Not-so-Modern Family: 16 years after Ellen, are we now in a golden age of queer television?
Modern Family has been called ground-breaking by one US TV critic, but within the history of LGBTQ representation on the small screen, where does it really sit? Does it compare to the watershed episode of Ellen that changed television in 1997? Laurence Barber explores the past, present and future of non-normative sexuality on the small screen, and asks the question: are we about to enter a golden age of queer television?
There is no doubt that Modern Family’s Cam and Mitchell are the most prominent gay characters currently on television. The sitcom has been widely praised and awarded at least in part for depicting two gay men and their adoptive daughter, and for a very brief moment, it was laudable for this fact. But since its premiere in 2009, both television and society at large have raced past what is, fundamentally, a quite conservative sitcom.
Now about to start its 5th season, the problem with Cam and Mitchell is one which has always hovered around the edges of the show: they seem to hate each other. When this criticism was raised after the first season, the writers responded by addressing the pair’s fear of public displays of affection in an episode titled “The Kiss”, which showed the couple pecking each other in the background. Which is fine except they never even kiss in private, so it just reads as the show burying any possibility of two men displaying any sexual desire for each other (their apparent mutual disdain was intelligently explored by Mark Blankenship at NPR).
All of this is only exacerbated for the wildly overstated praise for the show. In a preview for this year’s Emmy Awards over at the Los Angeles Times, TV critic Mary McNamara had this to say in response to the idea that Modern Family deserves to win a fourth Best Comedy Series Emmy, putting it in the company of All in the Family, Cheers, and The Dick Van Dyke Show:
Modern Family is already in that group. Groundbreaking in both topic and format, its popularity is rooted in the message of all iconic comedies: Humans are ridiculously flawed, which is why we create families — to both acknowledge and forgive those flaws.
Aside from being an utterly baffling assertion, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that Modern Family broke ground in terms of anything at all. Its use of the mockumentary format came long after the success of Spinal Tap saw it bleed into television; Australia’s own The Games (which aired in 1998) was one of the most prominent early mockumentary sitcoms, which was followed shortly thereafter by the massive success of Ricky Gervais’ original The Office.
Not only was Modern Family beaten by these shows, but also the likes of Reno 911! and Chris Lilley’s We Can Be Heroes (as well as Summer Heights High). It’s never even been the best mockumentary currently airing, having run alongside the superlative Parks & Recreation since 2009. So the demonstrably false assertion of Modern Family’s format being ground-breaking aside, it’s necessary to question the idea that its “topic” broke any ground either.
The answer? It didn’t. You could make arguments about the prominence of Mitchell and Cam on the show, but there were queer characters on TV long before Modern Family, and that includes gay parents. Heck, in 1995 Friends had a same-sex wedding; ER had Dr Kerry Weaver (played by Laura Innes) raise a son with her female partner, Sandy (played by Lisa Vidal, notably a woman of colour). There was even a sitcom — 2003’s It’s All Relative — which beat Modern Family to having two gay men raising an adoptive daughter as lead characters.
There’s a wilful disconnect between how critics like McNamara see Modern Family and how Modern Family feels to the LGBTQ community. This has trended over into institutions such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) yearly Media Awards, which have given Modern Family regular nominations and a win for its supposed service towards a supposed normalising of homosexuality.
The reason this is so problematic is because Modern Family is, essentially, a conservative sitcom dressed up in progressive, mockumentary rags. The gay characters function more as roommates raising a child together and have a stereotypical, offensive aversion to interacting with lesbians:
Beyond that, the entire main cast is white with the exception of Sofia Vergara’s Gloria, her son Manny, and Cameron and Mitchell’s adoptive daughter, Lilly. The former has been portrayed consistently as a loud Latina stereotype; alongside Julie Bowen’s Claire, it puts the show in the deeply uncomfortable position of its two adult female characters being housewives. This is not the kind of show that deserves to be lauded as progressive for its content. This is not queer television. This is TV with incidental homosexuality.
