Kylo-Patrick Hart. Journal of Men’s Studies. Volume 9, Issue 1. October 31, 2000.
This essay examines the representation of gay men on American television programs from the late 1960s to the present. It explores the impact of the process of media representation on the lived realities of gay males past and present, revealing not only how much progress has been made in recent decades regarding the representation of gay men on American television, but also how much progress has yet to be made. Such representations are examined briefly in the context of numerous television shows (including 21 Jump Street; All My Children; Dawson’s Creek; Leg Work; Marcus Welby, M.D.; and Will & Grace) and more extensively with regard to three popular Fox prime-time series (Beverly Hills, 90210; Melrose Place; and Party of Five).
At the start of the 1998-99 television season, NBC made television history with the premiere of Will & Grace, its new situation comedy featuring prime-time television’s first gay male lead character. The show pairs Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a successful gay Manhattan lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), an interior designer, as soulmates who support each other through happy times and sadder ones, such as the process of nursing broken hearts. Nielsen ratings reveal that audience members have responded favorably to this pairing as well as to Will’s gay friend, Jack, played by Sean Hayes (“Culture,” 1999). What is perhaps most noteworthy about the portrayal of these two gay male characters to date, however, is the striking contrast between the two: Will remains so low-key about his sexual orientation that it has become almost inconsequential to the show, while Jack is consistently presented as the stereotypical flamboyant queen. In other words, Will and Jack are extreme opposites on the spectrum of possible media representations of gay men. Is it true, as many critics claim, that Jack is too gay and Will is not gay enough (“Culture,” 1999)? Is it more accurate to argue, as others have, that these two characters simply represent the diversity of personality types that exist within the gay community?
In the present essay, I attempt to answer the following question: What sorts of criteria can be used to assess the representation of gay men on American television programs, whether in Will & Grace or elsewhere? To do so, I first define briefly the process of media representation and the potential social ramifications of this process. Next, I provide an overview of the various ways gay men have been represented on American television over the past several decades. Finally, to explore the process of representing gay men in specific television shows more fully, I end with a more detailed discussion of the representation of gay men in Fox prime time during the decade of the 1990s and a series of conclusions that should be drawn from the information presented. Throughout this essay, the phrase “American television” refers to the collective body of television programming produced in the United States and made available to viewers nationwide, which depicts U.S. American culture, stars primarily U.S. actors, and is presented in the English language.
What Is Media Representation?
The phrase “media representation” refers to the ways that members of various social groups are differentially presented in mass media offerings, which in turn influence the ways audience members of those media offerings perceive and respond to members of the groups represented. Because mainstream media offerings are typically presented to audience members as “transparent mediators of reality” in the social world, they regularly contribute to the social “knowledge” media users cultivate about the “real world” and the wide range of individuals who live there (Gross, 1994, p. 144).
As Gross (1994) has noted, representation in the mediated “reality” of American popular culture is in itself an exercise of power, because non-representation maintains the powerless, marginalized status of groups that lack significant material or political power bases. He elaborates:
Those who are at the bottom of the various power hierarchies will be kept in their place in part through their relative invisibility; this is a form of symbolic annihilation. When groups or perspectives do attain visibility, the manner of that representation will reflect the biases and interests of those elites who define the public agenda. And these elites are mostly white, mostly middle-aged, mostly male, mostly middle- and upper-middle class, and (at least in public) entirely heterosexual. (p. 143)
The phenomenon of symbolic annihilation, therefore, pertains to the historical non-representation or under-representation of specific groups by the media—and/or to the trivialization of those groups when and if they infrequently appear—as a result of decisions by the powers-that-be at media outlets regarding what sorts of groups will and will not be represented in American media offerings and how they will be represented.
Clark (1969) identified four chronological stages of media representation of social groups. During the first stage, nonrecognition, the group simply does not appear at all in media offerings. Viewers from other cultures, therefore, would never know that members of that group exist in American culture if they receive all of their information about the United States through mass media channels. Once a specific group begins to be represented in media offerings, it enters the second stage: ridicule. During this stage of representation, the group is stereotyped and its members are frequently presented as being “buffoons,” as were African Americans in the early television program Amos ‘n’ Andy or, more recently, with the character J. J. on Good Times. During the third stage of representation, regulation, members of the social group are presented as protectors of the existing social order, such as police officers and detectives. Finally, during the fourth and final stage of representation as identified by Clark—respect—members of the social group are presented in the complete range of roles, both positive and negative, that their members actually occupy in real life. Stereotypical characters may still appear during this stage, but they are part of a wide range of other characters from the same social group; as such, they are not considered to be as harmful to the process of social constructionism as are stereotypical characters when only a handful of characters representing the social group are present in the media overall.
Media representation matters because every media user can identify components of his or her “knowledge” of the social world that derive either wholly or partially from media representations, fictional or otherwise (Gross, 1994). This reality is especially relevant in the case of media representations of gay men on American television, since many heterosexual Americans do not (knowingly) interact with gay men on a regular basis and may, therefore, rely heavily on the mass media for their knowledge of gay men and the gay lifestyle.
Media representation also matters because representation is a form of social action, involving the production of meanings that ultimately have real effects. Certainly, although all media representations refer to some object, entity, or group, the semiotic act of producing meaning through the use of verbal and visual signs is far from a simple process with negligible consequences. As Dyer (1993) explains, the way that social groups are treated in media representations is frequently part and parcel of the way they are treated in real life—poverty, harassment, self-hatred, discrimination, and other undesirable outcomes are instituted and solidified by representation. With regard to media representations of gay men specifically, Dyer emphasizes that “representations here and now have real consequences for real people, not just in the way they are treated … but in terms of the way representations delimit and enable what people can be in any given society” (p. 3). So just how positively—and to what extent—have gay men been represented on American television in recent decades? It is that question to which we will now turn our attention.
