When less is more: LGBT characters and integrated television

November 12, 2009
By | 5 Comments


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?


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5 Responses to “ When less is more: LGBT characters and integrated television ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on November 13, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    I dunno about this season, but when you say CBS has ignored the trend, I would point out that they’ve often been particularly forward-thinking in their reality shows. Amazing Race has had numerous gay or lesbian pairs, including a gay man and his mother, a gay man and his gay (activist) father, and two lesbian ministers, and Survivor has nearly always had a gay or lesbian cast member. Not reason to declare the end of prejudice on CBS for sure, but it’s always interesting when it’s a venue in which the individual can seemingly play a greater role in writing their role than in scripted dramas.

    • Erin Copple Smith on November 13, 2009 at 11:12 AM

      Just chiming in to note that the current season of Amazing Race actually has a pair of gay brothers competing. (And they’re doing very well!) They just came out to the other racers a couple of eps ago, and noted that a lot of their acquaintances at home don’t know they’re gay.

  2. Kyra Glass on November 13, 2009 at 9:56 PM

    Erin and Jonathan – Great points, I am very aware of the many LGBT people who are part of reality shows on all networks. And you are right that this increases their prime-time visibility even further. I was intentionally restricting my comments to scripted fictional programs. In part because they are not included in the GLAAD numbers and in part because reality shows included LGBT individuals in greater numbers somewhat earlier then most fictional programming has chosen to. There are many potential reasons for this, while reality show contestants do have some control in “writing their role”, editors have a great deal of control over what people see. What stories are focused on is often constrained by the format of the reality program. The intricacies of a romantic relationship are not necessarily, although certainly not never, as much of an issue when the main point of the show is the competition. One can also argue that from the perspective of selling a show to advertisers and industry execs there is a difference between including LGBT eligible contestants to reality show, given that not having any in supposedly a fair selection from a “real world” population would appear exclusionary, and intentionally writing LGBT characters as regulars into fictional program (particularly when the nature of many of these characters and programs invites the discussion of LGBT issues). I didn’t mean to pick on CBS or accuse it of being prejudiced, rather I was impressed that CBS was the only network without a regular LGBT character on a fictional prime-time show. What I was interested in was what was new here, with the inclusion of more characters on fictional integrated network programming, and because reality shows from MTV, to HGTV, to Bravo and across all the networks have long had LGBT individuals on I was bracketing it as something else but important, in a similar way that I bracketed out soap operas.

    • Jonathan Gray on November 14, 2009 at 9:38 AM

      Hey, feel free to pick on CBS. Their scripted shows lean towards the more guy-ish, masculinist on TV (espec. with all those CSI and NCIS run, gun, and microscope shows, and with the Dudes Sitting Around humor of Chuck Lorre’s shows), so it’s very relevant that they don’t allow gay characters into that world. Can one imagine “The Puppy Episode” with Charlie in Two and a Half Men, or Horatio’s reaction when Eric comes out to him in CSI: Miami? They also get more viewers than any other network (even if less in the 18-49 demo).

  3. Kyra Glass on November 13, 2009 at 9:58 PM

    Those who are interested the report is here: http://www.glaad.org/tvreport