Alternative Lifestyles Emerge to Television

For over 65 years, nowhere has the human “body beautiful” been more openly displayed on a daily basis than through the medium of television. The images we have grown accustomed to have been intricately woven into the fabric of our culture and our individual lives. The sensual lifestyles of the rich and infamous have influenced our views of sexuality throughout our personal life journey from adolescence to adulthood through mainstream television series, soap operas, movies of the week and more recently some very popular reality shows. According to John Hartley in “Uses of Television”, “television is a teacher in the best sense”. He further states that “television can explore the way in which different populations with no mutual affinity can produce and maintain knowledge about others that enable us to communicate with each other”. Nowhere is this statement more accurate than in the evolution of sexual imagery in mainstream television. For many of the years of early television, heterosexual couples were the only images allowed on mainstream TV. Many people across the United States in particular, had never seen a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community portrayed at all on network television. Studio executives were not willing to take a risk in any area that depicted sexuality of any sort even among straight married couples who were always shown sleeping in separate beds. Early characters on television represented societal attitudes about sex during a period that was very conservative. In contrast to television’s early depictions of sexuality that centered solely around straight couples, the trends began to evolve dramatically in the 1970’s regarding sexuality both gay and straight. Television began to explore topics about sexuality that the Sexual Revolution made possible to openly discuss. When Phil Donahue (considered to be the most visionary talk show host in the history of American television) burst onto the stage of the mainstream media scene, he provided the first open national platform that discussed all the realms of sexuality. Some of his topics included lesbian and gay couples raising children, abortion, gay marriage and transgender relationships. No subject was considered taboo. Though the 1970’s ushered in such mainstream icons as Phil Donohue, television’s erotic revolution was just beginning. The first mention of a gay character on a primetime show was really a “pseudo-gay” character by the name of Jack Tripper on the hit comedy series “Three’s Company”. In order to rationalize two gorgeous young women living with a man, the network decided it would be more in line with the mainstream audience, if the man sharing the apartment were gay. Although everyone knew that John Ritter, the actor who played the gay Jack Tripper was a straight man, the series did bring the topic of homosexuality out of the closet. The show also made an effort to dispel gay stereotypes. Around the same time, networks like ABC started introducing gay characters on shows like “Barney Miller” and soon to follow was the first gay character on a daytime soap opera that still runs today called “All My Children”. ABC’s trendsetting vision set the stage for a new era in mainstream network TV and currently has the largest number of gay, lesbian and transgender characters of the 5 major networks. When Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on ‘The Ellen Show” in 1997 what made big news was that she was the star of the show on a major network. This was a major media event that represented something much larger than a television show. Although her show was cancelled, she became a symbol of lesbian identity both on and off screen. She has continued on her latest daily talk show to be influential, by providing a forum where viewers learn about other lifestyles other than their own. One of the most talked about media events took place in 1999 when a major U.S. network broadcast the most controversial series of the past 20 years. The originally British gay TV drama “Queer as Folk” was the first series where all the main characters were gay. What made this series even more significant was that the characters were portrayed as interesting and intricate people who just happened to be gay. Their erotic desires were openly depicted in a proud and liberated manner that challenged all previous mainstream ideas about being gay on television. While gays, lesbians and transgender characters were still being portrayed in film as outcasts, villains or comedians that conformed to stereotypes, television was rapidly moving forward in depicting a wider array of sexual images. On more recent top-rated television shows, characters such as Jack on “Will and Grace” evolved from a stereotypically effeminate man to one who confronted gay bashing and becomes a gay male hero. The advent of cable networks such as Showtime and HBO has had an enormous effect on dispelling myths of the LGBT communities. Showtime’s hit series “The L Word” became a phenomenon unlike any other before it in its ability to mainstream a myriad of beautiful and fashionably upscale lesbians and bisexuals. The positive portrayal of a community of lesbian and bisexual women living normal lives broke yet another barrier in television’s representation of gay relationships. The recent phenomenon of reality TV, particularly those on cable networks has also stepped over the threshold in creating such shows as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, “Gay Weddings”, and “Boy Meets Boy”. There is also an entire cable network called LOGO that is the first gay themed channel to appear as a basic cable choice. Gay-themed news shows reach millions of viewers a day and thus the power of television continues. It appears now that TV is way ahead of attitudes in the country by placing gays, lesbians and transgender roles in the forefront of mainstream television shows. Television today depicts people with alternative lifestyles as ordinary people with families, children and mainstream careers. While political debates may still rage onward, mainstream television continues to broaden our ideas about sexuality.