Mourning the Loss of TV's Effeminate Gay Men
A couple of years ago I sat in the audience for a panel discussion on queer representation in entertainment; the presentation included a breezy tour through the gay history of the media, complete with Powerpoint slides of Rosie, Ellen and old People magazines from when you needed to be on the cover of something to come out. The overview was greeted warmly, until we got to Will and Grace, where one of the show's characters, Jack McFarland, proved a sticking point. Jack, a sassy sidekick whose flamboyance towed the line between camp and parody, has long been a lightning rod of discussion in the community. You could feel that discomfort in the room.
Our tour guide diffused the tension by reminding the mostly-male audience that Jack might be a stereotype, but many of us know a Jack in real life. The audience laughed with delight and recognition. They nodded to friends as if to say, "Oh, yes. That's true." What he didn't say is that many of us are Jacks, but I wondered how many people would laugh at that statement.
I thought of this moment after NBC announced last week that the network would be pulling Sean Saves the World, the freshman sitcom starring Sean Hayes, who played Jack on Will and Grace. For those who haven't seen the show (read: all of you), Sean Saves the World was about a father forced to take sole guardianship of his estranged (yet adorable!) daughter after her mother abandoned her. The show was NBC's attempt to relive its glory days by borrowing from what worked in the '90s, with Hayes playing nearly the same character, a little older and wiser, but with all the trademark pitfalls. Even the stilted laugh track made it sound like the laughter was echoing in from 15 years ago.
But in getting (rightly) cancelled by NBC, audiences weren't just leaving '90s sitcoms behind. They were leaving behind the Jack McFarlands, a relic of the Queer as Folk era of gay TV, when a show like Queer as Folk (for all its whitewashed issues) could give us three effeminate gays in its lead cast: Emmett, Ted and Justin. The recent television movement has been a push toward post-gay representation, creating male characters who just so happen to be gay. On the critically lauded Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that's the entire point of Andre Braugher's Captain Holt. His sexuality is as inscrutable as the rest of his persona, a hard-ass who has learned to blend in to survive in a homophobic workforce. The recent new HBO addition Looking was celebrated for the same thing. Although many critics chided it for being dull (which it is), defenders of the show found it liberating that gay characters got to be boring on television just like everyone else.
However, there's a certain type of character that gets the privilege to be post-gay, guys whose sexuality doesn't stand out in the same way that Jack's did. In order to get on television today, gay characters are butching it up, becoming like Captain Holt to prove they can hang with the boys, camouflaged with masculinity. Looking's characters are all fit hipster bros who call each other "dude" a lot. On the recently departed Happy Endings, the schlubby, hairy Max acted as a deconstruction of gay stereotypes. It was a running joke that Max was "less gay" than the show's straight dudes, much like gay characters on Nashville and GCB. This might be what it takes to fit in, but it looks awfully heteronormative.
Even recent shows that depict effeminate male characters use them primarily as the butt of the joke, a Lucy character who is always causing trouble. They act in counterpoint to a straighter man, who is seen as the voice of reason. The now-cancelled Ryan Murphy sitcom The New Normal provided Bryan — a shallow, judgmental television executive — primarily as a counterpoint to his angelically understanding partner David, a doctor who watches football and has no other character traits. David's role is "The Problem Solver." On Modern Family, Mitchell and Cameron have a similar dynamic, but Mitch seems to increasingly resent Cam for his effeminate tomfoolery. Their growing animosity has led many viewers to wonder if they secretly hate each other.
More than Mitchell, it's the community that has a complicated relationship with flamboyancy, much like the guys that I sat on the aforementioned panel with. It's a lot easier to pretend the queens don't exist than try to represent them, or we'd have to admit we have something in common. I remember that my mother once told me how much I reminded her of Jack and I remember how much it bothered me. I never stopped to ask myself why.
In being the newest gay show on TV, many will look to Looking to fix the problems surrounding gay representation and fill in the gaps in our media spectrum. Such is the inherent burden of representing a community, but we need to recognize why those cracks exist in the first place and why certain character types might push our buttons when it comes to masculinity and internalized homophobia. Fixing one TV show won't solve a problem that's bigger than HBO. With True Blood’s Lafayette and Glee's Kurt Hummel on shows that are on their last legs, our effeminate males are quickly becoming an endangered species.
On Girls, Lena Dunham's Hannah recently mourned the death of her complicated and quick-witted editor, David Pressler-Goings, played by the ever-androgynous John Cameron Mitchell. As David ascended to TV heaven to be with Sean Hayes, Hannah recalled that he had been her champion, the only one who believed in her work. TVs Davids, Jacks and Emmetts need champions too. They might not be represented on the air anymore, but it doesn't mean they aren't still here in real life and wondering what happened to their television counterparts.