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I was in a heated conversation the other day about the portrayal of gay people on modern television. It soon turned into a hostile debate about that fine line between the primary focus of entertainment and the responsibility to be politically correct.
The gay couple in question was the much loved Cameron and Mitchell on the ever popular series Modern Family, co-produced and written by Steven Levitan who is also responsible for shows like Just Shoot Me! and Frasier. Whilst Mitchell is the smaller-framed, ginger-haired acerbic, bitter and wildly neurotic one, Cameron is the larger than life, over-weight and over the top camp one who turns everything into either a screaming match and or a glitter parade. What turned our seemingly calm discussion into a fire spitting expo was the question of whether this kind of stereotyping is okay, and what exactly is the message it sends out to the straight community about us gay folk? Even more so: is it detrimental to the good cause of advocating equal rights for all, especially homosexuals? Do Cam and Mitch damage the newly found wholesome image of gay men in the eyes of the straights?
My friend definitely felt so. In fact he even went so far as to boycott the show and refuses to watch another episode of it. And whilst I can surely understand his concerns I can’t help but wonder about a few things.
What upsets us, and most other human beings about being stereotyped is not the fact that we are being misrepresented, quite the opposite in fact. It’s the raw truth behind the insinuation that gets our blood boiling. It’s when the proverbial mirror gets held so close that we see each wrinkle, dent and pimple in agonising high definition. Of course every coin has two ends and the flaw in my argument is that some stereotypes are very much out of context and can end up doing a lot of harm. For example, I’d also be extremely upset if the only image that came to mind when someone heard that I’m a fag was that I’d be touching their kids inappropriately – everyone would. If every German was stereotyped as a Jew-killing Nazi I’d be screwed on that end too. The list goes on: farmers, teachers, presidents, even Americans… You get the point.
That being said, I do feel that modern society as a whole has a very definite need for certain stereotypes. They serve to inform us of a cultural history, a reference point to where and what we once were, a reminder of the battles fought – whether won or lost. And if their only purpose is so that we may have something to fight against then that’s okay too.
Back to Modern Family. After watching a couple of episodes with a magnifying glass it became clear that the writers of the show aren’t just spotlighting the gays. Modern Family is a show about stereotypes: the old sugar daddy Jay who’s married to the trophy wife Gloria with the big tits and the Spanish accent; the goofy token American cheerleader mom and technology geek father and their three stereotypical children – the not-so-clever Miss Popular, the Super Nerd and the baby brother who gets away with everything. They are all stereotypes. So why is it that gay people choose to highlight the fags and turn it into a selective crime when clearly it isn’t? Perhaps years and years of social misdemeanours concerning gay stereotyping has chosen Modern Family as the proverbial final straw on the camel’s back.
Ironically Max Mutchnick, co-producer of Will & Grace, has been honoured for numerous awards for his work on Will & Grace, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. The show features a gold digger with a drinking problem and a fat, rich husband; a neurotic Jew with relationship problems; an obsessive compulsive homosexual with a law degree and very low self esteem even though he only has 3% body fat; and a camp twinky queen with a sharp wit and a fabulous ass. Once again: a show about stereotypes. Would the show have been successful at all if it were about four non-descript Average Joe’s who don’t have idiosyncrasies that we could easily relate to? On some level, at some point during their eight years’ run on TV we all saw ourselves in at least one of the characters, nodding our heads, mumbling “that is so me”. Isn’t that exactly what makes a show like that accessible to an audience filled with queens, bears and drunks?
Besides, we gay men put ourselves into little boxes everyday anyway (and I’m not talking about the dark ones with the holes in them). We as a subculture assign labels to ourselves and each other without blinking – tops, bottoms, jocks, fems, the list goes on. Similarly our straight counterparts have their own set of labels, as do every other subculture that exists within society.
I guess the question should rather be “how do we see and portray ourselves?” Sure the old rule of where there is smoke there is bound to be a fire applies in this case. I totally understand and appreciate the fact that the negative stereotyping can become, if anything, tedious. We are not all screaming queens who obsess about the latest fashion trends and squeal at the amount of calories in a citrus salad. In fact, nobody is that vacuous in totality. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and perhaps this is a fine example of ‘one small step for gays, one giant leap for recovering homophobes.’ Rewind to a couple of years back when gays weren’t even represented on the silver screen. Back in the day when gays were still only things that went bump in the night a show like Will & Grace wouldn’t even have made it on telly – comedy or no comedy. Perhaps once the fairy dust has settled we’ll be able to (systematically) change the perception of the masses out there. But for the time being we should all wear our tiaras with pride and endeavour to be the best possible human beings we can be.