Representational Overview of Gay Men on American Television
The representation of gay men on American television from the late 1960s to the present has undoubtedly influenced the way the American public thinks about and responds, both socially and politically, to gay men and the issues of greatest relevance and concern to them. Media representations have shaped the way Americans come to understand the phenomenon of homosexuality and, ultimately, they have had a direct bearing on the already complex relationships within and between various social groups in American society (Estrada & Quintero, 1999). As these media representations have become part of the American social agenda, they have contributed significantly to the commonly accepted ways of discussing and considering the status of gay men and their lived realities. Media representations of gay men in recent decades have provided ideological guidance to American audience members, since the codes, conventions, symbols, and visuals they have offered have contributed significantly to the social construction of gay men and to the resulting social ramifications of that construction.
Gay men remained in the nonrecognition stage of representation on American television until the late 1960s, when the nation regularly was being confronted with a host of social issues ranging from racial tensions and race riots to concerns about free love, drug abuse, and abortion. The masses received their first exposure to gay men and the gay lifestyle on national television on March 7, 1967, with the airing of the CBS Reports documentary “The Homosexuals” (Alwood, 1996). The goal of this documentary series was to “delve into social issues that were too controversial for most [other] programs” (Alwood, 1996, p. 69), and an installment about homosexuality promised to catch the public’s attention. To represent the diversity of gay men in America, the producers arranged interviews with a variety of men, such as a sailor, a rodeo rider, a truck driver, and a female impersonator; despite this reality, during the production phase of this documentary, a prominent CBS correspondent referred to the project as the “pity a poor homosexual” show (Alwood, 1996, p. 70). Perhaps that is because some of the interview subjects were shown lying on an analyst’s couch and many others were presented with their faces hidden in the leafy shadows of potted plants, as if they were filled with shame; perhaps it is because the program featured assessments from psychiatrists such as “The fact that somebody’s homosexual … automatically rules out the possibility that he will remain happy for long,” or uncomplimentary self-assessments by gay men such as “I know that inside now I’m sick—I’m not sick just sexually; I’m sick in a lot of ways” (Alwood, 1996, pp. 72-73). A final memorable aspect of the documentary was the stereotypical description of homosexuality offered by CBS correspondent Mike Wallace:
The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in nor capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life—his “love life”—consists of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits, and even on the streets of the city. The pickup—the one-night stand—these are characteristic of the homosexual relationship. And the homosexual prostitute has become a fixture on the downtown streets at night. (quoted in Rothenberg, 1981, p. 7)
With those words, gay men emerged from the nonrecognition stage on American television and entered Clark’s (1969) second stage: ridicule. They remained primarily as objects of ridicule for several years, until the impact of the gay liberation movement increased the visibility of gay men in various social positions nationwide and produced increased levels of social tolerance.
Stereotypes of gay men—as well as derogatory terms such as “homo,” “fag,” “fairy,” and “pansy”—soon became commonly encountered on U.S. talk shows and dramatic series during the gay male ridicule stage. Television producers during the early years of media representation of gay men quite consciously avoided including anything in their programs that appeared to condone homosexuality, for fear of alienating both advertisers and viewers (Alwood, 1996). Jokes and derogatory comments about gay men, in contrast, were considered to be appropriate content in American television programs, as well as entertaining content.
Alwood (1996) points out that NBC’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was the first network television show to approach the subject of gay men and their lifestyles with some regularity by creating in 1970 the stereotypically effeminate character named Bruce, who was subjected to long strings of antigay jokes; within a few years, the show was averaging one joke per program about gay men and gay liberation. He notes further that:
Cracking a dramatic series on television posed a much bigger challenge for [gay] activists…. From 1968 to 1974 the dominant image of gay men on these programs [such as Kojak, M*A*S*H, Police Woman, and Hawaii Five-O] was the limp-wristed effeminate drag queen who walked with a swish and talked in a high-pitched voice….”Who could blame the uneducated viewer who winds up thinking gays are a bunch of people who never work because they spend all their time in bars?” a writer asked in the Advocate. “Who could fault him [or her] for thinking that when gays aren’t mincing around the streets, walking their poodles, and dropping the hankies, they’re mercilessly killing and mutilating each other?” (p. 140)
A 1973 episode of ABC’s prime-time series Marcus Welby, M.D., “The Other Martin Loring,” portrayed homosexuality as a serious illness that subjects gay men to unfulfilling lives, even though such a view was strongly challenged by the American Psychiatric Association that same year (Lyons, 1973). “The Outrage,” another episode of this series that aired the following year, depicted the brutal rape of a junior high school boy by his male science teacher, reviving the old stereotypes that gay men prey on young children and should not be allowed to teach in public schools (Alwood, 1996).
Gay men entered the regulation stage of media representation, as defined by Clark (1969), in the late 1970s with the introduction of a positive gay male character on the police-precinct-based situation comedy Barney Miller; other positive gay characters appeared during this period in the short-lived series The Nancy Walker Show and the longer-running sitcom Alice (Alwood, 1996). By then, the gay liberation movement had revealed the range of positions gay men hold in American society, and “the term ‘gay’ [had been] wrenched away from the older pejorative discourse of ‘homosexuality’” (Watney, 1996, p. 18). Such positive portrayals continued into the 1980s when NBC introduced the situation comedy Love, Sidney, starring Tony Randall. This series, based on a made-for-television movie about a man who had recently broken up with his male lover, almost provided American prime-time television with its first gay male lead character. The network, however, backed away from the character’s homosexuality and deleted all references to it, going so far as to say that the series was not directly related to the movie. Although the character of Sidney was quite a sympathetic one, the series was soon canceled as a result of low ratings.
