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Will we ever see flawed gay characters on American television[*]?

In today’s Morning Jolt today (available by subscription), Jim Geraghty reflects on “the latest offering from the Family Channel”, a drama called “The Fosters” featuring an interracial lesbian couple raising a “brood of adopted, biological and foster children.”

“After watching the pilot, where the parents come across so saintly,” Geraghty suspects . . .

. . . that the writers will be terrified about portraying them with any flaws, either because they’ll be afraid they’re portraying gay parents negatively, or because they fear their audience will be even momentarily repelled by characters that the entire show’s purpose is to get you to love and accept.

In other words, if Hollywood is afraid to portray a gay character as human, with strengths and failings, moments of character and moments of weakness, and so on . . . are they really being all that groundbreaking or brave or honest in their creation?

Reading that concluding question, I recalled an essay that both Bruce and some eaders shared with me, Bret Easton Ellis’s overlong, but insightful rant, “In the Reign of the Gay Magical Elves,” where the novelist also wondered about Hollywood’s depiction of gays:

The reign of The Gay Man as Magical Elf, who whenever he comes out appears before us as some kind of saintly E.T. whose sole purpose is to be put in the position of reminding us only about Tolerance and Our Own Prejudices and To Feel Good About Ourselves and to be a symbol instead of just being a gay dude, is—lamentably—still in media play.

. . . .

Where’s the gay dude who makes crude jokes about other gays in the media (as straight dudes do of each other constantly) or express their hopelessness in seeing Modern Family being rewarded for its depiction of gays, a show where a heterosexual plays the most simpering ka-ween on TV and Wins. Emmys. For. It?  . . . . But being “real” and “human” (i.e. flawed) is not necessarily what The Gay Gatekeepers want straight culture to see.

Interesting how the views of a conservative pundit and a non-conservative gay iconoclast parallel each other.

(If you have time, Ellis’s piece is a fun read and has a bit of a libertarian flavor; he does not dispute GLAAD’s decision to disinvite him from their media awards shindig, offering that “they’re allowed to invite or disinvite anyone they want to.”)

*UPDATE: As per the below, seems the answer is “Yes”:

FROM THE COMMENTS:  Nick reports that one show has depicted flawed gay character and asks an important question:

FWIW, I think the most evenhanded treatment of gay characters on a TV show came from The Wire. Kima Griggs, an out lesbian, was a good cop who over the course of the series, was addicted to hunt of the suspects and lost a partner and child to breakup. Same with Omar, the shotgun-toting robber of drug dealers. He happened to be gay. Omar was a morally reprehensible yet fascinating character first, and gay somewhere down the line.

. . . .

With respect to “The Fosters” – I could care less if they’re lesbians. I mean, the first question we should ask is if the show is any good? Well written? Good acting? Compelling storyline? Do the characters make me empathize with them?

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37 Comments

  1. Yeah, well, Teh Gheys are a pretty neurotic, oversensitive lot and any gay character portrayed in negative way at all will lead to mass hissy fits.

    Too bad…

    Comment by V the K — June 6, 2013 @ 1:30 pm - June 6, 2013

  2. Also, remember, in Hollywood, there are only two acceptable villains:

    1. Nazis/White Supemacists
    2. Aliens

    All other creeds, peoples, and nationalities are incapable of committing villainy.

    Comment by V the K — June 6, 2013 @ 1:32 pm - June 6, 2013

  3. V, almost but not quite. White males in general make acceptable villains, in Hollywood’s book. Especially businessmen. And Republicans.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — June 6, 2013 @ 1:36 pm - June 6, 2013

  4. Imho, there already has been a flawed gay character on television. Jack on “Will and Grace” was the quintessential, stereotypical “queen” who was always made to look the fool. He was the Magical Elf, I guess.

    Comment by Mary — June 6, 2013 @ 1:43 pm - June 6, 2013

  5. As a straight guy – gay characters bother me. Not because they’re gay, but because they’re the effete flamboyant types that really have no depth other than them being gay. There’s no reason to care about them.

    FWIW, I think the most evenhanded treatment of gay characters on a TV show came from The Wire. Kima Griggs, an out lesbian, was a good cop who over the course of the series, was addicted to hunt of the suspects and lost a partner and child to breakup. Same with Omar, the shotgun-toting robber of drug dealers. He happened to be gay. Omar was a morally reprehensible yet fascinating character first, and gay somewhere down the line.

