Gaysploitation on Television and in the Media

Over the past ten years gaysploitation has blazed through American culture. This concept of gays in the media is attempting to portray homosexuality as acceptable. Like the blaxploitation wave of the 70s, where studios cranked out exaggerated versions of the typical African American male, the intentions are good, but at what price?

The films were a starting point towards gaining nationwide acceptance, but in return we received inaccurate portrayals of African Americans. Henry Goldblatt, author of Super Queer, views gay centered programming on television as false and misleading. He feels that reality television is only fueling society’s negative stereotypes towards gays (Goldblatt).

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Columnist Scott Seomin supports gay themed programming and feels that it is going to help in the overall acceptance of gays in society. Gaysploitation in the media could be a positive vehicle for promoting tolerance, but research shows that it can only be accomplished through delicate and compassionate representation.

Gaysploitation has developed over the past ten years but its roots go back much further. The early blaxploitation films took black characteristics and embellished them making them larger than life. The movement began in 1971 when director Melvin Van Peebles produced the movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and Shaft (Goldblatt). Peebles wanted to create films for an underrepresented market.

Using black centered soundtracks and casting, he made it possible for black audiences to watch the films and realize, “Hey those people look like me.” The concept was there, but audiences missed the point completely. “The genre embraced black stereotypes (virility, strength, ass-whuping ability) and exaggerated them,” according to Goldblatt. This film paved the way for entertainment based education and in the shadow of blaxploitation lays the fate of gay themed programming.

Groups, such as GLAAD, view this movement as “A critical step forward in representations of same-sex relationships and families,” (Seomin). By showing gays on television, it provides audiences with a rare look into another slice of the American family pie. At the time following the US Supreme court’s decision to overturn sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, blatant homophobia was present (Seomin).

On the other hand, people are embracing gay themed shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. GLAAD would argue that gay themed shows are serving as the vehicles for creating awareness in our society, which gradually leads to acceptance and tolerance.

Supporters of the movement feel that this representation gives gays something to relate to. ABC’s show It’s All Relative features a gay couple of 20 years, Phillip and Simon, who have a college-aged daughter together (Seomin). This kind of program shows that happy families come in all varieties. GLAAD executive Joan M. Garry said:

“For the first time on a broadcast network, the real-life experience of thousands of gay and lesbian families will be mirrored on television. My partner of 22 years and I can finally look at our three children and tell them there is a family on television that looks like us.” (Seomin)

Other homosexual ethnic groups are beginning to become recognized as well. NBC’s Coupling features Jane, an Asian American bisexual woman (Seomin). These delicate character implementations are being incorporated gradually in fear that they will alienate the majority of viewers. Nonetheless, it is a major milestone toward equality in gay representation.
Garry also feels that television’s devotion to all that is queer helps “bridge the gap by telling stories that help people recognize the common bonds of humanity, love, and family we share,” (Seomin).

Programs are riding out the reality wave and delving into more concrete and accurate representations of gay characters. There are few lesbian characters and no transgender characters on television, but experts feel it is only a matter of time. These diverse and rich characters are not far behind the “Will’s and Jack’s” of our generation, but advocates are fighting harder than ever to fill in the holes. “At this critical juncture in the struggle for equality, television’s potential for driving public understanding of who we are and what we’re fighting for is more important than ever,” said Garry (Seomin).

Those against gaysploitation see the movement as a product of reality television. Networks salivated over the huge success of NBC’s program, “Will and Grace.” All the other networks followed suit by taking the same concept and beating it to death. These cookie cutter knockoffs tarnished the growing concept of portraying gays as real people. Goldblatt sees this transformation as ironic because it took reality television to make gays seem more “real.”

He feels that the only problem with this type of programming is that gays should not serve as sources of mockery like many stations would have you believe. Take Bravo’s show, Boy Meets Boy for example. “In this mess, a handful of straight guys don Abercrombie & Fitch clothing (apparently the straight man’s blackface) and pretend they’re gay to woo the unsuspecting bachelor (Goldblatt). He also wondered “Where was the cruel, straight equivalent?” There were no gay men on The Bachelorette for Trista to marry, so why would anyone find this sort of public humiliation entertaining? (Goldblatt)

Gay opponents to the movement feel that television is falsely representing them. They argue that much of this season’s programming negatively portrays the stereotypical gay man. Queer Eye’s Carson is a gay surface character (Goldblatt). He is attractive and flashy, chocked full of attitude and sass. At the beginning of the show, he comes off as intimidating and pushy. Audiences fail to realize, not all gay men want to make the world shiny and sparkly. Not all gay men are fluffy and shallow, interested only in surface and not substance (Goldblatt).

Television fails to make that distinction. “Will and Grace’s” character Jack is a solid confirmation of this stereotype. Sure he’s funny and lovable, but he is also portrayed as sluttish, materialistic, and stupid. His performance does nothing to promote equality between gay and straight men. Homosexuals have jobs, friends, and family just like everybody else. Why does sexual orientation have to be the boundary breaker between a “normal” man and a “gay” man? (Goldblatt)

Sexual representation is another concept that adds frustration to the opponents of gaysploitation. Goldblatt feels that, “It’s as if networks have embraced the homo, but conveniently left out the sexual.” Sex between heterosexual couples is acceptable on television, and in an age where we want gay to be ok, it is overlooked completely. The closest thing to a gay sex life comes from Showtime’s Queer as Folk (Goldblatt).

“Queer as Folk is an unapologetic celebration of gay life in all its varied forms. As we discover the differences that define us, we recognize the similarities that make us all human. Queer as Folk won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2001 and 2002, and was awarded Eye Weekly’s Readers’ Choice Award for Best Locally Produced Show in 2002.” (Showtime)

“The show appears to tackle the concept of having sexually active gay characters, but it portrays them in a very parody-like way” (Goldblatt). There is no happy medium, its either sex with no seriousness, or seriousness without the sex.
Another drawback to gaysploitation is there is no depth to the portrayed characters. Goldblatt said “The middle ground definitely needs to be filled in-from gay characters who are white, affluent, and two dimensional to those who are more three-dimensional with romantic lives.”

Indeed, gay characters provide comic relief, but there is no substance in their lives. We never get to see the everyday quarrels and emotional problems between gay couples, nor do we get a fair depiction of their lives. Will Truman of NBC’s Will and Grace is a prime example. Season after season audiences get a glimpse into the complications of Grace’s dating lifestyle, but where is Will? In the first season we find out that Will just got out of a serious relationship, and we never see him in one again. His character merely serves as a supportive fan club for heterosexual Grace and her neurotic problems. He is never shown in bed with a man, nor has he ever shared a juicy on screen kiss. Goldblatt mentioned that gay men kiss each other in real life, so how is TV’s portrayal accurate? It’s not.

Both arguments raise interesting points and I don’t disagree with either of them. Yes, television networks are taking positive steps towards adequate homosexual representation. Yes, there are still kinks that need to be worked out of network programming, but I feel time is the necessary element to make both sides happy. Patronizing gay audiences with superficial and shallow characters will not satisfy their right to be heard. Nor should networks produce crap just for the sake of being fair to them. Gays should not be given special attention just because of their sexual orientation. They are a part of society’s market and they deserve equal representation.

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