The positive representational strides achieved by gay men in the late 1970s and early 1980s suffered a series of setbacks in the mid to late 1980s, as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) emerged as a health threat in American society and became representationally linked to gay males. Early on, the condition was referred to as GRID, which stood for “gay-related immunodeficiency” and linked the disease directly with the gay male lifestyle from the earliest days of media coverage (Piontek, 1992). The term AIDS was adopted by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in 1982, but by then the stage had already solidly been set for media representations of AIDS as “a gay plague,” “the price paid for anal intercourse,” “a fascist ploy to destroy homosexuals,” and “a disease that turns fruits into vegetables,” among similar others (Treichler, 1988, pp. 32-33). Such representations persisted even as other risk groups—including intravenous drug users and Haitians who had emigrated to the United States—were added to the list of infected individuals, along with hemophiliacs, the first “innocent victims” (Gross, 1994; Hart, 1999). Gay men who were already stigmatized as “deviant” were further stigmatized as “lethally contagious” and were represented to be a significant health threat to “innocent” individuals in the population at large (Cadwell, 1991, p. 237).
In 1985, NBC’s prime-time entertainment schedule officially represented AIDS as a noteworthy social problem by airing An Early Frost, the made-for-television movie about a young gay lawyer with AIDS who returns home to inform his family about both his sexual orientation and his illness. In 1987, AIDS began working its way into the plots of various prime-time television shows. But, as Netzhammer and Shamp (1994) have pointed out, these televised representations of AIDS were not without their shortcomings:
[T]he constraints imposed on prime-time, episodic television influence the way these programs deal with AIDS. First, the fact that regular characters must be around for next week’s episode usually prevents central characters from becoming infected with a disease that will probably kill them. Second, the economic necessity that forces television series to appeal to the largest possible audience discourages writers from violating societal norms. (p. 92)
As such, these researchers conclude that the treatment of AIDS on prime-time American television has consistently been shaped by a complex system of representational constraints, to the detriment of gay men, who have most commonly been linked with AIDS. Altman (1986) and Colby and Cook (1989) have reached similar conclusions, stressing that television programs of all kinds perpetuated the association between AIDS and gay men by consistently framing AIDS as a gay disease during the period when the disease was being socially constructed for the public, which dramatically affected the public’s conceptualization of AIDS from its emergence to the present day.
In the late 1980s, several prime-time television shows—including 21 Jump Street, Designing Women, The Equalizer, Houston Knights, Leg Work, Midnight Caller, Mr. Belvedere, and A Year in the Life—represented AIDS in individual episodes, and virtually all of them served to solidify the link between gay men and AIDS either explicitly or implicitly (Netzhammer & Shamp, 1994). In one episode of Leg Work, for example, a young gay man with AIDS hires a detective to locate a former male sexual partner, so that he can inform the man to get tested for HIV. As the plot develops, this gay man’s sexual promiscuity is
discussed in the context that he may be spreading AIDS, a strategy that implicitly blames gays for AIDS and the complications it has introduced into modern life…. Leg Work explores a universal concern: the impact of the AIDS epidemic on relationships. However, the episode discusses how AIDS has changed only heterosexual relationships, even though the stimulus for these discussions is an encounter with a gay man. The appearance of these discussions and plot devices subtly makes gays culpable for the spread of AIDS. (Netzhammer & Shamp, 1994, p. 94)
In other words, even though this episode of Leg Work acknowledges that AIDS is a problem that affects everybody, it nevertheless implicitly blames gay men for that reality.
In the AIDS episode of 21 Jump Street, Officer Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) is assigned to guard a male teen with AIDS from harassment by his peers. Although the teen’s father claims that his son is a hemophiliac and contracted HIV/AIDS as a result of a blood transfusion, Hanson eventually learns that the father has lied because he is ashamed of the true cause of his son’s condition. Instead, the teen reveals that he is gay, and that he has never had a blood transfusion nor injected drugs of any kind. This revelation, concealed until the episode’s end, intensifies the inseparability of AIDS and gay males by “accepting the logic of religious fundamentalists—unspeakable acts have brought forth this disease” (Netzhammer & Shamp, 1994, p. 96).
American television programs in the 1990s continued to represent AIDS. Although a few shows have occasionally strived intentionally to break the representational link between gay men and AIDS (such as the AIDS story line on E.R.), many others (including Beverly Hills, 90210, as discussed at length in the next section of this essay) have continued to perpetuate this harmful pattern of media representation. This persistent representational approach has become especially suspect as the decade of the 1990s has progressed and the demographics of Americans being diagnosed with AIDS have undergone dramatic change. Today, reported cases of AIDS resulting from heterosexual transmission of HIV are rising steadily, with heterosexual women, heterosexual African-American men, and heterosexual adolescents now comprising sizable high-risk groups for HIV transmission and AIDS (Tewksbury & Moore, 1997; Wright, 1997). Unfortunately, because the earliest reported cases of AIDS were exclusively among gay men, the representation of AIDS in so many prime-time television offerings since the late 1980s has either explicitly or implicitly linked homosexuality and AIDS, framing AIDS as “a universal problem perpetuated by gays” (Altman, 1986; Netzhammer & Shamp, 1994, p. 92). But as Netzhammer and Shamp (1994) have noted:
Associating homosexuality with AIDS creates and reinforces a specific way of knowing AIDS: as a gay disease. Although consistent with early patterns of HIV-infection, this view of AIDS is at odds with the changing demographics of the AIDS epidemic. As the spread of AIDS in the gay community decreases and transmission in other sectors of the population increases, the validity of such a view is growing tenuous. (p. 103)
Despite such persistent representations of gay men in relation to AIDS, gay men ultimately entered the respect stage of representation on American television, as defined by Clark (1969), in the 1990s. The conservative Reagan-Bush era was drawing to a close, and President Bill Clinton was soon elected to office after actively seeking the support of gay men and lesbians for the first time in the history of presidential politics (McKinney & Pepper, 1999). Gay men achieved wider recognition and greater levels of social tolerance than in the past, and the major network primetime shows began to increasingly represent diverse and inclusive gay male characters that cumulatively reflect the wide range of roles that gay men occupy in American society. In 1990, for example, the drama series thirtysomething introduced two recurring gay male characters who ended up sleeping together and were shown together in bed. In 1992, the daytime soap opera One Life to Live featured a summer story line about a gay teen’s self-discovery of his sexual orientation that culminated in an onscreen scene between the teen and his boyfriend (“Gay and Lesbian Suds,” 1997). In the mid 1990s, the sitcom Roseanne introduced two recurring gay male characters—Roseanne’s business partner Leon (Martin Mull) and his lover Scott (Fred Willard)—who ultimately participated in a wedding ceremony on the show. Beginning in 1995, producers of the daytime soap opera All My Children introduced several gay characters—high school history teacher, Michael Delaney (Chris Bruno); high school student, Kevin Sheffield (Ben Jorgensen); television station stage manager, Rudy (Lance Baldwin); and orthopedic specialist, Dr. Brad Phillips (Daniel McDonald)—and went on to feature them in groundbreaking story lines, including the burgeoning romantic relationship between Michael and Brad that included a New Year’s Eve proposal and the men establishing a joint life and home together (Kent, 1997).
