The Gays Are Taking Over TV (Well, Kind Of)
An encouraging report from GLAAD reveals that responsible portrayals of LGBT characters are increasing across the major networks. What’s changed—and how far is there still to go?
You might have suspected it when you saw Mitch and Cam get married. You may have really gotten the picture when a hot male lawyer had graphic sex with a guy he met at a bar on last week’s How to Get Away With Murder premiere. But now it’s official: The gays are taking over TV.
Well, that may be an overstatement. In fact, it’s definitely an overstatement. But something big is going on.
GLAAD released its eighth annual Network Responsibility Index (NRI) Tuesday, which rates the quality and inclusiveness of LGBT content and TV shows’ LGBT characters across four broadcast and 10 cable networks, as well as its annual “Where We Are on TV” report, which counts the number of LGBT characters on TV. In other words, the organization is not only surveying whether or not we’re seeing gays on TV, but also whether those gays are doing anything interesting: Does the writing move beyond tired pop-culture stereotypes and reductions of the community to flamboyant caricature, and give these characters meaty storylines worthy of their straight counterparts?
For the first time, three networks received “Excellent” ratings on the NRI: MTV, ABC Family, and HBO. HBO, perhaps, wouldn’t be surprising, given the commissioning of the gay-romance dramedy Looking this past season, and the high-profile airing of The Normal Heart. But it’s the high ranking of MTV and ABC Family that is refreshing, as both networks, in a way, represent the future of TV, with its young target demographics, who will come to expect these kinds of portrayals of LGBT characters and demand them from all programming in the future.
MTV, specifically, is an interesting case.
It’s been decades since video killed the radio star, and in that time MTV has all-but killed music videos, too—or at least stopped showing them—a controversial decision that has made the network’s identity an object of ridicule for those who remember the VJs and Michael Jackson’s music video epics they’d tune-in to see. But fast-forward to the year 2014, and the network’s decision to abandon music videos in favor of increasingly scripted programming has evolved into a good, or at least important, one.
MTV led cable networks with 49 percent of its programming including LGBT impressions this year, thanks to programs like Awkward, Faking It, and Wait ‘Til Next Year. Teen Wolf even features a relationship between a gay lacrosse player and a male werewolf. Progress knows no bounds, or species.
The interesting thing about these programs is that they are actually really good, quality TV shows. They’re not pandering to a younger demographic, they are sharply written, provocative shows that are worthy of their eyeballs. And it shouldn’t be discounted that these younger viewers are responding to these programs that are so responsible and inclusive in their portrayal of LGBT characters.
MTV, even when it was a purveyor of music videos, was founded on the idea of capturing a movement—embodying a socio-cultural idea of the present and future that is far more progressive then what other networks might reflect. While the network may no longer show those videos, it certainly, it seems based on this report, has not abandoned that mission.
GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report found an increase in the sheer number of LGBT characters from last year, up to 3.9 percent of scripted primetime regulars. Numbers, of course, is one thing—quality is another, which is why GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index is an important measure, as it also measures the quality of depictions of LGBT characters, and how fair, accurate and inclusive their representations are.
What does that mean? It, admittedly, seems fairly arbitrary when you read through GLAAD’s report, but you can do your own surmising about what quality depictions means, based on what you’ve watched on TV this past season. Perhaps you’ve noticed that gay characters have stopped only appearing when the straight magazine editor lead attends a fashion show, literally skips in to deliver two sassy one-liners, and then disappears forever, probably without ever being named.
Now they fall in love. (Chris Colfer’s Kurt on Glee.) They get married. (Mitch and Cam on Modern Family.) They have sex—the kind of sex we’ve watched straight people have on TV for years. (Lest we forget, the aforementioned male-male interracial analingus in primetime on How to Get Away with Murder.) And even better, now they have storylines that have nothing to do with falling in love, being gay, or their sexuality, like Andre Braugher’s deadpan police captain on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Jeff Perry’s devious puppet master Cyrus Beene on Scandal. (Though TV shows now exist on major networks that are entirely about gayness and gay sexuality, like Looking on HBO, which is just as important—even if Looking is a bit drab.)
These things maybe don’t seem surprising—and shouldn’t—to casual TV viewers who see the progressive portrayals on shows like Orange Is the New Black, applauded Laverne Cox as the first openly transgender actress nominated for a Primetime Emmy, and look back at how “controversial” Will and Grace was at the time and laughs at the ludicrousness of it all.
But Hollywood still is stalling when it was comes to LGBT representation in film. Last year, its report on the film industry gave two studios failing grade and ruled representation to be, as The Wrap puts it, “painfully low”: of 102 releases from major studios, only 17 included characters that identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—all in minor roles.
When you look at those facts, then this positive report about the state of “gays on TV,” to reduce it to a single cause, is actually surprising—especially when you look at the networks that fall on the other side of the spectrum.
A&E earned a “Failing” grade on the NRI index, with just 6 percent of its programming considered LGBT-inclusive—“due almost entirely to a gay couple on Storage Wars: NY,” according to GLAAD. This metric might be the biggest “duh” of them all, though, given Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s recent bigoted comments. And in last place was the History Channel, with an abysmal 1 percent on the NRI index.
No broadcast network even approaches the scores received by MTV, FX, or ABC Family on cable, though NBC and FOX scored 37 and 36 percent, respectively, on the index. And the gap between the top 5 cable networks—MTV, FX, ABC Family, Showtime, and HBO—and the bottom 5—TLC, USA, TNT, A&E, and History—is jarringly sharp.
GLAAD’s rankings of the networks are below. You can read their reports here.
1. NBC 37 percent 2. FOX 36 percent 3. ABC 34 percent 4. CBS 28 percent
1. MTV 49 percent 2. FX 49 percent 3. ABC Family 42 percent 4. Showtime 34 percent 5. HBO 31 percent 6. TLC 17 percent 7. USA 17 percent 8. TNT 9 percent 9. A&E 6 percent 10. History 0 percent