TV’s New Gay Couples – Progress or Clichés?

In a fantastic article on EW.com called TV’s New Gay Clichés, Mark Harris hits upon everything many of us have felt, but perhaps could not quite explain, about what is wrong with many of the gay couples we see on TV in this season’s network line up.

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love both Mitchell and Cameron from Modern Family, they’ve always been an oddly mismatched and unlikely couple. As if their gayness is all that matters. My good friend and I always joke that people try to set him up with any random single gay man they come across. “He’ll be perfect for you!” they say. “Oh yeah, what’s he like?” my friend asks. “Well, he’s gay!” they say.

Harris explains why it’s even worse than that:

Mitch is Gay TV Archetype No. 1—responsible but repressed, fussy, and trapped in a permanent state of exasperation. And Cam is Gay TV Archetype No.2—an OMG! Adorbs! Ka-WEEEEN!

Sounds about right. Harris also explains the squirm of discomfort many experience while watching the gay couple in The New Normal, who are trying to have a baby with a surrogate. You can’t help but fall in love a little bit with the “straight-acting” (as Harris calls him) half of the couple, Justin Bartha, who reminds me of almost all my best gay friends… As in, he’s just a normal dude who loves his partner. But then they give us Andrew Runnells’ character whom Harris describes as “what a doll invented by Bravo would be like” (right down to his hair that looks rubberized), and we are supposed to like this super-shallow, self-obsessed guy because of the fact that he’s an adorable gay… But not because of anything redeeming. As viewers, we want to see what Bartha’s character loves about this man, but… we just don’t. As Harris explains, we’re just supposed to take the show’s word for it that these characters are not only likable, but also compatible.

It’s not surprising that in The New Normal, the characters are silly and flat. After all, the show was co-created by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, which has a lot of good qualities, but depth of character is not one of them.

So we ask ourselves, what’s wrong with a few flat characters on TV? I mean, it’s TV it’s supposed to be fun!

But I’ve got to insist that it’s a little different when we’re talking about gay couples, because there are still at lot of Americans who don’t know any happily committed same-sex couples, and it’s actually pretty amazing how many folks primarily learn about people who are different from them on television. Think about Joe Biden, our Vice President, who credits Will and Grace for opening his eyes to the realities of life as a gay man! Our Vice President!

In the case of Modern Family, which really is wonderful and does do so much good, and now The New Normal, the caricature-ish nature of these couples makes them sort of hard to buy at the best, and forced and unnatural at the worst. And the last thing we should be reinforcing about same-sex couples is the idea that they are unnatural.

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About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is the type of working mom who opens her car door and junk spills out all over the ground. She serves as Executive Editor of The Good Men Project and is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on sites like Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, hlntv.com, and more. Joanna loves playing with her sons, skateboarding with her husband, and hanging out with friends. She just finished her first novel. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I think the problem with Modern Family is that every character is a one-dimensional cartoon. The dad is the “oh he’s so goofy, he can’t look after himself!” man from every cleaning-product commercial in the world. The mum is a control-freak, nagging housewife who takes care of the kids and patronises everybody; that unfortunate shrapnel from the feminist explosion. They have the boys-will-be-boys, silly son, one daughter gorgeous, but dumb, the other, clever but plain because, you know, girls can’t be both.
    The show as a whole, can be funny, but is not appropriate as education! Maybe when real people can be open about their sexuality (politicians, sports stars etc) then we will have a proper picture that gays are just as boring as the rest of us!

    PS One cool, subversive and layered gay character on TV that I just love is Omar Little from The Wire. He’s so different to the usual archetypes. He’s had moments of minor flamboyance and is so NOT repressed but he’s also a tough, scary guy!

  2. I think this is a state of evolution of TV. First we get a few decades of cardboard cut-out tokens, and they slowly take on depth as the hivemind decides America is ready for it. For the longest time, TV hasn’t had many families that didn’t look like Dad, Mom, 2.5 kids and a dog. There are more divorced families on TV now. It’s good.

    I don’t watch TV. I just got Netflix again after taking the summer off. Watching season 2 of Louie, the gay couple that appears in I think the third episode. They’re different stereotypes, but it’s such a self-conscious choice—he sets one up reverently, which is another way we deal with the discomfiting Other—and uses it in the storyline. He did this on his other show with the black family who lived down the hall. He plays with white guilt and sitcom tropes.

  3. I’m not the biggest fan of Mitch and Cam either, but it’s entirely not their fault–it’s their writers’. As real life people, the actors are great. But their characters are so poorly developed (as with the rest of Mod Fam) that you feel they would never talk to each other after the cameras turn off. They’re also entirely devoid of “couples emotions.” They bicker, but they don’t fight. They’re cute together, but you never get that “awwww” feeling (like when you see your grandparents holding hands). In the four seasons of the show, we’ve only seen them kiss once – and it was just a quick peck. They’re perfectly packed for mainstream (conservative) America: we get a cute, likeable same-sex couple, without ever mentioning or seeing what same-sex couples do when they’re in their bedroom.