By the time the ABC sitcom Ellen made television history in 1997 by introducing the first lesbian lead character on a prime-time series, regular and recurring gay male characters were present on a variety of prime-time shows, including Chicago Hope, Cybill, Frasier, Melrose Place, Party of Five, Profiler, Roseanne, The Simpsons, Spin City, and Unhappily Ever After (“GLAAD Scorecard,” 1997). With the launch of the 1998-99 television season, there were more gay characters of color on American television than ever before, and Will & Grace introduced prime-time television’s first gay male lead character (“TV,” 1999). In November 1998, the made-for-television remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window included a gay couple; the following month, the situation comedy That 70’s Show featured a same-sex kiss between two teenage males (“TV,” 1999). During the February 1999 sweeps, the character Jack (Kerr Smith) on Dawson’s Creek—who had been romantically involved with a central female character for weeks—came out to his family members and friends about his homosexuality. Since then, the series has dealt sympathetically with Jack’s process of coming to terms with his sexual orientation, including episodes exploring the reactions of his schoolmates to Jack’s new identity and the teen’s interest in, yet reluctance to start dating, other young men.
Despite the increased number of relatively positive representations of gay men on American television today, the recent uproar surrounding comments by the producer of the made-for-television movie Breaking the Surface, based on the 1996 autobiography of Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, suggests the amount of progress that remains yet unachieved. During a press conference promoting this movie, producer Jim Green was asked to explain why the movie contains violence between male lovers but not two men kissing. Green responded: “Oh, come on, what do you think? The audience is not gonna watch that. They’re gonna tune out. And if we turn off the audience, they’re not gonna see the message we want to get out” (“GLAAD dives,” 1997). Green feared that realistic intimacy between gay men in the movie would detract from the goal of creating “a general awareness and hopefully tolerance for those who are different” (“Making of,” 1997). An outpouring of criticism from gay activist groups and members of both the gay and mainstream press resulted. Similarly, despite the groundbreaking nature of the gay story lines on the daytime soap opera All My Children, there is simply no denying that the show nevertheless presented gay high school student Kevin Sheffield as having no real love life and no real friends, or that physical displays of affection between the male lovers Michael Delaney and Dr. Brad Phillips were restrained to the level of bear hugs (Kent, 1997). Clearly, additional work must be done if gay men are to be more realistically represented on American television programs. The following discussion of the representation of gay men on Fox prime time highlights both the representational strides that have been made with regard to gay men over the past decade and the representational shortcomings that need yet to be more fully addressed.
Representation of Gay Men on Fox Prime Time
On Sunday night, July 16, 1989, a pair of half-hour shows aired by the start-up Fox television network—America’s Most Wanted and Totally Hidden Video—were the most watched television programs in America (Block, 1990). Although this was the first time that Fox’s television programming had ever beaten the programming on all three of the established television networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC), it was certainly not the last—a week later, Fox repeated this success with a different half-hour program, Married… With Children (Block, 1990).
From its very beginning, the Fox network has owed a great deal of its success as an entrant into the television marketplace to its creative programming choices and strategies. The management at Fox believed that if the network was to compete effectively with the big three American television networks, they would need to draw from the same talent pool in order to provide appealing prime-time programs. As a result, to attract several of the top television producers who were constantly in demand, Fox made an implicit promise to offer greater creative freedom than was possible at the big three networks, the opportunity to be far more daring in language use and overall content, and minimal network interference in day-to-day production processes of the shows it broadcasts (Block, 1990). Fox soon became a creative magnet for television producers seeking to experiment and to push the content boundaries of the medium to new levels, which resulted in the creation and widespread popularity of such unique hits as The Tracey Ullman Show, In Living Color, and Married … With Children (Grover & Duffy, 1990).
Fox executives strived to ensure that their programs would always be less subject to mass-audience pressures than the offerings of the big three networks. “If we’ve got a good male action series,” explained Fox network president Jamie Kellner in 1986, “we won’t add children, dogs and females to make it appeal to other demographics” (Zoglin, 1986, p. 98). Further, as part of a conscious desire to appeal to a highly profitable, younger demographic target audience, the network remained more willing over time to test the boundaries of permissible content, as evident in various episodes of the oft-tasteless situation comedy Married … With Children and the half-hour comedy-skit program In Living Color, which featured a number of eyebrow-raising and sometimes controversial sketches such as “Riding Miss Daisy,” a parody of the movie in which the chauffeur and his employer go at it in the back seat (Zoglin, 1990). This is the same program that offered one of the most pervasive early representations of gay men on the Fox network, in the form of a pair of flaming gay entertainment critics who dress stereotypically in delicate, brightly colored fabrics and snicker over sexually suggestive movie titles such as “Dick Tracy” and “Moby Dick” (Gray, 1995; Zoglin, 1990).
