Ron Becker / Miami University
America’s media culture, it seems, has entered a post-closet era, especially or perhaps most precisely for white gay men. In the mid-1990s, the rise of gay material on U.S. television often served as a hotly contested battleground in the so-called culture wars. In recent years, however, gay men (and to a much lesser extent lesbians) have been seemingly (and at times seamlessly) integrated into the landscape of U.S. television. With little to no fanfare, gay men appear in prime-time network series like Brothers & Sisters, Ugly Betty, America’s Next Top Model, and Survivor and in a vast array of cable series (from high-profile dramas like HBO’s Six Feet Under to low-profile, low-budget programming like Bravo’s Project Runway and HGTV’s Curb Appeal and House Hunters). Meanwhile, many of the most gay-inclusive series of the 1990s (e.g., Friends, Roseanne, ER, Will & Grace, Spin City) have become the syndicated mortar that holds television lineups together. As a result, the presence of openly gay men on television has become virtually banal. The days of advertiser defections and conservative
viewer boycotts seem to be a thing of the past.
That there are so many openly gay men on television reinforces a liberal assumption that we have entered a post-gay-civil-rights era. From a perspective that equates cultural visibility with political progress, TV’s openly gay men indicate that for all practical purposes homophobia has disappeared and with it, gay men’s need to be in the closet and liberal straight people’s need to feel guilty about their heterosexual privilege. But I think it also enables certain (white, liberal and/or queer?) constructions of straight masculinity. If normative masculinity has long been haunted by the specter of the gay other (disciplined by the always closet-able nature of homosexuality), then the belief that the closet is gone might “liberate” straight masculinity in certain ways. By way of a comforting slippage, the naïve belief that gay men can be out becomes the reassuring assumption that they are out. In this way, the banal ubiquity of television’s openly gay guys supports the illusion of a post-closet world where all men who are gay are out, and any man who isn’t out is obviously (and securely) straight-otherwise they’d be out. Such a situation, I’d argue, enables the kind of exploration of queer straight masculinity seen in programs like Scrubs, Boston Legal, and Gay, Straight, or Taken.
For post-closet media narratives, gay men who are not out-who fail to identify with the label waiting for them, who refuse to accept the straight world’s tolerance, who expose the gaping hole in this post-civil-rights logic-are a real problem. To maintain confidence in the clarity of the line between gay men and straight men, these closet cases must be helped out. Such was the case with much of the public discourse surrounding Brokeback Mountain. The movie puts Jack and especially Ennis within a closet constructed by the threat of homophobic violence and the exigencies of their geographic, economic, and historical contexts. Both are married, have children, and live as straight men most of the time; they never identify themselves as “gay.” Nevertheless, the film was consistently referred to as “the gay cowboy movie” (a phrase perhaps most widely circulated via television’s vast public relations juggernaut). This flippant moniker effortlessly provides the language that Jack seems to be struggling so hard to discover, that Ennis seems so anxious to avoid, and that a post-closet U.S. culture seems to find self-evident and perhaps (given the obsessive insistence of the phrase) necessary. Calling Brokeback Mountain a “gay” cowboy movie outs Jack and Ennis in the public reception of the film in a way that they never are in the movie and, in the process, works to make the closet-ridden world of the film epistemologically safer for a post-closet era and for a queer straight masculinity.
Other moments are far more punishing in their treatment of closeted gay men-perhaps none more literally than a 2004 episode on the CBS crime drama Hack. The narrative begins when Jamie (a series regular) and his old college friend Wilson are bashed on the street by four masked men who hurl anti-gay slurs. When he enlists the help of Hack (a one-time cop now a justice-seeking cabbie looking for redemption from past mistakes), he discovers that Wilson is gay and doesn’t want to pursue the case for fear it will out him to his family. Determined not to let other gays get hurt, Hack and Jamie refuse to stop, even when faced with the threat of violence. Meanwhile, Wilson, afraid to go to a gay bar, takes the “riskier” (in the logic of the episode) path of cruising a park at night where he his murdered. Hack eventually figures out that the murderer was not only one of the four masked bashers but also one of the beat cops who had been assigned to the original case. The key narrative twist, however, is that the cop (Boyle) is a closet case himself, driven to gay-bash and murder by his self-loathing.
