Hyper-Homosexuality in Modern American Television
Most scripted broadcast television series’ are fundamentally prewritten words said by actors to entertain the audience. Good actors are able to persuade the viewer into truly believing that the character they are portraying is indeed a real person; someone with realistic problems, thoughts, relationships, and emotions. However, the power that these characters hold on the audience is not often discussed and when they represent people from a social minority, the receiving audience could believe that these characters reflect the true reality of the members of this minority. As a result, the audience members watching these characters develop a preconceived idea of what the people who identify as this social cohort (homosexuals for example) are like based on the stereotypes presented by the fictional characters.
The portrayal of homosexuality among male characters in American television series' is a perfect example. The amount of homosexual characters has greatly increased over the years and although the portrayal of male homosexuality has developed progressively throughout American television history, it is important to analyze how male homosexuals are being portrayed, as well as how their portrayal is being received by its audience (Hart, 2000, p.67). In what follows, this research essay will critique three case studies where male actors have portrayed homosexual characters in American television shows. First, I will analyze the character of ‘Cam’ from Modern Family due to the actor’s negative portrayal of homosexuality. Subsequently, I will analyze ‘Kevin’ from Riverdale as a device for demonstrating a median example of a character portrayal that vacillates between propagating and avoiding homosexual stereotypes. Lastly, I will analyze the character of ‘Mickey Milkovich’ from the television series Shameless due to the character's progressive ability to defy stereotypes associated with sexual orientation. Using the analyses of these characters in American television, I will draw the conclusion that male homosexual characters have a detrimental ability to form a stereotypical silhouette of what a homosexual resembles in a given society, which I have labeled “hyper-homosexuality.”
The first question I asked myself when beginning to brainstorm this research is: from where do actors draw their inspiration when developing a character? Eric Stonestreet, the actor who portrays ‘Cam’ on Modern Family, said in an interview on the Dan Patrick Show that people who meet him in public are often disoriented when they realize that Stonestreet does not only not act like his character in reality, but in fact does not identify as a homosexual (8:15 timecode). Stonestreet goes on to explain how his development of the character of Cam was inspired by his mother’s mannerisms and personality (10:26 timecode). Although heightened levels of effeminacy have been psychologically linked to homosexuality, for an actor, and more importantly, a heterosexual actor, to develop a character’s persona largely based on female traits is not only offensive to the cohort being represented but indicates a blatant lack of research and development by the actor and writing staff of the series (Friedman, 1988, p.43).
Controversy over the sexual orientation of the actors of the show has been a topic of debate since the television series’ release, especially considering Stonestreet’s co-star Jesse Tyler-Ferguson does identify as a homosexual, whereas Stonestreet does not. Seeing as Stonestreet has not experienced the life and struggles of a male homosexual in American society, for example, being bullied, feeling anxious in public or around family, questioning his identity, etc., a pertinent question that arises is: does Stonestreet have the 'right' to portray a homosexual character or not? Although Stonestreet may have endured similar experiences throughout his life, he has not “walked in the shoes” of his character and is therefore not able to personally apply himself to his character. Contrastly, Tyler-Ferguson has lived as a gay man for the majority of his life and as a result, he could draw on his own personal experiences to enhance his character’s authenticity, as well as dwell on his past to better demonstrate the emotional reactions that his character would have to certain things on the show.
Modern Family has also released a few episodes that degrade homosexuality in a more general sense. Mitch and Cam, the characters portrayed by Tyler-Ferguson and Stonestreet, seem to be the only "toned-down" gays in the the fictional couple's social circle. In season 2 of Modern Family, the audience is introduced to Mitch and Cam’s friend group, ‘Longines’ and ‘Crispin’, both of whom are overtly flamboyant. Choosing these characters as the friend group to Mitch and Cam cements a stereotype, for the social circles of all homosexual men in the United States, that homosexual men live within groups of similar flamboyant people with exotic names.
Kevin, the character portrayed by actor Casey Cott in the American television series Riverdale, gives us a slightly more realistic view of the modern gay man. This is made true through Kevin's strong relationship with his father Tom Keller, the town’s sheriff. In his essay on the narrative structures of discourse and difference, John Leo highlights the defiance of stereotypes by a character like Kevin:
“For the first half of this century, gay men were subjected to the discourses of medicine and the law, situated in those discourses as extreme instances of the oedipal complex; it was axiomatic that they hated their fathers and depended excessively on their mothers” (Foucault; Plummer; Mager in John Leo, 1991, p.52).
The authors of this excerpt are stating that homosexual men have a distinct set of characteristics that are immediately accorded to them, without a choice and without their individuality being taken into account. One of these stereotypical characteristics is that gay men are always very close to and dependent on their mother (and by extensions, females), whereas their toxically-masculine father resents them. However, Kevin and his father share a close and supportive relationship, which is typically unfound in portrayals of homosexuality; rather, it is typical that the American father, or male parental figure, is abusive and/or unsupportive towards his homosexual son.
