Growing up in the 1980s, there was little in the way of queer representation on TV. Now we've shattered the celluloid closet. But is this progress restricted to our small screens?
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There’s a scene in HBO’s series Hacks in which Jean Smart, who stars as a Joan Rivers–esque comic named Deborah Vance, asks her 20-something comedy writer Ava (played by Hannah Einbinder) if she’s a lesbian. Ava gives such a long-winded explanation of the nuances of her sexual orientation that the older comic retorts with exasperation, “Jesus Christ! I was just wondering why you were dressed as Rachel Maddow’s mechanic.”
Ava—who is neither a punchline nor a casualty, but a fully realized, complicated leading character—would have been unimaginable even just ten years ago. In fact, over the past 40 years, entertainment culture has gone from relishing the what the late gay film historian Vito Russo termed the “celluloid closet” to dismantling the closet entirely. Queer audiences of a certain age, in turn, have gone from projecting our desires onto proxies who stood in for the real thing to witnessing homosexuality become so ubiquitous as to be passé—no longer worth a coming-out episode or a lesbian character death (well, almost). At the beginning of the 1980s, we had The Facts of Life’s Jo Polniaczek, a deliberately “unfeminine,” sporty boarding-school student among girly-girls who served as a reservoir for our Sapphic fantasies. Nowadays, shows would be considered antiquated if they did not include a lesbian or queer character.
I was born in 1980, and was a rough-and-tumble Italian American tomboy who preferred playing with the boys and who felt deeply uncomfortable “acting like a girl”— the common enjoinder hurled my way by adults. So I have experienced this evolution of lesbian representation on deeply personal terms. Like many latchkey kids, television was one of my closest friends, and I looked to characters for inspiration about what I wanted to become and which characters resonated with me in ways I couldn’t fully recognize as a child. While I might have aspired to become Jo Polniaczek, I most identified with Sam (played by Alyssa Milano), Tony Danza’s tomboy daughter on Who’s The Boss. I connected to what was most visible: displays of gender subversion and rejections of heteronormativity. My ensuing crush was, in some ways, a projection of the love that I could not give to myself.
We all have these crushes—the “Be You” crush. It is the foundation of modern-day idolatry.
But, like most tomboys who hit puberty on sitcoms of the 1980s and ’90s, Sam soon becomes Samantha, starts having crushes on boys, wearing dresses, and putting on makeup. The same happens to Al (Alicia), the backwards-baseball-cap-wearing tomboy from the 1990s show Step-by-Step. And Punky Brewster. And Darlene Conner, from Roseanne.
This maturation process into, and acceptance of, heteronormativity has been the predominant storyline of tomboys. It is one depicted quite clearly in the development of Dee, from the 1970s sitcom What’s Happening to its ’80s iteration What’s Happening Now. I loved Dee so much because she’d suffer no fools, was always outsmarting her older brother and his friends, and, it seemed, had no time for the mediocrity of men in general. But by the time she goes to college in What’s Happening Now, her time is consumed with men, especially potential boyfriends.
As soon as my TV crushes were hemmed into straight storylines, I’d lose interest. And what I began to recognize concurrently with my own nascent sexual desire is that I didn’t just want to be these tomboys—my “Be You” crush was met with another: the sexual desire to “Fuck You.” The “Be You/Fuck You” (BuFu) paradigm encapsulated the nexus of different, but sometimes overlapping, types of desire. BuFu demonstrates that the qualities we want for ourselves are sometimes those that we desire in others, or, even, what (and who) others have.
But in the ’80s, ’90s, and most of the aughts, queer people have had to perform very creative interpretations and extrapolations of storylines and characters in order to find these desires represented on television, because they were not yet visible on our screens.
Now in the 2020s, we’ve arrived at the moment when sexuality is no longer the narrative but simply a touchstone within a larger one—which rings true, because our lives are much greater than our sexualities and the identities that we choose to represent them.
The story of this evolution in entertainment culture is less interesting in terms of causality than what it suggests about how our cultural understanding of sexuality in terms of identity has evolved significantly just within the past couple of decades.
