman she kissed, who states, “And we’re supposed to admire you because you went to a gay bar? I’m supposed to think you’re cool because you have gay friends?” In the end, though, “Roseanne” was a smash hit sitcom that helped bring out more down-to-earth gay characterizations than ever before. As a result, it helped kick-start the Gay Nineties sitcom style.
Another standard sitcom dressed up in ’90s zeitgeist was Michael J. Fox’s “Spin City,” which aired in 1996. A show about a mayor and his wacky workers and public relations people, “Spin City” was groundbreaking for gays because it featured the first continuing African-American gay man on a sitcom. Carter Heywood was hired by the mayor in reaction to a homophobic comment the mayor made towards a TV reporter who had asked him if he was going to march in the gay pride parade. Carter was a prime example of how far gays had come in sitcoms by the ’90s. He was gay, but not a stereotype. And Carter being black just made it sweeter.
But when it came to Gay Nineties sitcoms, the climax was most defiantly the coming out of Ellen in 1997. When the show first came on the air in 1994 as a mid-season replacement, its premise was similar to hits like “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” with Ellen and her friends hanging out and not doing much more. By 1996 there was word that Ellen might be coming out and it soon snowballed into a huge media frenzy. Ellen appeared everywhere from “Oprah” to Time magazine declaring that she was a lesbian. It of course all lead up to the big coming-out episode, strangely titled “The Puppy Episode.” Airing on April 30, 1997, it was viewed by over 36.2 million Americans. The plot revolved around Ellen reuniting with an old friend and meeting his new co-worker Susan, played by Laura Dern. Ellen is attracted to Susan, but once Susan asks if Ellen is a lesbian, Ellen becomes defensive and backs off. But she eventually realizes that she is in fact a lesbian and comes out to Susan and, mistakenly, everyone else at an airport by revealing the news over the airport loudspeaker. The episode was immediately recognized as a milestone, not only for television, but for the gay community as well.
Of course there were critics of Ellen’s coming out including, many right-wing organizations who blasted the show and its network ABC’s approach to “family-friendly programming.” Yet, for the most part season four of the series ended with great success. It would be the fifth season that trouble would rear its ugly head.
The fifth season didn’t put Ellen back in the closet. In fact, she started dating other woman and lived a gay lifestyle, and this upset many critics and viewers of the show, who were not quite ready for a sitcom to be all gay all the time. The series also had to put up warning labels and a rating of TV 14, for any episode that showed acts of intimacy between Ellen and another woman. Ellen complained about the network’s uneasiness for dealing with the show on Entertainment Tonight, saying, “I’m gay, the character’s gay. It’s just too controversial, nobody wants to deal with it.” ABC President Robert A. Iger mirrored Ellen’s statement by saying the show “became a program about a character who was gay every single week, and…that was too much for people.” These feelings were reflected in the show’s ratings, which dropped drastically during the fifth season and by the spring of 1998 people already knew the show would get the ax.
That “Ellen’s” cancellation came so quickly after its star’s coming out just proved that people were still not ready for a gay to star in the leading role of a mainstream sitcom. They needed their gay people to be supporting characters, whose sex lives were still not discussed during the 22 minutes of laughs. “Ellen” proved to be the greatest indicator for the Gay Nineties hypocrisy. Basically, society will accept gays, but they don’t want to have to deal with gays all the time — especially on the sitcom.
In the fallout from the coming out of Ellen and her show’s cancellation, a flood of gay oriented shows debuted between 1998 and 2001, “Normal, Ohio,” “Some of my Best Friends,” and Ellen’s new show, aptly titled, “The Ellen Show.” All of them were canceled as quickly as they appeared. Yet one show that came out the year of Ellen losing her show not only remained on the air, but became a critically acclaimed, Emmy-award winning ratings smash, that would prove to be the brightest beacon of light for gays on sitcoms and for the mainstreaming of gay culture in general. Featuring two gay men opposite two straight women in the four lead roles, “Will & Grace” actually became a hit by not taking too many risks, even if gayness did lie at the heart of the show.
The four main characters are Will Truman and Grace Addler and their obnoxious friends, Jack McFarland and Karen Walker. Despite being a gay man, Will is desexualized and made more masculine than gay. He also yearns for a stable relationship and is not extremely sexually active. His characterization has been seen by critics as a bid to make Will appeal to heterosexual America. Jack on the other hand is the exact opposite: he is the sissy and campy gay stereotype who can’t get enough of men. The writers give him three-dimensional development, but he’s so gay that people don’t relate to Jack as much as they laugh at him. Homophobia and heterosexual stereotypes against gays are still present, however they are used for laughs by the gay leads.
The show never lets its gay men stray far from their relationships with their female companions. There is never any gay sex shown or implied during a scene, and very few homosexual kisses. Yet, Grace has been with lots of men, and has been shown kissing them, as well as being intimate with them in bed. The show once again proves that gay equality is for white men. There are usually not many other gays shown, and when they are they are actually stereotypes and are therefore ridiculed on the show (shockingly, by the gay characters). When an Asian gay man is shown with Jack on the show, Jack says, “Look how funny he talks!” In another episode featuring lesbians, they are the stereotyped ugly lesbians who are fat, wear flannel, and, as a result, are made fun of by Jack throughout the episode. What “Will & Grace” proves is that while the show is progress, it is certainly not perfection.
With “Will & Grace” off the air, the future of gays on sitcoms is uncertain, a situation further complicated by the uncertain future of the sitcom itself. Most of the big sitcoms from the past ten years, “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” have all gone off the air, and nothing has really risen to replace them. In fact, “Will & Grace” was one of the last new sitcoms to really break out. Reality TV is the wave of the future, and, for better and for worse gays have been integrated. Many have been the stars of shows like “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” and “Boy Meets Boy.” Even if sitcoms go by the wayside, gays will live on through various other TV shows. But to think things can’t get any better is preposterous. Just as minorities are lacking from sitcoms, minority gays are scarce as well. There has yet to be a successful mainstream sitcom on network TV that mainly features gay characters, with straight characters regulated to side roles. Still, from starting as one shot appearances with Archie Bunker slinging slurs at them, to leading a show with a female companion, gays have made increases in visibility and acceptance in not only sitcoms, but in American culture as well. All one can hope, and more importantly work for, is a future that is paved with tolerance and acceptance in all forms of media.
Douglas Evasick is a junior journalism major who apparently watches way too much TV. E-mail him about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.