In the 1990s, Fox continued to provide a variety of popular programming geared primarily toward viewers between the ages of 18 and 34. Three of the network’s most popular programs during this decade have been Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, and Party of Five, and each of these programs has represented gay men in various ways over the years. Given the daring, innovative nature of the Fox network’s programming and its impressive popularity with more youthful, presumably more open-minded audience members, it is only logical to expect that the representation of gay men on these three Fox series would more fully oppose stereotypes, traditional identities, and longstanding power structures encountered in American society, as compared with representations of gay men on the three traditional television networks. But has this actually been the case? The programming evidence speaks for itself.
Representing Gay Men on Beverly Hills 90210
Having recently completed its tenth and final season, Beverly Hills 90210 appeared in the Fox prime-time lineup during the 1990-91 television season. Although early reviews of the show were mixed, this series about a Midwestern family transplanted to Beverly Hills, California, and its twin children, Brandon and Brenda Walsh, who began attending high school there emerged as a keeper while two other, more critically embraced high-school-based shows—NBC’s Hull High and Ferris Bueller—vanished quickly without a trace (Littwin, 1991).
By the end of its first season, Beverly Hills 90210 had established itself as a demographic magnet for teenage and young-adult viewers, and only recently has the show’s appeal begun to fade. A major goal of this series from its inception, as series creator Darren Star has explained, has been to provide a truthful, sophisticated show that would speak to younger television viewers the same way that the series thirty-something spoke to members of its generation (Littwin, 1991). As the series has progressed over the years and the characters have graduated from both high school and college and entered the working world, the show’s commitment to representing noteworthy social problems and conditions has persisted (Hart, 1999). Thus, because so many episodes of the show have dealt in candid, prosocial ways with issues ranging from substance abuse by teens and adults to clinical depression and homelessness, viewers likely expected to encounter a similar same sort of prosocial treatment regarding the topic of gay men. They have not usually received this sort of treatment, however.
Beverly Hills 90210 first represented the issue of gay male sexuality early in the show’s second season, in the form of the “confused” teen. During a series of summer days at the beach, regular character Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) could not figure out why an attractive male teen did not seem interested in her sexually, even though he seemed to like her. When the sense of rejection Kelly was feeling began to endanger her self-esteem, she finally confronted the object of her affections about his sexual orientation. “Are you gay?” she asked him directly. “No—I don’t know,” he responded, before the two agreed to remain friends. From an ideological standpoint, this treatment of homosexuality enabled the series to take up the issue of homosexuality without actually taking up the issue at all, since the “confused” teen represents “potential” homosexuality rather than “actual” homosexuality. For that reason, it is all the more shocking that the producers of Beverly Hills 90210 received thousands of letters from young gay viewers thanking them profusely for the episode (Signorile, 1993).
The series represented gay men next near the end of its fourth season, when the car in which regular characters Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) and Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) were riding broke down near a gay coffee house. Once inside to use a pay telephone, Steve glimpsed the president of his fraternity, Mike Ryan, surrounded by gay patrons. Panicked by what he saw, Steve thereafter feared the moment when Mike might make “one move on [him], one gesture, one look,” and, after another fraternity brother jokingly questioned Steve’s own heterosexuality, Steve shared the information of Mike’s “deviant” sexual orientation. By episode’s end, distressed at his own homophobia (as pointed out by his friends) and the likely implications of his actions, Steve convinced the other fraternity brothers to allow Mike to remain in the fraternity and as its president. To some extent, therefore, the representation of gay men in this episode was a positive one, since Mike—the attractive fraternity president and skilled athlete—was presented sympathetically and defied stereotypes of gay men. At the same time, however, this episode treated homosexuality as a problem to be dealt with, after which this gay character disappeared from visibility entirely.
Three seasons later, near the start of the 1996-97 television season, 90210 introduced a third gay character as part of a three-week story line about AIDS. This time around, character Kelly Taylor began working at an AIDS hospice in exchange for college credit, where she met an aspiring gay magician named Jimmy (Michael Stoyanov). As the first AIDS episode unfolded, Kelly and Jimmy began to converse frequently and think of each other as friends, which suggested that the entire AIDS story line would be one about caring for others in times of need, despite individual differences (including those of sexual orientation). The second AIDS episode, however, revealed that this was not what the story line was ultimately going to be about after all. In that episode, Kelly disappeared from Jimmy’s life, despite what appeared to be their burgeoning friendship, after he cut his hand while preparing dinner and she got some of his blood on her own hands. Despite Jimmy’s assurances that her odds of contracting HIV that way were one in a million, subsequent scenes in the episode presented Kelly relentlessly washing her hands and making excuses as to why she could not revisit Jimmy at the hospice. It was only after Kelly’s doctor assured her that unbroken skin posed a barrier to the virus contained in Jimmy’s blood and an HIV test revealed that she was HIV-negative that Kelly renewed her relationship with Jimmy. At that moment, however, despite looking and acting as if he were in remarkably good health, Jimmy informed Kelly that the end was near. He was right. The content of the third and final AIDS episode wrapped up the story line quite efficiently, as Jimmy’s health took a sudden downturn and he died. With the exception of a brief replay clip featuring Jimmy on his deathbed at the start of the following week’s episode, neither Jimmy nor the risk of HIV/AIDS was mentioned again in the weeks and months that followed.
Although 90210 did a somewhat admirable job of portraying Jimmy as an articulate, well-adjusted, sympathetic character who defied traditional stereotypes, there is simply no denying that the reinforcement of the representational link between gay men and AIDS was completely unnecessary in this instance. By focusing almost exclusively on the “gay Jimmy” plot developments to the virtual exclusion of examining the risks of heterosexual sexual behavior, the series reinforced patriarchal gender roles pertaining to sexuality by perpetuating heterosexism. Had the decision instead been made to feature a central character with AIDS who was not a gay male, the series would have made a significant representational stride toward undermining the conceptualization of AIDS as a “gay disease,” rather than reinforcing this stereotypical notion. Although it appeared that 90210 was preparing to explore the issue of HIV/AIDS and heterosexual women at the start of the show’s ninth season—after regular character Valerie Malone (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) had unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user and was awaiting the results of her HIV test during the final episode of the eighth season—the series backed away from that promising story line entirely by giving Valerie a clean bill of health less than five minutes into the start of the next season.
