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Gays on TV: hardly a trend

A decade after 'Ellen's' debut the medium is more welcoming than before, but shows still feature stereotypes.

August 12, 2003|Steve Johnson | Chicago Tribune

You don't have to turn over many rocks these days to find archconservatives willing to complain that TV has gone "gay, gay, gay" on poor, narrow-minded them.

And most any newsweekly is regularly inflating a couple of examples -- "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the continued success of "Will & Grace," more Emmy nominations for "Six Feet Under" -- into a flat-out trend.

But it's time for a little reality check, a term that may be ironic when you consider that so-called reality TV is one of the big reasons gay folk on the tube are no longer objects of wonder and amazement.

Yes, without a doubt, television in mid-2003 is much more gay-friendly than it was in mid-1993, when "Ellen" was being prepared for network TV and Ellen the character for the requisite series of failed heterosexual romances. "Melrose Place" had Matt, but he had to be so noble he was a social worker.

Now, "Will and Grace" is a hit, and "Six Feet Under" is a cable hit and critical and TV-industry darling. Several other series for the new season are coming out, including ABC's "It's All Relative," which offers a sitcom spin on the "La Cage Aux Folles" scenario: Daughter of effete gay partners marries son of sloppy hetero barkeeps.

Since "The Real World," almost every unscripted show has had the requisite gay participant or two, following in the footsteps of the daytime talk shows, a genre to which I have heard serious-minded people give credit for being the first to expose "middle America" to gay TV characters, no matter that the context was generally lurid, often stereotypical. And this summer, "Queer Eye" is a breakout hit, at least by the standards of NBC's wee cable network Bravo. Thursday, it's getting another airing at 10 p.m. on the big network, this time at a full hour instead of an earlier, first migration's truncated half-hour. (It still did well, holding 86% of "Will & Grace's" young-adult audience.)

Later that same night, the show's makeover artists will attempt to redo a schmo more famous than their usual lumpen straights: Jay Leno. In the process of this publicity stunt, it will surely be demonstrated that the quintet's fashion expert, sharp-tongued Carson Kressley, is a much quicker wit than the current "Tonight" host. (He is, after all, named Carson.)

There's even the first unscripted gay dating show, "Boy Meets Boy," also on Bravo. It's been rightly criticized for its minstrel show aspect: Straights are hidden among the suitors, encouraged by a cash prize to try to "act gay." But cruel jokes in unscripted TV are nothing new. This snooze of a show mostly proves that heteros don't have a lock on tedious, fabricated-for-TV courtship rituals.

It may all seem revolutionary to some, scary to those others who seem to think there is a "homosexual agenda," that it includes some dream of mass conversions and that sexual orientation is so tenuous it cannot withstand so much as a glimpse of a gay character.

But before we call off Gay Pride parades or stop fighting for equal legal protections, remember that all of this is happening in a nation that, according to public opinion polls, is actually regressing from what had been increasingly tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality.

The president is taking after gay marriage, and the Catholic Church has actively encouraged opposition to not only gay marriage but to gay adoption.

And on the pop-culture front, "Will & Grace" gets increasingly less popular as you move into older and more male demographics. Even though it's a well-established hit, its lead characters still aren't allowed to have sex or even really date. During the show's run, stereotypically flamboyant Jack, for all his slutty talk, has had more sex action with straight female buddy Karen than with anybody male.

When gay characters do have sex, as on the pay-cable series "Queer as Folk" (Showtime), they have so much of it that it plays as camp stereotype. Only HBO's "Six Feet Under" seems to have discovered how to remain popular while incorporating a fuller vision of its gay characters. It's no coincidence that this show, from writer Alan Ball, is the biggest artistic success of the series mentioned here.

The medium's gay-themed or gay-friendly shows, it cannot be overemphasized, are more numerous than ever before, but still only a handful amid, literally, hundreds.

Meanwhile, a running theme, probably the running theme, on "Saturday Night Live" and other male-dominated sketch comedy shows remains hetero fear of gay sexuality, which leads to a lot of homophobic snickering about sodomy. People have suggested that hicks are the last cultural minority it's OK to make fun of in "polite" company, but there's a lot of evidence suggesting gays remain on that list.

And we all know that there are, in fact, gay leading men in Hollywood, but we still don't know, even now, exactly who. Nobody on screen dares risk the feared approbation of ticket buyers, even as fewer and fewer gays behind the scenes bother any longer to hide their orientation.

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