Sunday, August 25, 2013

Submitted from Twitter: My Little, Slim Gay TV...

Don't worry, other Twitter writing challengers, I didn't forget about you! 

I couldn't spend my weekend completely dedicated to working on the various topics and story ideas you gave me to help break me out of my writer's block, but I meant what I said about taking each one and making something out of it. Even if that something is maybe not what you or I either expected. Some topics, like posing "Queer representation in TV right now and future outlook :)" required a little extra thought on my part, too, because there were so many ways I could go with it. In the end, though, I decided to stick with my stream of conscious word vomit to see what poured out naturally when facing the idea. 

My Little, Slim Gay TV

About a year ago when I was fleshing out my pilot pitch for The It Couple, a friend who was reading my notes asked me if an important supporting character could be a lesbian. I thought long and hard about that-- probably longer and harder than many others would or that I should care to admit. For me, it wasn't a matter of whether or not I'd be able to sell the story or if people would want to watch a show if that particular character was a lesbian (after all there's a gay male character at the center of the story), but rather that I didn't want to make her a lesbian just for further diversity's sake. Would her being a lesbian lend itself to more interesting story arcs for the character and that show? Would her being a lesbian have a purpose in the world I was creating? Would her being a lesbian change too much about what I wanted her to represent in the show? I didn't want to suddenly be asked to pull a glee with a character like her and make her a teachable moment or a soapbox. I would much rather have "lesbian" be one, non-defining characteristic about the character, the way you would write "blonde" on a character breakdown because I believe in showing characters for the three-dimensional people they are, not the labels.

Scandal is a perfect example of a show-- and a network show at that-- that does this amazingly well. The character of Cyrus is so many complicated things, gay just being one of them. In part because that particular show moves at such a clip, and in part because of the strength of the writing in general, you'll never find him saying things to his husband James like "because we're gay, x, y, and z..." He is allowed to just be a well-rounded, fully fleshed out man, and the audience in turn is allowed to see him as such in a complex relationship that requires no explaining. It's the lack of explanation that truly sets Scandal apart.

I strongly believe no one should have to explain who they are, which means I don't believe anyone should "have to" come out. I think of a kid sitting down at a dinner table, telling his parents that he is gay, and I am a little sad for him because it feels to me like he feels he is somewhat "other" or outside a "norm." Straight kids never sit down their parents and tell them they like the opposite sex; their parents learn that when they bring home their first girlfriend or boyfriend. I'd very much like to see a world where it is the same for gay kids-- where there is no "norm" and no one has to brace themselves for an emotional conversation. I have friends who are gay who feel very differently about this; one in particular said it is a point of pride to "get to" come out because it meant he had finally worked through a lot of internal struggles and was comfortable with who he was and wanted everyone to know that. I understand that, and I respect it, and if that is how you feel, too, then by all means I'm not trying to deny you the chance to come out, but it still makes me sad that feelings of "other" had to be gotten past first.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I see gay characters depicted on television because due to the abundance of exposition in that medium, so many of them aren't allowed to just be, either. They may not stick them in rainbow tee-shirts, but they still often come with a disclaimer. Brandon Routh put on such an offensive effeminate accent for the thankfully short-lived Partners, I'm still harping on it, but even Max on Happy Endings was "announced" as gay before we really got to know him, when in the pilot episode Brad told him if he attacked the wedding crasher he'd never see it coming because he was "gay and chubby." Max went onto more than just a punchline almost immediately, interestingly by seeing his own struggles to tell his parents that he was "into dudes" and then both boyfriends of the week and a serious relationship that rivaled the relationship that started the series off in the first place, and one of the strongest gay characters to be represented in a comedy was born. 

We've certainly come a long way from Kathryn Montgomery's "Gay Activists and the Networks," when she noted that gay characters had to be made "palatable" to wide audiences by dropping them into only the most popular genres and by never seeing affection between them. However, the fact that they are still mostly populating around heterosexual leads is still somewhat prevalent and therefore not all that forward a step after all. And furthermore, there are times when it feels like the gay character is still only there to be "quirky" or "different" or to solve someone's diversity requirement. That's representation, sure, but tokenism isn't a positive one in my book.