During the show’s eighth season, Beverly Hills, 90210 introduced a handful of other gay male characters in brief story lines pertaining to a gay teen who became estranged from his parents after revealing his sexual orientation, as well as a gay couple who had faced several years’ worth of difficulty attempting to adopt a child. Although the show presented all three of these gay men as likable, sympathetic characters, the primary function they served was to enable the show’s regular characters to confront their own homophobic impulses and then to resurface as the gay characters’ heroes—much as the character Steve did in his interactions with the fraternity president in the fourth season—rather than to motivate a thorough exploration of issues of significance to gay men in American society. Perhaps unsurprisingly (given the show’s track record with its other gay male characters), these gay characters stuck around for an episode or two before disappearing from visibility forever. Finally, during its tenth and final season, 90210 briefly featured a gay male co-director of a local community center who lost his job—and was gay-bashed—as a result of his sexual orientation.
Representing Gay Men on Melrose Place
Having spun off from Beverly Hills 90210 in 1992, Melrose Place presents the daily adventures of a group of young adults with ties to the same Los Angeles apartment complex. In contrast to the representation of gay men on 90210, however, this series included a regular gay male character, Matt Fielding (Doug Savant), from its inception and until the start of its sixth season in 1997. By featuring a gay male character each week who was consistently likable, well-adjusted, and civic-minded, Melrose Place took a major step forward in the representational right direction. Unfortunately, the primary shortcoming of the resulting representation of gay men on this show stems from the reality that Matt has alternatively qualified as the “most straight” gay male character in modern television offerings (during the show’s first two seasons) as well as the poster boy for dysfunctional gay relationships (during the character’s final three seasons on the show).
A significant criticism of Matt’s presence on Melrose Place during its first season was that Matt’s homosexuality was insignificant to the show’s primary story lines. So much of Matt’s social life took place off camera that the series failed to effectively explore realities associated with gay male life. For most of this first season, Matt functioned primarily as a cheerleader for his friends’ aspirations, as a shoulder to cry on in their moments of emotional need, and as the savior of runaway teens in his job at a local shelter. He was on hand to toast the acting-career success of Sandy (Amy Locane), to join his friend Rhonda (Vanessa Williams) for drinks, to drive Jane (Josie Bissett) to a hospital visit and later help her search for her lost dog at the beach, to attend a lecture with Allison (Courtney Thorne-Smith), to sort Christmas decorations with Billy (Andrew Shue) and Michael (Thomas Calabro), to help repair a backed up washing machine in the laundry room, to provide information about HIV/AIDS, and to provide constant advice and emotional support to his lovelorn friends. When the series finally attempted to do something more significant with the character of Matt that season, it (stereotypically) first made him the victim of a violent gay bashing, and then he got fired from his job at the teen shelter after his boss learned that Matt is gay. As the season drew to a close, Matt went on a date with another gay man for the first time on the show; unfortunately, his date turned out to be a fast-talking, money-obsessed lawyer, and Matt considered the encounter to have been a total disaster.
Life became even a bit more strange for Matt during Melrose Place’s second season, when Matt married a heterosexual woman. Certainly, this development confirmed the character’s status as the “most straight” gay male character on television, taking the meaning of that observation to new heights. After his position at the teen shelter was eliminated, Matt got a job working in social services at Wilshire Memorial Hospital. There he met Katya, a Russian doctor, who days later revealed that her visa was soon due to expire, meaning that she and her daughter would be forced to return to Russia. Despite his initial objections, Matt eventually agreed to marry the woman so that she and her child could remain in the United States. Once a married man, Matt became increasingly upset as Katya became increasingly possessive of him, especially after she scared off one of his potential male love interests. Thankfully for Matt Fielding, after his character had interacted with Katya for ten episodes, the woman learned of a seriously ill relative in Russia and returned to her home country. The only problem? She left her daughter behind in the States, to be cared for by Matt. After he served as the girl’s surrogate father through the holiday season, however, she was placed on an airplane to be reunited with her mother in Russia, and the two were never seen nor heard from again.
Clearly, downplaying the significance of Matt’s homosexuality by committing him to a “heterosexual marriage” for much of the show’s second season did little to exploit the potential “groundbreaking” quality of presenting a gay male character to viewers each week. That’s why viewers became a bit more excited when Matt—emerging fresh from his stint as “husband” and “father”—began dating a likable gay man named Jeffrey, and their relationship developed over three consecutive episodes. The only problem this time around? Jeffrey was a very closeted U. S. naval officer who felt the need to conceal his sexual orientation from everybody, including his parents. This reality provided conflict for Matt, who disapproved of being kept in the shadows. After Matt convinced Jeffrey to come out to his naval commander, Jeffrey informed him that the news did not go over well, and that he was being transferred to the East Coast. So ended the first in a string of dysfunctional romantic entanglements for Matt Fielding … or so it seemed.
