Have you heard of ABC’s epic miniseries, When We Rise? Neither have I, but LifeSiteNews says that the eight-hour show detailing the rise of the gay rights movement was heavily promoted during the Oscars. (Come to think of it that might explain why I missed it.) Nevertheless, the miniseries bombed and placed last among shows on the big four networks and next-to-last overall, coming in just ahead of Jane the Virgin on the CW.
LGBTQ shows were the hot new thing last year. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage across the country, networks bet that the time had come for gay television shows. CNN reported last year that there were more gay and lesbian characters on television than at any time in the past. Overall, 4.8 percent of regular characters fell under the LGBTQ umbrella.
The push for gay characters shows no signs of abating. Earlier this month, Disney introduced its first gay (or at least questioning) character in the new version of Beauty and the Beast. A gay romance has also been confirmed for the new Star Wars movies.
If it seems like homosexuality is more prevalent on television than in real life, you are right. Only 3.8 percent of Americans identify as LGBT per Gallup.
In spite of this, The Advocate bemoans the unpopularity of gay television and movies like When We Rise. Even though Moonlight, another movie that I had never heard of about a gay black boy in Miami, won the Academy Award for best picture in an upset over La La Land, “it had the lowest box-office numbers of all the nominees,” writes Daniel Reynolds.
Reynolds also notes that CBS recently canceled Doubt, “the first network TV show to feature a trans actress (Laverne Cox) in a regular, main-cast trans role.” Reynolds says, “If Doubt were still on the air, viewers on CBS — a network with real red state reach — could have seen Cox’s character, an attorney, strike up a romantic relationship with a cisgender man and help defend a trans victim of violence.” That is not exactly must-see TV for red state viewers.
Polling shows that Americans are increasingly accepting of both homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Pew found that 63 percent now believe that homosexuality should be accepted. Resistance to homosexuality among both Christians and conservative Republicans has declined in recent years. Gallup now shows 61 percent in favor of same-sex marriage with only 37 percent opposed.
How then can we square the flop of gay programming with the increasing acceptance of homosexuality? A clue can be found in Reynold’s lament over the cancellation of Doubt. He seems to view the show as evangelism to red states rather than entertainment.
Americans typically have a live and let live, libertarian attitude to issues like homosexuality. “Let them do what they want behind closed doors if it doesn’t affect me,” seems to be the prevailing attitude. This laissez-faire attitude towards personal sexual relationships does not extend to watching shows and movies about gays that are not entertaining.
There have been two unquestionably successful shows featuring main characters who are gay. Will and Grace, which ran from 1998 through 2006, and Modern Family, which debuted in 2009, were both mainstream hits. These were funny shows that succeeded on their own merits as entertainment and not because they pushed a gay agenda.
With gay viewers representing only a tiny slice of television viewers, producers and writers must be careful not to turn off straight viewers with gay characters and plots. A New York Times list of the most influential gay movies and television shows reveals that most of the entries that were memorable and successful were gay characters and episodes on otherwise straight shows such as the lesbian wedding episode on Friends or the lesbian kiss on Roseanne. Many of the “groundbreaking” shows and movies were notable only as footnotes in gay film history.
Due to the proliferation of cable channels and internet television shows, it is easier than ever before for a show to become successful while appealing to only a small segment of viewers. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a reality show in which gay men gave straight men fashion makeovers, was successful on Bravo for five years. Girls, a series on HBO, catapulted Lena Dunham from obscurity to minor celebrity status. Even a hit show like Modern Family draws only about 8 million viewers each week out of a nation of 350 million. In contrast, I Love Lucy drew 11 million viewers each week when there were only 15 million TV sets in the entire country.
The lesson for networks is that while Americans are increasingly tolerant towards gays, they don’t necessarily want to tune in to gay romances or shows that preach a gay political agenda. While movies like Moonlight and When We Rise may achieve critical acclaim, it’s the shows that make us laugh and offer an escape from day-to-day life that get us to tune in.