McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

The Portrayal of Gay Characters in Television Comedy since 1980

Prominent gay characters within television comedy has been a fairly recent phenomenon, with thanks mainly to high profile US series' Ellen and Will & Grace. Ellen DeGeneres played one of the first gay lead characters in a television comedy as Ellen Morgan in Ellen. During the 1997-1998 season, she came out both as a character and an actress in a much-anticipated episode of sitcom, highlighting the seeming acceptance of gay characters within both the industry and in television comedy. TIME magazine reported on the increase in gay characters on television in the late 1990's, stating "prime time has seen an influx of popular, prominent and well rounded gay characters." (Poniewozik, 1999) The article continues by highlighting how the boundaries between gay and straight characters have become increasingly blurred - "there's so much cachet in being gay that even straight characters are trying it." (Poniewozik, 1999)

But how true is this evolution of the gay character on television? Despite the seeming acceptance and positive portrayal of these characters by the late 90's, the magazine, in a separate article, reports how gay characters account for only 2% of televisions' overall roster of characters. (Poniewozik, 1999) Poniewozik argues that straight actors playing gay characters are more readily accepted - the demise of Ellen after her coming-out episode is an example of this, vs. Eric McCormack, a straight actor, playing Will Truman in Will and Grace. (Poniewozik, 1999) In line with the popularity of the 'gay best friend', Poniewozik argues that gay characters are often placed within television comedies to "bestow hipness on their shows, serving as a conduit to cred for the majority group, just as racial minorities have in the past." (Poniewozik, 1999) Does this demonstrate that despite growth in prominence, the inclusion of a gay character is not a true representation of a gay person - are we still relying on stereotypes to increase audience acceptance? Much of the discussion surrounding the issues raised in this paper is concerned with culture, identity and media representation - "media-and-consumer society, where reality disintegrates altogether into images and spectacles, epitomised by television and the tabloid press."(Thompson, 1997) Key theories on 'queer culture' suggest that "both gender and sexuality are ambiguous, shifting, unstable and too complex to fit neatly in an either/or model." (Dines, 2002) This concept could be perceived as being difficult to show within the realm of comedy, and perhaps this is why gay characters have been quicker to appear more as fully drawn characters within the drama genre. The evolution of the gay character, I believe, forms part of the timeline of cultural growth and acceptance of the homosexual within society as a whole, and this paper will demonstrate this evolution, citing key programmes which have formed part of the development.

It seems that that there is no doubt that the prominence of gay characters in television comedy has increased since the 1980's, and that these characters have evolved to be more than camp, effeminate figures only providing comic turns. The emergence in the UK of more gay musicians, actors and comedians can only mean that this characterisation should continue to evolve. Prominent gay figures in British television have, for Boome, "paved the way for a more modern breed of gay television performer." (Boome, 2004) He cites, "Paul O'Grady swiftly graduated from gay club to primetime TV and straight into the nation's hearts, reaching a widespread fan-base of young and old….Graham Norton too became one of the nation's favourites." (Boome, 2004) Actor James Dreyfus also demonstrated how the gay character had evolved in the 1999 series, Gimme Gimme Gimme, playing gay actor Tom, living with Lynda, played by Kathy Burke. As a character, Tom "fought above his weight but holding his own…too scurrilous for some tastes but a huge hit with those who could wholeheartedly embrace its vibrant blending of gay wit and the earthy bawdiness." (Lewisohn, 2003) Despite the character of Tom being more of the camp stereotypical characters previously seen, his vulnerability and ability to hold his own against his formidable housemate shows the evolution of characterisation.

To conclude, I feel that there have been huge steps forward in the evolution and portrayal of the gay character since the 1980's, however it is still seemingly - even in a society deeply concerned with acceptance and difference - a struggle for acceptance, both on screen and off.

Related Links
To Top