When less is more: LGBT characters and integrated television
In GLAAD’s recent report they mention that the total number of LGBT characters on television actually decreased this year. In part this was a result of the cancellation of the L-Word, the majority of whose character’s were LGBT. However, I believe that this year we actually saw an increase in the visibility of LGBT characters on TV. Because, some new shows have LGBT characters and other have recently added them, a relatively large number of prime-time network television programs, both dramas and comedies, have gay and lesbian characters. Nearly every network has at least one clearly gay or lesbian central character on one of their shows. On Sunday you can see LGBT characters on Desperate Housweives and Brothers and Sisters on ABC, Monday there is House on Fox, Tuesday has Modern Family on ABC, Wednesday there is Glee on Fox, Thursday Grey’s Anatomy on ABC. Friday ABC has Ugly Betty, and Saturday there is Mercy on NBC. (This is not an exhaustive list) CBS alone seems to have ignored the trend. These representations are not all perfect, far from it, but looking back only a short decade ago when Will and Grace was considered unusual, being able to find an LGBT character on network TV every night is a pretty amazing thing.
Network prime-time has not until recently been the location of most LGBT visibility on television. In the past networks confined LGBT characters to daytime soaps. HBO and Showtime have longed featured LGBT characters on their shows and have provided many of the characters that made up the numbers that were counted in drama and comedies on television. LOGO on cable has certainly also punched up these numbers. But these shows weren’t on network prime-time televison. I was a fan of Showtime’s LGBT heavy shows, Queer As Folk and The L-Word, but if you were uninterested or even hostile to LGBT issues you would be unlikely to tune in. In contrast, you may not be interested in LGBT issues but if you are a long term fan of Grey’s Anatomy you would likely continue watching the show now that a lesbian relationship is among the major story lines. Many of the shows with LGBT characters and themes in the late 90s and early 2000s took place in primarily LGBT worlds and contexts, interaction with the “straight” world often took the form of narratives of conflict. Integrated shows, like those we now have on network prime-time television, play a different role. They may show conflict, but they also show cooperation. LGBT characters are part of workplace communities, families, and friendship groups with both LGBT and straight members. This integration lets these show tell different stories and let them tell more familiar stories differently. Callie can be horrified and hurt at her father’s hostility to her homosexuality and Arizona can advocate patience on Grey’s Anatomy in part because they are addressing a more integrated (and possibly ambivalent) audience and because they have a more integrated cast of characters; filled with many heterosexual characters who are supportive of their relationship. I certainly don’t suggest that these kinds of shows should replace programs that represent LGBT communities and worlds more extensively, as the programming on LOGO and the Showtime do. But I think the long-term goal for LGBT representation on television should include both kinds of show. Representations are still too problematic and too few, they are not, and most likely never will, be perfect. But as Kath Weston has observed in her work a group cannot fully be accepted until they are seen as “fully social persons” who are part of families and communities. Integrated shows may be a step towards this. Paired with increased visibility I would like to hope that this season does not represent a loss at all but a different kind of gain. Am I just a wide eyed optimist? What do others think?