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If this is the new normal, count me out

If this is the new normal, count me out

The new crop of fall television series is upon us, and at first glance there is much to celebrate for LGBT viewers, (okay, mostly just for "G" viewers — more on that in a moment).
 
The number of gay and bisexual characters on scripted broadcast network TV is at its highest-ever level this season, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In addition to our returning gay and lesbian characters on mainstream hits like Glee (which has now added a young cross-dressing black teen to better round out its queer quotient) and Modern Family, we now have two new sitcoms, Partners and The New Normal, both of which feature gay men as central characters. 
 
As someone who wastes far too much of his free time watching mainstream TV (I don’t have the cable package that lets me watch HBO or FX), I was thrilled to read about these new shows. However, after watching the first few episodes, I’m not so thrilled. In fact, I’m downright depressed. Why? Well, for starters, these gay men are depressingly two-dimensional and stereotypical. 
 
On The New Normal, produced and written by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, we have an upper-middle-class white male couple, Bryan and David, who’ve got everything — great looks, great house, great careers. All that’s missing is a little bundle of joy, and this becomes the show’s focus. The two men find a surrogate mom, Goldie, who’s basically “white trash” with a heart of gold but also comes with a mother (played with vindictive fun by Ellen Barkin) who would make Mitt Romney proud. 
 
The first few episodes of the show have set up some bonding between the gay couple and surrogate mom, who also has an only-found-on-TV wisecracking daughter, as they navigate the bumpy ride of early pregnancy and a hostile surrogate-mother-in-law. Pretty much all that concerns the gay couple is having a baby and starting a family. Family values, even if slightly skewed from the traditional nuclear family model, are pushed relentlessly. In fact, even though the conservative mom is supposed to be a buffoon, I feel like the underlying message of this show is very much a Republican one: families consist of a married couple with good jobs, a house and kids, and that’s all that matters in life.
 
Partners, which is written and produced by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the duo that created Will & Grace, has a slightly less conventional premise. It is focused on the lifelong friendship between Louis, a gay man (played by Ugly Betty alumnus Michael Urie) and heterosexual Joe. The two are also partners in an architecture firm. 
 
The first few episodes have focused on their slightly unhealthy co-dependency at the same time as both are in long-term relationships. Much is made out of the fact that Joe is getting engaged and Louis can’t help but micro-manage his friend’s love life and tell Joe’s fiancé embarrassing secrets. Louis and his partner are the well-balanced, committed couple in this sitcom and, like The New Normal couple, are middle-class white men with good jobs (but no talk of a baby . . . yet). 
 
Beyond the appalling lack of racial, ethnic or class diversity in this new crop of gay male characters (not to mention the complete absence  of "L," "B" and "T" characters in sitcoms), I am saddened to see queer representations that are so narrowly focused in terms of their interests, politics and love lives. 
 
Not that we should expect mainstream American TV to create another L Word or Noah’s Arc, (which weren’t perfect either, but hey, at least we saw lesbians and some men of colour), but has it really come to this? Is queer life in 2012 going to be represented on TV by dull, white, middle-class gay couples who have nothing else to think about but babies or their straight friends’ upcoming nuptials? Is this really our new normal? 
 
I wonder if anyone in network television today would dare to dream of a lesbian version of Roseanne, that great working-class sitcom of the 1980s or a gay version of The Cosby Show, with a wealthy black gay couple and their troublesome teens. Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to see that on our screens any time soon.
 
In the meantime, I think I’m going to be watching less network television and spending more time at the computer watching web series like Where the Bears Are (life in the “bear” subculture) or Drama Queenz (three young black men trying to make it on Broadway), shows that begin to show the complexity and diversity of our big queer world. 

David AB Murray is an associate professor of anthropology and sexuality studies at York University.
 
  

Comments

New Normal - BORING
The Will-and-Grace-ification of gay sitcom characters continues...safe, unthreatening, bland, homogenous. I check these new shows out and I wind up switching the channel with a scowl. When a well-written sitcom (taped or filmed in front of a live studio audience, please) features some honest, hilarious leather dudes or bears or slobs spewing a modicum of mild raunch, I'll tune in.
We aren’t living in the United States
It is pointless, not to mention passé, to complain about “portrayals” on *American* TV series. I’ve been reading functionally equivalent coverage for 25 years. We watch American shows, but we don’t live there, and GLAAD doesn’t operate in Canada. Worrying about television portrayals of gays in a country where little ever actually changes for gays is a mug’s game, not to mention colonial. You’d think a lecturer at York University would know colonialism when he enables it.
You forgot some
While I by no means think the mainstream media is a perfect portrayal, I think it's important not to overlook the few representations we have. There's a lesbian character on the new show, Chicago Fire. Then, of course, we have Adam (FTM) and Fiona (lesbian) of Degrassi (albeit a teen show). Max from Happy Endings as well. It's like westcoastboi said: we're getting there.
Well, I agree with this guy.
I've pretty much given up on mainstream TV portrayals. Even when they come up with something agreeable, it's generally underwhelming, and there's generally a whole bunch of concessions to normalcy made in the execution. I still watch TV on occasion, I've just learned it's not a good place to seek affirmation of my experiences or politics. It's not that I often see good portrayals anywhere else, or that representation isn't steadily making progress at its own conservative pace. It's pretty easy for a book, news article, opinion, person to fall into the same normative patterns that I recognize in television. But I think the same of any of these when they share the same attributes: either that they're boring or problematic, depending on my mood. It's similar to when I try to look back at old gay literature and find anything that entertains without a handful of caveats and qualms . . . I guess the politics of pioneering things tend to not be very radical because it's easiest for things that have access to plenty of other privilege to bend normalcy. So I dunno, I never found it worth waiting for or paying attention to the things people describe as 'pioneering'. I've always been inspired by the things, people, experiences that are a touch too radical to break into the mainstream. They do a better job of ignoring social barriers. The best gay portrayals I've found have been written by amateurs, posted to the Internet, buried in used bookstores, performed at events attended by like, 80 people. But really, I think a survival skill queer people have been forced to learn, and excel at,(at least given the current weather in terms of portrayals) is trusting ourselves, formulating our own epistemology based in communities and experience, and broadcasting our own portrayals of what is normal, or what isn't and we want to do anyways. But yus, I possibly think all this because I'm reclusive and strange. *fortifies self behind wall of books, checks for updates on blog.*
Thin Edge
Your points valid to a point but change is an evolution. We are moving forward slowly but surely. There was no pda in Will and Grace and limited pda in Modern Family. There were two gay men kissing in a recent episode of The New Normal. Some might argue that we should bash the straight community over the head with progress but really, more is accomplished in increments. A good analogy is the frog in the pot. Throw a frog in hot water and it jumps out - slowly heat the water with the frog in it and before you know it, all that you pine for in your article in terms of inclusion will become manifest.
We're never happy...
While I don't disagree that some of this new crop of shows is a little stereotypical, can we at least not celebrate the gains? I know, I know, complacency never moves us forward but for once can't I just enjoy the canned laughter without someone telling me its not good enough?
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