    Comment by Nick — June 6, 2013 @ 1:52 pm - June 6, 2013

  6. Nick, no wonder the Wire gets such great reviews; those two characters sounds most compelling. . .

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — June 6, 2013 @ 1:58 pm - June 6, 2013

  7. I don’t care if characters are gay. What I want to see/watch are good characters. I want to see characters with flaws in general.

    Dan, the first season is worth watching for sure. There’s a great monologue with Kima telling her girlfriend and her lesbian friends about an event with her as a rookie cop where she chased a guy down and caught him and after a struggle, cuffed him and felt proud for it. I don’t do it justice, but it was good.

    With respect to “The Fosters” – I could care less if they’re lesbians. I mean, the first question we should ask is if the show is any good? Well written? Good acting? Compelling storyline? Do the characters make me empathize with them?

    Comment by Nick — June 6, 2013 @ 2:11 pm - June 6, 2013

  8. Sam Adama in Caprica. Loving Husband, doting Uncle, Mafia boss. I found him complelling because of his flaws.

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 6, 2013 @ 4:30 pm - June 6, 2013

  9. As a straight guy – gay characters bother me. Not because they’re gay, but because they’re the effete flamboyant types that really have no depth other than them being gay. There’s no reason to care about them.

    That is the more consistent problem with portrayals of gays on TV. The only “gay” villain I could think of off the top of my head was “Lost In Space” Dr. Smith! 🙂

    And Dan, “Shirley” you don’t ant to see more of that!!!!

    Comment by Sonicfrog — June 6, 2013 @ 5:10 pm - June 6, 2013

  10. Apparently, on the show “Dexter”, there IS a gay villain.

    Though “Dexter” villain Isaak Sirko (Ray Stevenson) reveals his homosexuality to Dexter — and becomes a more interesting character in the process

    How does being a “gay villain” make the character more interesting? Maybe it does…. Who knows. I don’t watch the show, so I can’t say.

    But that seems like a silly statement.

    There was a gayish villain on “Burn Notice” too, a show I have watched. But I don’t remember him “coming out” or anything. It was implied though I think.

    “Casino Royal” was a kick-ass movie, but this bit of interview from the previous article with one of the screen writers losses me:

    Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva never explicitly tells Bond he is gay. We gather that he is gay or bisexual from the way he unbuttons Bond’s shirt, strokes his legs and chest, and propositions him.

    Today’s Bond isn’t a homophobe. Rather than express disgust when Silva suggests there’s a first time for everything, Bond replies, “What makes you think it’s my first time?”

    John Logan, the gay screenwriter who wrote the exchange, has said it simply plays off of the homoeroticism of countless past Bond confrontations. Remember that laser that Auric Goldfinger aimed at Bond’s groin? Or the scrotum torture of “Casino Royale”?

    Did I miss something? When did having a laser aimed at your groin, or having a sack of potatoes repeatedly smashed into your balls become erotic in ANY way? Especially the last one. In Game Of Thrones, one guy just got his weenie chopped off. I suppose that’s “homoerotic” too!

    PS. No. They didn’t show it. But there was no doubt it was about to happen.

    Comment by Sonicfrog — June 6, 2013 @ 5:26 pm - June 6, 2013

  11. Sonic,

    Google CBT.

    On second thought you might not want to.

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 6, 2013 @ 5:28 pm - June 6, 2013

  12. There’s an episode of the old Mary Tyler Moore show from the early seventies (you can watch it for free on Hulu) in which a character is revealed to be gay. It’s treated in a very casual, matter-of-fact matter; the character is neither scorned nor celebrated for his sexual orientation.

    I daresay it seems like 1973 had a more enlightened attitude toward sexual orientation then 2013.

    Comment by V the K — June 6, 2013 @ 6:14 pm - June 6, 2013

  13. http://www.hulu.com/watch/25331

    Comment by V the K — June 6, 2013 @ 6:14 pm - June 6, 2013

  14. The actress, who became an LGBT icon thanks to her unforgettable role as Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was recently on on The Doctors, where she revealed her favorite professional memory. Harper was the first person ever to mention the word “gay” on network television, in the now-legendary MTM episode “My Brother’s Keeper.”