Although gay killers have been a staple of mainstream film and TV narratives for decades, “Double Exposure” reflects a post-closet variation. The episode, for example, works hard to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with being openly gay. When Jamie relates how he momentarily baulked when Wilson came out to him, Hack, the moral center of the show, is clearly disappointed. Jamie, however, later redeems himself by risking his life to pursue the case and by delivering a eulogy at Wilson’s funeral in which he castigates himself for not having wholeheartedly welcomed his friend out of the closet. Being a closeted gay man, however, is another thing. Wilson cowardly subverts the justice system, putting others at risk to keep his secret, only to get himself killed by cruising the park. Later, his fear of parental rejection is revealed to have been baseless. When his parents find out the truth after his death, they mourn the pain their son had experienced rather than express anger or shame over his gayness. Boyle, of course, is the real object lesson, as is made clear during the final confrontation when Hack pummels Boyle in an oddly long and one-sided fight. As Boyle crawls on the ground whimpering, Hack asks him, “You beat up these guys to what-to prove that you’re straight?” Thus, the closet becomes a violent place constructed by the pathetic and ultimately senseless fear of gay men rather than by the fear/hatred of homophobic straight men or by a heteronormative social order. Boyle’s three accomplices, for example, are noticeably absent in the episode’s final act, their motivation left unexplained and their anti-gay hate crimes left strangely unpunished.
1. The closeted Jack and Ennis embrace in Brokeback Mountain.
2. Characters Marcellus and Hack in CBS’s crime drama Hack.
Please feel free to comment.
I appreciate Becker problematizing the post-closet visibility of gay characters in TV and in films. In reading his article, I couldn’t help but notice parallels between gay visibility and that of blacks and other minorities on television. These representations of minority groups are typically constrained in terms of class in order to make them more palatable to the viewer and are used as examples of political progress.
Furthermore, from the beginning of the piece, Becker makes it clear that he will focus on gay men. I do wonder, however, if this post-closet-era extends to lesbian representations the way it does to gay men. It doesn’t seem that increasing representations of lesbianism have enabled the same comfortable gender experimentation for straight female characters, as is the case for straight males. Why is the queer female still such a threat? Is this possibly a result of so many femme representations? Does the femme lesbian in effect defy the closeted/uncloseted binary, so much so that a woman who plays with gender roles is still immediately suspected of being a lesbian?
I think this column raises a number of interesting points. In particular, I wonder about the way that this sort of function of closeting serves to perpetuate binarisms. That is to say, characters in the current representational order seem to be almost always straight or gay — there is no smudgy queer category, there is no meaningful experimentation, etc. Nor is there, anywhere, the luxury of refusing to identify.
Thanks for the article, Ron! I am intrigued by the idea of a “post-closet” era of (white, male) gay representation on TV.
I’d venture even farther here, and include the seemingly never ending tide of “closeted” or “not gay” Republican politicians caught in man-on-man situations in recent months as further support for your “post-closet” regime of gay representation on TV, even though it may be unscripted. (FL’s Bob Allen, WA’s Richard Curtis, of course, Larry Craig…)
TV news has a field day with them, and the prevailing discourse — I’m thinking of gay pundit Dan Savage as a talking head here — among the gay community is, “They’re not ours. They aren’t out. They’re *yours*” In other words, “closeted”=”shame” or “deviance”; “out”=”healthy” or “acceptable”.
Certainly, the “post-closet” ideal is an attempt to situate and sanitize homosexuality within a larger social discourse. (And I like how you bring up the fact that in inevitably inflects the idea of “straightness” too.) I wonder if the social gains of a “post-closet” representation — and there have been many, if only evidenced by the overwhelming amount of gay-rights legislation that has been passed under the radar on the state level in recent years — are enough to outweigh the limitations it imposes on a more nuanced understanding of homosexuality.
Great article, Ron. I can’t help but identify a similar carceral element to the discourse on “the down low.” News reports and television shows draw these hard, fast lines between closeted black gay men and things like deliberate HIV infection. The “post-closet” logic is such that “gay is okay” as long as it’s out in the open and can be controlled.
Here is an excerpt from a response I wrote to this article, using Battlestar Galactica [and in particular its web series Face of the Enemy] as an example of Post-Closet Television. Unfortunately, Flow seems to think this response is spam. See below for a link to the full response.
Gaeta’s relationship with Hoshi is striking not because it is a rare example of a gay man taken totally out of context or stereotype, but because it defies all attempts to typify a character. Whether Gaeta is gay or straight, is not nearly important as the what is actually going on in his two relationships, how the one informs the other and what both of them do to the character.
Click here to read the rest
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