There is a price to the mainstreaming of any marginalized culture—inclusion through assimilation, as I’ve argued elsewhere, demands compromise and complicity. And gay culture paid this price as it moved into the mainstream culture over the past 40 years. Depictions of homosexuality were largely prohibited—limited to negative depictions and mocking, camp stereotype—by the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters through television’s early decades until the mid-1980s. It was around this time that the National Association of Broadcasters Code Authority acquiesced to gay and lesbian media organizations’ demands for positive representations of the gay community on television. But the eradication of one barrier produced another. Without legal code on their side, conservatives turned to political action organizations like The Moral Majority and the American Family Association to boycott television shows and their sponsors if they dared to depict homosexuality in a positive light. The “gay kiss” was sensationalized in the media because it served as the axis for both the (gay) thrill and (conservative) terror of visible homosexual desire. That what could be conveyed to millions of viewers was that a “gay kiss” could be pleasurable, fun, and—dare I say—just a kiss.
The cultural movement for greater visibility, inclusion, and dignity in both entertainment and society in general was not only impacted by the conservative forces of capitalism. The other significant factor shaping LGBT representation has been American politics. That our constitutional rights in America have been afforded not according to one’s humanity but one’s identity—whether racial, gender, or sexual—shapes the narratives we have told about ourselves. Because political rights have been distributed based on group identity, marginalized people have had to frame stories in terms of identity to communicate and justify their humanity to the majority. Discrimination based on identity is foundational to the U.S. Constitution, from the Three-Fifths Compromise that refused to recognize the full humanity and dignity of enslaved Africans to voting rights and marriage rights.
Shaped by these forces, the figure of the closet has structured homosexuality in entertainment culture. Over the past 40 years, the historical trajectory toward greater visibility, inclusion, and, more recently, notions of belonging and dignity in television could be described as consisting of three defining—but not distinct—periods that I call: Giving Up the Gay, The 3 Rs, and Transgressive Authenticity.
Giving Up the Gay, an homage to Shakespeare’s “giving up the ghost” in Hamlet, refers not only to letting go in the form of death but also that of cessation, of ending an attachment to a person or thing that one realizes. It is based in cruel optimism, or, to paraphrase queer theorist Lauren Berlant, a desire that inspires but also hinders one’s flourishing.
From the 1980s through the late 1990s, homosexuality in television was primarily nonexistent, remaining invisible save only for vague gesticulations or turns of phrase or a character’s gender-subversive haircut or clothing. The ghostly, absent-presence of homosexuality was legible for those of us watching through homo spectacles. And, the secret code, in many ways, felt thrilling. Through my own lesbian spectacles, I took immense pleasure in the tension between Jo and Blair on The Facts of Life, and Dee’s indifference to male authority on What’s Happening, and Denise’s pre-Shane coolness on The Cosby Show. None of these characters was gay but I interpreted their independent spirit and intelligence as different from traditional, socially acceptable heterosexual ways to be a woman—which more often than not meant being submissive to men and complicit with the patriarchy.
In acknowledgement of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, “giving up the gay” primarily refers to the punishment of gay or even vaguely gay TV characters. In 2016, Autostraddle documented more than 200 lesbian and bisexual characters who have met an untimely end on TV shows. Their extensive list of what has become known as the “dead lesbian syndrome” begins with the death of Julie, who died after being struck by a car, on the show Executive Suite in 1976. It continues through Susan’s death (by ingesting toxic glue from licking too many envelopes!) on Seinfeld in 1996 and has been recently updated to include the deaths of five characters in 2020, including Carlota Senillosa on Cable Girls and Dani on The Haunting of Bly Manor.
The point, it seems, is that the best kind of lesbian is the dead one. Or, in the context of Ellen’s coming out in real life and as her character on her eponymous show in 1997, literally canceled—erased from the culture.
The 3 Rs—Representation, Relatability, and Respectability—is the period that describes TV history from the end of the 20th century through, approximately, the first 15 years of the 21st century. There are ways this timeline also could be understood in the context of Ellen’s historic coming out: Before Ellen, Ellen, and, yes, After Ellen. The fact is, television changed, slowly and then suddenly, after Ellen’s cancellation. Shows like Will & Grace, The L Word, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured main characters who were gay, with gay storylines. During this time, visibility and inclusion focused on sameness to convey gay people’s humanity—we’re just like straight people! With the same human drama! This logic of equality emphasizes relatability to the mainstream, heterosexual culture by presenting gay characters and storylines that were respectable. The predominant strategy for LGBT organizations to gain political rights, respectability politics both for TV characters and for humans in real life, however, doesn’t always result in acceptance. Respectability does not prevent discrimination, hatred, or death.
