Getting to know you: Sitcoms field gay characters
Web posted on: Monday, May 17, 1999 2:36:36 PM EDT
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- Not just in one episode, not just a side character and not just for easy laughs. Issues of homosexuality have arrived in commercial television, and often as enduring, central and serious elements of their shows' stories.
The trend, predictably, is applauded by many, criticized by some, overlooked by few.
On a May episode of FOX's "Party of Five," Julia (Neve Campbell) kissed her writing instructor, a woman.
The Will of NBC's Thursday sitcom "Will & Grace" is attorney Will Truman (Eric McCormack) -- that character's not only gay, but also masculine, personable and the roommate of an attractive woman.
WB's "Dawson's Creek" includes among its cast of engaging teens Jack (Kerr Smith), who discloses his homosexuality to his family and friends.
And on NBC's "Friends," Ross Geller's former wife is gay, has custody of their son and lives happily with her partner.
A "TV Scoreboard" published by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) lists 25 shows -- including "Chicago Hope," ER," "Spin City," "The Simpsons," Suddenly Susan" and "Mad About You" -- that featured gay, lesbian and/or transgender prime-time characters during the fall '98 lineup.
"It's vital for teens to see gay characters on television," says Scott Seomin, GLAAD's entertainment media director. "When a gay teen in Iowa sees Jack on 'Dawson's Creek' portrayed as loved, talented and accepted, it sends a strong message that he can be those things, as well."
Ongoing, integrated story lines
The plots for weekly episodes of the hugely successful "Dawson's Creek" are based on the rural North Carolina upbringing of show creator Kevin Williamson. Among myriad romantic twists, the show's story is following the coming-out of Jack, who struggles to fit in while dealing with his sexuality.
In a December episode of FOX TV's "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- now closing out its eighth season, perennial party guy Steve Sanders learned that his mother is a lesbian. It was a deliberate plot-shaking move.
"We like the idea of having someone, in this case Steve, have to confront his feelings about homosexuality in a very personal way instead of from a distance," says "90210" executive producer John Eisendrath.
"Steve has a historically narrow view of such matters. We thought it would be interesting to take someone not predisposed to being comfortable around gay characters and have him come face to face with it."
Indeed, Eisendrath says that next year, the character will again face his mother's sexuality, as her companion is introduced on the show.
The gay next door
Not until 1992 did a recurring gay character on commercial television hold a plot line for an extended period of shows, and then only in daytime drama. That was actor Ryan Phillippe ("54," "Cruel Intentions") playing a featured role on "One Life To Live." The character, Billy Douglas, had one summer to live, then disappeared from the show.
In 1994, the critically-praised but short-lived series "My So-Called Life" featured perhaps one the earliest and most flamboyant gay characters on television, Rickie Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz.
"There are gays in the world, why shouldn't they be on TV?" series creator Winnie Holtzman told the Los Angeles Times. "The network [ABC] gets credit because there were some concerns in the beginning over Rickie's proclivity to wear makeup and hang out in the girl's room. But we were never pressured to do things differently. We never received any hate mail or got targeted for protest. I have to say, it gave me a good feeling."
Many of today's regular gay characters on television -- GLAAD counts 12 on NBC, four on ABC, four on CBS, two on Showtime, two on FOX and one on WB in this year's fall-winter season -- are more realistic personalities, less mannered, more fully rounded. They're likely to be characters you might mistake for straight.
They manifest fewer elements of the stereotypic gay "lifestyle" so often used as derisive joke material in past guest-spot turns on various shows before the current tendency to introduce gays as complex, sensitive people.
From the right: Criticism
Not surprisingly, opposing voices are rising with gay visibility. And they aren't always directed toward human characters.
In one of the most publicized recent instances, Rev. Jerry Falwell "outed" Teletubby Tinky Winky as what Falwell says is a gay critter. In the February issue of Falwell's own National Liberty Journal, under a headline reading, "Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes out of the Closet," the Baptist evangelist wrote that Tinky Winky "... is purple -- the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay-pride symbol."
Falwell wrote, "As a Christian, I feel that role-modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children."
A spokesman for Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, which licenses the British Teletubbies in the United States, denied any gay characterization or message in the show.
But also in February, the Virginia-based Christian Action Network (CAN) demanded that TV shows featuring gay characters include an "HC" label for "Homosexual Content, in addition to ratings in place since 1997.
"We want to stop TV shows from pushing a pro-gay agenda on viewers," says CAN media director Phillip Vaught. "We're not saying we don't want gay characters on there. We just want to give parents who don't want their children watching these shows an information tool."
Plus, argues Vaught, the shows aren't teaching tolerance.
"Why are there 25 homosexual characters on TV now?" he asks. "Because it's a trendy thing to do. Where are the obese characters? Where are the ugly characters?"
CAN has already met with the Motion Picture Association of America, which handles film-content ratings. But Vaught says the Federal Communications Commission hasn't met with his organization. He sums up the entertainment industry's response to CAN's proposal for "HC" ratings in one word: "negative."
Plots and possibilities
GLAAD's Seomin dismisses such complaints of detractors, focusing on progress being made on in the entertainment media.
"How we view the world is largely shaped by the media,'' he says. The entertainment media are "powerful and producers know this more than ever."
He notes that GLAAD got an email message from a 14-year-old boy who decided to come out after watching "Dawson's Creek." Jack, on the show, comes out with the support of friends and family members. Even his former girlfriend is understanding.
This may not always be the message. And Seomin says he worries about the chances of less benign reactions to negative depictions of homosexuality. "... when a tortured gay teen commits suicide or gets kicked out of the house. Teens watch this and think that it's their destiny as well," he says.
Some industry observers note that the rise in gay characters on commercial television is likely a matter of coincidence -- but one that offers writers, actors and producers a wealth of largely untapped story material clearly being confronted in real life by viewers. In short, it's a marketable tool, a saleable story element.
As gay audience members see such material, they say, a side effect might be a certain sense of social validation unavailable in the past.
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