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Why do we watch bad TV shows just because they have gay people in them?

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 11:25 PM

If Glee gives you no glee, if the Days Of Our Lives are dreary, why do you keep watching?


By Dennis Stone


I discovered and joined the AfterElton community a couple of days after Luke and Noah had their first kiss on As The World Turns, almost six years ago now. I thought then, and still do, that the kiss was a significant development in gay visibility, and I went online to seek out reactions. What I discovered at AE was a passionate group of my fellow gays complaining about the show. I innocently added my own defense and then went out of town for the weekend.


When I returned on Sunday night I was surprised to see an avalanche of disapproval for my comments supporting the show. I then watched in bemusement over the next three years as people railed against ATWT for being homophobic, for bad writing, for ridiculous plot development (remember Ameera? – no argument from me on that one!). But they all continued to watch, week after week and year after year. Periodically someone would state “I’m done with the show”, but would then be back again shortly thereafter with new comments.




I’ve seen the same phenomenon with many other shows. People who would normally never watch The Real World suddenly watch every week when there is a gay cast member. People who hate The Amazing Race or Big Brother or Survivor watch when gay people are involved, and then, when the gay participant loses or is voted off, express relief that now they don’t have to watch any longer. The A List is a classic example, a show filled with superficial, unlikable people that many feel compelled to watch. “Hate watching” is now an actual thing.


Glee is perhaps the most egregious example of viewers continuing to watch a show that they think is “bad”. Each week the comment section on theBacklot following the recaps is filled with declarations of how bad are the song choices, singing, writing, continuity, plot development, characterization, and on and on. And it’s certainly not just on theBacklot. I was up until 2:00 one morning last season, marveling at the vast array of sites focused on discussing how BAD Glee is. There is even one such site elegantly named “gleesucks.com”. And yet all of these critics, who rant continuously about how awful the show is, are watching the following week, and then back again with more comments.




So why do we do this? Don’t we have anything better to do with our precious time than to watch shows, week after week or day after day, that we evaluate as “bad”? Or that, in some cases, frustrate and anger us? We certainly wouldn’t waste our time watching bad shows if they didn’t have gay characters. But if a gay character pops up - voila! - we’re there!


I talked to some people, re-read multiple comment threads, and gave this question a lot of thought. Listed below are the major reasons I see.


1. As I discussed in my “In My Tribe” article (the second article in the Commentary section) there is a significant disparity in outlook between what I described as “traditionalists” and the “new wave”. In brief, for many traditionalists their gayness is by far the most dominant part of their identity, while for the new wave it is not something that colors all aspects of their lives, not something that circumscribes their self perception.


Writer David Ehrenstein once told me, in an exchange on AfterElton: “Gayness is the most important thing about me. Without it I do not exist.” You can’t be more straightforward than that. I am reminded also of one of my favorite television shows, Queer As Folk. I watched a couple of episodes from the fifth season the other night, the first time I’ve seen an episode in years. I was struck by the degree to which the characters lived in a “gay only” world. Debbie, an honorary gay herself, was the only straight person with any sort of significant role in the lives of any of the characters. And every aspect of their day to day lives revolved around their gay identity.




Queer As Folk may be an extreme example, but many gay people still choose to live lives dominated by their sexual identity. Many of them – such as Ehrenstein or Larry Kramer or several posters on theBacklot and other sites – passionately assert that such a life is the best way for a gay person to live. In that context it becomes easy to understand why the presence of gay characters would trump quality. And why those viewers would seek out shows – any shows – with a gay component.


2. For young people without a network of gay friends, or for people isolated either by their location or by their closet, gay characters provide a connection to the gay world, to a world they both feel a part of and separated from at the same time. They feel a need, often intense, to make that connection, and television and other media may be their primary opportunity. The fact that a show is bad simply doesn’t matter.


