Genre Entertainment & Gay Representation – Better or Worse Than The Mainstream?

In support of Yam Mag’s LGBT Blogathon , I look at the state of “genre” TV today. Hmm …

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Probably the number one comedy in the country, according to people who keep these types of statics handy for advertisers, is Modern Family, a highly rated comedy that I must admit I’ve never gotten. Oh, maybe it’s improved since the pilot, but I watched that, didn’t laugh once, and never returned. (Sorry, but there’s a lot of shows begging for my attention. I will give you a chance, but if there’s nothing I’m even remotely interested in, I probably won’t come back again. Not enough time in the day.) There’s also an argument to be made about me having shitty taste in comedies, although I will argue this until you pry my Mr. Show DVDs out of my cold, dead hands.

But the notable thing about Modern Family, besides placing me outside the mainstream in my tastes – what a shocker – is that, amongst the couples it features, one is gay. Which is fantastic, because the more gay visibility the better, even if One Million Moms (more accurately, Thirty Six Women Who Need Prozac and a Hobby) typically get their granny panties in a big old wad if they see two people of the same sex sharing a photograph. This brings up a question, though – how many of the lead characters in a network television are gay? If you count Kurt from Glee, it’s … three, with Cam and Mitch taking the top slots.

I don’t watch Glee either. No, I’ve always been more of a fan of what they call “genre” television, which means anything that might have dork appeal. Traditionally, genre refers to stuff outside the mainstream, so you’d think there’d be more so called outsider types – such as gays and lesbians – in those programs. Would you be right?

As it stands, yes and no. Yes, in that a couple of programs of note are very gay friendly. Tops of this list is True Blood, the campy vampire soap opera that has a rare gay character of color, a barrier HBO already broke with the legendary bad ass character Omar Little in The Wire, who has to be counted as one of the best characters on television, regardless of orientation. (Come on, he was top to bottom fascinating, an anti-hero who was often far more responsible than the cops that occasionally tried to bring him in, a vigilante with a personal code he wouldn’t break, even as he broke laws left and right. You couldn’t help but root for this guy.) HBO seems to actively court a gay audience as well as a straight one, and bless them for that, even though really they’re only stepping out of the way of writers and showrunners, who want to include gay characters in their stories. Some of them are gay as well, and some aren’t.

Next up, I’d place the surprising The Venture Brothers from Cartoon Network. Now admittedly Shore Leave is a supporting character, but he’s a super rare animal in that he sounds like a stereotypical “queen”, with a lispy, somewhat effeminate voice, and yet he’s a bad ass super spy, often seen fighting and killing alongside his spy compatriot Brock Samson. And he’s not the only gay on this show, as another superhero, The Alchemist, is also known to be gay and out, although magic is his superpower, not brute force. Everyone knows these characters are gay, and absolutely no one makes a big deal about it. And I haven’t even brought up Colonel Gentleman, yet another gay hero, although an irascible one of questionable goodness. (The fact that his character template is Sean Connery just adds a wonderful layer of blasphemy.) In the world of The Venture Brothers, your sexuality doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if you’re a hot woman who inexplicably has the basso profundo voice of a man. Since the take away message of VB is a family is ultimately something you make, not something you’re born into, this fits in very well. Possibly one of the gay friendliest shows on basic cable, and yes, it’s a cartoon.

Lost Girl is a Canadian import that plays on the Syfy Channel, and since the lead character, Bo, is a succubus, it makes sense that she’s bisexual, open to feeding on the sexual energy of any partner, gender (and number) be damned. It probably would have been a much braver choice if the lead were male (male bisexuals, I’m not sure you exist on television or in movies; according to them, all bisexuals are hot women), but since succubi are female (and incubi, at least in the traditional mythological sense, rapist demons that only prey on females), you have to take what you can get. Much like True Blood, it has a certain campy spirit to it, although it’s much lower budget means it has to try a little bit harder, but for the most part it succeeds. One of Bo’s love interests is a lesbian doctor, though, so that’s something.