Having started to more thoroughly develop Matt’s status as a gay character near the end of the second season with the Jeffrey story line, the show’s writers and producers began exploring Matt’s gay lifestyle on a regular basis in its third season. To the viewer’s surprise, for example, the character Jeffrey returned in the ninth episode of that season, after having resigned from the Navy. Within days, Jeffrey revealed that he was HIV-positive, and an AIDS story line representationally linking HIV/AIDS and gay men began. Although Matt distanced himself from Jeffrey at first, he soon dedicated himself to a romantic relationship with the man regardless of his HIV status. In the end, however, despite the reality that he had found a lover who was accepting both of himself and his HIV status, Jeffrey concluded that he had made a mistake by getting involved in a committed relationship, and he decided that he and Matt should simply be friends. Matt was devastated by this decision, and so ended the couple’s dysfunctional romantic relationship … again! Matt’s character then resurfaced in two other dysfunctional romantic relationships by the end of the third season. First, after being gay-bashed again, Matt was romantically pursued by the gay policeman who investigated the matter and who never learned how to take “no” for an answer. Not long afterward, Matt and his friend Jo (Daphne Zuniga) found themselves being threatened and held at gunpoint by the obsessed gay cop; so ended Matt’s second dysfunctional romantic relationship on the show. That was followed six episodes later by Matt meeting Dr. Paul Gorham, an attractive plastic surgeon who asked him to dinner. Following that meal, Matt invited Paul back to his apartment for a nightcap, and the two ended up having sex immediately. The next day, Matt learned that Paul has a wife. Nevertheless, Paul readily persuaded Matt that his romantic feelings were genuine and that he and his wife would soon divorce; Matt convinced himself that Paul’s intentions were admirable. That is why it came as a complete surprise to Matt when Paul sent him to cook dinner for them at Paul’s house, an alarm sounded as Matt entered the dwelling, he saw the dead body of Paul’s wife lying on the floor, and Matt was arrested and charged with murder. Can anyone say “dysfunctional romantic relationship number three”?
During the first three episodes of Melrose Place’s fourth season, Matt was cleared of the murder charge after Paul confessed to murdering his wife. This set the stage for Matt to be fired from the hospital because he is gay (the second time the character was terminated because of his sexual orientation in just four seasons) and to enter into his fourth dysfunctional romantic relationship with Alan, an attractive gay actor with whom he (again) had sex immediately. The lovers decided to live together in Matt’s apartment, and things went well until Alan accepted a role on a soap opera overseen by a female producer who goes to great lengths to conceal the homosexuality of her stars, and until Matt met David Erikson, the young gay man who replaced him in his former social services position (and who ultimately leads Matt into his fifth dysfunctional romantic relationship). Alan’s producer insisted that the star marry his lesbian co-star as part of a publicity stunt, and Matt had sex with David after being disappointed by Alan’s actions once too often. David made sure that Alan found out about the night Matt spent with him; Alan “married” his female co-star and ended his strained romantic involvement with Matt; David dumped Matt after realizing that he was used and that Matt was still in love with Alan; and Matt began abusing amphetamines as he struggled to get his personal life (as a gay man drawn to dysfunctional romantic entanglements) and his professional life (as a medical student) back in order.
Matt’s fifth and final season began with his drug habit spiraling increasingly out of control, which led him to meet the next “man of his dreams” (read “dysfunctional romantic relationship number six”) in the form of Dr. Dan Hathaway (Greg Evigan). Dan started out as Matt’s therapist to help him deal with his drug problem and, at Matt’s insistence, ended up as his lover rather than his doctor. All went relatively well for several weeks, but soon Dan became both emotionally controlling and physically violent with Matt on a regular basis. Although Matt at first tried to excuse Dan’s behavior both to himself and to his friends, he ultimately realized—after receiving one black eye and being thrown through a glass table—that this guy had to go. While it was admirable that Matt decided to end their relationship rather than passively accept such abuse, the resulting message sent once again about the chances for romantic success in gay male relationships was quite negative. By itself, this might have been a relatively harmless representation of gay men, as they (like any other individuals) are liable to enter into a bad relationship—or even an abusive relationship—occasionally. But considering that it came on the heels of Matt’s five other doomed and dysfunctional romantic relationships, the message it communicated to viewers, both gay and straight, was a highly negative one. Because there are still so few representations of gay men on American television as compared to representations of straight men, any negative representation of gay males can be highly influential in molding the perception of gays by straights.
Matt left Los Angeles on the first episode of the show’s sixth season to complete his residency at an AIDS research facility in San Francisco. He disappeared without a trace, taking the visibility of gay characters with him as he departed. Then, in a surprising move early in the show’s seventh (and final) season, Matt (never shown on screen) was killed in a Los Angeles automobile accident while supposedly on his way to a reunion dinner organized by Amanda (Heather Locklear). As such, the gay male character who had been gone for more than one season was symbolically reintroduced only to be sacrificed, eradicating his “deviance” once and for all. In all, although the regular presence of Matt Fielding challenged mediated heterosexism to some extent each week through the ongoing representation of a gay man on screen, Matt’s character ultimately proved to be a “groundbreaking” one primarily only in the sense that he consistently pushed the limits of dysfunctional gay relationships to newer and greater extremes.
Representing Gay Men on Party of Five
Fox’s Party of Five follows the lives of the Salingers, five siblings who remain determined to stay together as a family unit following the unexpected death of their parents. This one-hour drama series, winner of the 1996 Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Series, has featured the recurring gay male character Ross (Mitchell Anderson) from its inception, who serves as the music instructor to teen violinist Claudia Salinger (Lacey Chabert).
During Party of Five’s first season in 1994-95, Claudia and her siblings wrestled with issues of homophobia and acceptance of others despite individual differences after Ross came out to his student, and the Salinger clan came to Ross’s assistance months later when Ross encountered obstacles resulting from his sexual orientation in his attempt to adopt a baby. Both of these episodes were thoughtfully presented, and the reality that Ross, as a single gay male, successfully adopted a beautiful baby girl and served as a wonderful parent to her was a representational victory for gay men in American society. During the rest of this first season and throughout the second season, Ross was consistently presented as a likable, well-adjusted, sincere, caring gay man and father who helped Claudia to expand her range of musical talents and the Salinger family to deal with the emotional situations they regularly encountered.
During the show’s third season, in contrast, Ross was rarely presented on screen, and the only episode that featured his character in any significant way involved his burgeoning romantic relationship with an English teacher, Mr. Archer, at Claudia’s school. Like Matt on Melrose Place, Ross believed that he had finally met the man of his dreams, and all went well initially. Soon, however, Ross learned that the teacher was not secure with his sexual orientation and that he felt the need to keep his relationship with Ross completely under wraps, concealing it even from his mother and close others. Although Ross decided to end this romantic relationship immediately rather than remain involved with someone who appeared to be ashamed of him—which from a representational standpoint was a positive decision, challenging the stereotype that gay men must simply settle for whatever relationships they can find—this story line nevertheless reinforced the view persistent in Fox prime time that romantic happiness is not to be found by gay men living in the modern age.