Fortunately, the explosion of support for the gay rights movement has translated quite effectively over the past few years. While queer characters have featured in various forms on TV for decades now, never have there been as many so prominently represented in myriad ways. As what many critics deem a golden age for television comes to an end, the rest of television, much in the way queer cinema came to prominence in the early ’90s, is either on the verge — or already in — a golden age of queer representation.
But queer television goes beyond just being any show with a gay or lesbian character, and as of yet, there are genders and sexualities that are either under-represented or not represented at all (finding an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of bisexuality, even, is much more difficult than one might think). And further to that, academics have written at length about queerness specific to TV as a medium — such as the dangling ending of a cancelled series — which also warrants thought and consideration.
In 2008’s Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, Glyn Davis and Gary Needham introduce the book by discussing the consumption of series’ such as Australia’s own Prisoner: Cell Block H as queer television, citing the appearance of cast members in gay bars in the UK. Much in the same way cult films are often appropriate as queer, too, they argue that cult shows with little openly acknowledged queerness — such as Veronica Mars, 30 Rock, The Comeback, and Arrested Development — could be seen as queer through their refraction of the viewing experience and deconstruction of the medium’s visual, narrative, and representational norms.
They also very accurately discuss how first exposure to queerness often comes via television thanks to its simple accessibility:
At a more personal and anecdotal level, the editors are also reminded that their first confrontations with queer images were almost solely through television, and that many of these encounters now serve as cherished, fond memories. In our respective childhood/adolescent bedrooms — for we both grew up in homes with multiple televisions — TV contributed significantly to our emerging queer subjectivities.
Indeed, I can remember staying up late and sitting as close to the TV as possible so no one in the house could hear me watching the American version of Queer as Folk on SBS when I was as young as 11 or 12.
To this end, at least, it is remarkable that young queer people now simply have to turn on their television during primetime and it’s quite likely they’ll hit on a show with prominent queer characters. For all its qualitative flaws, Ryan Murphy’s Glee has served as a gateway for any number of young queer people all over the world; the value of its representation not only of queer characters but teenage queer characters is inestimable enough that the show could never be considered less than necessary. These imperfect vessels are much-needed stepping stones towards better, more expansive representation.
Of course, this can easily go wrong; Murphy’s recently-cancelled sitcom The New Normal was a dire attempt (I wrote about why last year over at Televised Revolution) at recreating such representational success which proved to actually regress queer television rather than advance it. Murphy, as the most prominent creator of queer TV in the mainstream, has a lot to answer for, but getting what are very likely reluctant network executives to expand their conception of whom mainstream television can be made for is quite an achievement.
Of course, Murphy was far from the first to do it, but the earliest outward representations usually revelled in stereotype. And while that still occurs to some degree today, most writers know that writing a queer character invites deservedly high levels of scrutiny. A show like Will & Grace proved that a more flamboyant gay man like Jack McFarland could be presented as a human being. Anyone who refuses to accept flamboyant characters as acceptable representatives of queerness is fooling themselves into a bland, heteronormative ideal of homosexuality that has slowly become more prominent since activists in the ’90s pushed it as a response to the AIDS crisis’ negative influence on the image of queer people in society.
It is absurd to think that it was only just over 15 years ago that Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen aired the landmark two-parter, “The Puppy Episode” (if you’ve never seen it, it’s available to watch on YouTube and is genuinely excellent if slightly problematic television, and it has OPRAH). Queer representation on TV was few and far between before that, and non-existent before 1961.
The Backlot has a terrific rundown of some particularly notable instances, including a hugely offensive 1967 CBS report on “The Homosexuals” which was watched by around 20 per cent of the American viewing public. If nothing else, it proves the significance of television in terms of shaping and enhancing wider attitudes towards queer people. Just last year, The Hollywood Reporter proved this by publishing a poll which showed that increasing representation on television was leading to greater support for marriage equality.
