As a closeted gay teen growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, if you would have asked me there would be a time one could write about the treatment of gay characters in storytelling, I would have probably laughed nervously and carried on with my business. The evolution of gay characters in virtually all types of creative content has grown tremendously in the last few decades but their treatment has been a mixed bag.
In this entry, my intent is to point out what I like to refer to as the bait and ditch practice content creators use lavishly when introducing and maintaining gay characters. My initial research yielded a deluge of information, ranging from the very first introductions of queer characters to the widespread practice of queerbaiting. Links to specific references are listed below.
This technique ties loosely into my Creative Liberties and Keep It Simple posts, where the finely crafted reasonings for introducing a gay character by content creators is somehow lost in translation once the cameras start rolling or fingers begin flying across a keyboard. In my Keep It Simple post, I referenced the treatment of actor Chris Brochu’s character Luke Parker in the CW’s, The Vampire Diaries. Content creators stipulated he would be a prominent gay character but in reality, he was practically non-existent and forgettable. You can read more about the CW’s handling of Luke by reading my prior post. I want to point out another popular series, whose treatment of gay characters is extremely better but fell short with one of its own. The series I am referring? Freeform’s, The Fosters, previously seen on ABC Family.
Let me be abundantly clear. My husband and I love this series although it is ending in June 2018 with a three-part series wrap up and an untitled spin off series in development. The show has received numerous awards and accolades for its treatment of LGBTQ related issues. I always admired its direct, common sense and unabashed approach to issues affecting minority populations and society in general. Praise aside, there is always room for improvement.
Case in point. Characters Jude Adams Foster and Connor Stevens superbly played by actors Hayden Byerly and Gavin MacIntosh respectively, entered television’s history books with the youngest onscreen same sex kiss. I was personally impressed considering both actors are straight and, based on what could be seen on the surface, handled the scene with poise and did not appear to have any serious hang ups over it. Both actors became allies of the LBGTQ community taking notable stances on bullying and an instance of censorship. Witnessing such behavior in the younger generations and noting the progressively fluid nature of sexual identity, has always given me hope the draconian and venomous ideologies seeking to divide us are slowly dying off even though they may have occasional resurgences. Yet, my main disagreement is not with the actors; you know my stance regarding these types of critiques if you have read my prior posts regarding the treatment of characters.
When I stumbled across The Fosters while conducting research for my own book, I was relieved to see its creators were Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg; the former I was well aware having seen him in Queer as Folk. One of the main reasons why my husband and I began watching the show was due to its main content creators being gay. Both of us were very tired of the standardized approach the entertainment industry takes towards appropriately introducing gay characters. Namely, if “the gays” make too much of a fuss, we’ll appease them by sprinkling a few of them around and call it good. Give one a prominent lead role? Please.
Jude’s and Connor’s kiss received a truck load of attention thrusting both characters and the actors who portrayed them into a media circus where my own gay pessimism soon reared its head. The importance of the event was not lost on me, but I soon sat back and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, in typified Hollywood fashion, I noticed a decline in these two characters interactions and the evolution of an “issue” eventually breaking them apart with one of them leaving the show altogether. Eventually Jude moves forward and begins a relationship with Noah beautifully portrayed by Kalama Epstein, who I believe provides the necessary balance in Jude’s life.
In many of my prior posts, I point to being intellectually honest when we confront our bias and how we should respond when airing creative differences; I want to do that here. When you review The Fosters premise and impressive body of work, my observation is a tad, shall we say, weak. The two main leads, Stef and Lena Adams Foster are lesbian with a multiethnic, blended family. Me even hinting at some creative, duplicitous act would have many of your crinkling your brow and wondering if I left my brain in the pickle jar. Trust this is not my intent. My opinion stems more from a culmination of what I have seen in my lifetime than the diversity The Fosters clearly emulates.
Just like I mentioned in the introduction, I grew up with zero role models in the areas of what it meant to be gay. What you did see in film and television were blatant stereotypes. Gay characters always committed suicide, were mentioned but barely seen, or had such serious issues they would leave the show altogether. Even if a talented actor was found to play such a role they appeared so emasculated, all the roles they appeared in afterward focused on copious amounts of sex with women.
In the 1982 drama, Making Love staring Kate Jackson, Michael Ontkean, and Harry Hamlin where a successful young doctor begins to question his sexuality while in a seemingly happy relationship with his wife of eight years, a variety of actors were approached to play the gay role; Tom Berenger, Harrison Ford, and Michael Douglas to name a few. The movie’s creators were essentially told by these actors to not even consider them for the role. The roadblocks allowing for gay characters to be accurately portrayed were numerous. Fortunately, nowadays, younger actors are not allowing themselves to be held back due to extreme views of what it means to be masculine, feminine and everything else in-between.
This is the reason why many who look at this issue through a lens similar to mine tend to react harshly when they experience the business as usual model regarding the evolution of gay characters in a particular story. Personally, I was looking forward to how Jude and Connor’s characters were going to evolve and confront issues of simply being gay teenagers in today’s world. When that evolution was cut short, I called foul.
Whether you agree with me or not regarding the handling of Jude’s and Connor’s characters, I am pointing to a systemic issue still fairly prevalent in content creation. Creator’s often generate a lot of hype and fervor when announcing the introduction of a gay character but rarely deliver on their spoken word.
Do not even get me started on the double standard between being fine with showing a great deal of physical intimacy amongst two women; however, when it comes to two men, you’ll see a peck on the lips, maybe a tad more but that is all. If you do want to find a more realistic representation, one has to obtain a premium service like HBO or Showtime.
Bottomline, we are consumers of intellectual and physical goods. If we continue to blindly consume the complimentary scraps of deficient content thrown our direction, should we realistically expect content creators to step up and provide us accurate, realistic portrayals of gay characters?
We need to stop settling for what content creators THINK we need and start demanding from them what we KNOW we want. Do not simply vote with your wallet but your intellect as well.
Feel free to post your questions, comments or concerns. I will respond, if need be, when I am able.
Bury Your Gays Article: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/06/30/queerbaiting-bury-your-gays-tv_a_23005000/
History of Homosexuality in American Film (Wiki): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_homosexuality_in_American_film
Making Love: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Making_Love
The Vampire Diaries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vampire_Diaries