Hollywood, which once routinely depicted gay people as miserable, dysfunctional or tragic, now produces movies and TV shows — such as this summer’s film The Kids Are All Right, ABC’s Modern Family and Fox’s Glee — in which gay relationships and gay families are portrayed as just like other families — normal, unremarkable, no big deal.
“The general trajectory has them transitioning from minstrel acts and punch lines to relatable everyday characters,” says David Hauslaib, founder of Queerty, a media-watching blog “by and for the queer community.” He adds, “It’s a new era where (being a gay family) is no longer a significant part of the story.”
Why is this happening now? Is Hollywood following the culture, or is the culture following Hollywood?
“These stories are interesting, they’re edgy, they make for good entertainment,” he says. “Hollywood is a business, so they’re telling good stories because it’s good business. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have stories that are capturing the imaginations of Americans because fundamentally, we’re as American as everyone else.”
The Kids Are All Right is a comedy-drama starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a couple with two teens, who refer to them collectively as “Moms.” The plot (sperm-donor dad turns up, leading to laughter and tears) isn’t driven by the lesbian relationship; it would work the same if the couple were straight.
“It’s the perfect post-gay film,” says Howard Bragman, a Hollywood publicist known as the “coming-out guru” for helping gay celebs go public. “Gays are just part of the landscape, which is where we want to be.”
The opposition speaks out
It’s a landscape that many Americans still don’t accept.
Such movies and TV shows “desensitize the public to the raft of problems associated with homosexual behavior,” says Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, one of the proponents of Proposition 8, California’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage now tied up in court. “Hollywood is conveying a deceptive message about that behavior and doing a disservice to (viewers) who are coming to conclusions based on what they see on the silver screen. It’s a distortion of reality.”
Says Glenn Stanton, director of family studies for Focus on the Family: “When actual gay and lesbian weddings are shown on TV (as in news coverage), we win. When they’re shown through the lens and creativity and artifice of Hollywood, we don’t. Hollywood is succeeding, but they’re doing so by not representing reality.”
Defenders of films and TV shows that depict the ordinary, even mundane, details of gay family life say that’s exactly what it is — reality.
Kids, which is already stirring Oscar talk for Bening, is unclear about whether the women are legally married, but they behave as if they were married, their kids and other characters treat them as if they were married, and at one point one of the women actually says, “I’m married.”
“It shows how regular our families are; it goes a long way toward gay and lesbian families introducing ourselves to straight families as not that much different,” says Dustin Lance Black, the writer/director who won an Oscar for the screenplay of Milk, about murdered San Francisco politician Harvey Milk (played by straight actor Sean Penn, who won an Oscar). Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California.
“And unlike in Milk and so many (past) gay movies, the lead characters don’t die,” Black adds.
For a small art-house film, Kids has demonstrated success at the box office: a respectable $18 million since it opened this summer. Director Lisa Cholodenko, herself a lesbian mom, says she didn’t set out to tell a political story or even a lesbian story; she set out to tell a family story.
“We wanted to make a film about a family and a marriage in midlife, at a low point, the things you don’t see in most movies about what families look like behind closed doors,” she told USA TODAY’s Donna Freydkin.
Gay-friendly roles on TV
Entertainment friendly to gays and gay relationships is proliferating, especially on TV.
•On Glee, a hit about the triumphs and travails of a high school glee club, the story line featured a subplot in which teen-age Kurt comes out as gay to his father, who is not as homophobic as expected.
•On Modern Family, the lineup includes a gay couple, played by Eric Stonestreet (straight) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (gay), who have adopted a baby and are eagerly, comically trying to fit into the new-parent life. The show has been critically acclaimed and popular, and co-creator Steve Levitan says there has been virtually no push-back from opponents of gay marriage.
“We set out to do a family show with different kinds of families because it seemed to us that families are changing and (a gay family) was a logical type to explore,” Levitan says. “We didn’t think it was the most commercial choice. We thought it might marginalize our audience a bit, but much to our surprise, it hasn’t.”
•On ABC’s Ugly Betty, the final season ended this spring with an understated yet affecting episode in which Betty’s fashion-obsessed teen nephew, Justin, comes out to his loving Latino family, marking the first time a network audience watched a gay child grow up and embrace his identity. Other shows, such as Gossip Girl, United States of Tara, 90210 and Weeds, also have featured story lines about teens in various stages of self-recognition.
•A number of network dramas feature gay characters whose problems/issues have little to do with being gay. On Fox’s House, the bisexual Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley has more angst about her Huntington’s disease than her sexuality. And on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, the gay brother and his spouse are way less whiny and screwed up than some of his siblings.
•CBS, which received a failing grade recently in GLAAD’s annual report rating TV networks on use of gay characters and programming, just announced that three gay characters will be added to three shows next season: the highly regarded The Good Wife, the returning half-hour Rules of Engagement and new comedy $#*! My Dad Says.
CBS also will launch a The View-style show this fall featuring actress Sara Gilbert (Roseanne) as executive producer and panelist. Gilbert had never discussed her private life, but at the news conference announcing the show, she acknowledged she is a lesbian mother with a partner.
•At least two network shows this fall will feature story lines about California’s Proposition 8, according to AfterElton.com, which tracks depictions of gays in the media: NBC‘s new Law & Order: Los Angeles will explore the various religious groups that funded the campaign for Prop. 8, while cable channel FX‘s dark comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphiawill showcase story lines about one character’s freak-out reaction to the marriage of a transgendered character, and two other male characters who form a domestic partnership to get health care benefits.
“I really do think every year it gets a little bit better,” says Candis Cayne, a transgendered actress who has appeared in ABC’s now-canceled Dirty Sexy Moneyand Lifetime’s hit Drop Dead Diva in transgendered roles.
‘There will come a day …’
“Five years ago, ABC would never have put on a transgendered woman in a loving relationship with someone — it just wouldn’t have happened,” says Cayne, who hopes to be cast in dramatic roles playing straight women. “There will come a day that will happen — I know it.”
So is the entertainment industry now ahead of the culture or just following it?
“The overarching movement is in the culture,” says Stephanie Coontz, history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and an expert on contemporary families. “Hollywood never had the courage or strength or ability to get positive portrayals of gays until things began to change in the culture at large.
“When it did, Hollywood jumped on it. But they couldn’t do it unless marketers and investors realized there’s an audience for it.”
Eric Stonestreet, left, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson play a couple getting used to being adoptive parents.