It's interesting to think about all of the taboos and controversial topics from just my lifetime which have become not quite as contentious over the years. The debates aren't totally gone, and maybe they never will be, but mainstream opinions have shifted
. There are so many issues I can remember people screaming at one another about on Oprah
when I was a kid, for which we've wasted so much time and effort arguing over, that now seems silly.
It might have been driven by the economic conditions of affording an apartment/house as much as it's changing social expectations, but I can remember as a child it still being a little scandalous for unmarried couples to live together. However, it's a pretty common occurrence nowadays. The same idea can be applied to divorce, and how views on it have changed. What was once a "disgraceful" status of being a divorcee is not a shocking concept. A large segment of American society once thought it was contemptible if a woman would have the audacity to cover her legs with pants instead of wearing a skirt. In fact, that feeling was so prevalent, Title IX had to explicitly forbid schools from requiring girls and women to wear dresses as part of an academic dress code. While there's definitely still a bit of a stigma, the idea of dealing with sexual dysfunctions is not as taboo as it once was, even 30 years ago. Viagra, Cialis and condom commercials are all over TV. The idea of using surrogates, sperm banks, frozen eggs and In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) for people having difficulties getting pregnant was once seen as obscene, but are now accepted as rational options couples can consider.
Hopefully gay marriage will become just one more of those issues which fades away. But how did this change in attitudes happen? One argument is pop culture. Does it reflect societal change or can it nudge things in a particular direction and inform our values? In this case, many feel the depictions of gay men and lesbian women in film and television has been important in pushing the public to a more tolerant position. It's also fascinating how that depiction has changed over the years.
Continue below the fold for more.
From Matt Kane, Director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD:
For many Americans, it was television shows that gave them their first images of same-sex couples, and a chance to recognize the commonalities with their own lives. TV couples like Mitchell and Cam on Modern Family, of which President Obama has admitted to being a big fan, show audiences that the lives and relationships of LGBT people are just as complex, mundane, and important as those of straight people.
In Vito Russo's book The Celluloid Closet
, and the 1995 documentary
based on it, one of the main themes is how the use of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters in film have mirrored those groups' position within society. So, in a time where millions of men and women were hiding their feelings and living their lives in the closet, the movies hid their gay characters in the closet too.
The result was "The Sissy," which are characters not explicitly addressed as gay, but exhibit every gay stereotype.
The same dynamic is true in television. Howard Stern used to talk about Liberace's appearances on The Mike Douglas Show
. Either Mike Douglas was helping Liberace cover up being gay, or he loved fucking with him, because at some point in the interview he would always ask him "Hey Lee, when are you going to find a nice girl to settle down with?" And if you look back at sitcoms and game shows between the 1960s and the 1980s, they were similar to film in terms of the visibility of homosexuals and homosexuality. Gay actors and personalities (e.g., Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, etc.) were on shows that went to ridiculous lengths in not acknowledging something that almost everyone knew, but also played around with the actor's sexual orientation by slyly alluding to it.
In the Ted Knight sitcom Too Close for Comfort, one of the supporting actors was Jim J. Bullock, who played "Monroe." The show never acknowledged the actor's sexuality with the character, and even went to a strange very special episode route by having the character raped by women.
In Mark Rappaport’s 1992 documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Rappaport assembled clips from the closeted gay actor’s Hollywood films to show how writers and directors subtly alluded to—and sometimes baldly spoofed—Hudson’s homosexuality. Rappaport could’ve had a field day with what Too Close For Comfort’s producers did with Bullock. Aware that their breakout star was too queer a duck to be a Jack Tripper (let alone a Larry Dallas), they placed him in situations that emphasized his unmanliness without calling a spade a spade. They wanted Bullock to be funny, but not to be “funny.”
In an interview with GuySpy, Bullock explains that he was embarrassed by his gayness back in the early ’80s, but couldn’t help becoming more flamboyant as he grew into the role of Monroe.
They [the producers] got fan mail and said they didn’t want the character to be gay. I didn’t want him to be gay! I was a Christian. I said ‘Give me a girlfriend.’ They gave me two love interests: an 80-year-old woman and a transsexual.
Another consistent aspect of previous media depictions of homosexuals and transsexuals is being used as something tantamount to a freak or a monster. Until the mid-1970s, the American psychiatric and psychological associations classified
homosexuality as a mental health disorder and listed it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM). This particular bias is prevalent in many, many stories where gays and transsexuals are shown enduring a life of self-hating sadness, suffering from an "addiction" to aberrant behavior, drawn to an underworld of sin. And since people with an "unnatural" compulsion are broken, LGBT characters have been used, sometimes as the twist, in a lot of murder-mysteries and psychological dramas.
Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer plays the monster angle literally, where a gay character is chased through the streets like Frankenstein's monster and killed. Along the same lines, another old film and TV cliche is that in any murder mystery, either the implied or explicit homosexuality of the killer may be a twist of the story. The adaption of Roderick Thorp's The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, has the killer (played by William Windom) as one point saying he "felt more guilty about being a homosexual than being a murderer" and skulking the streets looking to pick up men like a junkie searching for a fix.
Basic Instinct was protested by LGBT activists for presenting gays and bisexuals as "twisted and evil," with some protesters standing outside theaters holding signs that revealed the identity of the movie's killer. One of the most controversial aspects of both the novel and Jonathan Demme's adaption of Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs was the characterization of serial killer Buffalo Bill. Demme would later go on to direct Philadelphia, which while praised for its treatment of AIDS and the prejudice it engenders, also encountered criticism for not depicting the gay relationship between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas with enough intimacy.
From Jeffrey Schmalz in the February 28, 1993 edition of the New York Times
Mr. Demme is more than aware of how volatile the gay community can be in dealing with subjects like AIDS. It is he who mentions the gay protests against "The Silence of the Lambs." Protesters objected to the depiction of the killer as, in their view, homosexual.
"I got all this unfounded abuse on 'Silence of the Lambs,' " he says, obviously still stung. "He wasn't a gay character. He was a tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be."
But the protests clearly had an effect.
"I got woke up," he says. "I came to realize that, in fact, there is a tremendous absence of positive gay characters in movies."
These kind of characterizations begin to change in the 1990s, which seems weird considering the political climate of the time with Republicans taking over Congress, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" emerging after the open service of gays and lesbians in the military failed, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) becoming law. If some of the monster/freak characterizations of the 1980s were reactions to the influence of the so-called "Moral Majority" and the paranoia over AIDS, most of the pop culture from the 1990s forward seems almost like an active pushback against those views.
Instead of murderers, freaks and members of a shall not speak about subculture, gay characters become our neighbors, best friends, sidekicks, mothers, fathers, family and people that are part of everyday life. It now seems ridiculous that we had huge event episodes of television for learning that a fictional character is gay, but we did. Just as it was treated as a big deal to have African Americans as part of a film or TV show, or for two actors of different races to kiss, or for transgendered men and women to be in the media, openly and honestly, and be treated with kindness.
From Genevieve Koski at the A.V. Club
What I think is sometimes glossed over in discussions of “The Puppy Episode,” which is a groundbreaking moment for LGBT portrayals on television, is the “L” part of that initialism. Yes, Ellen, both the character and the person, is gay—but she’s specifically a lesbian, a distinction that has very different pop-cultural implications and associations than those of gay men. To channel Dan Savage for a minute, female sexuality is generally considered to be more fluid than male sexuality, which has given rise to the ideas of “lesbian dabbling” and “the converted lesbian,” which have both been the source of their fair share of jokes on TV, movies, and elsewhere. (And that’s not even taking into account the effect girl-on-girl porn has had on the idea that lesbianism is something that can be put on and taken off like a denim vest—something that comedian Cameron Esposito recently unpacked much more eloquently on her Tumblr.) Characters who are firmly, unequivocally lesbians are much more rare than characters who are gay men, and since The L Word went off the air, they’re all but extinct as main characters. (Orange Is The New Black being a major, important exception that’s nonetheless full of its own contradictions.) So yes, Ellen’s coming out was a major step forward for gay culture, but it was about seven major steps forward for lesbian culture.
If discrimination is bred from ignorance, then knowing, realizing and understanding that someone else is just as human as you are, with dreams, hopes, and a desire to be treated fairly, kinda puts a dent in the hate and fear. And over time it has become commonplace for LGBT men and women to openly be part of pop culture, both in front of and behind the camera. After the 2012 election, former Republican strategist and self-identified independent analyst
Matthew Dowd remarked
the Republicans were a Mad Men
party in a Modern Family
America. Last week, we saw how true that was.
From Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic
A 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll found that 27 percent of likely voters said that depictions of gay characters on TV made them more pro-gay marriage, and there are news accounts of people crediting their newfound sympathy toward gay people to Modern Family.
Of course, television has spotlighted queer people for decades, both in major roles on shows like Will & Grace and Glee, and in minor ones on shows like All in the Family and Golden Girls. Progress has happened fitfully: Many of these programs perpetuated stereotypes, and often they focused on white people at the exclusion of all others. Cam and Mitch have been about as tame as anyone could ask—in contrast to the straight couples they hang out with, they rarely touch, never talk about sex, and make a big deal over kissing in public. But the fact remains that each popular depiction of gay life helped encourage networks to take chances on others, and today there’s unprecedented diversity in representation of sexuality on television, as shown in programs like Empire and Orange Is the New Black.