BY JENNIFER WALDKIRCH
As one of the most common forms of mass media, television both creates and reflects American culture and society. Beginning in the 1940s, American broadcasting revolutionized the distribution of information by bringing the audiovisual format to average homes. By 1955, television sets were an important fixture in half of all American households. In this new environment, the concept of the idyllic American family was commercialized and refined. Families gathered around their television sets to watch black and white shows featuring perfect families with traditional family values. The show Leave it to Beaver, created in 1957, was a prime example of the suburban family, featuring a stern but loving father, a doting housewife, an athletic older brother, and a naive but endearing young boy named Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver. In the 50s, the prevalence of the heteronormative television family created a vast void in which sexual minorities remained unmentioned. It wasn’t until 1975, when a short-lived sitcom called Hot I Baltimore featured the first gay couple on television. Finally, in 1991, the first kiss between a gay couple on network television aired on L.A. Law. Visibility of the LGBTQ community in television has steadily increased since this time, but portrayals have often been fraught with cheap gay jokes that invalidate and dehumanize gay characters.
One of the first popular shows to feature a gay wedding was Friends in a 1996 episode entitled, “The One With the Lesbian Wedding.” The two female characters, Carol and Susan, remained supporting characters throughout the show’s ten year run. Friends was one of the first shows to frequently acknowledge the existence of the LGBTQ community. However, as some have pointed out, mentions of homosexuality were often derogatory. These jokes are so prevalent that YouTube user Tijana Mamula, created a 50 minute compilation video of all the gay jokes in the ten seasons. Gay panic was a frequent joke on the show. Main characters like Ross, Joey, and Chandler would often follow moments of physical contact with one another in fits of revulsion, uttering equivalents of “no homo.” Chandler, a straight character often mistaken as a gay man, was constantly teased for being too effeminate. Perhaps most cringeworthy of all was the handling of Chandler’s transgender parent, a woman who is never referred to by anything other than the male name, “Charles.” At Chandler and Monica’s wedding, her bitter ex-wife says to her, “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” a cruel line that largely minimizes the experiences of transgender people but gets a large laugh from the studio audience. One might argue that these jokes were an attempt to point out the ridiculousness of male insecurities. Yet there was often very little context to suggest that writers were aiming for anything other than raunchy one-liners.
Perhaps the most significant stride made for LGBTQ visibility in the 90s happened during a 1997 episode on Ellen DeGeneres’s show Ellen, called “The Puppy Episode.” Just two weeks after the actress had come out in TIME Magazine in an issue titled, “Yep, I’m Gay,” Ellen the character came out as a lesbian in the fourth season. The episode had enormously high ratings and won multiple awards, spurring ABC to pick it up for the fifth season. However, during this season, ABC had prefaced each episode with a parental advisory warning, a move DeGeneres strongly condemned, saying, “It was like this voice like you’re entering some kind of radiation center. It was very offensive, and you don’t think that’s going to affect ratings?” Ellen was soon condemned by critics who said the show focused too heavily on gay issues and was cancelled after the fifth season. While television creators like Ellen DeGeneres were eager to bring LGBTQ issues to the forefront of American culture, networks still believed American society was not ready.
In the 2000s, LGBTQ visibility steadily increased. In 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted Willow, a main character, meet and enter into a lesbian relationship with another woman, Tara. Amber Benson, who played the role of Tara, said in an interview that the show “brought [gayness] into the mainstream and said it’s OK to be who you are. It doesn’t matter who you fall in love with.” In 2004, Showtime debuted the show The L Word, a show almost entirely devoted to exploring the lesbian experience. While LGBTQ characters have become a staple in many shows in the new millennium, they sometimes remain more tokenized than complexly explored. In 2009, Modern Family aired on ABC, a show propagating the idea that modern families were no longer the idyllic vision seen in Leave it to Beaver. Heavily featured on the show are a gay married couple, Mitchell Pritchett and Cameron Tucker. The show certainly has championed gay marriage, but Mitchell and Cameron often fall into heteronormative characterization. Cameron is effeminate and emotional while Mitchell is uptight and manish, often embarrassed by Cameron’s flamboyant nature. These characters often fail to move past gay stereotypes into fully realized human beings.
As society has progressed its ideas on sexuality, television has tried to adapt. Sometimes showmakers are at the helm of these changes, pushing to create television characters that reflect the diverse American population and sometimes they are lagging behind, trying desperately to sell their product to an increasingly progressive audience. In this mix of both inventiveness and corporate pandering, we see shows that often just miss their mark. Still, there is hope that there will be more shows that accurately capture the LGBTQ experience. Transparent, a new show on Amazon Prime about a trans woman coming out to her family, has been hailed by some critics as a bold push to bring visibility to the trans community. Shows like Transparent may have a lasting impact on the way the viewing public understands transgender issues. It is important that these trends continue and directors take note of the humanizing way in which LGBTQ characters are portrayed.