Comments from The Outpost

When Being Gay is News!

11 April 1997

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

I sometime get the feeling that I'm really out of touch with a lot of what most Americans get from their television sets. It's not that I have a great philosophical aversion to watching television, really... Ok, so I have a small philosophical aversion to watching television. Mostly, it's just that TV watching is too far down on my interest list to actually get any time.

This problem came up again this week when I contemplated the cover of one of the national news magazines. It featured the picture of an attractive woman, thirty-to-fortyish, with the caption indicating that she had just come out as gay. Well, that's nice, I thought, but who is this person and why would her coming out be considered at all newsworthy?

See? That's what I get for not watching television. It turns out this person is not just your next door neighbor but is the star of a weekly national TV sitcom and, therefore, completely famous. Yes, despite the declining trend of network ratings, TV stars still make news even whey they do something that other ordinary people do all the time.

There is some real news here, of course, and it isn't particularly about Ellen DeGeneres who plays the title role on the TV show "Ellen". The "news" is that a national TV show is going to have a gay person in a lead role. That is, not only has the actress who plays the role come out as gay, but the character she portrays will do likewise in an upcoming episode.

I applaud this decision. The producers of the show may have slipped into this without particular intention, but as the situation evolved, they did decide to go with it. The remarkable thing, and a somewhat depressing one at that, is that this decision is considered incredibly controversial in the world of contemporary commercial television.

And indeed, it certainly has its detractors. The American Family Association Journal decried casual, illicit sex, and bemoaned a sea of moral irresponsibility. William Kristol, a conservative editor and commentator, wasn't all that upset but only because he considers this just a drop in the ocean of all the bad stuff that already comes out of Hollywood.

This serves as a strong reminder, should we tend to forget, that a large segment of the American population is still very anti-gay and is vocally opposed to any representation, especially any positive representation, of gay roles in a public context.

But the topic here is television, and the point is that television is still one of the most vanilla and white bread institutions in the country, at least when it comes to the traditional so-called moral issues. And despite this development, which represents a less restrictive outlook, in other ways, things seem to be back-sliding. One TV producer noted that no TV show today would remotely consider having a lead character decide to have an abortion, which was in fact done on a show in 1972. Another producer asserted that an episode of Seinfeld which dealt with masturbation couldn't possibly be done today. Those who insist that TV maintain a fairyland image where the things that they don't like just don't exist hold continued and perhaps increasing sway.

The most obvious reason for these trends is that more organized pressure is brought to bear on advertisers, and advertisers, being no more motivated by principle than they ever were, are quick to withdraw from any show that doesn't stick to the principle of least offense.

Yes, commercial television is still beholden to a variety of forces which pretty much dictate that the range of ideas on view be rather limited. And regrettably, the exclusion of a range of ideas serves the agenda of groups in our society who would prefer to exclude a range of people because of who they are or what they believe.

For now though, the direction taken by the producers of "Ellen" is commendable. Hopefully, they will use the opportunity to explore some of the real life experiences of a gay adult in a balanced way that isn't dictated by the propaganda of various interest groups. At the moment, TV is a step ahead of the "don't ask, don't tell, and for sure don't DO" policy of certain other parts of society. They are going to tell. As for the doing, well, I suspect that's a ways off.

It will be interesting to watch whether and how these questions are confronted. Who know, it might be interesting to watch the show too. Now where did I put those TV listings...

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost, proudly brought to you on the radio. And for WMBR Radio, this is Dan Murphy.

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