Don't Want My Gay TV
I'm probably outside of the Washington, DC-based, celebrity-driven, gay rights establishment with this theory, but so be it: Viacom's recent announcement of its plan to launch a 24-hour gay cable channel is being greeted?at least by most of the gay people I've spoken to?with a big "So what?" The channel, still unnamed and probably a year away from launch, will be offered to cable systems operators at a cost of about $5 or $6 per month; of course, the channel will include some advertising.
The official word from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is cautiously optimistic: "The flag I'm carrying is for visibility," Joan Garry, GLAAD's executive director, recently told the Times. However, she added that "smart" content would make or break the new channel. If the people at GLAAD truly believe content is king (or queen), they should explain their organization's love affair with Showtime's Queer as Folk?evidenced by its having earned a nomination for "Outstanding Drama Series" in the 13th-annual GLAAD Media Awards. Launched a year ago, and heralded by numerous tv critics and cultural pundits for its "graphic" and "honest" depiction of the lives of gay men (and two lesbians) in Pittsburgh, Queer as Folk is supposedly twice as popular as anything else on Showtime (this can't be verified; Showtime won't release specific audience numbers). Much to the dismay of many gay men and lesbians, the show devolved into the kind of hackneyed, shallow gibberish that we've come to expect from shows like NBC's Will & Grace (Karen being the only reason to tune in these days). In trying to create a show with gay characters who are sexual and political, Showtime overreached: the writing is just bad.
Not everyone is applauding the latest flexing of the gay community's economic muscle. Andrew Sullivan, senior editor at The New Republic and longtime culture critic, says the cable channel is actually a step backward for gay equality. "In the last few years, we have been amazingly successful in getting integrated into mainstream media?as actors, characters, writers, pundits, sportsmen and women, and so on," Sullivan told me in an e-mail. "Now we are actually constructing a place where we will be out of that mainstream and shepherded into another ghetto." The channel shouldn't draw the ire of the Pat Robertson crowd (it'll be a pay-for option), so the gay version of BET isn't being forced down Americans' throats.
No one debates whether or not there's a "need" for Lifetime, BET or the Discovery Channel, right? Perhaps a community that has historically been invisible in pop culture is now overreacting, and placing too much significance on this new venture. "Will it be deeper than Queer as Folk? I don't know, but something on the channel has to be," Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto tells me. "The gay channel can serve up characters and people who are gay not just because they like Bette Midler, but because they actually have gay sex and share in gay culture."
Though a majority of television's gay and lesbian characters are parodies of stereotypes, there are some exceptions. Sex and the City's Stanford Blatch, who has been integrated into the HBO series as Carrie's fabulous friend, comes to mind. What else? There's Jack on Dawson's Creek, that lesbian couple on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plus Ellen, take two, on CBS. Sullivan says it's sad that "most?though not all?specifically gay literature/movies/tv shows in the last few years have been execrable."
Various studies have indicated that gay Americans have up to $350 billion a year in spending power, although like any statistic about this community it's difficult to verify. Everyone agrees that gays and lesbians are starving for inventive, smart programming that includes political commentary, sitcoms, original films and nuanced portrayals of their lives. "I'll be thrilled if the channel also has some serious investigation [programs] or chat shows that delve into gay issues," Musto says, noting that if it doesn't, then we can "get our claws out."
The requisite nonsexual gay character on most network sitcoms, the straight girl's gay male confidante on the big screen and the token gay person on most reality shows?all are predictable, and as such, extremely dull. Musto has an idea that might be worth passing along to Viacom: "How about a Survivor where everyone's gay except for one straight, who eventually reveals his heterosexuality and has to deal with the discomfort of the other survivors?"
Well, there's always reruns of The Golden Girls. But the best solution might be to turn off the tube. "I don't watch tv," New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley told me. "I've never even seen Will & Grace."
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