In one episode of Riverdale, the main protagonist, Archie, is seen at his high school wrestling tryouts and one of the best wrestlers on the team is Kevin. Kevin’s strong athletic ability is another example of his character’s defiance of homosexual stereotypes. It was published in a psychological study that the majority of young homosexual males tend to hold little-to-no desire for athletic activities (Friedman, 1988, p.19). However, interestingly, the creators of Riverdale decided that Kevin would be one of the star athletes of the show. Kevin, being a homosexual and the captain of the wrestling team challenges the generalizing conception that homosexual men either can’t play sports, or have no desire for athletic activities.
On the other hand, Riverdale does have its flaws in that it often ridicules homosexuality, especially through Kevin’s desperate attempt to find a sexual mate. Despite Kevin’s acceptance as a homosexual by his peers and family members in the show, he is the only male homosexual character aside from a character named Moose, who is questioning his sexual orientation and often has sexual relations with Kevin. During an episode in the series, Kevin gets so desperate to have sex that he ventures into the woods late at night and attempts to find anyone to have sex with, regardless of the dangers he is putting himself in. This episode happens to be at the climatic point where a murderer is on the loose in the town of Riverdale. Roman Kuhar writes,
“While in the past the image of a homosexual was at best that of an unhappy person, because owing to the nature of his relationship he could never experience “full harmony, so a gay man’s “happiness” can never reach the point attained by man and woman” (4, ITD, 1974), the homosexual of the 1990s is just like anyone else – one of us.” (p.88)
Kuhar is highlighting that homosexuals were perceived to be members of a society that would never reach an equal level of happiness to that of their heterosexual counterparts. With that said, Kevin’s desperation to find a sexual partner only advances Kuhar’s findings and adds further detriment to the public's perception of homosexuality from a sociological perspective.
Onto a different note, the American television series Shameless is infamously known for its usage of nudity and profanity to demonstrate the rough, careless and criminal lifestyle of a family living in the south side district of Chicago, Illinois, USA. In the first season of the television series, viewers are introduced to the character Mickey Milkovich who is a typical American "badass." During one episode, Mickey and one of the show’s main character’s, Ian, get into a blood-battered fist fight. The fight catches the viewer off-guard as it escalates into a sex scene between the two enemies. Following this unpredictable encounter, Mickey and Ian begin a series-long relationship. From here, the series progresses from a young, victimized homosexual, to a caring and open homosexual relationship in a rugged, heterosexually dominated neighbourhood. The series also frequently broadcasts scenes of the gay couple kissing and performing sexual activities. This frequent, televised, gay relationship and love-making between Mickey and Ian encourages the normalization of homosexuality as it has now simply become a part of this famous show and is no longer a provocative scene of indecency.
Mickey’s story unfolds throughout the series in a very humble manner. He continues to uphold his reputation as the neighbourhood badass, however, when he is alone with Ian, he demonstrates another side of himself: a sensitive and emotional young man. This character, who is forced to act two very different ways, depending on the people he is with, leaves the audience with a feeling of remorse for him and demonstrates the reality for a lot of people in the United States who identify as a member of the LGBT+ cohort. Further, a very important scene happens in the series when Mickey finally decides to announce his homosexuality. At first, he is met with a violent assault by his toxically-masculine father, who condemns his son’s homosexual behaviors, however, the rest of the show’s characters don’t care about his or Ian's sexual orientation. The take-away from these scenes is that the audience is able to see into the life of a young male who is struggling with the fear of social rejection and the ways in which this can be overcome.
The way in which homosexuals are being portrayed, or how any social minority is being portrayed in the media, should constantly be the subject of analysis due to the fact that they are a significantly rhetorical product of culture. More importantly, the receiving audience should be questioning who the people that create and produce these shows are. To bring back a quote from Kuhar, “the media representation of normal homosexuality is in fact the representation of homosexuality in the image of heterosexuals, such as does not pose a threat to the heterosexual world.” (p.89) It can be a difficult task to produce a work of art in which you have never experienced what the art itself is depicting. To leave you with a question to ponder, if we were to once again analyze Eric Stonestreet’s portrayal of Cam from Modern Family, from Kuhar’s perspective, an important question that this author would ask is: are Mitch and Cam an accurate representation of gay men today in America? Or, are they simply the “poster models” for how heterosexuals view homosexuality?
If you're interested in this topic, I recommend you check out Dave Messily's video essay entitled Casual Pansexuality in Schitt's Creek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gcie5_tGNPY
[Dan Patrick Show]. (2017, May 5). Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet explains show character, shares Dodgers incident and more. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COPX5R7obis
Friedman, C. R. (1988). Male Homosexuality: A contemporary psychoanalytic perspective. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Kuhar, R. (2003). Media Representations of Homosexuality: An analysis of the Print Media in Slovenia, 1970 - 2000. Peace Institute, 1–112.
Leo, R. J. (1991). Television and the narrative structures of discourse and difference. Journal of Film and Video, 43, 45-55.
R. Hart, R.P. (2000). Representing Gay Men on American Television. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 9 (1), 59–79. https://doi.org/10.3149/jms.0901.59