TV is actually good for us. No, really!
It’s not often us media-literacy types have much to celebrate in scanning the media landscape. Typically, we find ourselves bringing attention to what’s not represented in popular narratives: the people, beliefs, and histories that, too often, get left out of commercials, TV shows, movies and other mass media. More often than not, these messages reinforce age-old notions of what and who are valuable, who “fits,” who doesn’t, and which voices count, leaving little room for the marginalized and disempowered to feel represented.
But every once in a while, we can take a step back, look at the big picture, and find that the big picture has gotten, well, bigger – including more than the old status quo.
For example, signs are everywhere that mass media has become not only more gay-positive but also, according to recent research, that popular narratives are having a positive influence. Finally! TV can be good for us! Pass the popcorn…
According to University of Minnesota professor Edward Schiappa, five separate studies show that gay folks on TV have helped ease prejudice towards gay folks in real life. We see them every week, kind of like neighbors, doing all sorts of ordinary things that straight characters do. From teens kissing a new crush, to couples adopting babies, and other couples tying the knot.
It’s through this familiarity with the ordinary (and occasional “Just Jack” jazz-handy) ups and downs of these characters’ lives, says Schiappa, that – Presto! Change-o! – gay folks have become a lot less “other.”
For all the progress these modern American narratives have helped create, one can’t help wondering where such a shift actually starts.
Tracing the thread from Will & Grace, cited by Vice President Joe Biden as a key to having changed American hearts and minds, we could travel back just one year from the show’s debut in 1998, to 1997. That’s when Ellen DeGeneres, and her character on Ellen, came out. It was a moment that sparked a media firestorm – as well as countless conversations in living rooms, offices and coffee shops – both before and after 42 million viewers tuned in to watch. All this, just for saying: “I’m gay.” No kiss. No wedding. No adoption. No “Just Jack” cabaret routine. Still, the Ellen coming out episode remains a powerful story about the courage and pain of speaking your truth in a hetero world, whether to friends, family or millions of TV viewers.
Clearly, there was already enough public support to give the episode a hearty audience, even if some of those viewers may not have considered themselves supporters of the gay community. So possibly, to understand how millions of Americans might’ve been ready (even waiting!) for a lesbian to come out on TV, we need to follow the thread back even further.
We could consider the impact of late 1977, when Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office. Milk had already led 3 campaigns by then, starting in 1973. That’s four years of community-building, galvanizing and visibility – expanding awareness and dialogue about LGBT issues and civil rights. But could a few local campaigns have created enough of a shift to usher Milk into office? Maybe, but probably not.
So, we’ll go back even further… Consider the effects of images and news Americans would have seen in late June 1969, when patrons of a bar called The Stonewall Inn had had the last straw… and turned it into kindling for a spontaneous, revolutionary explosion in the struggle for LGBT rights. It would be a moment that sparked a new era of radicalization, mobilizing the LGBT movement to demand equity, visibility and a push for increased civil rights. So that one day we might see the President of the United States declare his support for marriage equality on national TV.
To be alive at a moment when TV screens across America are flickering with stories of gay characters swooning with puppy love, taking their relationship to the next level in yards of white taffeta, or cleaning poopy diapers, all while managing the challenges LGBT folks typically face – well, it’s pretty fantastic.
And while some may credit this increased visibility with encouraging more welcoming attitudes among Americans, I’d suggest that this decrease in prejudice actually reflects a cultural conversation between the images and stories we see in the media, the dedicated activism of LGBT advocates, and the ordinary experiences Americans have every day – whether meeting a gay dad at school or having a lesbian colleague at the office. All these elements inform each other, so that we can understand such watershed moments – whether on TV or in real life – as simultaneously creating shifts in attitudes and reflecting shifts that have already happened. It’s a symbiotic relationship: the more comfortable Americans become with gay folks in real life, the more open Americans become to gay-positive stories and images in the media, which makes them more open to gay folks in real life, and so on. Given that the stakes are nothing less than the lives of our LGBT youth who still struggle to feel they belong on this earth, these messages and the possibilities for a more inclusive society are crucial.
Much like the journey of life itself – the more we’re given, the more we prove we can handle. It’s a lot like a scene from ABC’s Modern Family. Mitchell and Cameron, the show’s gay dads, have invited their fathers to dinner. In a spontaneous, after-dinner heart-to-heart about their gay sons, Mitchell’s father admits to Cameron’s father, “Every time I start to feel comfortable with this thing, something new comes up that I gotta wrap my head around.” If America’s past is any measure, we can be confident that anything new to come up will surely be something we can wrap our heads – and hearts – around, and give us media-literacy folks something more to celebrate.
Angela Martenez is a non-fiction writer, documentary maker and community mediator. Follow her on Twitter: @AngelaMartenez