Seeing someone like yourself, perhaps for the first time, can be empowering. And reassuring. High school student (and sometime writer for us) Lucas Butler had a somewhat surprising reaction when I asked him whether he watched bad TV for the gay content. Lucas had realized he was gay in 6th grade, when he was eleven, and he came out to his school three years later. His biggest fear during those three years was that his gayness would be a big deal to his valued straight friends, leading either to awkwardness or to the loss of those friendships.




His fears were unwarranted, and he essentially received a “who cares?” attitude when he did come out. But when he heard that Teen Wolf was going to have a gay jock character who was just one of the guys, a casually gay guy who was the best friend of one of the main characters, he was excited to watch, despite the fact that he considered the show “another crappy Twilight ripoff”. “I was just excited to see a teenager like me on television for once,” he says, “instead of yet another angsty Dave Karofsky or Riley Stavros who was in a constant state of fear that someone somewhere might discover his homosexuality and ruin his life forever. It's basically custom-tailored to get my 6th grade self out of the closet immediately. It's a shame it didn't premiere until I was in 10th grade.”


As an aside, Lucas now calls Teen Wolf the “bossest thing on MTV”.


3. Related to the concept of experiencing a connection to the gay world is the idea that, for young people new to the awareness of being gay, television can be a teaching tool. It can help them understand what it means to be gay, and can aid in the vital and delicate process of coming to terms with who they are.


I have a good friend who is a young professional here in Minneapolis. He came out in his teens with little consequence, and, like Lucas, is a poster boy for the new wave experience. But he has watched his share of bad movies and bad television. “When I was coming to terms with my sexuality I would watch TV and movies just to see another slice of gay life,” he says. “It didn’t matter if it was good or bad. Being gay was 'new' and anything gay was interesting - even if it lacked a plot! It’s an easy way to observe and learn. And it didn’t hurt if the guys were cute!”


4. In my “In My Tribe” article I discussed the importance of the tribal dynamic in human culture. Being a member of various tribes – and the gay community is a quintessential tribe – provides a sense of identity, purpose, and fellowship. Watching gay television – even when we consider it lacking in quality – becomes part of our tribal experience. It’s analogous to when we root for our fellow countrymen in the Olympics, or for our local sports teams. They are part of our tribe, and rooting for them is almost a matter of loyalty. They are family, they are us, and we feel an innate need to support them. The quality is secondary in a way that wouldn’t be true if our tribal members weren’t involved.


5. Many of us, even those who have been out and proud for some time, still feel a need for acceptance from the wider world. Many don’t want to admit it, but the psychological need is there. When Will and Sonny are fully integrated and accepted into the world of Days, when Kurt and Blaine become the breakout stars of Glee, when an entire show like the late lamented The New Normal is based around the gay experience, we can feel that mainstream society sees a reality that we take for granted. We’re as equally deserving of a position in that mainstream society as anyone else. We’re no longer on the outside looking in. We may have made a virtue of our outsider status, but being an outsider because that’s what we’re forced to be is not a virtue. It’s a defense mechanism.




The reverse of that scenario may be even more significant. We get so upset when Kurt and Blaine have fewer kisses than straight couples, or when there was an obvious kissing moratorium for Luke and Noah, because it represents the LACK of that acceptance that we seek. In all of this, the quality of the show is not important.


In many of these scenarios you could suggest that people should simply hold out for quality programming. There is now a multitude of quality movies available, as well as a large number of television shows on DVD or from internet sources like Netflix or Hulu. There is clearly something for everyone.


But current television, whether good or bad, has advantages. It is ongoing, and so a viewer can get caught up in the evolution of characters and plot developments over time, just like real life. They can share the experience with others in their real lives, either friends or via internet discussion. They can feel more a direct part of a community, a family.


Watching the daily developments in the lives of Will and Sonny, or the weekly adventures of Kurt and Blaine, can satisfy the needs and desires I enumerate above. The benefit of that experience makes the quality of the show much less important. In a way it’s a lot like the relationships we have with our friends in real life. If you’re like me, your friends are certainly not perfect (no one is), but having them around is a good thing.