    “I loved doing that episode,” Harper said during an interview with The Advocate in 2006. “Do you know, when I said that line ‘He’s gay,’ we got the biggest laugh ever on the show? I mean, this was the ’70s, long before Will & Grace or Ellen; there really weren’t gay characters on television back then. The ­audience laughed and cheered for over a minute. They had to take most of the audience response out for the broadcast cut. It was amazing. That was an extremely well-written episode — we were blessed with brilliant writing on that show.”
    http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/people/2013/03/11/valerie-harper-says-gay-scene-mary-tyler-moore-show-was-her

    Comment by rusty — June 6, 2013 @ 6:19 pm - June 6, 2013

  15. Harper was the first person ever to mention the word “gay” on network television

    Heh. I just Googled for it, and Georgette’s line that she and Ted “look like the top of a gay wedding cake” in their matching tuxes did come a few seasons later in the show.

    Comment by Throbert McGee — June 6, 2013 @ 8:30 pm - June 6, 2013

  16. Sonic,

    Google CBT.

    On second thought you might not want to.

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 6, 2013

    Why wouldn’t I want to google cognitive behavioral therapy?????

    Comment by Sonicfrog — June 6, 2013 @ 8:50 pm - June 6, 2013

  17. I would also point out that in the two-season Tony Randall series Love, Sidney in the early ’80s, the title character is “neither scorned nor celebrated” for his homosexuality — he’s a 50-something gay man who takes a single mom and her daughter into his household, and becomes a sort of paternal figure in the little girl’s life.

    (Admittedly, Sidney’s orientation was seldom mentioned as matter-of-factly as in the MTM episode, and his only confirmed relationship with another man had occurred prior to the timeframe of the show. Still, it was subtly clear that being gay was a part of his overall identity.)

    And, incidentally, the Jodie Dallas character on Soap was arguably a “flawed” gay man insofar as he couldn’t make up his mind at various times whether he was homo, bi, or trans; went in and out of psychotherapy for depression and other issues; and eventually became convinced that he was actually a 90-year-old Jewish man. (Though perhaps Jodie doesn’t count as a “flawed gay character” because the show was deliberately parodying the utter unrealism of soap opera conventions.)

    Comment by Throbert McGee — June 6, 2013 @ 8:53 pm - June 6, 2013

  18. Some great ones up above (I forgot about Dexter, and don’t think I made it that far into Caprica). Still, the list is hardly short:

    These first ones admittedly are British crossovers, but let’s see–

    Does Torchwood count? The last “Season” was an American-Brit joint production. Admittedly, Mr. Barrowman’s character is not “Gay” but rather “Omni”, but pretty much the entire show is an exploration of his character flaws.

    Similarly, Queer as Folk, a soap opera which, by tapping pretty much every single stereotype at least once, exhaustively went through endless mash-ups of when virtue and flaw collide.

    Shameless (I haven’t seen the British version): everyone has issues.

    Meanwhile, while I’m told the Game of Thrones novels don’t develop the same-sex sex anywhere close to how they’re handled in the HBO series, there they are just as messed up as everyone else. You can’t even accuse them of playing Bury Your Gays, since pretty much everyone in the cast ends up in a body bag at some point no matter who they’re banging.

    Rome, the miniseries. I think it was a European production, but I’m still fairly sure it was targeting the American audience. There were no “Gay” characters, since in historical context that wouldn’t really make sense. Even so, homosexuality was portrayed very organically as a part of the cultural fabric, though really for the greater purpose of pressing home the point that “1st Century Roman morality and values are very very different than what you are used to.” (Actual historical accuracy irrelevant)

    Pure Americana: The Simpsons. You could argue just how much Weyland Smithers plays the Magic Elf, but contrast Marge’s sister (I forget which one, Patty?)

    We could go on and on.

    Oh, one honorable cinema mention. There was a really low budget indie Call of Cthulhu a few years ago where the protagonist happened to be gay. Had a minor plot tie-in, but otherwise pretty much was just there and didn’t have much to do with anything. Certainly didn’t save anyone, but that’s Lovecraft for ya’.

    Comment by Sathar — June 6, 2013 @ 9:08 pm - June 6, 2013

  19. Going back to the 70s, All in the Family had one episode with two guys, one effeminate and campy, and the other a butch, jock type. Of course, everyone assumed the effeminate one was gay and the butch guy was straight. Eventually, their true sexual orientations were revealed (although Archie could never accept the butch guy was gay).