In keeping with that influence, “The Puppy Episode” was watched by 42 million people. The criticism was wide-reaching and virulent. Nowadays, a sponsoring company pulls advertising from shows which are homophobic, not shows which openly discuss queerness. Laura Dern, who guest-starred as Ellen’s female love interest in the two episodes, stated in 2007 that she didn’t work for a year and a half because of her involvement in the episode. In what is really a small amount of time, the resultant shift following this episode has been remarkable and is explored in more detail over on The AV Club’s TV Roundtable.
With the Defense of Marriage Act being struck down earlier this year and support for marriage equality at an all-time high (while this is somewhat problematic as a bellwether for acceptance within society, it’s likely the best we’ve got), GLAAD reported that as of the 2012-13 season, 4.4% of all regular characters on primetime in the US were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. That has definitely dropped for the 2013-14 season, however, following the cancellation of The New Normal, Happy Endings, Go On, Partners, Smash, Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, and Southland.
So now we stand at a precipice. At present, there are a few shows that best represent queer television as it stands today. Even in the 5 short years since Davis and Needham published their book, the landscape has changed radically; aside from the shows already discussed, Happy Endings’ Max Blum was universally praised as an atypical representation of a gay male who drifted comfortably between masculine and feminine traits and interests. The show’s intense debt and reliance on popular culture as well as celebration of its characters’ own misfit status cemented it as distinctly queer in the same tradition as 30 Rock.
Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, in spite of its terrible title, is another excellent example of queer television as form as well as representation, assuredly due in part to its creator Nahnatchka Khan being an out woman of colour. Its defiant celebration of female sexuality and depiction of Chloe (played wonderfully by Krysten Ritter) as a kind of unrestrained, indiscriminately hypersexual female id plays into the grand tradition of queer film and television as a devotion to otherness without judgement or panicked moralising.
The majority of queer shows, however, are unsurprisingly not on the big five broadcast networks. The rise of cable and streaming has allowed for the US to make great strides in terms of representation. Shows as varied as Six Feet Under to The Wire to Greek to Spartacus are all notable for queer representation as well as being broadcast on more niche cable networks. Alongside these has been the original programming of queer network LOGO (which airs the RuPaul’s Drag Race, the excellence of which you can read about here) as well as Queer as Folk and The L Word, shows dedicated to queer representation and broadcast to wide audiences several years before the major networks began to catch up. (Author’s note — a reader has correctly pointed out that the RuPaul does not have a great track record in terms of sensitivity to the trans* community as well as her questionable support of white drag queens appropriating racist imagery, and therefore should not necessarily be seen as unimpeachably part of any progress in terms of wider queer representation).
Orange is the New Black, which premiered earlier this year on Netflix, is one of the most progressive shows in terms of sexual politics that has ever been made. Not only creating discussions about the fluidity of sexuality — its married-to-a-man lead character Piper is confronted by her female ex-girlfriend in prison — with its portrayal of lesbians, it has become one of the incredibly rare instances of a transgender character being played by an actual transgender actor.
Laverne Cox, an actress and advocate, plays Sophia, a transgender woman, and depicts the effect of her transition on her marriage and son, as well as the difficult politics of properly maintaining a transitioned identity under extreme conditions. She has to battle to receive the hormone treatment that allows her to properly maintain her true gender; a situation that is now even more prescient in the wake of Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment. Sadly, Manning’s jailtime will prove to be far less comfortable than the minimum security environment of Orange is the New Black. (Author’s note — this paragraph has been updated to remove language which may have been offensive to the trans* community. I apologise for any possible offence caused before this update.)
On a different scale, the characters of Cyrus Beene and James Novak on the manic, excellent Scandal are yet another gay male couple seeking to adopt a child. In this case, however, Cyrus is the Republican US President’s openly gay Chief of Staff, and true to the show’s title, his involvement in the show’s soap operatic, labyrinthine plot is both against stereotype and completely queer. The show’s obsession with secrets, hidden identities, surrogate families, and living with difficult choices are all themes which strongly align with the queer experience.
