The Implications of LGBTQ Visibility Drop on TV


ABC’s hit comedy “Modern Family” features notable LGBTQ characters. (Lloren Javier via Flickr)


ABC’s hit comedy “Modern Family” features notable LGBTQ characters. (Lloren Javier via Flickr)
ABC’s hit comedy “Modern Family” features notable LGBTQ characters. (Lloren Javier via Flickr)

It’s clear that this is an important time for the Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Queer community—with gay marriage gradually gaining approval around the world, LGBTQ rights improving and relaxed papal tensions “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Pope Francis said recently, according to the New York Times.

On TV, art has certainly reflected these changes; shows like ABC’s “Modern Family,” FOX’s “Glee” or NBC’s “The New Normal” have been lauded for their introduction of gay characters, and 2012 was a red-letter year for LGBTQ characters, with “4.4 percent LGBTQ characters on scripted primetime broadcast television series,” according to a GLAAD study. Yet on TV screens, the portrayal and prevalence of LGBTQ characters is decidedly polemic. Some characters are accused of playing into stereotypes, some shows are criticized for their treatment of LGBTQ characters and some shows just have no LGBTQ presence at all—the same GLAAD study said LGBTQ characters are at “3.3 percent for 2013.” Through all of these controversies and confusion, one question remains consistent, especially at a school with an active LGBTQ population like Fordham: how are LGBTQ characters presented right now, and how does this affect LGBTQ culture?

While the GLAAD rating is not a large drop, it’s significant, given that it started off at such a low percentage. Jennifer Clark, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), explained the drop as “sometimes, as in the case with any industry, you suddenly have a year where the number’s higher than ever” causing a relaxation among TV executives, who then feel that they have covered this social problem effectively, causing neglect in coverage. “[2013] wasn’t necessarily any more or less homophobic or bigoted than any other programming year, it was probably just a bit of complacency,” Clark said. “It could be a bit of a tokenism issue, where they felt they have enough tokens in place, so they don’t need to work any harder.” Leading up to 2012, network TV attempted to tackle the edgy problem of LGBTQ life and homophobia in its programming, as they did in the 1970s regarding racism and race relations on shows like “Good Times” and “All in the Family.” After hitting a number like 4.4 percent, networks may be under the impression that the theme of LGBTQ interests may be exhausted, which might be responsible for the blip.

However, the drop in characters is most likely temporary. “What with marriages being legalized, I cannot believe that television will ignore that possibility for capitalizing on the monetary worth of new types of couples that will come out of same sex couples,” Clark said. “I think it’s probably a blip and we’re going to see more than less again. I think there’s going to be another pendulum swing.”

With new possibilities for all types of LGBTQ weddings and with audience interest being so heavily invested in LGBTQ plotlines, it seems highly unlikely that networks would ignore these opportunities to increase viewership. Gabriella Besada, FCLC ’16, who is the advertising and public relations manager for FCLC’s Rainbow Alliance, a club to promote LGBTQ relations, said, “Networks would fear ‘backlash’ if [they] continued to downscale LGBTQ characters.” A total backslide away from LGBTQ characters would cause an uproar in the LGBTQ communities if they felt they were no longer being represented on TV.

More troubling than the drop in characters is the myopic view most TV shows have of LGBTQ characters. “You still see the predominance of particular types of sexual minorities: white gay men still prevail in that small percentage,” Clark said. “I think it becomes very interesting when you think of how all the people at the lower end of the hierarchy become even more invisible. I think there’s maybe [a] zero to one percent of transgender persons on television. Gay men are more outstanding than any other category.”

Even when dealing with homosexual characters, network TV is most likely to focus on white gay males with power and money, such as Cyrus Beene, portrayed by Jeff Perry, on “Scandal” or even Brian Kinney, portrayed by Harold Gale, on “Queer as Folk,” a groundbreaking LGBTQ series in the early 2000s. Network TV tends to focus on this narrow margin of the LGBTQ community to the exclusion of the rest. “If we’re going to get into LGBTQ characters, let’s get into LGBTQ characters. Show someone who’s queer: explore that,” Besada said, urging networks to “talk to people! Because the LGBTQ community is tired of seeing cisgendered, upperclass, white gay men being the gay stereotype, because that’s not our entire community. It’s a part of our community, but it doesn’t represent us as a whole.”

Networks not only focus on a small portion of the LGBTQ community; they usually attempt to squeeze them into heteronormative terms, which are easily digestible for audiences. For instance, on “Modern Family,” ABC’s “Scandal” and “The New Normal,” one of the men has a demanding job and serious demeanor, fulfilling the “male” role, and his partner is more flamboyant and cares for the children, fulfilling the “female” role. In this way these characters are placed in a way that a largely heteronormative audience can relate to, in terms they understand. “Even when gay white masculinity gets put on the screen, it still kind of fits a mold that people feel comfortable with,” Clark said.

A way to expand this narrow view of LGBTQ life is perhaps to look outside network TV. Clark believes that “Orange is the New Black’ is a really interesting case study because it does show sexuality not so much as an identity category but rather sort of as moments of identification.” Besada agrees: “I commend ‘Orange is the New Black’…it shows a couple fighting the way a heterosexual couple would. It doesn’t ornament it; it doesn’t throw glitter and a bow on it. It’s just is what it is: a couple who loves each other.” Netflix and even Kickstarter programs represent a possible way around the network TV system and a way that audiences can more directly affect the stories and images they watch.

Shonni Enelow, assistant professor of English, who teaches the course “Queer Theory and the Americas,” with Professor Carl Fischer of modern languages, believes that what lies outside of TV may reflect culture more than what’s inside. “Some scholars have argued that we’re in a period of history in which there’s no ‘mass culture’ or mainstream culture and what we have is a bunch of micro-cultures,” Enelow said. “Maybe it matters more whether there are LGBTQ characters in video games or on YouTube channels in all these cultural formations that are more of the moment and less often studied. That might be where real culture is taking place right now.”

Society and its representations are complicated, as is TV. But Besada expressed it eloquently: “We got our foot in the door, now we’ve got to get the leg and the whole body.” LGBTQ characters have become more prevalent in the past few years until this recent drop, but networks must realize that these characters need to be more developed and varied to accurately reflect the changing world.

Correction: The actor who portrays Cyrus Beene on ABC’s “Scandal” is Jeff Perry, not John Perry as it appeared in print in Issue 11.