    Dan’s point is well-taken. We’re not at the point where gay characters as ordinary as their straight counterparts, including the bad stuff. But it’s progress from the 80s where it seemed that every gay character either had AIDS, was shunned from their family, or both.

    Comment by Pat — June 6, 2013 @ 9:26 pm - June 6, 2013

  20. Don’t forget one of my guilty-favorites of the Excessive 70s; Steven Carrington version 1.0 (Al Corley) and Steven Carrington version 2.0 (Jack Coleman) from Dynasty….even though they fudged a bit and made Steven 2.0 reluctantly bisexual in the clutches of Heather Locklear..

    Comment by Ted B. (Charging Rhino) — June 6, 2013 @ 9:54 pm - June 6, 2013

  21. I was flipping through channels last night and came across an episode of TJ Hooker of all things and it had a scene where the cops were undercover in a nightclub and this guy comes up and hits on the young cop character. The other cop characters just had a chuckle over it and it wasn’t a big deal. This was 1983. I caught an episode of Barney Miller and it featured a gay cop – forget the year but it was early 80s.

    Also saw an episode of Golden Girls where Blanche’s brother ends up being gay and she came to terms with it and it wasn’t a big deal – year 1986.

    Like others have mentioned, it didn’t seem to be a real big deal in the 70s and 80s.

    I think with AIDS and heading through the 90s, portrayals became less casual and more sexualized and “in your face.” I’m starting to wonder if that’s when the culture turned and you started to see a real anti-gay backlash.

    Comment by Chris H — June 6, 2013 @ 10:27 pm - June 6, 2013

  22. http://onemillionmoms.com/issues/abc-continues-to-produce-anti-family-programs/

    Obviously, ABC has lost their minds. They haven’t let up so neither will we. ABC’s Family Channel has several anti-family programs, and they are planning on adding to that growing list. ABC Family has approved a series pilot from Jennifer Lopez’s production company, Nuyorican, about a lesbian couple and their diverse family. Many families have already discovered that ABC Family Channel is anything but family-friendly. But because of family being part of the network’s name, we thought a warning should still be sent out for anyone who continues to watch the channel. A premiere date has not been set, but One Million Moms wanted to sound the alarm about this new series. It will be airing on the network soon unless we do something about it. They are in the beginning stages.

    ABC Family reported the comedy-drama pilot, working with the title “The Fosters,” is about two women raising a “21st century,” multi-ethnic mix of foster and biological kids. While foster care and adoption is a wonderful thing and the Bible does teach us to help orphans, this program is attempting to redefine marriage and family by having two moms raise these children together. One Million Moms is not sure how the explanation will be given on how the biological children were conceived. None of this material is acceptable content for a family show.

    Hollywood is continuing to push an agenda that homosexuality is acceptable when scripture states clearly it is a sin. As Christians, the Bible also says that we must speak up against sin. If we remain silent then we are guilty of sin also.

    Comment by rusty — June 7, 2013 @ 12:44 am - June 7, 2013

  23. So the show is about a gay version of Michelle Bachmann?

    Comment by Mitch — June 7, 2013 @ 1:45 am - June 7, 2013

  24. So Mitch is arguing that Michelle Backman is an individual without any flaws?

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 7, 2013 @ 7:02 am - June 7, 2013

  25. I think we left the rails, however,

    Pat, good one! Frasier kinda did the real life version where the flamboyant, effeminate coworker was played by an openly straight actor, and the butch, masculine coworker by a gay actor.

    Comment by Sathar — June 7, 2013 @ 7:56 am - June 7, 2013

  26. Strike that, I failed to do the research. The other actor is openly gay, too.

    Comment by Sathar — June 7, 2013 @ 8:00 am - June 7, 2013

  27. Aside, from my favourite James Bond Movie, Diamonds are Forever, per the IMDB.

    During a late 1990s airing of the movie on TBS’s Dinner and A Movie, Bruce Glover recalled that while filming their scenes together, he and Putter Smith had Sean Connery convinced that the two were actually openly homosexual. Glover added that a few years later while on an airline flight he was flirting with a female flight attendant, and suddenly heard a Sottish accented voice saying “You son of a bitch…” Glover turned around and saw the man was Connery.

