How To Get Away With Murder

How To Get Away With Murder

I want to start off by saying I’m not a television expert. I never wrote a thesis on the queer television. I never studied any kind of marketing research of how certain characters appeal more than others to the target demographic for networks. I am, however, someone who watches a lot of television and have taken notice lately of certain things in some of my favorite shows. These are merely observations I’ve come across in the last few weeks and wanted to share.

The View, a talk show with a panel of female co-hosts discussing social and political issues, utilizes Mario Cantone as their signature gay sidekick. He splits out one liners, randomly breaking into Broadway numbers in the middle of hot topic conversations, or using signature flamboyant personality to show up for a small segment to sell a product from one of the show’s many sponsors then retreat behind the stage. His appearances have become so frequent that he seems to be on the show more often than some of the hosts whose names are used in the opening title sequence. I wonder how conscious of a decision it was to end “Guyday Friday,” an episode where a male cohost would join the panel, after Cantone started showing up on other days besides Friday.

Modern Family (another ABC show) has proven to be a successful formula since 2009, a mockumentary style sitcom surround a family, consisting of diverse members. The comedy on the show emphasizes their stereotypes such as Columbia born Gloria and her difficulty with the English language and her ability to use her sexuality to get what she wants. Haley is the air headed teen who likes clothes and that’s all there is to know about her. Cameron is a larger than life gay man and the humor plays on the irony as he is a flamboyant house husband who loves to dress up as a clown (Gacy, anyone?) and masculine traits are only exposed during football coaching.

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

While it can be argued whether or not Amazon Prime and Netflix can be considered television programs as they are online only services, they both have achieved both critical and commercial success due to programs like Transparent and Orange is the New Black. Transparent (which recently became the first series from a streaming video service to win a Golden Globe for best series) revolves around a family as they discover that their father is transgender. Orange is the New Black surrounds a women’s correctional facility and the inmates’ lives prior to being incarcerated. The cast is made up of diverse women, from rich to poor to different ethnic backgrounds. They emphasize a lot of their different sexualities and one of the main (and most popular) characters is a trans woman played by Laverne Cox. The success of the show led to Cox being the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category. Attempting original programming is a huge financial risk for fairly new services like Amazon and Netflix and it should be commended that they chose topics that many consider to be taboo to be the focus of their signature series.

In 2014, Shonda Rhimes added to her Shondaland production company How to Get Away With Murder as part of her Thursday night line of programming. The show revolves around Annalise Keating, a criminal law professor and defense lawyer, who selects a group of her “best” students to work at her firm. Each student is defined by one dimensional standards, including a gay man who sleeps with anyone who might be able to provide him with some information necessary for that episode’s case of the week. His techniques have taken me by surprise as they are shown graphically on network television and I have no complaints (unlike Billy Crystal). Where growing up I could identify a gay character by someone saying “He’s gay” and maybe they gave a peck on the cheek, How to Get Away With Murder lets you know who is the top and who is the bottom.

On BET, Being Mary Jane recently entered its second season, focusing on broadcast journalist Mary Jane Paul and the drama in both her personal and professional life. One of the show’s many subplots involves Mark Bradley, a co-anchor in the newsroom, who happens to be a closeted homosexual. While the show doesn’t dwell too much on his story, it does touch upon the little discussed issue of not only being gay in America, but being gay AND African-American. He lives with his white partner, but presents to his parents a relationship with Mary Jane whenever necessary. In a recent episode, there is a real strong and uncomfortable scene where his parents come to visit and we watch as he fails to present a heterosexual lifestyle that is believable and true to him. Even before that, we watch the separate conversations he has with Mary Jane and his partner about how to approach the situation and the toll it takes on his happiness.

Empire

Empire

The most recent mainstream depiction of a queer lifestyle is on the 2015 FOX series Empire. The show surrounds Lucious Lyon, a hip hop mogul and CEO of Empire Entertainment and the drama in his family members, each of who work for the company in one way or another. One of his sons is Jamal, portrayed as the black sheep of the family, not only because his musical direction isn’t as hard as his brother’s, but also because he is gay. His father vocalizes his distaste for Jamal’s lifestyle and often threatens to cut Jamal off financially if he chooses to come out as a gay singer-songwriter. There’s a lot of discussion about how you can’t be gay in the hip hop community and how Lucious believes his company’s image might be tarnished as a result. The show does not shy from letting us watch Jamal be affectionate with his boyfriend or the “little Mexican” as Cookie (Jamal’s mom) once called him. We see them cuddle in bed and watch as Jamal’s career in hip hop affects their intimacy and relationship roles. Another thing that I really enjoy about Empire is how ignorance is portrayed without being preachy. While we see Jamal’s upbringing and his father’s homophobic abuse, we sense Lucious has love for his son still. Also, Cookie may be more accepting of her son, but her choice of words is rarely politically correct and she’s allowed to not be so perfect herself. Taraji P. Henson is the real star of the show as Cookie and I predict to see plenty of her face come next awards season.

The point of me writing this has nothing to do with what I perceive to be better depictions of queer lifestyles on television, but rather how different those depictions are. Each program fits in different genres and it’s interesting to see the progression of how networks approach these lifestyles. Sometimes, stereotypes are emphasized, there to be exploited, while other times it isn’t their defining trait. While there’s always going to be a need for more diversity, it’s nice to see television heading in the right direction.

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