According to TV, queers have totally arrived. The popularity of shows like Will & Grace and Queer Eye would indicate that queers are finally popular in real life, too. But unlike the sitcom gays of yesteryear, these new queers have the starring roles, and above all, they're Bankable.
So, in this light, what does the giant sweep of anti-gay ballot amendments passed last November really mean? Red states don't watch Must See TV? Sitcom yes, marriage no?!
Good question, but the real issue isn't what Gay TV is doing to homophobes, but what Gay TV is doing to us. It feels safe, seeing all those Happy Homos in our living room night after night. But how safe are we? And more to the point, what does this kind of "representation" really mean in America?
In September of 1968, Julia, the first TV show to star a black performer in the leading role since Amos 'n' Andy, was aired. Julia was a network attempt to address race issues during the tense 60s turmoil over the role of African-Americans in U.S. society.
This television Julia inhabited was an all white world; it rarely confronted racism in her own life. TV Julia experienced very little of the tension of the real world. She was completely assimilated, non-threatening, respectable.
Outside the TV that same September, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton was found guilty of manslaughter as a cop-killer, and the Oakland police destroyed the Black Panther Party National Headquarters in a mini-riot. Panther Bobby Seale called for a response to Martin Luther King's assassination "by any means necessary."
Julia was on a collision course with real life. Still, the sponsors stayed, the audience stayed. Meanwhile, off-screen, the Panthers were being systematically disassembled. and Diahann Carroll -- the actress playing Julia -- had taken so much criticism from media and political groups for the show's portrayal of black life she refused to renew her contract.
Even if you see representation on TV as a sign of acceptance, breaking that ground is always painful. After Ellen came out, she took a fierce public beating and the show finally tanked. Diahann Carroll was hospitalized twice for stress because her community hated that she was playing a "white Negro."
OK, but didn't Will & Grace change all that?
Well, character Will Truman may be totally out, but he's other things as well. Foremost, he's not gay in real life, like Ellen was. And he's funny, which Ellen stopped being -- once she was saddled with the real responsibilities of coming out.
But above all, Will is chronically single. he is an appendage to the Greater Doings of the world around him. He attends, fortifies and pleases everyone but himself. Even the actor who plays him is concerned about his sex life. No doubt about it: Queers are still better served cold. Remember the sissy fight over Thirty Something's Kiss? Or the one on Roseanne? Or the lonely Not-For-Profit-Mary on Melrose Place? It took Ellen four years before she finally got laid. and then she got canceled. Even when Will does have companionship, the two of them act more like sisters than hornsters. Will Truman is neurotic, he's fussy. He's neutered.
OK, so Will is no sex kitten, but at least he's not one of the glorified Maids of Queer Eye. Each week, they put a straight guy in tears by organizing his sock drawer and cleaning his tub, or worse, by telling them how to get hitched. They may be the first real Ghetto Gays on TV, but they're still just glorified wedding planners in a world that still excluded them from that 1 hour plot. They're ersatz QVC Pitch men, flogging the life out of their advertisers to the straight women watching at home. They are lovable Prime Time Palace Eunuchs, To-Wong-Fu-ing across straight America. Meanwhile, in the real world, their only thanks are the blame for the backlash that killed the Dems in November.
Change the channel and we're still just frightening curiosities, like Survivor's manipulative Gay Uber-Villain, Richard Hatch, or Project Runway's freaky Post-Queen Austin Scarlett, who told Time Out New York he's not completely gay because he's had "girlfiends". and the L in L Word stands more for LA than Lesbian. But unlike TV's queens, these dykes are predators -- or they're victims. The show is sold on sex, but it's sex that the Man of the House can agree on -- and devour. These Ls don't fist, but they do fuck for a really nice male roommate's secret camera. And the female ejaculation didn't make it onto said roommate's camera or your screen, even as a reaction shot. Carrie Bradshaw's posse had more fun.
So what's in it for us, besides the thrill of not feeling utterly alienated? What's the point in straight people thinking they love the gays 'cause they watch us on TV?
Getting invited into America's living rooms each week doesn't mean they admire us, or, for that matter, tolerate us. They're not interested in our hearts. They don't want our souls. And they're terrified of our bodies.
It's our dollars they want. They're not inviting us into their homes... they're inviting us into their Malls, into their Mega Stores. They don't admire us for our guts or our wit or our courage. The only thing they admire about us is our reach, our market share, and especially our brand loyalty.
Still, watching gay characters is better than never seeing them. But don't confuse representation with equality -- sitcoms don't promote it, just like Fear Factor doesn't demonstrate straight people's tolerance for humiliation. It's about Ford, it's about Target, it's about Pizza Hut. It's about the Marketplace. It's the same capitalist sleight-of-hand that sells us war and markets our leaders to us. It's the systematic neutralization of difference and dissent by stuffing our mouths with Taco Bell.
It's about offsetting their Queer Panic with an invitation to the table. And then sticking us with the bill.