Gay on TV: It’s all in the family

The outrage is gone. Today it’s rare to hear a complaint about shows like Modern Family or the drama Smash which has five gay characters

Written by New York Times | Published: May 13, 2012 3:01 am

Brian Stelter

On Glee this spring,a transgender character named Unique is competing in a sing-off. On Grey’s Anatomy,Arizona and Callie are adjusting to married life,having been pronounced “wife and wife” last year. On Modern Family,Cameron and his partner Mitchell are trying to adopt a second child. What’s missing? The outrage.

The cultural battlefield of television has changed markedly since the 1990s,when conservative groups and religious figures objected to Ellen DeGeneres coming out. Today,it’s rare to hear a complaint about shows like Modern Family or the drama Smash,which has five openly gay characters,or the sitcom Happy Endings,which,against stereotype,has a husky and lazy gay male character. To the contrary. Mitt Romney is known to be a fan of Modern Family and a Catholic group gave it a media award this month.

At a time when gay rights are re-emerging as an election year issue,activists and academics say that depictions of gay characters on television play a big role in making viewers more comfortable with their gay,lesbian and transgender neighbours.

“TV and movie representation matters,” said Edward Schiappa,a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. In five separate studies,Schiappa and his colleagues have found that the presence of gay characters on television programs decreases prejudices among viewers of the programs. “These attitude changes are not huge—they don’t change bigots into saints. But they can snowball,” Schiappa said.

US Vice President Joe Biden apparently agrees. He said Sunday that Will & Grace,which ran from 1998 to 2006,“probably did more to educate the U.S. public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” When that sitcom began on NBC,it was seen as controversial. Several conservative groups claimed that it and shows like it would make homosexuality seem desirable.

Some groups said the same about Ellen,the ABC sitcom starring DeGeneres,who came out as a lesbian on the show and in real life in 1997. DeGeneres threatened to quit a year later when ABC preceded an Ellen episode that showed her jokingly kissing a friend with a message that warned,“Due to adult content,parental discretion is advised.” That warning would not appear today,as complaints about gay characters on shows like Modern Family and Glee barely bubble to the surface.

When Fox News host Bill O’Reilly briefly made a fuss about the Unique character on Glee last month,criticising the show for “shock value,” his comments gained little notice.

O’Reilly and one of his guests also complained last fall when Chaz Bono became the first openly transgender contestant on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. But the Dancing producers defended Bono,who lasted six weeks on the show. Upon being voted off,he said he had participated in part because if there had been “somebody like me on TV when I was growing up,my whole life would have been different.”

Perhaps wary of being perceived as moralizing,producers and writers in Hollywood— a predominately liberal town—say that the viewer support of gay,lesbian and transgender characters is just a happy byproduct of their storytelling.

“I think I would be lying if I said that I didn’t expect,at some point,for some narrow-minded group of people to try to create some publicity” around Glee or Modern Family,said Dana Walden,the co-chairwoman of Twentieth Century Fox Television,which produces both shows. “The bottom line is that people embrace these characters completely.” Steven Levitan,a co-creator of Modern Family,said he thought when the show started that the inclusion of Cameron and Mitchell would “limit our success a bit,because it will perhaps alienate a certain segment of the population.”

“In fact,” he said,“it’s turned out to be quite the opposite,” a point he reiterated last fall when the series won its second Emmy Award for best comedy. “What this is about,really,is how far America has come,not how far television has come,” said Christopher Lloyd,the other co-creator of Modern Family.

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