Again during the fourth season of Party of Five, Ross’s visibility decreased to the point of no return. In what initially appeared to be the character’s last appearance on the show (and only his second brief appearance that season), Ross attended the wedding ceremony of Julia (Neve Campbell) and Griffin (Jeremy London) alone, at which he stereotypically sang show tunes to calm a young girl who got locked in a bathroom. On that note, the most promising (from the standpoint of prosocial media representation) gay male character in Fox prime time disappeared (almost) without a trace. He resurfaced only for a few minutes late in the show’s fifth season to commiserate with Claudia about how it feels to love somebody one cannot have, and then again for a few minutes during the show’s sixth and final season to help Claudia refocus her attention on her musical abilities.
Aside from that, the series raised the issue of gay male homosexuality just twice more in its last few seasons. First, it addressed this issue as part of a brief story line in which Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt) learned that her new boyfriend, Elliot (Christopher Gorham), is gay. To determine if such was the case, Bailey Salinger (Scott Wolf) stereotypically asked Elliot for decorating tips and whether he likes Broadway musicals such as Cats. Interpreting his interest as romantic, Elliot later confessed to Bailey: “I think, maybe, I am, y’know, gay, like you. You’ve made it so much easier for me.” Bailey responded: “It’s totally cool that you’re gay. I have no opinion about that. But I’m not. I was just trying to find out if you were.” As a result of that discussion, Elliot left their meeting in tears, Sarah was left without a boyfriend and with the nagging fear that she would now die a virgin, and the character of Elliot disappeared at episode’s end, never to reappear. Later, during the show’s final season, Party of Five added actor Wilson Cruz—best known for his ground-breaking role as a gay teen on ABC’s 1994 television series My So-Called Life—to its cast in the role of Victor, the gay nanny who cares for Owen Salinger (Jacob Smith). Unfortunately, the series went off the air before it was able to adequately develop this character and explore typical lived realities of gay men.
As social critic Michael Novak has explained: “Television is a molder of the soul’s geography. It builds up incrementally a psychic structure of expectations. It does so in much the same way that school lessons slowly, over the years, tutor the uninformed mind and teach it how to think” (quoted in Vivian, 1995, p. 193). Communications scholar George Gerbner (1998) expands on that assessment when he writes:
Television is the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history. It is the mainstream of the common symbolic environment into which our children are born and in which we all live our lives. While channels proliferate, their contents concentrate. For most viewers, new types of delivery systems such as cable, satellite, and the Internet mean even deeper penetration and integration of the dominant [representational] patterns of images and messages into everyday life. (p. 177)
With regard to the impact of media representations of gay men on American society as a whole, therefore, there is widespread consensus that such representations retain the ability to influence the beliefs associated with gay men and that these mediated images cultivate perceptions of gay men and their lifestyles most strongly among viewers with little firsthand opportunity for learning about gay men in their own daily lives.
Negative media representations of gay men can contribute to decreased levels of social tolerance for homosexuality in American society as well as increased levels of homophobia. They also contribute to the vision of a society in which differences are devalued and in which hostility toward gay men may not be perceived as intolerable. In contrast, positive representations of gay men retain significant ability to influence the beliefs associated with gay males and with members of other sexually marginalized groups (Mackie, Hamilton, Susskind, & Rosselli, 1996). They can serve to decrease the stigma associated with homosexuality in American society and the pervasive influence of heterosexism as a powerful ideological force in American life.
The examples presented in this essay reveal not only how much progress has been made regarding the representation of gay men on American television in recent decades, but also how much progress has yet to be made. Consider again the most recent “breakthrough” prime-time series with regard to the representation of gay men, Will & Grace. Although many media critics feel that the presentation of gay men kissing is the next step required in order to realistically represent intimacy among partners in gay relationships, the show’s producers as well as its star, Eric McCormack, have indicated that a kiss will likely never be in the cards between Will’s character and another man (“Culture,” 1999). In addition, Will & Grace’s other gay male character, Jack, recently married Rosario, the maid of regular character Karen (Megan Mullally), to keep her from being deported (“Will & Grace,” 1999). If Melrose Place’s deceased gay character Matt Fielding could miraculously rise from the dead and be consulted about that upcoming story line, wouldn’t his assessment sound something along the lines of “Been there, done that … and it didn’t really even make much sense the first time around”?
To ensure that future representations of gay men that are intended to be positive actually achieve that goal, Croteau and Morgan (1989) emphasize that such representations need to be (1) carefully scrutinized for unintended homophobic messages or insinuations; (2) accurate, caring, and affirmative; and (3) encompassing of information about the full range of choices available in gay male life and in homosexual expression. They caution that “many homophobic messages are not obvious and come from well-intentioned sources” and that “sexuality must be discussed without implying the superiority of heterosexual[ity]” (p. 88). Certainly, including gay male characters as recurring, regular, and lead characters in American television programs is a crucial first step toward enhancing the overall representation of gay men on American television. What the producers and writers of such programs opt to do with those characters once they exist, however, is equally important. Care must be devoted to consciously avoiding outdated, stereotypical representations of AIDS that thoughtlessly link the disease almost exclusively with gay men, the inclusion of gay story lines only when their outcomes will be negative, and the reduction of diverse gay communities to a singular, stereotypical “lifestyle” or presumed way of life. Attention must also be directed toward detecting and eradicating harmful homophobic jokes and plot twists as well as mindless reliance on gay stereotypes and derogatory epithets. The powers-that-be at American television networks must vigilantly keep in mind that not all of their audience members are heterosexual; as such, their resulting programming climates should ultimately be comfortable, nondiscriminatory, and nonthreatening ones for all individuals who choose to tune in.