by Kathy Hovis)
Despite what people might believe, television has been featuring gay and lesbian characters and focusing on issues related to the LGBT community from the early days of the medium, says Amy Villarejo, professor of performing and media arts in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Villarejo’s new book, “Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire,” (2014, Duke University Press) offers a look at the ways that TV representations of queer life have changed since the 1950s.
The book is organized around four distinct periods in television history – the days of network television, the advent of PBS in the 1960s and ’70s, the changeover to cable television’s multiple channels and today’s digital on-demand world of TV.
Villarejo begins her book by visiting an early show, “Our Miss Brooks,” a situation comedy that starred Eve Arden as a high school English teacher and ran from 1952 to 1956.
During the 1950s, Villarejo said, sidekicks, or “comic seconds,” were often organized around gendered and sexualized stereotypes, many of them queer. Some of these were derogatory or pejorative, Villarejo said. Nevertheless, the characters were a strong part of the show.
Other television shows, particularly the comedies of director Norman Lear, featured gay characters in minor roles on one episode and used them as a way to deal with topics of the day, from suicide to adoption to gay life.
Villarejo examines a Christmas Day 1977 episode of Lear’s “All in the Family,” where Edith Bunker is brought to tears by the violent death of her friend, Beverly, a drag queen.
“The show was complicated in a very nuanced and emotionally rich way, bringing the American television audience into a very powerful story of this character’s death and how it caused Edith to question her faith,” Villarejo said.
PBS emerged in the 1960s and ’70s with foundation funding to tackle larger projects such as documentaries. One such show, “An American Family,” broadcast in 1971, featured Pat and Bill Loud and their five children, including Lance Loud, who came out to his family during the show and became an icon in the LGBT community.
“It was very powerful to have 12 hours of television featuring lives that included a gay son,” Villarejo said. “We got to know Lance in a way we had never gotten to know a gay character before.”
Villarejo’s book also examines industry changes like the advent of cable and its more developed stories of gay life, such as Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.”
She ends with a discussion of what the future might bring in today’s digital world, which she said is really anyone’s guess.
“There are some wonderful democratizing things about the new platforms; there are these Web series that are extremely well-written and well-acted,” Villarejo said. “But as with television’s early moments, it’s the Wild West, with innovation emerging alongside bad formula TV and ‘reality’ that’s anything but.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.