Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

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EW irks me, Part 1

In this week's issue of Entertainment Weekly, there is an article by Mark Harris that seems to be saying that Modern Family set some sort of precedent for stereotypical depiction of gay couples in sit-coms. I'm not going to respond to that article. It is against my academic ethos to respond to something that I haven't read, and yet I can't stand to read it, even for analytical purposes. Call it a weakness, call it narrow-mindedness, but I can't bear to hear a word against Modern Family. Even if the criticism that is entirely fair, if it's remotely uncomplimentary to Modern Family, it makes me angry. And I don't like myself when I'm angry.

So instead, what I'm going to do is just give my testimony of why I love Cameron and Mitchell from Modern Family and why I find them to be a refreshing change from the usual way(s) gay men are depicted on television.

(Keep in mind that I'm not a queer studies scholar or a television scholar, so expect this to be very subjective and amateurish. Because it is amateurish; it's an expression of love, and it's personal rather than academic.)

Prior to Cameron and Mitchell, gay men on television almost seemed like a separate species. They were these beautifully molded, impeccably dressed, statuesque creatures who (mostly) lived alone in apartments in the city where they frequented concerts and (of course) musical theater performances. While they might talk about sexual exploits, few--if any--of them were in committed relationships, and their closest, most devoted relationships were with female friends. They also seemed to have sprung forth fully formed from some artficial parthenogenic source; rarely, if ever, were blood relatives like parents or siblings seen or even mentioned. The implications being that gayness occurs only in cities, never in rural or suburban areas, that gay men are physically flawless but emotionally stunted, and all share similar taste in clothes and entertainment.

Then along come Cam and Mitchell. Cam's this great big bear of a man and Mitchell's this little bearded wormy-looking guy who live in the suburbs of Los Angeles with their adopted daughter. Mitchell's relationship with his dad is prickly, but he gets along reasonably well with his sister and is apparently very close to his mom (and later his stepmother). And even if his relationship with his family of origin wasn't always good, at least they are visible and have a significant presence in his life. Cam comes from a large farm family in Missouri--a family which, interestingly enough, seems to be much more accepting and understanding of his orientation than Mitchell's family (or at least his dad). Coming from a similar family, that was revolutionary in and of itself to me. It's not often that I see families like mine on television; in fact, when I try to think of other TV families that are similar to mine, I have to go all the way back to the Huxtable family on the Cosby Show.

After the laudable Ellen Degeneres came out on her show, it became fashionable for sit-coms in the late 1990s and into the 2000s to have at least one token gay character. Often, these characters manifested themselves as a stock character type which I like to call the Gay Buffoon. This is a character, almost always male, who may or may not be openly gay but will embody three or more of the standard stereotypes associated with gay men. Invariably, he will be obnoxiously loud, irrepressibly flamboyant and prone to making unwanted sexual advances towards the disinterested male characters around him. His stereotypical characteristics will always be played for laughs. He will never be the main character, always the wacky sidekick, and he will never be allowed any character development.

Even shows that are often praised as groundbreaking and revolutionary will include a Gay Buffoon character. Notable examples from such shows are Jack from Will & Grace, Dean Pelton from Community and Carson Kressly from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (I hesitate to mention him because, of course, Carson Kressly is a real person, but I never--or at least very rarely--saw him stop acting like a self-caricature and display any genuine emotional depth until last year when he appeared on Dancing with the Stars.)

On Modern Family, Cameron and Mitchell are not Gay Buffoons. They're nobody's sidekicks; they're equal partners in an ensemble cast. They have each other so they don't have to be flirting with the other men around them. Sure, they each have some stereotypically gay characteristics, but then so does EVERY OTHER CHARACTER ON THE SHOW! These characteristics are not treated as gay identifiers but rather as character traits which people of all orientations can and do display, as it is in life. To be fair, Cam and Mitchell do have a group of gay friends who are depicted sterotypically, but it's justified in that they aren't series regulars so there isn't the time or the space or the need to develop them as characters, and they don't actually get up to any buffoonery themselves.

I'm not going to go so far as to say that Cam and Mitchell are never buffoons, but they aren't consistently portrayed as such, their buffoonery usually isn't dependent on their gayness, and--most significantly--they aren't the designated buffoons on the show. Every character on the show has their moments of buffoonery which, again, is true to life. Everyone makes stupid mistakes sometimes, everyone has a moment of sticking their foot in their mouth, everyone has experienced feeling like a buffoon. Moreover, as wacky and outrageous as all the characters' hijinks on the show can be, a significant portion of the material is based on the real-life experiences of the writers and (sometimes) the actors. A case of truth is stranger than fiction, perhaps?

I don't mean to say that my interpretation is more valid than anyone else's, but it's a well-intentioned show and, personally, I think it is helping a lot more than it is hurting.
Tags: ideas, television
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