I have to admit something. When I first conceived the idea for this article, and well into its planning and even its writing, my goal was to point out how dumb, how counterproductive, how reflective of weakness, is the habit of watching bad TV shows or movies solely because they have gay characters. But as I wrote, as I thought, as I listened to Lucas and others, guys I expected would tell me they never wasted time on bad TV or movies, I gradually had a change of heart.


Even in this modern world, even for guys living what I refer to as the “new millennial gay experience” – and I put myself into that group – gay television and movies of even questionable quality can be a worthwhile experience. It can help provide education or understanding, enhance our sense of community, provide validation, or just give us the joy of sharing some time with people like ourselves.


Well, now that I can feel OK about watching bad television, I guess I’ll have to upgrade my cable subscription so I can get Logo!

Categories: Commentary

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10 Comments

Reply The_Fixer
3:21 AM on August 13, 2013 
Well, I do watch "bad TV" with gay characters - sometimes.

Part of the reason is to help the ratings. Just having a gay character is something of a coup. If a show with a gay character gets cancelled, it seems that, rightly or wrongly, the fact that there was a gay character is often cited as the reason for the cancellation. I figure that I should support all but the worst of them, if I can.

I watch DOOL for three reasons. One is what I just mentioned - ratings. Another is to see if "they get it right". The third is to make fun of it (and not just the gay content). For many years I worked as a TV technician and had a TV on constantly during the years when daytime dramas were a staple. I got to the point of being able to accurately predict storylines - some of which were, quite frankly, ridiculous. And so it remains with DOOL. Which makes it entertaining in its own way.

Glee was refreshing and truly groundbreaking. It had a bunch of LGBT characters whose stories were central to the show - something never seen on prime-time network television before. Yes, there was a certain amount you could make fun of on the show, but there was also some pretty good stuff for a time. While it's lost a lot of its lustre, I think it can still do some pretty good stuff.

I just read Lucas' article about his self-discovery and the kind of media representations that confused and confounded him. I went through something similar, and I pointed out that this was largely due to media representations of gay people in the past. We were all the butt of jokes and drag queens up until very recently. I think it's a positive thing to see a variety of gay characters with whom kids can identify. In Glee we have Kurt, who is perhaps closer to what some people think of as gay archetype (though not completely). Kurtofsky was a (tortured) jock and there's Blaine, who is somewhere in the middle. Take out the angst, and you have a variety of gay characters with whom most kids can identify.

While I agree that watching yourself may be boring to someone who is older, a middle-schooler's mindset is different. It's about acceptance and being able to see yourself represented in entertainment media. Aside from that, they learn a lot from entertainment media, whether we like it or not. I'd like them to learn the good things.