Archer is another cartoon, although this one plays on FX, but it’s from the creator of the Cartoon Network’s gay friendly Frisky Dingo, so it’s no surprise that continues. One of the spies at the heart of the show, Gilette, is openly gay, although the character of Pam may be the more groundbreaking one here, as she’s your classic hedonist. She doesn’t define herself as straight or gay or bi; she’s willing to do whatever with whoever if she’s in the right mood, or if she’s had enough Green Russians (absinthe with milk, her own creation). The girl’s down to party, and she’s grown from being the butt of many jokes to one of the most sympathetic and funniest characters on the show, while also being a plus size gal to boot. Of all the characters on Archer, Pam seems like she’d be the most fun to hang out with.

But wither other genre programs? Game of Thrones had one in its sprawling cast, Renly, but he was killed this season. His boyfriend is still alive, but is so minor a character I’d be shocked to see him again in any capacity. No gays have ever shown up on The Walking Dead, although they do in the comic, so who knows how that will pan out. Teen Wolf has a gay character, but he’s so minor he’s maybe had a handful of sentences to date in the show’s run (that may change, since the show features as many shirtless males as a David DeCouteau film. If it doesn’t, you can call them on general hypocrisy, since the show is so homoerotic it’s almost kind of funny). Has there ever been a gay character of note on Vampire Diaries or Fringe? Warehouse 13 had a gay supporting character last season, but surprise, he’s dead. (Having said that, that doesn’t mean he can’t come back on this show, and there was always tension between the female lead and the female H. G. Wells, who is also dead, but again, not necessarily out of the show.) Eureka has a gay character so minor I can’t even recall his name. Doctor Who has been very gay friendly since its reboot, having featured characters of “fluid sexuality” many times, and while there’s no gay regular cast member at the moment, I had to include it here for the occasional guest character and general good naturedness of the show. Supernatural also lacks gay representation, but has had some gay guest characters, and the significant tension between Dean and the angel Castiel has always been one of unrequited love. I haven’t mentioned American Horror Story, which did have gay characters in the supporting cast, mainly because the show was so bloody horrible. I’m sorry, but it was. Not campy bad, just … bad.

But having gay roles and having genuine gay characters are two very different things. Here’s where the Venture Brothers vaults to the top, as the gay characters are as developed as the straight characters, and have distinctive personalities. Colonel Gentlemen is nothing like The Alchemist, who is nothing like Shore Leave, even though they’re all in the heroing business. Just like Hank is nothing like the Monarch, who is nothing like Doctor Orpheus. Somehow, a half hour animated comedy-drama is giving lessons on how to do this the right way.

Now the gays of True Blood, Lafayette and Pam, are technically nothing alike … except they generally have the funniest/bitchiest lines, and often not a hell of a lot to do. So they’re fun, but generally pretty negligible. (A step down, as Lafayette was the best character of TB’s first season. He’s been watered down mightily since then.) Gilette’s also fun on Archer, but save for some funny glimpses into his back story, only shows up now and again. Pam (what is it with women of open sexuality being given the name Pam on television? I feel like I’ve discovered something …) shows up more, and generally has more to do, possibly because she is great. Bo is the lead of Lost Girl, so she carries much of the dramatic load on her show, and has a great platonic relationship with a human sidekick named Kenzie. The glimpses we got of Renly before he was killed on Game of Thrones indicated he was probably a neat character, but we’ll never know for sure. Yeah, I think that’s it.

So while there are gays in genre programming, there aren’t many, and of those, only a few have genuine personalities and play a relatively significant part in the stories. And yet, they’re still doing a bit better than mainstream representation, which is kind of sad. But things appear to be changing on the mainstream front, as gay characters are showing up in more fall television shows, and who doesn’t love Max from the sitcom Happy Endings? He’s fantastic.

There’s few new upcoming genre shows, and I have no idea if there are any gay characters in them. Is this a step back, or is it status quo? Time will tell on that, but I hope genre shows can come back and take the lead, as they should do. Horror, science fiction, and fantasy have always been the best places to let your freak flag fly, to show off all that exists – and might, could, or shouldn’t – in this world, and that should extend to sexual orientation as well. We’re not all straight (or white, or American) and the characters should reflect that.

But please, don’t get me started about movies. Oy gevalt.

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