Emmys and Impact: Dishonestly Representing the LGBTQ Community

This year at the 66th annual Primetime Emmys, three of the shows which seemed to dominate the award ceremony had significant LGBTQ themes: The Normal Heart, Orange is the New Black, and Modern Family. The Normal Heart and OITNB both explore complex gay relationships and struggles, while Modern Family is a sitcom, bound to thirty-minute time constraints and the imperative to produce steady laughs. It’s expected that programs like OITNB and The Normal Heart would fare better than sitcoms at a ceremony honoring brilliance on the small screen, but Modern Family did remarkably well yet again, while the others earned only one statue between them.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the voting body that decides what show receives an Emmy, cannot control what the television audience watches. However, it can have a huge impact on great shows by bestowing them with television’s highest honor and bringing attention to their brilliance. Yet, the Academy decided to give the award for Best Comedy to Modern Family for the fifth year in a row. It seemed to ignore OITNB and The Normal Heart in almost every category, making critics and highbrow television viewers curious as to why the two remarkable programs were snubbed after receiving so much critical praise.

Although it’s unclear as to why these shows were snubbed, the strong LGBTQ themes and sexual relationships within the two programs may be the reason. When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams earlier this year, he gave his boyfriend a congratulatory kiss. The media and social media reaction was telling. Athletes, like Don Jones of the Miami Dolphins and Marshall Henderson of the University of Mississippi, both tweeted their outrage and disgust. On Dallas’s version of The View called The Broadcast, two women walked off the set because they felt maligned by people who were not offended by the public display of affection. As Henderson put it, “innocent eyes” should not have to see gay men kiss on television. This sentiment may reflect the general disparity between Modern Family’s success and OITNB and The Normal Heart’s disappointment.

While Modern Family presents a stereotypical gay couple, a flamboyant stay-at-home dad and a levelheaded lawyer, OITNB and The Normal Heart delve deeper into gay culture and feature sex scenes. OITNB, a Netflix series about a female prison, is sprinkled with lesbian intercourse. It isn’t superfluous, though. Rather, it is integral to the storyline. The Normal Heart, an HBO film about a group of gay men in New York City during the AIDS crisis, focuses on the personal struggles of the men involved as well as Larry Kramer’s real efforts to provide medical assistance to HIV/AIDS victims. Central to the film is Larry Kramer’s character Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) and his relationship to his boyfriend (Matthew Bomer) who eventually contracts the virus. Early in the film, there is a passionate sex scene between them. It cements their relationship and contributes to the overall somber mood when Bomer succumbs to the disease. Again, the sex is important to the overall storyline.

OITNB and The Normal Heart are about more than mere sex. The characters in the shows are well rounded, interesting, and often confusing. OITNB made headlines by featuring a transgendered actress, Laverne Cox, as one of the supporting characters. Her character, Sophia Burset, is complex and three-dimensional. She’s endearing yet flawed. Most importantly, she is not a stereotype. By being introduced to Laverne’s character, viewers get a real, substantive glimpse into what it means to be transgender.

Laverne Cox has made an impact in the media ever since OITNB premiered. Her newfound fame made her the first open transgender person to grace the cover of TIME Magazine. Hundreds of teenage binge-watchers now know what being transgender means. Given the impact, how can a show like this be passed up for a show like Modern Family, which despite its LGBTQ representation is far less deep and far more stereotypical? This may be chalked up to the fact that viewers are more comfortable with one-dimensional characters that leave them with the same impressions of the queer community they’ve always had.

One of Modern Family’s most popular characters, Cam, is totally effeminate. He screams and cries constantly and he whines ad nauseam. We’ve seen characters like him before: Jack, from Will & Grace, was similar. Every gay best friend on a multitude of movies is just like him: funny, loud, and incredibly feminine. There are gay people like Cam and Jack, certainly. But the problem is, characters like these are purposely one-dimensional, tired, and make it impossible for people uncomfortable with homosexuality to understand the variety and complexity within it.

"This may be chalked up to the fact that viewers are more comfortable with one-dimensional characters that leave them with the same impressions of the queer community they’ve always had."

It wouldn’t matter if shows like Modern Family and Will & Grace didn’t make a difference, but they do. A University of Minnesota study found that Will & Grace played an “important role in changing attitudes about gay men.” The impact was even greater when the viewer had little prior knowledge or experience with gays.  If television shows have the capacity and ability to influence and mold opinion for the better, shows like Modern Family ought to use the platform to educate viewers about the LGBTQ community, not present them with stereotypes they are already familiar with.  Modern Family is already popular, but has, as of late, been less popular with critics. A deeper storyline involving Cam and Mitchell could remedy this. And perhaps, if Modern Family wins an Emmy again next year, it would not warrant cries of “not again” from television viewership’s elite.

Another issue with shows like Modern Family and Will & Grace is that although they may shift public opinion for the better, opinion may be shifting for the wrong reasons. Will, from Will & Grace, for example, led a completely unrealistic homosexual life. He was handsome, successful, and likeable and yet had absolutely no sex life. He never had a lover, a boyfriend, or any kind of sexual relationship on the show. If viewers only respond positively to celibate homosexuals, there is not much of a substantial shift in public opinion.

The Normal Heart, alternatively, portrays real, gritty, emotional relationships. Watching the film, it is undeniable that the characters engaged in sexual relationships are in love and that their love is as genuine as heterosexual love. But, the film may be uncomfortable for some people to watch because of its honesty and its realistic portrayals of gay relationships. If programs like The Normal Heart and OINTB had more viewers than shows like Modern Family and Will & Grace, perhaps public opinion could shift in a more meaningful way. It would shift because learning about the more depressing and confusing side of the LGBTQ community could make it easier to empathize with the struggles of its members.

The educational benefits of watching shows like these are undeniable. Aside from a glimpse into the LGBTQ community, these programs provide insight into the women’s prison system and give a short history of the AIDS crisis in New York. But perhaps these issues are too grave and therein too depressing to be popular. A simple network drama that accurately depicts gay relationships could suffice. It would not need to portray graphic gay sex, as long as it acknowledged that most of the characters on the show were indeed having gay sex.

Although OITNB and The Normal Heart are remarkable and important, it should be possible for television to produce a cheerful show about the actual gay community that allows the general viewing public to better understand it. It is crucial for television to find a way to normalize authentic homosexual relations in increments of depth and discomfort. If the only legitimate gay representation on television is depressing to the point of alienating a large portion of the audience, it will continue to go unnoticed.

About the Author

Owen Parr '18 is a Political Science and History concentrator and a staff columnist for BPR.