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Gay TV and Straight America

Gay TV and Straight America

Ron Becker
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj2q0
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  • Book Info
    Gay TV and Straight America
    Book Description:

    After decades of silence on the subject of homosexuality, television in the 1990s saw a striking increase in programming that incorporated and, in many cases, centered on gay material. In shows including Friends, Seinfeld, Party of Five, Homicide, Suddenly Susan, The Commish, Ellen, Will & Grace, and others, gay characters were introduced, references to homosexuality became commonplace, and issues of gay and lesbian relationships were explored, often in explicit detail.

    In Gay TV and Straight America, Ron Becker draws on a wide range of political and cultural indicators to explain this sudden upsurge of gay material on prime-time network television. Bringing together analysis of relevant Supreme Court rulings, media coverage of gay rights battles, debates about multiculturalism, concerns over political correctness, and much more, Becker's assessment helps us understand how and why televised gayness was constructed by a specific culture of tastemakers during the decade.

    On one hand the evidence points to network business strategies that embraced gay material as a valuable tool for targeting a quality audience of well-educated, upscale adults looking for something "edgy" to watch. But, Becker also argues that the increase of gay material in the public eye creates growing mainstream anxiety in reaction to the seemingly civil public conversation about equal rights.

    In today's cultural climate where controversies rage over issues of gay marriage yet millions of viewers tune in weekly to programs like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, this book offers valuable insight to the complex condition of America's sexual politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3932-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Importance of Gay-Themed TV
    (pp. 1-12)

    The day after the 2004 presidential election, a disillusioned Jon Stewart and his guest, New York Senator Charles Schumer, tried to figure out how George W. Bush could have won. Given the major issues dominating headlines at the time, the suggestion that a prime-time sitcom had helped put Bush over the top was both comically absurd and strikingly on the mark. For months, pundits had predicted that the election would hinge on the economy, homeland security, and the war in Iraq. In exit polls, however, a surprisingly large number of voters identified moral values as the issue they were most...

  5. Chapter 1 Straight Panic and American Culture in the 1990s
    (pp. 13-36)

    In 1991 I was a closeted undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin—aware of my gay sexual orientation but fearful that others were as well. That year the campus gay and lesbian student organization (no doubt inspired by the direct-action strategies employed by ACT UP and Queer Nation) coordinated a Jeans Day as part of its coming-out-week activities. Overnight they covered campus sidewalks with impromptu chalk messages and plastered kiosks with flyers that called upon gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to show their pride by wearing jeans to school the next day. In those final years before the Gap-led khaki craze,...

  6. Chapter 2 Thinking about Gay People: Civil Rights and the Confusion Over Sexual Identity
    (pp. 37-79)

    Shortly after taking office in January 1993, Bill Clinton privately confided to his old friend, civil rights historian Taylor Branch, that his new job had already been unexpectedly thought provoking.¹ While Clinton had planned to devote his first days in office to launching the economic reforms on which he had successfully campaigned, his agenda for getting Americans back to work would have to wait as he found himself quickly mired in gay rights politics. His campaign promise to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military became the first high profile and controversial issue for the inexperienced president,...

  7. Chapter 3 Network Narrowcasting and the Slumpy Demographic
    (pp. 80-107)

    In 1995 Matt Williams, co-creator of the ABC family sitcomHome Improvement, bemoaned one of the most notable developments in network television during the 1990s: the increasing importance of demographic numbers in general, and an obsession with a narrow segment of the 18-to-49 audience in particular.¹ Although demographics had played a part in the business of network television for years, their influence soared in the mid-1990s as the principles of narrowcasting challenged traditional broadcasting practices. Gone were the days of the mass audience when household ratings figures served as the gold standard by which ad rates were set and program...

  8. Chapter 4 The Affordable, Multicultural Politics of Gay Chic
    (pp. 108-135)

    In this chapter I augment the industry-focused analysis offered in chapter 3 by asking why certain straight viewers might have found gay-themed television appealing. Gay material wasn’t only useful for network executives, I argue, but also for many viewers for whom watching prime-time TV with a gay twist spoke to specific political values and offered some a convenient way to establish a “hip” identity. It was convenient because, as a cultural category, homosexuality fit so comfortably with the socially liberal, fiscally conservative politics many “sophisticated,” well-educated, and upscale Americans found resonant in the neoliberal political climate of the 1990s. It...

  9. Chapter 5 Gay Material and Prime-Time Network Television in the 1990s
    (pp. 136-188)

    At the 2000 Emmy awards,Will & Gracewas a surprise winner, beating outFriends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, andSex and the Cityfor best comedy series. In accepting the award, series cocreator Max Mutchnick implied that the show’s victory said as much about the television industry’s attitude toward the program’s gay content as it did about the quality of its scripts, direction, or acting. At the start of the 2000–2001 season,Will & Gracewas one of the biggest hits on television. Besides winning the Emmy, the show consistently ranked in the top ten (and even higher among 18-to-49...

  10. Chapter 6 “We’re Not Gay!” Heterosexuality and Gay-Themed Programming
    (pp. 189-213)

    Jerry Seinfeld and George Constanza were anxious to set the record straight on the February 11, 1993, episode of the hit NBC sitcomSeinfeld. Entitled “The Outing,” the episode places sexuality—both homo and hetero—front and center in a plot structured around a 1990s twist on the age-old comedy convention of mistaken identity—in this case mistaken sexual identity. The trouble for Jerry and George starts when they sit down for lunch with gal pal Elaine Benes. As the gang blathers on about nothing, Elaine spies a woman at the next table eavesdropping on their conversation. Looking to spice...

  11. Conclusion: Straight Panic in the 2000s
    (pp. 214-226)

    In March 2003 a colleague of mine struck up a conversation with a white, straight, twentysomething man sitting next to her on an airplane.¹ Their conversation eventually turned to 9/11 and the young man expressed the renewed sense of patriotism that came over him in the wake of the terrorist attacks. As a self-identified liberal undergraduate in the 1990s, he recalled, he had experienced a certain antipathy and even guilt about being white. Michael Omi may have argued that he was caught in a crisis of white identity; the young man seemed to feel that whiteness couldn’t serve as a...

  12. Appendix A: Select Gay-Themed Network TV Episodes
    (pp. 227-232)
  13. Appendix B: List of Interviews
    (pp. 233-234)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 235-270)
  15. Index
    (pp. 271-283)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 284-284)