So even if a show might be bad, a good gay representation can have some positive results. And remember, a lot of what's on TV is bad, regardless of the sexual orientation of the characters. Maybe that's the measure of true equality - "our" shows are just as bad as "their" shows :)
Reply CATHY CRONIN
10:11 AM on August 10, 2013 
I will check out every show that has a gay character, or out performer, except reality shows --- proud that I've never watched one, & won't make an exception :-) I like fiction! I am almost always disappointed in the way that gay storylines are handled. or in the amount of time they are the focus of the show. Major exceptions are Queer As Folk (both the original & the US versions), The L-Word, & various UK shows I've enjoyed over the years. I felt the exact same way back in the day, when it came to black people (& to some degree, it hasn't improved all the much). I hate how slow things are to change --- hey, I'm an impatient person! Any half-ways bright, thinking person, should not have a problem with the other people who surround them in the world! Except for evil ones, of course. Although having said that, ignorant people rank almost as high on my list.
Reply Hue-Man
1:26 PM on August 9, 2013 
I tend to watch 'bad tv' if the cast includes out gay actors; Partners comes to mind (The New Normal less so as it improved over its single season) as well as a "procedural" that has a cast member who was stuffed back in the closet when he got the part. So far, there have been two exceptions where the other cast members have driven me away, despite wanting to watch the gay leads - Modern Family and Satisfaction (Luke Macfarlane). I don't watch faux-reality shows so that simplifies the bad TV decision-making.
I have continued to watch Glee mainly because it was a phenomenon (and I grumbled about ignoring the concept of glee club with the New York spin-off) and can be relied on to produce surprises, notably by out gay actors, singers, dancers. I remember I was terribly offended by the American QAF but when you see many of the cast continuing to work in TV - including Peter Paige and his hit The Fosters - it's proved a useful experience rather than the career-ender that was usually associated with overtly gay shows. (I'll have to go back and watch a few episodes too...it's been a long time.)
Finally, I've been ready to throw in the towel on Coronation Street until recently with Hayley Cropper's pancreatic cancer storyline which brings back memories of a jogging friend from the last century who died 3 weeks after diagnosis. (Sean is unwatchable and Marcus has had his gay card revoked). I can't imagine how American wingnuts would react to her character and how her transgender status is usually of no relevance.
Reply Hue-Man
1:01 PM on August 9, 2013 
Dennis' comment below: " As Lucas said, what HE needed to see was a gay guy who was just one of the guys, not one who was having angst or going through hell. He needed to see Danny from Teen Wolf, not Bobby from "Prayers For Bobby"."

We're all welcome to watch whatever we want but only watching other people exactly like me, could lead to unpleasant results. First, movies like Beginners - or TV shows about anyone but twentysomething white boys - don't get made because they don't get an audience who doesn't like the thought of a 70-something man finding gay love. (I didn't particularly enjoy the movie so I'm just using it as an example.) Second, there are many American kids who are dealing with the threat of homelessness if they come out. It's hard to have compassion for people NOT in your exact position if you are never exposed to them and share no sense of community. Finally, conflict is the driving force in TV series - happy couples leading ordinary happy lives make boring TV (and young actors in youthful storylines aren't a guarantee against "bad TV")
Reply John
10:02 PM on August 8, 2013 
I try to at least sample every show that has a gay character (if for no other reason than maybe I can cadge a writing assignment out of it) and tend to stick with them longer than I otherwise might because of the gay character. I have studied the history of queer representation on television so I have something of a scholarly interest in watching the new stuff as well.

I haven't been a fan of Glee for a couple of seasons now. But I still watch it mostly because it's such a big part of my main online community, TBL, that it would negatively affect my enjoyment of that community.

I'm currently locked in a hate-watch with Under The Dome (which just killed one of its lesbian characters) and The Haves and the have Nots (which is just appalling) Both of them piss me off to the nth degree but their seasons are far enough along that the investment of time in watching the rest is such that I'm willing to do so.
Reply Cole
4:46 PM on August 8, 2013 
I don't watch each and every show that has gay content, and I don't avoid shows with no gay visibility, but I do give shows with positive gay portrayals a strong benefit of the doubt. Probably the best example of watching something through "gay colored glasses" for me was Torchwood. I literally payed no attention to the show until I happened to have BBC America on and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the first kiss between Jack and Ianto during the Cyberwoman episode. I was so hooked from that point until after Ianto's death.

Unlike Torchwood, I really like to see gays portrayed as happy and given happy endings. I do not like to see the single gay character on a show who only has off camera dates and basically exists to either brand the show as progressive or to serve up (or as) a bundle of comedic bits.

I agree with Ulysses that validation is an important part of it. The part that I see as needing validation is that we are not doomed to lonely, unhappy lives. We have just as much right and just as much chance of finding love and living happily ever after as anyone does. For some reason, entertainment seems more dedicated to showing the real, gritty side of being gay in a way that they don't do with straights. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Many of the ones that don't, should. That is not the picture TV gives us of straight love. Even today, couples once joined together in televised bliss are more likely to stay in bliss, unless they're gay.