Dan Bucatinsky, who plays James, recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor for his role, which speaks to the depth their relationship is given by creator Shonda Rhimes (who has an excellent track record in terms of queer representation on her shows) and her writers. The sexual nature of their relationship is never shied away from but not overstated either. Scandal’s rapid ascent to become one of TV’s best shows as well as one of its biggest hits indicates even more that the landscape of mainstream queer television is shifting towards shows like this and further away from its network-mate, Modern Family.
The Fosters, which airs on ABC Family, is a highly sentimental series with its fair share of issues; it is, however, notable in the way it represents a lesbian couple who act as foster parents. The couple is interracial and their family multi-ethnic, but the very fact that the show is depicting a kind of queer parenting that goes beyond two men adopting a baby is somewhat ground-breaking. The Fosters is far from perfect, but it’s a terrific example of the standards queer television must now be held to.
Even the recently cancelled Enlightened — the second season of which remains the best TV to air this year — is easily identifiable as queer television. Its creator, Mike White, is openly bisexual, and its co-creator and star, Laura Dern, is none other than the guest star from “The Puppy Episode”. Aesthetically, however, is where the show’s true queerness lies; its upheaval of typical storytelling rhythms, its meditative, introspective tone, and its gently camp production design all point to an inherent queerness in its production.
The series’ subject matter — a woman who has a nervous breakdown and tries to repair her life with a newfound spirituality — even evokes the delicate sense of rejection queer people have all experienced. The fifth episode of its second season, “All I Ever Wanted”, was even directed by arguably the best queer filmmaker working today, Todd Haynes. Haynes’ mastery of queer aesthetic has been evident for over two decades, and entire essays could be written solely about that episode.
There are other shows, of course — Orphan Black, Please Like Me, American Horror Story: Asylum, Shameless, Teen Wolf, Hit & Miss — all of which are at least arguably part of a new queer television canon to some degree. And not all of these shows are prescriptively queer, with them often falling in and out of utilising such themes and aesthetics. It is worth noting, however, that the UK has been on the forefront of queer representation for years. Even their primetime soaps such as EastEnders and Brookside, which featured an openly gay character as early as 1985, have historically been far more progressive, as detailed in another great post over at The Backlot.
Australia has not fared so well. Remember when Lana kissed Skye on Neighbours in, like, 2005? That was a big deal at the time! That show fares much better nowadays, of course, and there have been other major characters such as the gay couple on House Husbands and the lesbian sergeant on Water Rats. In any case, the best Australia has to offer is the aforementioned Please Like Me which was shunted away on ABC2, presumably after the demonstrable failure of Outland. There have been various minor queer characters on shows over the years, and The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives has a list of representational milestones on Australian television since 1913.
So where to from here? Ryan Murphy — he strikes again! — has a project called Open in development at HBO, which promises to explore the evolving landscape of sexuality. It is unclear whether or not this will involve queer characters — though Murphy has never failed to write one into one of his shows.
HBO also has the series Looking in development, which will follow a group of gay friends living in San Francisco. With the pilot set to be shot by Andrew Haigh, director of acclaimed queer film Weekend, and starring out gay actors such as Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey, the series has been branded by some as Girls for gay men, which is sure to be a facile comparison. But there hasn’t been a show of this kind since Queer as Folk ended in 2005, and the loss of that show meant that actual depictions of gay sex more or less vanished from television.
In an interview with Buzzfeed promoting his new film C.O.G., Groff indicates that Looking will explore gay sex with a frankness that may not have been attempted until this point. Given that Groff, as the lead, is no stranger to full frontal nudity (go ahead and Google it, I’ll wait), Looking has the chance to be on the vanguard of queer television both aesthetically and representatively. Further to this, the young web series format has proven to be a hugely promising arena for queer representation thanks to shows like The Outs (which you can watch for free here) and Husbands (the first two seasons of which can be viewed on YouTube).
Queer television has always had to straddle a very fine line. While it’s tempting for writers to create queer characters who reject every detail of the stereotype, doing so tends towards overt heteronormatisation of queer experiences. When critics and commentators write about queer characters on television, they often fall into the same trap that often befalls writing about female characters; their writing reverts to meaningless phrases like “strong female character” or “non-stereotypical gay character”.