Respectability politics for the LGBT community has entailed an allegiance to and mimicking of cis-heteronormativity—to the replication of gender conformity, to monogamy, and to familial and religious institutions. This accords, again, to the logic of sameness, to prove to the straight world that gay people are the same as straight people, despite their sexuality. That gays can assimilate into straight culture and not disrupt it. And this replication of sameness feels like an apologia to offset the “evil” of homosexuality.
The consequence was that throughout most of TV history—until, arguably, the introduction of Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black in 2013—trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people have been excluded from positive representation, not just by the mainstream but, heartbreakingly, by the gay community. In Sam Feder’s 2020 documentary Disclosure, director Yance Ford explained this exclusion in terms of assimilation, which he calls “the American narrative …. [T]rans people make it really difficult for some people in the queer community to assimilate. And so what happens? That section of the queer community is like, ‘You don’t exist.’”
When trans characters were included on television shows, it was predominantly through depictions intended to show “that trans people are dangerous, psychopaths, or perverts,” GLAAD’s director of transgender representation Nick Adams observed in Disclosure. Trans characters were crafted through heteronormative framings, meaning that their inclusion was primarily intended to make audiences laugh through mocking trans lives or to shock and horrify those audiences.
In 2006, during the 3 Rs period, audiences were introduced to the first recurring trans masculine character on television: Max on The L Word. Played by Daniela Sea, Max ended up being a dumping ground for TERF fears, betraying the show’s cis-heteronormativity—as if the predominant white femininity of the main cast didn’t make that plain to audiences. As writer Zeke Smith explained in Disclosure, when Max starts taking testosterone he “goes from being nice and likable to a raging a-hole. … The writers and producers of The L Word’s approach to Max is that they are seeing trans men increasingly enter the lesbian community, and that they are traitors to feminism. We’re not supposed to root for Max; We’re supposed to root against Max.”
Mimicry, the idiom goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. And, when it comes to the fight for “equal” rights, this mimicry is even found in supremacist tactics of segregation, discrimination, and erasure. With the fight for “equal” rights dominating the gay agenda as well as the political landscape during this period, the strategy of respectability politics relied on relatability. The marginalization and erasure of genderqueer and trans people in our gay political agenda was mirrored on TV.
Since the mid-2010s, the proliferation of streaming platforms revolutionized TV by expanding the breadth of content and shifting power directly into viewers’ hands. There was now more space, seemingly endless digital space, to create more content and reach more specific audiences and subcultures. Instead of shows featuring gay characters who pandered to straight audiences for acceptance, these shows’ characters and storylines have moved beyond identity, beyond clear-cut sexualities, beyond heteronormative idealization, and beyond the need to beg the masses to acknowledge their humanity. Shows like Pose and Work in Progress were not created for and do not serve straight, cisgender audiences.
Describing the third and current period we are in, this transgressive authenticity is evident in series like Vida, Genera+ion, The Bisexual, and Euphoria—shows that, it is crucial to note, demonstrate that queerness also exists outside the purview of whiteness and not only in the service of white people or their pleasure. Characters like Sex Education’s Ola, Feel Good’s Mae, and the Gossip Girl reboot’s Aki also openly defy the binary of the closet and simplistic sexual categorization. Or, as Schitt’s Creek’s David explains his sexuality through a wine analogy: “I do drink red wine. But I also drink white wine. And I’ve been known to sample the occasional rosé. And a couple of summers back, I tried a merlot that used to be a Chardonnay, which got a bit complicated.”
That is, the authentic representation of life through characters and storylines demands a recognition that life itself does not neatly fit into predetermined, socially constructed identity categories. And TV as entertainment is exploring and even reveling in this fact. As White Lotus’s Olivia and Paula enlighten Olivia’s dad, who is having a masculinity crisis upon learning of his late father’s secret gay life: “Even if he wasn’t a top, that doesn’t mean he was femme.”
Concurrent was the broader cultural reckoning for the LGBT community that visibility is not the endgame, but rather one means to the goal of creating a world where our human dignity is respected and valued, and where we feel like we belong.
