Growing up, I had several friends who were gay or bisexual, as well as a couple who considered themselves transgender. I myself am not straight. Non-heterosexuality to me and most of the people I know is completely normal in day-to-day life, but none of us would fool ourselves into believing that heteronormativity isn’t still going strong all over television. So how important is it that our entertainment stops making heterosexuality the absolute norm and starts being inclusive in an all-around manner?
When it comes to homophobia, television is no longer a place where likable characters can be outright prejudiced (thank goodness). You won’t hear the main character of a show yelling “faggot!” unless there will be some negative consequences later or it’s some sad attempt at fitting in (which, again, will result in negative consequences later on). You won’t see the protagonists actually dislike gays unless that is seen as a major character flaw (like in real life). But the lack of obviousness and brazen anti-gay depictions doesn’t mean the prejudice doesn’t exist; instead, they’re just more sly about them.
For example, in Friends, it was a highly amusing plot point that Chandler’s father was transgender and that growing up, he did a lot of “girly” things, such as learning how to expertly pluck eyebrows. While it’s great that a main character with non-cisgender parents was shown to be a mostly well-adjusted adult, it would have been much more impressive if it wasn’t seen as a punchline. After all, LGBTQ community has been seen as a punchline at the end cheap, lazy jokes for entirely too long.
In the case of Saturday Night Live‘s long-running, extremely offensive skit turned feature-length film “Pat,” the primary focus of the entire thing was that characters could not figure out whether Pat was male or female. Because the character had shortish hair and a gender-neutral way of dressing, the schtick was simply that Pat’s gender could not be easily determined, as though it was anybody’s business in the first place.
Gender ambiguity has long been played with as some form of humorous game on television, as the actual appearance of somebody whose gender we might not understand or be able to instantly guess can frighten a lot of people who prefer things to be cut and dry. When you remove that comfort zone, people would often rather laugh as opposed to actually think about why gender identities do not necessarily need to be conveniently determinate and come with a “Who’s What?” guide.
Of course, there have been huge strides in the past 20 years. While positive depictions of LGBTQ characters were once focused primarily within gay-central shows like The L Word and Queer as Folk, there are now mainstream, network television programs that are popular among heterosexual audiences just as much as non-heterosexual members. With shows like Glee, The United States of Tara, Pretty Little Liars and Modern Family, characters are developed with their sexuality as a simply an element of their being, not the primary focus of what their personality is “supposed” to be like.
In the past, many of the non-heterosexual characters on mainstream television — like Andrew in Desperate Housewives, for example — would have their primary character arcs for several seasons revolve around their sexualities. Whether it was an issue of coming out to parents (which is a totally valid plotline, I just wish it wasn’t the only one most gay and lesbian characters were the focus for), bullying or being upset by one’s non-heterosexuality, characters have not simply been seen as who they are; instead, there’s always a preface of “Gay” in front of their names, like a title that determines their character development prior to any story being written.
The New Normal — which I love — may frequently discuss and focus on issues of sexuality, such as the frustrations of homophobia and the societal stress of having a child with two male parents, the characters develop on their own around those situations. Similarly, Marshall from The United States of Tara is gay, but his family rarely mentions this, he’s extremely mature, non-rebellious and there isn’t some huge arc that has to involve his sexuality (though he does briefly question it later in the show). His family has zero qualms and regularly discusses his dating life in the same way they do with his heterosexual sister.
The more characters who happen to be gay — as opposed to “Bree’s gay son Andrew” or “Matt’s transgender girlfriend Ava” (Nip/Tuck), both of whom have negative personalities that are frequently attributed to their sexuality and gender identity in earlier seasons — the less being gay will be seen as an exceptional element that must be focused on so much.
But even with all this focus, why is that homosexual characters on mainstream television are rarely (if ever) shown in a non-comical, sexually positive manner?
As I said, I love The New Normal, but I don’t think there will ever be a time when David and Bryan make out. I wish I could chalk that up to the show belonging to NBC, but I can’t; after all, plenty of shows that illustrate heterosexual relations between two characters are on the network. Law & Order: SVU, Parenthood, 30 Rock, Whitney… all of which are not exactly HBO shows in regards to how much they reveal about sex between two characters (well, may SVU does reveal entirely too much, but that’s their thing, I think), but they all imply sexual relations on a fairly regular basis. You rarely see the couple on The New Normal kiss and you certainly never see them unclothed with obvious sexual implications ahead. They’re allowed to be sweet, not sexy.
Why is that, though? Why is it that we are totally tuned out to heterosexual sex scenes, for the most part, even when they’re gross to put on television because they involve supposed minors (hi, Gossip Girl), but we rarely — if ever — see non-heterosexual romance?
Bisexuality (and any other non-gay/non-straight sexuality) is almost never discussed on television, let alone shown unless it’s in some sort of sexy way between three characters (i.e. as a ratings boost). The only bisexual character I can think of off the top of my head is Nolan from Revenge, and he’s a narcissistic, eccentric oddball. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I find it bizarre that such a common sexuality is not represented in almost any characters. Oh, yeah, and Roger from American Dad. Who’s a fucking alien.
On the teen show Pretty Little Liars (yes, I watch it, I can feel your judgment from here), one teenager named Emily is a lesbian. Of course, the show focuses considerably on how her parents feel about it and whatnot, but eventually, they simply let her be. She has a couple girlfriends (both of whom are implied to have serious mental instabilities, though everyone on the show kinda does, too), but she is almost never seen being intimate with them. Not that I want to see two “17-year-olds” getting down, but I do think it’s bizarre that there are several other characters who regularly make out and/or have sex with their shirtless, oily boyfriends and discuss it at length, whereas the one lesbian never mentions anything beyond her emotional bond with women, as well as the occasional intense kiss.
Believe me, I understand that many negative things still occur towards the LGBTQ community. I am not naive enough to believe that everyone has experienced the same upbringing and environmental factors that I have and doesn’t view non-heterosexuality and cisgender identities as abnormal. I totally believe that television should sometimes discuss bullying and coming out, because those are real issues that plague people today and are worth examining. That said, I wish that those weren’t the primary source of plotlines for LGBTQ characters (and they typically are).
My point is not that homophobia is brazenly flitting about (well, except on Fox News); it’s that heteronormativity is still glued to our idea of “normality” on television. The fact is that we assume characters are straight until we’re told they’re not; we’ve been taught to believe that, if somebody isn’t heterosexual, we have to be directly told or showed otherwise. Until being gay is about as significant as a character being straight — i.e. nobody feels the need to discuss it constantly — then we will never view this new normal as anything but “new.”