Gay content alone is not enough to keep me on a show. For example, even though I do believe that Glee is a landmark show in its treatment of gay relationships, it is not a show that I care to watch anymore. I watched it for a few seasons, but it has long since lost its fun for me. If it had been a struggling show on the brink of cancellation, maybe I would have closed my eyes and thought of England and mustered all kinds of enthusiasm.

I guess in the end, gay content is important to me and will certainly get my attention, but it has to be attached to a show that I truly enjoy for me to stick with it.
Reply Jellybean
1:13 PM on August 8, 2013 
I do watch bad TV with gay content. I want to know how gay people are being perceived. What I might think is bad TV, other (straight) people might really enjoy and make it very popular. Sometimes the bad show is due to the straight content. I haven't lived a day in 70+ years without seeing everything in terms that I am gay. There are many things gay that I won't be participating in (marriage) but I still follow all the TV and publicity about states that are in the process of marriage equality. I get upset when something happens to other gay people in the news. In my opinion, I color everything I see and do as gay.
Reply Yiannis
12:04 PM on August 8, 2013 
For many of us there's one more reason to support a mediocre or even bad film or TV show that has a positive portrayal of the gay experience: the practical one. We know that producers are wary to give the green light on such projects, because they consider them non-profitable. By playing our part in increasing a film's box-office or a TV show's ratings, we make sure that more films/TV shows with gay visibility will be produced in the future and a number of them will surely be good or excellent. So, in a way, we're investing in our future in the visual arts.
Reply Dennis Stone
11:51 AM on August 8, 2013 
Sometimes people misinterpret what I am trying to do with this site, or what "new wave" gays are saying. It's interpreted as saying that there is no meaningful difference between growing up gay or straight. Even with total societal acceptance, growing up gay will always be different. When other boys are discovering girls and starting to discuss sexuality in that typical straight boy way, the gay boy will be coming to terms with the fact that he's profoundly different. Even ifi it's totally accepted, it will still be different. And so for most, validation on screen and elsewhere will be necessary. However, the nature of that validation is changing. As Lucas said, what HE needed to see was a gay guy who was just one of the guys, not one who was having angst or going through hell. He needed to see Danny from Teen Wolf, not Bobby from "Prayers For Bobby". The need for validation is also changing for older people. As an example, I personally have no need for validation any longer. So I tend to not watch things for the gay content. (Though I watch for the cute guys!) I gave "The New Normal" a shot - pretty much out of principle - but it just didn't do anything for me. So from my perspective the "new millennial gay experience" relates to changes in what young people want to see, and a waning of the need for seeking out gay content as we get older. But, as with anything else, to each his own. People are different, and have different needs.

Ulysses Dietz says...
Validation - the very thing on which I'm trying to write something for you. Just seeing yourself "up there;" whether it be on a TV screen, in a movie theater, in a novel, on the stage; this validation of your very existence still matters very much to a lot of gay people of all ages. I am as integrated into the straight world as any gay man could possibly be, and yet that validation still shines like a beacon when it happens. Frankly, I think this is something no straight person can really understand. However, it is very parallel to what African Americans must have always felt in terms of a popular culture and literature. Think of all the lousy sitcoms that thrive because they focus on African American characters . People need to see themselves...and museums know that as well (by the way).
Reply Ulysses Dietz
6:48 AM on August 8, 2013 
Validation - the very thing on which I'm trying to write something for you. Just seeing yourself "up there;" whether it be on a TV screen, in a movie theater, in a novel, on the stage; this validation of your very existence still matters very much to a lot of gay people of all ages. I am as integrated into the straight world as any gay man could possibly be, and yet that validation still shines like a beacon when it happens. Frankly, I think this is something no straight person can really understand. However, it is very parallel to what African Americans must have always felt in terms of a popular culture and literature. Think of all the lousy sitcoms that thrive because they focus on African American characters . People need to see themselves...and museums know that as well (by the way).