In 2012 during a meet the press interview, Vice President Joe Biden had this to say on the subject of same-sex couples, “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand” (Eldridge). Biden, like many other public figures has changed strategies in reaching out to a new generation. Instead of preaching about the change we have had culturally since Stonewall, they focus on what we know – television. The entertainment industry holds a strong social power over the American youth. What television implements into its nightly programming is often implemented into society. American programming has come a long way since pioneers Ricky Vasquez (My So-Called Life) and Ellen Degenerous (Ellen) came out in our living rooms. Nearly every popular network now features ensemble casts that contain homosexual characters – and not the 90’s version of the concept, but the reality. The generalization of the overly flamboyant and very effeminate gay man has now become a part of television history and is no longer television reality.
On September 8th, 1994 ABC broadcast the My So-Called Life episode “Guns and Gossip.” Those sitting down to watch the show had no idea they were about to watch television history. Openly bisexual (and later homosexual) character Rickie takes the blame for a gun that went off in school; although, he was not the one to bring the firearm. His reasoning for doing so was to let word get around that he carried a weapon. He wanted this piece of gossip to spread so that those who bullied him would maybe become apprehensive and leave him alone (Tanner, MSCL). The reason this episode would become so iconic is because it was the first television program to focus on the very real problem of homosexual hate crimes. The early 1990’s were plagued by such, with there even being an “Anti-Gay Serial Killer” being on the loose in Georgia (Gary Ray Bowles). There were also a large number of adolescent suicides due to bullying for sexual orientation. The number of fatalities from self-inflicted harm and homicides from 1990 through 1994 within America is hundreds (Vassar, 1999). This one episode made the public listen. It took a very serious issue that wasn’t receiving enough media attention and put it on blast. Within the gay community – the televised episode was still appreciated – however, the effeminate generalization was made even larger amongst American culture.
Another popular television show took a role in shaping the generalization of homosexuals in 2007. The Sarah Silverman Program which features an ensemble cast of five. Within the five protagonists, there is a same-sex couple. Sarah Silverman who also wrote and created the show modeled the two men after several gay friends of hers. The characters are shown to be very masculine, not well-dressed, and into rock music and videos. This helped break the trend in television programs by only showing the stereotyped gay man. Although the program was on Comedy Central, the LGBT network LOGO ended up as a second producer for the third season in support of the shows challenging of the gay male stereotype. This was not the only groundbreaking component of how the show featured alternative lifestyles, but it also touched down on same-sex marriage. The show which took place in California poked at the government’s prop 8 in holding off on marriage licenses. On February 25th, 2010 the show broadcast episode “NightMayor.” The episode depicted an uneducated, unconstitutional mayor that was on a warpath against same-sex marriage – putting a ban on it (Harmon, Sarah Silverman). In the episode the same-sex couple was ultimately able to get married (this being the first television show presenting a same-sex marriage); however; it would take three more years after the episode aired for the state of California to overturn prop 8, and start issuing same-sex marriage licenses again. Not only did the Sarah Silverman Program work on eliminating generalizations, but it also took a political stance and used humor to broadcast the very real problems that same-sex couples in America were (and still are) facing.
The United States of Tara aired on Showtime between 2009 and 2011. The show focused around a seemingly normal family, except the mother who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personality disorder). There is her husband, a construction worker, and her two teenagers. One of whom is gay. The interesting thing about the homosexual character in this show – Marshall – is that no one really acknowledges it. It is very nonchalant. The entire family knows, as do his peers, but it is something that has always been that way. Early on in season one the son and father are talking about how the son never really had to “come out.” Everyone just always knew and accepted it (Cody, US of Tara). Just like with any ensemble cast featuring teens, we see them deal with drugs, alcohol, sex and dating. The only difference is that with the male teen, Marshall, we see it from a homosexual’s perspective. The character is also unique in that he is not the stereotypical homosexual male. He is his own identity, and is not characterized by his orientation. The show premiered fifteen years after My So-Called Life was broadcast, and in that time television has finally progressed to represent that reality of being a homosexual in today’s society. Diablo Cody (writer of United States of Tara) has received praise from critics for her seemingly obvious and truly realistic, but never-done-before portrayal of a teenage homosexual in America.
I’ve been fortunate in that I have grown up in a progressive city in progressive times. I can’t help but wonder had I been born a homosexual male in another city or another time what my life might have been like. Sure people have made me subject of generalizations by assuming that I must like pop music and must sleep around. It is not uncommon for me to hear statements like, “you’re not like most gay guys.” I never know how to take this. I know plenty of queer people and not one of them is exactly the same – as goes for heterosexual people. Occasionally I have been picked on for what I am, but unlike Rickie Vasquez, I never felt the need to make people thing I possessed a gun. It would seem my adolescence would most resemble Marshalls – it being just a part of who I am. I’ve had many friends tell me that I am their first homosexual friend, or that they didn’t know any gay people until college. These people were never uncomfortable with me. They never challenged who I am and what my beliefs are. I can’t help but think pop culture had a part in the wider range of acceptance for homosexuals. Just this year Queen Latifa took the stage at the Grammy Music Awards and in front of thousands of cheering strangers, she married dozens of couples – some of whom were same-sex. Had television not presented homosexuality in the diverse ways it has over the past two decades, I don’t think as much change would have occurred. Television isn’t entirely responsible for our country becoming more progressive in terms of sexuality, but over the past two decades it has certainly helped in presenting homosexuality accurately.
Eldridge, David. “Biden ‘Comfortable’ with Gay Marriage, Cites ‘Will & Grace’. Washington Times.
6 May 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Unknown. A partial listing of US men and women murdered in “anti-gay” hate crimes between 1992 and 1994. Vassar College. 2 April 1999. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
“Guns and Gossip.” My So-Called Life: The Complete Series. Writ. Justin Tanner. Dir. Marshall Herskovitz.
Shout! Factory, 2007. DVD.
“Resolutions.” My So-Called Life: The Complete Series. Writ. Patrick Norris. Dir. Ellen Herman.
Shout! Factory, 2007. DVD.
“Pilot.” The United States of Tara: Season One. Writ. Diablo Cody. Dir. Craig Gillespie. Showtime Ent.,
“NightMayor.” The Sarah Silverman Program: Complete Season Three. Writ. Dan Harmon. Dir. Dan
Sterling. Comedy Central., 2009. DVD.