But what is and isn’t stereotype is incredibly difficult to define these days. With the advancement of representation and acceptance in society, it’s less and less necessary to have to fight against a certain ‘kind’ of gay man, for example. Because the breadth of personalities afforded to queer characters now, characters who are effeminate gay men or butch, unfeminine lesbians are less problematic because these personalities exist. The struggle, as ever, is that high quality writing is required to craft recognisable human beings out of piles of queer tropes.
So on that level, Modern Family is somewhat successful. While their relationship is bizarre and passionless, Cam and Mitchell are individually well-written characters and the show, while far from the quality of its first season, is still decent if repetitive. But to call it ground-breaking is utterly, mind-shatteringly preposterous. The rich variety of personalities amongst queer people gives TV’s storytellers whole new avenues to explore, to the point where a character like Julie White’s Anne in Go On towers above the rest of the show in terms of characterisation and dramatic potential.
With the marriage equality fight more or less won in the US, it will be fascinating to see where queer television turns. Orange is the New Black is leading the way by thoughtfully representing a transgender person, and minor network The CW looks to follow in its footsteps by developing a show centred on a Texas teenager who announces his wish to live as a male instead of a female. You only have to glance at the comment section on this Deadline article announcing the project to see that TV can, sadly, never provide a total cure for bigotry.
But beyond that, there’s a massive spectrum of sexualities and gender identities left to explore. It’s baffling that there has yet to be a scripted series about and starring drag queens. There’s so much dramatic potential in, for example, an exploration of asexuality, or a relationship between two transgender people, for instance. The most prominent example of polyamory on television has been Big Love which allowed for only a narrow representation of the practice.
Most gay and lesbian characters are young, nubile, and attractive, which often feels like a deliberate rejection of older queer people who are of such value to the queer community (part of the reason Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is so enduring is how it bridges generational divides between gay men). And there is still a lack of queer people of colour in all forms on television, though series like The L.A. Complex and DTLA go some way towards amending this despite being seen by precious few people. It will be fascinating to see if or how the upcoming Masters of Sex, the pilot of which is quite brilliant, approaches Masters and Johnson’s controversial, deeply incorrect findings in regards to homosexuality.
And while Angels in America will likely remain the definitive scripted portrayal of the AIDS crisis, surely there are enough stories of that devastating era that could be brought to widespread attention through an ongoing series? In fact, not since Brothers & Sisters ended in 2011 has there been a HIV-positive regular character on an American TV series. Australian TV had Melissa Tkautz on Pacific Drive, but has there been another instance since Sharni Vinson’s Home & Away character was written off in 2008?
The shows we have, and the shows to come in the next couple of years, hint strongly that more revolutionary series are coming. Film has started to catch up thanks to the rise of streaming, so TV is facing a challenge to utilise its wide reach better than ever before. It’s impossible to say exactly what the future of network TV will bring — the only two series with gay leads premiering this fall season are Sean Saves the World, a confusingly ’90s throwback, and the excellent Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is particularly notable for inverting many of the tropes associated with its character’s homosexuality.
The golden age may not quite be here yet. But it feels imminent, and imminence is where queerness excels. Over the past century, the queer community has made rapid strides towards acceptance in society, and after a decade spent lobbying for marriage equality, the road is now wide open for where it goes next.
Whatever happens, we will rely on television to reflect and portray the increasingly nebulous, shifting identity of a community made up by so many disparate and unique parts. At its best television can endure as a slice of time — a sliver of an era — in a way that other media simply cannot. In much the same way that “The Puppy Episode” perfectly captures the conversation of 1997, queer television strives ever on towards doing the same for each successive year. In 2013, it was Orange is the New Black‘s “Lesbian Request Denied”. In 2014, who knows? It might not be just one episode; it may be a golden age.
Diminishing return? Chris Lilley’s upcoming Ja’mie: Private School Girl to revive one of his most popular creations