Obviously an exception here is ABC Family's The Fosters which features a family with two matriarchs and a foster child who is young enough to still be discovering his sexuality but who many around him have already labeled as gay. The Fosters is very much an "issue" based show, each week delivering the equivalent of a Very Special Episode, but homosexuality is never one of those issues. Though we go through challenges and tribulations with them in their relationship and family structure, as we would with any couple, these characters are allowed to be moms and wives, non-stereotypical professionals (one is a cop, the other a school counselor), and women above all. Their lesbianism is certainly a core part of who they are, but it is not the only part, nor maybe even the most interesting part.

Depiction is only one slice of the equation, though, and admittedly I was asked to write about queer representation in TV, not just on it. The truth of the matter is, whether or not a gay character is written into a show at all is totally dependent on the writer at hand. Not every writer who is gay wants to write a story about a character who is gay-- but many writers who are not gay don't even think about creating a character who is at all. Most writing teachers will tell you to write what you know, and there can still be a sensitivity and a hesitancy about writing about something you are not, but I'm sure a lot of it just boils down to literally not even thinking about it. 

It's a terrible excuse; it's not a justification; but it is a very real reason for why there is such slow forward movement sometimes.

During the winter 2013 TCA presentation for Deception, the executive producers spoke so willingly and openly about the fact that they had not even considered making their lead African American (or not white in general) until someone at the network suggested it to them. It took me back to what I had hoped were "the old days" when characters had to be specifically written as African American, Latino, Asian, etc in the descriptions for an actor of non-Caucasian race to even be considered. I thought we were past all that. I thought with all of the competition to get your show made, you as a writer had done the work, had really prepared, and had thought about all of the angles for your characters and shows and came up with very real reasons to you why you created what you did. Clearly that's not always the case, but what does it say about us as creators if we're not even taking into consideration such a key part of our culture? Aren't we just helping feed that feeling of "other" in the first place?


Veronika K. said...

First of all, thank you for your opinion piece. I very much agree with a lot of points, particularly the one about writers and their awareness regarding social issues. This awareness depends on their own interests as much as the system that contributes to the privilege of heterosexual representation. Sometimes a writer/producers is simply not aware of the implications and social climate surrounding the topic he addresses and it can cause a backlash, although we are making progress, small as it is. I think what would help- and I'm speaking from experience here- is to understand privilege in itself in order to actively deconstruct it. If one has the power to reach out to a lot of people simply by using media as a form of art, he can influence the way people think about representation in the first place. This is also the reason why we're still stuck with so many stereotypes in the narrative, be it genre shows or not. The way we create fiction depends on the way we perceive our society and the people that live in it. If one particular aspect of our society does not affect us personally, we might think of it as less important. But even if it does affect a person, it might not be particularly important in the current piece of fiction he's dealing with. However, changing perception is something that I see as very important in order to achieve equality and give people the representation and therefore the respect they deserve rather than silencing them, stereotyping them or dehumanizing them. Fiction and media is an instrument of power to me.

There's one point I disagree with, though. And that's the actual coming out process. If we lived in a society that pushed for equality, people obviously wouldn't feel the need to come out, because it would be normal to just be yourself and no one would even blink. However, privilege is something that is rooted in institutional oppression (education, politics) and distributing it means challenging education and politics. The reason people come out is because it frees them from that oppression in the first place and gives them the ability to stand up for who they are while simultaneously challenging the established system in public. It's also a journey towards identity, empowerment and confidence. When our society firmly establishes that being queer is a norm, we will get rid of exactly that privilege and there will be no more need to hide yourself and feel discouraged from showing affection towards another person in public, no matter what orientation. Fiction is a bridge between pure entertainment and social stigma. That's why coming out stories are important and that's also why main queer characters in all kinds of shows are important. Not just shows dedicated to being queer. But also random stories of heroes in different galaxies, heroes in the office, heroes in musicals or drama. It enforces the perception of queer=normal, rather than queer=sidekick, comic relief etc.

danielletbd said...

Just to clarify: I wasn't saying people shouldn't come out; I was saying it saddens me that we're not at a point yet where people can't just be themselves without others wanting explanations or blinking. So I don't actually think you and I disagree on that point. I just think society isn't quite there yet.

Veronika K. said...

Okay, then we can definitely agree on that as well.