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Queer Television from 1990 until today

The following essay was presented during a lecture I gave in February 2014 at the Science Slam of the Institut für Kunstpädagogik, J.-W. Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The lecture can be viewed on Youtube, only in German. But not everybody speaks or understands German–that’s why I summed it all up in English right here:

I have studied queer lifestyles for a while now, especially their portrayal on US American TV shows aired over the last 20 years (approx. 1990 until today). You may want to ask, “But what does queer mean anyway?” And what about acronyms like LGBT or LGBTQIA or LGBTTQQIAA?

Each character represents a word, while the term queer translates into two levels: on the one hand, it means everything non-heterosexual (gay, lesbian, etc), on the other hand, it is challenging heteronormativity, i.e. culturally constructed gender binary.

When looking at the big picture, the impression left by TV and TV shows seems to be positively satisfactory, one might be inclined to say: Great, so much has happened in the last 20 years on TV shows, so many identities have been portrayed!  But is this actually the case? Lesbians: Yes, they were portrayed. Gays: Yep. Bisexuals or Pansexuals: Yes. But how about other identities? Transgender and transsexual people, were hardly ever portrayed – In the last 20 years, there were one or two relevant transgender persons on TV shows.  As for queers, i.e. people who decline to be labelled – there was only one portrayed as well. No intersexuals were shown. And asexuals? Two.

But why start in 1990? Because at the beginning of the 1990s, TV started granting queer characters more presence and room. A popular example is the show Roseanne, where two characters were included, who had a real story to tell.

Over the last 20 years, many shows included queer characters, in fact, about 70 shows did. I have chosen a few popular ones, you are probably familiar with at least one of them.

To reiterate: I have only examined relevant characters, and I have not researched every genre – I excluded cartoons, for example, kids TV, documentaries and reality TV. The shows I am discussing are strictly fictitious, depicting contemporary storylines, mainly of the comedy, drama, fantasy or medical sort.

Two shows shown stood out during the last 20 years, because they depicted queer characters almost exclusively. One was Queer as Folk, showing mostly gay characters. The other one was “The L-Word“, which portrayed mainly lesbian characters. It is obvious that the amount of shows including gay characters is constantly increasing.

Queer as Folk and The L Word were not exclusively met with enthusiasm, they were also widely criticized: Queer as Folk, because the cast consisted of almost no people of color, but only white characters. Additionally, the show portrayed a huge number of sex scenes. Many viewers considered this too much. The L Word, on the other hand, was criticized for showing almost exclusively the upper-class rich and beautiful of Los Angeles – a concept hardly compatible with reality. However, it is noteworthy how  Queer as Folk broached the issues of heterosexism as well as queer subcultures for the very first time. The L Word was the first show to portray realistic lesbian sex and showing lesbian characters with their own identity and personality.  All criticism duly noted, these two factors have to be acknowledged.

But what were the topics shown on Queer as Folk and The L Word? II compiled a few examples: wage labor, discrimination of queer people, violence against queer people, criticism of nuclear families and monogamous relationships, criticism of stereotypes (We are all familiar with the depiction of gay men as extraordinarily “effeminate“, extremely sensitive, and exhibiting extremely expressive gestures and facial expressions.), drug use (not only in a critical manner, but also positive drug use), transgender, visible sexual queer action,  and social inequalities like homonegativity, racism, sexism, etc.  By the way: homonegativity is what most of us would call homophobia I – among others – think that  “Homophobia“ is a difficult term, especially because of the suffix “phobia“. Homophobia is essentially not a phobia.

Looking at the variety of topics, we probably would like all other shows depicting queer characters to pick them up and make the best of them.  But what was actually shown on all the others shows?  Well, mostly monogamous relationships, children and nuclear families, stereotypical characters, and: No sexual actions by queer characters are shown, and if they are, they are distinctly different from heterosexual actions.

Let me give you an example: “Imagine two homosexuals.“ Most of you will have thought of two men. Hardly anyone will have thought of two women. It is this exact invisibility of lesbians which is obvious on queer shows.  There are twice as many cis-men than cis-women – not to mention the genderqueer or transgender people. “Cis“, by the way, is the opposite of “trans“, i. e. people born or categorized as a woman and identifying as such, too.

What do I have to expect when I turn on the TV and see queer characters? If they are men, they probably look like this: white, male, cis, gay. Both are white, both have good jobs, a lot of money, and they are probably going to adopt a child at one point – or maybe more.

What about women then? Typical queer TV women: PoC & white, lesbian & bisexual. They might look a bit different: One of them is probably not white, and one of them is probably not a lesbian, but rather bisexual. Bisexuality is a typically female phenomenon on TV.

Queer characters take over more and more TV shows. There is hardly any show which can afford not to cover queer characters, if only marginally.  What is the showrunners’ policy then? Queers – if you can’t beat them… domesticate them. Tame them with well-paid jobs, in monogamous relationships, in nuclear families, sexless and stereotypical. Queer as Folk and The L Word have tried to deconstruct heteronormative structures. They showed violence against queer people, criticized monogamy. They showed that gender is not constitutional or god-given. Identity is not constitutional as well, it is culturally constructed. However, other shows have only picked up very little of these concepts. One could conclude the following:

Queer characters? Yes, please. But only, if they’re harmless.

Edit: This is my thesis I published in 2018 (written in German), called “queer_sehen: Queere Bilder in U.S.-amerikanischen Fernsehserien von 1990-2012”

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