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Gay Visability in Media Programming

While most of the attention of the gay press has been focused on Proposition 8 and the presidential election, one story that is not receiving enough attention is the firing of actress Brooke Smith from the show Grey’s Anatomy. Smith’s character, Erica Hahn, had recently started a romance with Sara Ramirez’s character Callie Torres, making them the only lesbian couple on prime time network television.

The abrupt removal of a potentially interesting storyline was handled clumsily. Smith had no idea she was being taken off the show, and program creator Shonda Rhimes insisted that the character’s orientation played no role in the decision, but there are reasons to doubt the official story. Rumors persist that executives at ABC decided that gay storylines were too controversial, a theory fuelled by previous interviews where Rhimes spoke of exploring the coming out process of Callie and Erica in future episodes, including the reaction of their families and co-workers. Clearly, Rhimes planned on making their relationship a central part of the program, so to suddenly suggest the characters lacked “chemistry” makes no sense. Additionally, a new character, Sadie, (played by Melissa George) was intended to be bisexual, but is now a straight woman.

The situation is so strange that Isaiah Washington, who was kicked off the show for hurling homophobic epithets at T.R. Knight, called the decision “disgusting” and “extremely unfair.” How is that for irony?

Perhaps ABC just has issues with gay people. Rebecca Romijn, who played a transgendered character on Ugly Betty, was recently taken off the show. And while they broadcast Ellen, they were also concerned that it became “too gay” once the lead character came out. Fortunately, her ratings enabled her to stay on the air.

Unfortunately, what happened on Grey’s Anatomy is a reminder of the double standard gay and lesbian characters face in the mainstream media. Grey’s Anatomy is a show that is based around the sexual exploits of its characters, including their willingness to do the nasty on a moment’s notice, in any environment. But when two women explore their lesbian identity in a relationship, it is deemed too explicit and grounds for dismissal, even though lying in nightgowns and kissing is as raunchy as Erica and Callie got on screen.

There is also the possibility that Smith, a regular-looking woman, was not considered glamorous enough to pique straight men’s fantasies about lipstick lesbians. As the popularity of “girl on girl” action in film and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” demonstrate, lesbian desire is more acceptable if it is portrayed as a temporary diversion from a heterosexual relationship and the women involved maintain the stereotypical standard of beauty.

In a society where it can be dangerous to live an openly gay life, television and film are often credited with doing a great deal for advancing the cause of gay rights. But at what point will we get more realistic depictions of our lives? Too frequently, gay and lesbian characters are treated like accessories to a larger story about heterosexual enlightenment or coolness. Philadelphia was an important movie for its time in terms of bringing AIDS to the big screen, but the gay community seemed to be nonexistent, and the premise of a homphobic lawyer being the advocate for a gay character was, frankly, absurd. Hopefully the upcoming movie on Harvey Milk, given its historical theme, will be more accurate.

While television often prides itself on its diversity, LGBT characters were only 2.6 of the characters on network programming, according to a survey by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation earlier this year. And as Grey’s Anatomy proved, those characters can be easily eliminated.

Will and Grace was one of the most successful programs aimed at a gay audience, and was certainly entertaining, but the show was criticized for its inability or refusal to provide Will and Jack with significant relationships for much of its duration. As with lesbians, showing the romantic relationships among gay men seems to be a final frontier for television.

Noah’s Arc was a breakthrough program in terms of showcasing gay people of color, and considering all the dicey racial issues raised in the aftermath of Proposition 8, one can only hope more programs about a diverse gay community are forthcoming.

Gay visibility in the media has come a long way in the last twenty years. But we should not let the existence of Logo, Here!, and the gay-friendly programming on the Sundance Channel prevent us from demanding better, more nuanced portrayals of our community.

From “Blackout” 11/17/17 by Anthony Rucker


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