Television is a relatively progressive medium when compared to say, film. For the simple fact that there is a lot more time to fill, far more tv shows than movies pass the Bechdel Test (The test is: are there (1) two women (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man. You’d be surprised how many movies don’t even pass part one. This is important because if women aren’t talking to one another, then they aren’t advancing plot, and once again women are relegated to the audience of heroic manly deeds).
But tv is also like a parallel universe with strange rules. Angry grown ups say things like “Mother flipper!” and no one says “Goodbye!” or “Later!” when they’re hanging up the phone. For this reason it’s possible for tv shows to appear extremely dated even when they’re currently airing.
One of tv’s enormous failures is its inability to portray gay men as actual human beings (and lesbians as people who exist at all, but we’ll get there). While popular mythology suggests that the gays are promiscuous drug using whores and OMG if we let them marry each other it’s humans and DOGS next!!! On tv the gays are usually best friend props to straight women and completely desexualized.
In the 90s the gays tended to be chaste saints dying of AIDS whose primary purpose was to give us breeders an Important Lesson about living life to the fullest. In Beverly Hills, 90210 season seven, Kelly works at a hospice and befriends a dying patient, Jimmy Gold. (Two asides here, first, IMDB tells me he was the accompaniest in Girls will be Girls, a Booze Tube favorite film, second Jimmy Gold? The other Jew along with David Silver? Come on, 90210!) Jimmy contracted HIV from his dead boyfriend who wasn’t faithful, whereas Jimmy hasn’t dated anyone since his partner died. He teaches Kelly about the magic of living life to its fullest, before dying concluding his three episode arc.
(The Real World’s Pedro was another dying AIDS Saint, whose icon was recently trotted out for a bizarre movie remake based entirely on docu footage. Between this and Grey Gardens it’s like an art/life ouroboros.)
On Melrose Place our main gay, Matt has not yet, in the four seasons I’ve watched gotten AIDS, but he did date a soldier with it, and the soldier’s paranoia contributed to the end of the relationship. But Matt is constantly engaging in a tv behavior that cracks me up: the chaste bro hug.
Now when straight people on tv are in a relationship, they often hold hands, kiss, cuddle and wake up in bed together. When gay guys are in a relationship they pull each other into four second hugs while thumping each others’ backs like they’re trying to dislodge a chunk of Chinese food. The night before Billy’s doomed wedding to Allison, Matt hooks up with the best man, who Billy previously assumed was straight. We the viewers see Billy watching through the window as Matt pulls Best Man in for a bro hug and then the camera turns to Billy’s disgusted and horrified face. The next day Billy can barely name what he saw, but Matt tells us it was kissing. Billy (rudely!) interrogates Best Man as to whether he’s ever been attracted to him. (Presume much?)
And let’s not forget the disaster that is Will and Grace. Will was freaking hot, so how come he never dated anyone longer than a couple months? Why did he never seem to have a boyfriend? Why was a show about a gay guy and a straight girl really just about a straight girl and her gay handbag?
Fast Forwarding to the naughties, boys can kiss on tv! Adorable Erik van der Woodson from Gossip Girl has a steady boyfriend! Progress!
Except not quite. The Perpetual Chaste Bro Hug has transformed into the Perpetual Invisible Relationship.
Now we trade on the idea that the first thing to go in relationship (other than leg-shaving, amirite brah!) is the sex. Hetero tv characters in their teens and twenties switch up partners like they’re in their teens and twenties while gay characters end up like Nancy Drew who was given boring Ned for a boyfriend specifically so that readers wouldn’t wonder why she didn’t have one.
Sure, gay guys have boyfriends, but they’re rarely seen, and the inner workings of their relationships are invisible which would be fine if the topic of the show were “Establishing world peace” or “How to bake awesome pies,” but on shows like Gossip Girl or Secret Life of the American Teenager, relationships are the topic, and it’s an area of life in which we’re only comfortable letting the gays be bystanders.