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 7, 2013 @ 9:06 am - June 7, 2013

  28. Livewire: I’ve always thought it would be pretty awesome if they “rebooted” the Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd characters as villains for the 21st century James Bond.

    I mean, if they wanna give “gay relevance” to the franchise, bringing in a pair of homo-assassins would certainly much less stupid than abruptly revealing after half a century of the franchise that Bond has a secret bi side!

    P.S. Better yet — bring back Wint and Kidd, plus “Bambi & Thumper” (as a lesbian couple) as the heads of an All-LGBT International Terror Organization.

    Comment by Throbert McGee — June 7, 2013 @ 11:55 am - June 7, 2013

  29. Well of course Diamonds are Forever is as old as I am, and I blame my fixation on redheads on the (still!) lovely Ms. St John…

    But to be honest, I never made the connection that they were gay until my 20’s. Small town upbringing. I just liked their gallows humor.

    Besides, if they did Bambi and Thumper today, Disney would sue.

    Comment by The_Livewire — June 7, 2013 @ 1:13 pm - June 7, 2013

  30. Throbert, Archer already did the homo-assassin thing and did it very well in the episode “Honey Pot.”

    http://youtu.be/r8WD1I7i-KU

    Comment by V the K — June 7, 2013 @ 1:17 pm - June 7, 2013

  31. But to be honest, I never made the connection that they were gay until my 20′s.

    I was the same with the Bugs Bunny hairdresser bit in “Hair-Raising Hair”. i was at work on lunch break, and that cartoon was on the TV. I think i screamed “OMG…. Bugs is doing gay schtick” or something! I’ve known I was gay since I was 6 or 7, and was stunned that in all these years I had never noticed it before.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acfx4orazEk

    Comment by Sonicfrog — June 7, 2013 @ 6:35 pm - June 7, 2013

  32. I wouldn’t consider any of the Walkers from Brothers and Sisters to be without problems, including the gays. And I only saw a few episodes of Desperate Houswives, but I think there was a gay son who was a little shite.

    And someone already mentioned Queer as Folk… they all had issues. From the porn maker, to the star in the porn, to all the drug use. And there was even the “Gay as Blazes” episode, and its commentary on this very issue.

    I also believe it is too early to judge The Fosters. How many episodes have been aired? I haven’t watched it, have never watched Modern Family, and saw only a couple episodes of The Newlyweds. The Newlyweds deserved to be cancelled.

    Comment by Jason M — June 7, 2013 @ 8:46 pm - June 7, 2013

  33. Thanks to all who provided information; you do Vito Russo proud!

    I don’t think we will be able to acheive Virginia Slims status until there is a show where all the LGBTQXYZ characters are flawed [set with current day mores in mind; not like the homophobic portrayals of the 70s and earlier] and organizations such as GLAAD won’t have a “One Million Moms”-style hissy fit over it.

    If done right, it would be a sheer delight for all of us gay iconoclasts to watch.

    Comment by RSG — June 8, 2013 @ 5:16 am - June 8, 2013

  34. Frasier kinda did the real life version

    Every last actor on Frasier are attracted to men, except, of course, Kelsey. He’s straight. And, boy, does he have a type. How many times has he been married? And kids? Lost count.

    And one more thing: you can argue the entertainment world is populated with magical gay elves without quoting Bret Easton Ellis. Good grief.

    Comment by VS — June 8, 2013 @ 2:40 pm - June 8, 2013

  35. And one more thing: you can argue the entertainment world is populated with magical gay elves without quoting Bret Easton Ellis. Good grief.

    Except, of course, that the article mentioning the term was written by the aforementioned Ellis. (I won’t go as far to say he coined the term, because I don’t know if he did or not.)

    Comment by RSG — June 8, 2013 @ 7:20 pm - June 8, 2013

  36. If he wants credit for modifying the magical Negro term, than so be it. Zero points for originality.

    Comment by VS — June 8, 2013 @ 9:29 pm - June 8, 2013

  37. I propose a sitcom based upon “Reflections in a Golden Eye”. Any takers? C’mon, it’ll be like ‘Last House on the Left’ but without the jokes.

    Comment by Ignatius — June 9, 2013 @ 11:17 am - June 9, 2013

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