Modern TV history reflects how we have utilized identities as the tools to help express ourselves and to communicate with and form communities with other people.
But in recent years, entertainment culture—with television, arguably, leading the way—has begun to portray how our sexual desires extend beyond simplistic identity categories and cis-heteronormative narratives.
To be clear, this is not a new idea—today’s sexual identities as we know them are relatively modern inventions. And there have been plenty of culture makers—writers, artists, and thinkers—who have observed that these identities are fictions. Take, for example, Gore Vidal, who in 1979 told Playboy that “there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives, describing sexual acts, not people.”
But something has shifted in the broader, mainstream culture that conveys a new awareness of sexuality and how sexual identity operates within it. In many ways, it seems as if we have collectively read Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and realized that the “closet” signifying the heterosexual/homosexual divide is an artificial one—that, indeed, sexual identities are social constructions just like every other identity.
This broader realization is supported by a 2018 YouGov survey which found that more than a third of 18-to-34-year-olds identified as “other than heterosexual,” while only 3 percent identified as “completely homosexual.” And, perhaps within the context of Marjorie Garber’s argument that bisexuality does not exist within the hetero/homo closet binary but beyond it, the latest 2021 Gallup poll shows that nearly 55 percent of queer Americans identify as bisexual.
That is, it appears more and more of us have realized that we aren’t completely straight or completely gay. We may, in fact, be a little straight or a little gay—in our desires, our actions, and our aesthetic tastes, from our clothing style to our music preferences. Our lives and our lifestyles cannot be hemmed in into categorical boxes. But, at the same time, we know that identities are useful shorthand to make ourselves known quickly and broadly to others. The identities we choose might change depending on where we are, who we’re surrounded by, and in different stages in our lives to best represent our authenticity in that moment (as well as affording many of us the safety that we need from potential harm).
This realization correlates with the increased mainstream visibility and discussion about pansexuality as a sexual identity that more fittingly represents the fluidity of sexual desire, regardless of gender identity and orientation. Countless young celebrities—from Janelle Monáe to Miley Cyrus to JoJo Siwa—have adopted the label as a way to express that their sexual desire is not a known or fixed quantity that can be shoehorned into one category; rather, the identity itself intends to connote the dynamism of human sexual desire, and in this way attempts to subvert the reductive limitations of identity categories.
As Good Girls’ star Mae Whitman tweeted upon coming out as pansexual in August: “I know I can fall in love with people of all genders.” Or as YouTuber and trans activist Jazz Jennings tweeted in 2018 when she came out as pansexual: “This means that I am attracted to people at a level that surpasses gender identity or sexual orientation. I love people for their souls and internal beauty.”
And, television shows have also become more explicitly inclusive of this identity. In season 2 of Netflix’s Sex Education, Ola Nyman discovers her own pansexuality, telling a friend, “pansexual means you’re attracted to the person, not the sex or gender. It’s about the connection you have with a human being, not with their genitalia.”
Today, our culture has arrived at a new kind of sexual liberation, awareness, and courage, about both the usefulness and the limitations of identity. That identity itself, to quote the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, “cannot be understood as what we are”—it is not innate or biological.
We have come to understand “sexuality as a process rather than a foreclosing identity,” to quote Berlant. As they elaborated in a 2012 interview, “This mean[s] that one constantly has to be attending to the action and development of one’s patterns of attachment. A straight woman, for example, doesn’t want all men, just some: so why not rethink sexuality as the history of a patterning or style that develops over time, in relation to law, norms, and the accidents and incidents of ordinary life?”
To Berlant’s definition, I would add culture: the deliberate stylization of one’s life in relation to cultural influences—movies, television shows, TikTok trends, and music—that inspire us to imagine our lives beyond what we currently know them to be.
Culture is symbiotic. Television does not just represent life but actively shapes culture through storytelling, offering audiences visibility but also the ability to recognize different ways of living in the world. In this way, art is a tool for social change. It not only reflects life but shapes it. Our entertainment culture influences us and who we become by making visible, through characters and storylines, desires which are invisible and/or which are still unknown to us.
And, thanks to the creativity of storytellers, audiences have been able to imagine new ways of living, of being in the world that deeply resonate with their desires, dreams, and aspirations, that cultivate paths to authenticity.
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