In case you missed it, Shonda Rhimes, the noteworthy executive producer of one of this season’s most popular new dramas How to Get Away With Murder, put the smack down on someone who suggested that the gay scenes in both Scandal and HTGAWM were extraneous to the plot, tweeting that “there are no GAY scenes. There are scenes with people in them.” The implication, of course, is that gay characters are people just like everyone else, a point driven home by Rhimes’ expressed belief that love is universal.
When I read her response, part of me was exhilarated. “You tell ’em!” that part of me shouted, grateful that another homophobe had been shot down. Another part, however, was far less sanguine about Rhimes’ comment, wondering, “Are we now just people? Are we truly living a post-gay world?”
Some time ago, while reading through my comps list on feminist and queer theory, I came upon two books that would substantially shape how I think of the way that sexuality works within the realm of media representation. One is perhaps the seminal text on queer representation, Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet. The other, more recent work is Patricia White’s rigourously argued and researched book Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Ultimately, Russo urges his queer readers to stop looking to Hollywood for valuable and or positive representations of queer folks, because the very signifying system is itself so thoroughly and irrevocably heterocentrist that anything resembling a nuanced portrayal of queer love or identity is practically out of the question. White raises an even more complex (and in some ways infinitely more vexing) question, when she suggests that “the oft-heard desire for non-stereotypical, ‘well-rounded’ gay and lesbian characters in film [and I would extend this argument to TV] may go against the very conditions of our visibility” (146). In other words, the very fact that a character appears as gay renders her, by definition, a gay character, one who is at least to some degree defined by their sexuality.
Now, there has been a growing tide of voices, and Rhimes’ is among them, calling for a universalizing “love,” for moving away from an identity-politics mode in which one’s political and social identity remains defined at least in some degree by the positions that one occupies within one’s society, e.g. race, sexuality, gender, etc. We saw this with Raven Simone’s declaration with Oprah that she now longer sees the need to be defined by or identify as her African American identity. And I hear all the time about how millennials disavow all of the political identities that characterized their generational predecessors, including environmentalist, feminist, queer rights activist, the list goes on and on. Perhaps no other cultural sign indicates the ubiquity of this mindset more tan the plethora of -posts that litter the mediascape: postfeminist, postmarxist, post-closet, post-gay, post-race, blah blah blah.
But are we really there yet? Have we really reached a state of queer utopia in which all manner of sexualities and genders are fully recognized, when it no longer matters whether you’re gay or bi or trans, when any of those sexual characteristics become just another aspect of a TV character’s personality? Have we really reached a point where the norm no longer exists and we can just do what we please in terms of sexuality in gender? Is TV, in other words, really queer?
To put it bluntly, of course not. Cam and Mitch of Modern Family are certainly the most visible queer folks on TV right now, and they’re about as normative (and largely asexual) as you can get, still striving toward that middle-class, white, heterosexual norm that is really what most people mean when they say they want to be like everyone else (or “normal”). Queer sex is okay, this seems to suggest, as long as its done in the safety of the bedroom or on those sexy and deviant pay channels like HBO and Showtime, away from the innocent eyes of the children. If anything, Connor (the gay character from How to Get Away with Murder) is such a pleasure to watch precisely because his desires are untamed and unapologetic, that they refuse to be channeled into appropriateness (although, alas, it seems the series might be trying to put him into a monogamous relationship). Gay sex is on screen on a network TV drama; far from being irrelevant, it’s an incredibly important moment in queer representability, and we should be open about accepting that fact and shout from the rooftops that queer sex is not just like every other kind of sex and that that’s perfectly okay. It’s past time that we stop being ashamed of queer sex (especially promiscuity) and, for crying out loud, stop labeling it as deviant.
I fully recognize that we have come a long way from the bad old days of TV, where a gay character’s narrative (when it appeared) would center around his struggle with AIDS (which almost always ended tragically), his coming out (which would shock everyone including, presumably, the audience), or around a hate crime (another form of tragedy). Nor am I suggesting that there is an easy answer when it comes to the thorny question of queer visibility and representability (and it’s the latter that poses a particular problem). However, what I do want to suggest is that we stop pretending as if being just like everyone else is the panacea for all of our social and cultural woes, because it isn’t. Not really. Monogamy is just one of many choices one can make as a queer person, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. What I’m asking for is to move away from the universalizing discourse, precisely because it pretends as if there is a universal that we can strive for. What’s wrong with being queer, anyway? To put it bluntly: NOTHING.
What are your thoughts? Are we living in an “post-gay” era of television? Are there actually queer characters in the television landscape? Should there be? Feel free to share in the comments!