    As a gay man, I find Bryan and David, in the New Normal to be more representative of gay relationships that I know, including my own. Bryan’s over the top campiness (which, yes, is a bit stretched) balances out David’s more subdued personality (or vice versa) in a way that is much more believable than Mitch and Cam. Two Davids would never be together in real life, and neither would two Bryans. But there’s a “David” and a “Bryan” in almost every gay couple I know, even if they’re not as fabulous as the Bryan we see in the show. In terms of “couples emotions,” New Normal knocked it out of the park in only its first few episodes. They’ve kissed (actually kissed, not just a peck) more times than Mod Fam has in its entire 4-season run. We’ve seen them in bed more times than Mod Fam, even if they’re just sitting there. In the episode where Bryan is verbally accosted in the department store, we saw more emotion than all of Mod Fam combined.

    Yes, David and Bryan are a little “cartoonish,” but it’s too soon to write them off as a poor representation of gay relationships. Remember, we’ve had only 6 episodes with them, compared to 76 with Mitch and Cam. I think as the New Normal continues, we’ll continue to like David and Bryan more and more.

  4. I agree with the above comment. I find the couple from The New Normal to be pretty realistic. I also really like Bryan, despite not wanting to, which I think is a testament to how the character is likeable in place of his faults.

    Ryan Murphy gets shat on a lot for characters being flat, but I think some folks just aren’t paying enough attention.

  5. Great post Joanna. I absolutely agree. I’ve been watching the New Normal, and I don’t think it does much more than parody real people. For all the buzz and hype this show got, it falls flat and it won’t be long before my DVR will stop recording it. I agree, Justin is very cool. I like him.

    Perhaps the evolution from the Jeffersons to the Cosby’s is what we’re looking for…humanizing these stereotypes and evoking empathy, compassion, and understanding. Afterall, we’re all humans.

  6. Wait… you’re expecting something other than shallow, one-dimensional stereotypes? From TELEVISION?

    Might want to take off those rose-colored glasses, folks. We straight guys know from personal experience that stereotypes are all TV will ever have to offer.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Wow, you’re missing a lot of great TV. Turn on Sons of Anarchy – any season (okay maybe not the third season at the beginning so much). Turn on Breaking Bad, Mad Men… There are a lot of amazing characters. Someone mentioned Omar from The Wire – there are GREAT characters on TV sometimes. Most aren’t network, I can agree there, but some are.

  7. Glad you took that article and ran with it, Joanna. As a gay couple who used surrogacy to create a family (but are a bit further along in the process of parenting — our kids are now 11 and 7), my husband and I were looking forward to this show, hopefully as one that might reflect our family and that we might watch with our kids. Unfortunately, we’d never let them near it due to the unceasing homophobic bombs tossed by the grandmother and the fact that the fashion-obsessed character seems to view children as just one more thing he can buy. After 3 episodes, we stopped watching. Maybe Ryan Murphy has a master plan, but having a character who’s decides to become a father on a whim because he imagines what a great accessory a baby could be unfortunately only validates the suspicions of those who oppose our right to marry and raise families. I am close to my family of origin and wanted to be a father my whole life. I could not imagine a life for myself that didn’t include a chance to build a family and raise kids, even when it seemed the most impossible of dreams. I consider myself supremely lucky to have been born at a time when it would become possible. I know a number of gay fathers and gay men who are trying to become fathers. None of them remotely resemble the shallow fashionista depicted on “The New Normal.” A genuine desire to parent is rooted in the concept of giving; the reality of it is rooted in the concept of giving more than you ever thought you could. And loving it. After “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family” one would have hoped we might finally graduate to a show about gay people, particularly gay couples, in which one of them didn’t have to be what I call the “gay Step n Fetchit” character. I suspect that’s all the network will allow, as over-the-top, fashion-obsessed queeny gays are proven laugh-getters, even as they reinforce cultural expectations rather than providing more realistic, unexpected ones. Maybe it will take a cable network to offer more realistic depictions of our lives (as “Six Feet Under” on HBO did so effectively a while back).

  8. wellokaythen says:

    I think it’s fair to say that gay couples are highly stereotyped on network TV. And, yeah, maybe they’re more stereotyped than other couples. But, it’s not like network TV (the 4 big networks) shows us a lot nuanced views of hetero relationships, at least not on half-hour comedies. Gay couples are extra stereotyped on a medium already awash in stereotypes.

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