|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!