- They Should Suffer Like the Rest of Us:Queer Equality in Narrative Mediocrity
As I prepared to write this piece, I found myself so biased and jaded by decades of personal kvetching, soapboxing, and writing about the ways in which gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals (GLBTs) have been systematically omitted, vilified, marginalized, and/or homogenized on mainstream television, that my knee-jerk reactions took over my thought process. I decided that 2010 was the time for me to reapproach the issue, perhaps with a bit of distance. I determined to put the soapbox away for this project, step back, glance across the dial, and assess what was occurring with regard to the writing of GLBT characters in American television.
Just how does American television write the millennial queer? I found the answer to be most aptly summed up by a magnet hanging on my refrigerator: "Let gay people marry. They should suffer like the rest of us." In short, I think TV writers are writing just as pre-posterously, wonderfully, formulaically, and at times just plain badly for GLBTs as they are for everyone else. Stereotyped gays, overrepresented young and white gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and feuding queer couples abound, but check out the straights on the tube and you'll find that they look pretty similar.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has been declaring for the last fourteen years exactly who has found their way onto the television lineup and who is still missing. Wholly dedicated to the statistics, GLAAD continues to delineate the percentages of GLBTs on network, cable, and premium cable channels. They break down numbers with regard to gender, sexual identification, and race and ethnicity. The commentary in their study of the 2009–2010 prime-time season celebrates new characters and laments a drop in numbers.1 [End Page 139] What it does not overtly address is that things are rough all over. The fact is that despite an evolving televisual landscape, an increase in generic hybridity, and a surge in winding and complex narratives, much of television remains relatively static and predictable. Established character types abound: gay, straight, white, African American, Asian, young hottie, ancient sage, and so on. More often than not, television writing gives the viewer what he or she expects, and this kind of predictability is not very different in the case of GLBTs.
Although shows such as The L Word (Showtime, 2004–2009), Dirty Sexy Money (ABC, 2007–2009), and Ugly Betty (ABC, 2006–2010) momentarily provided bright lights of trans representation on TV, for one reason or another each dropped the ball. On both a positive and negative note, "we are everywhere." In today's American television landscape, GLB characters are cropping up across the dial and across genres. Writers are presenting queer characters outside the bounds of premium cable and the "very special" episode. Indeed, it appears that the powers that be have recognized the economic value of queer characters across the dial.
GLBs have surely flourished on premium cable, but have managed to avoid isolation in specialty venues targeting only GLBTs with culturally edgy fare. In fact, at times the expected specialty venues are exactly where writers fall short of developing nuanced GLB characters. Perhaps to the benefit of television writers and viewers, Logo has failed to emerge as the promised utopia for television's gays. With shortcomings similar to BET, Logo relies largely on off-network programming for its fictional, scripted content.2 Aside from its original African American dramedy Noah's Arc (2005–2006), lesbian comedy Exes and Ohs (2007, 2010), and single-season sitcom Sordid Lives: The Series (2008), the network relies on reruns of shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997–2001; UPN, 2002–2003), Queer as Folk (Showtime, 2000–2005), and Wonderfalls (Fox, 2004) for its queer-themed content. Dynamic and original queer writing, strike one.
In light of Logo's failings, one might expect the other "quality" networks to step up to the plate. This has not necessarily been the case. Many consider HBO the hot spot for edgy sexualized content. Regardless, the network with a history of priding itself on what Jeffrey P. Jones...