Word Power

Why ‘Black-ish’ Has a Gay Problem

Just as GLAAD hails a successful year for gays on TV, Black-Ish, ABC’s new sitcom, seems content to indulge in casual homophobia.

10.03.14 9:50 AM ET

The second episode of ABC’s Black-ish was rumbling along, not scintillatingly, not appallingly, just rumbling along. One of the central themes was a parent struggling to talk to his teenage son about sex. This is a familiar comedy trope. Typically, the kernel of the joke is parental nervousness versus teenage knowledge, and the teen’s eye-rolling embarrassment at their parent’s lameness.

Black-ish focuses on the Johnsons, a well-off black family, and, like the other ABC family-focused sitcoms Modern Family and The Middle, it is full of smarts. It zips like all comedies seem to zip today, quick and nimble, its tone affectionate snark. Dre (Anthony Anderson), the middle-aged dad, is a bit of a doofus, trying to adapt yet outpaced by the modern world; Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), the mom, is comically self-involved; Pops (Laurence Fishburne), the grandpa, is crotchety and wry; and the children are smarter than all of them.

As Dre mulled over how to talk to Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) about sex, Pops appeared while his son was stretching.

“It looks a little gay,” Pops told him.

It looks a little gay. The act of stretching. Really? I guess a man doing yoga would be the sign he’d become the long-lost cousin of Liberace.

I had thought, stupidly, television was done with this lazy, insulting phrase—of something being “gay,” of an action being seen as “gay,” of people being told not to be so “gay.” I remember its defenders claiming it didn’t mean “gay” when they said it, just, y’know, “lame.”

They didn’t realize that by using “gay” and “lame” as interchangeable, they neatly demonstrated their own homophobia, and the intrinsic homophobia of something being deemed “gay.”

Black-ish’s mini-outbreak of gay fear happened on the same day that ABC came in third place (out of four), with a score of 34 percent in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) Network Responsibility Index (NRI), which rates the quality and inclusiveness of LGBT content and TV shows’ LGBT characters across four broadcast and 10 cable networks.

My colleague Kevin Fallon hailed the last year, rightly, as a year of welcome change, which makes moments like this in Black-ish feel that much more depressing, particularly as the issue of black homophobia is so charged in itself.

Whatever, Black-ish’s ease with deploying the phrase shows ABC’s own apparent ease with the lazy, “gay” insult’s place in primetime. Even more surprising and saddening, it crops up on a supposedly radical, equality-signaling show about an upper-middle-class black family.

It might seem a throwaway phrase, and not something to get too riled about, but a fundamental attitude about someone’s or a TV show’s attitude toward homosexuality is neatly enshrined in Black-ish’s disparaging use of the word “gay”—a dismissiveness, an easy laugh, a deliberate, lazy play to a gallery of stereotypes.

Yes, it’s a fleeting moment, spoken with a jokey smile; it’s not violent nor does it overtly incite hatred. But in its own swiftness, its own immediate signaling to the audience of what Black-ish thinks about gay people, Pops’ “It looks a little gay” is insulting. Imagine the rightful morning-after furor if a racial slight had been broadcast in primetime.

But Black-ish wasn’t done. Later, after taking his own shirt off in a supposed show of manliness, Dre freaked out when Andre Jr. copied him. “Two shirtless dudes standing around for a while starts to look a little weird,” Dre told him.

Let’s be clear here: “Weird” means “gay,” and the expression on Dre’s face—curdling disgust, fear, apprehension, all in one delightful scowl—made it clear what the idea of being thought of as weird/gay meant to him and, by extension, what he wanted his son to feel at the thought of it too. It underscored that homosexuality is bad, homosexuality is something to be feared, and that you must be watchful or fearful of doing or saying anything that might indicate you are gay, or that seems “gay.” You know: anything too sensitive, thoughtful, too sharing, too out there. Like you being two men with your shirts off. What would people think?

Throughout the episode, Andre Jr. showed these qualities of being too open and sharing, of being too “gay,” as Pops would have it, of not being manly and closed-off enough; and the episode spent much comedic time showing how this openness freaked his father out. He wanted to bond with his son, shirts off talking husky, masculine generalities; his son wanted to know about sexual positions.

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The status quo restored after half an hour of joking and mugging for the camera was that Andre Jr. should ask his mother for sexual specifics. He readily agreed, saying his shirtless father was embarrassing and “weird”—signaling that, quite independently, he too had his own idea of what being too “gay” might mean. At least father and son were in alignment on this central thesis: acting “gay”—bad; being thought of as gay—bad. Being gay—eugh, the ultimate: unimaginable.

If this seems a tortuous deconstruction, apologies: it bears writing, because gay campaigners sweat the big stuff—when the Duck Dynasty morons say something hideous, for example, or when one of the Glee kids delivers a heartfelt coming out speech. But their attention and activism would be better paid addressing the tropes of fear and phobia silently woven into the fabric of our comedies and dramas. It’s a less glamorous campaign to wage, but it’s more valuable in the long term in addressing LGBT representation.

Black-ish’s quietly stinging insult occurred just as the brilliant and moving film Pride, about the blooming of a lesbian and gay support group for striking mineworkers in mid-1980s Britain, also encountered its own mysterious homophobia stateside.

The film, which features a diverse bunch of gay activists forming connections with a working-class mining community, has been given an R rating by American censors, this despite it featuring no sex whatsoever—gay, straight, whatever. Perhaps they found Pride’s left-wing idealist heart more dangerous than any sweat-coated flesh. Whatever, the certification is absurd and should be changed immediately.

These controversies may seem unconnected and they may lack immediate gasp-shock value, but their very being reveals homophobia and ignorance. Just as GLAAD hails a good year for gays on TV, just as we like to think representations are moving forward, both Black-ish’s anti-gay riffs and Pride’s censorship battle reminds us of the nitty-gritty hurdles of prejudice that remain in popular culture.

GLAAD didn’t respond to enquiries from The Daily Beast for comment about either Black-ish or Pride, possibly because they don’t see either brouhaha as worthy of their headline-chasing time, or possibly—in Black-ish’s case—they are nervous about taking on a “black” show for its homophobia. ABC also did not return calls for comment.

Let’s hope both parties’ silence signals embarrassment: one hopes that the censors relent, American cinemas take Pride to their hearts, and the film is seen by as many people as possible; and that Black-ish’s gay-fear moment was a one-off, rather than a sign of “jokes” to come.