Pop Culture Rewind: Queerness in Pop Culture

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Words | Gabby Edwards

Situational comedies (sitcoms) can be traced back as a popular television genre since the 1970s.  Usually set around a group of core characters, this genre was designed to be easily accessible entertainment that could be tuned into at any time, regardless of how much knowledge one had of prior seasons or episodes. Needless to say, these shows quickly grew in popularity, spawning iconic shows over the years including Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends. Around the same time, LGBTQ+ social movements were also in full swing, particularly in the US. As queer people fought for their basic rights, an increase in representation and positive portrayals slowly began to be reflected in the shows people watched.

As a lot of the genre was centred around family issues and was certainly meant to be enjoyed by families together, any decent representation took quite a while coming. At first, any mention of gayness on these shows was instantly shut down and laughed at as the source of a joke. That, or characters would seem threatened by any show of queerness and do anything possible to disassociate themselves from any chance of affiliation. Though, it wasn’t long before things started to shift, and gay characters were able to move past being the butt of the joke to making the jokes themselves. 

Wikipedia lists Jodie Dallas, as played by Billy Crystal, from the 70s US sitcom Soap as the first reoccurring gay character on a primetime TV show. Despite Billy himself not being applauded as a gay icon anytime soon, his character still paved the way for a more accepting television audience and managed to make many fans of the show feel recognised and less alone. As time went on, quite a few sitcoms would air episodes featuring a gay character or storyline, all varying greatly in regard to the level of homophobia present. While some came to relatively positive conclusions where the main cast would recognise their prejudice and openly accept the gay character/s, others would continue having the queer character be rejected for their sexual identity.

During the 90s a trend began in which many shows featured a main character having a gay dream and the instant identity crisis that followed. These included Frasier, Murphy Brown and Ellen. It’s hypothesised that these episodes were created to test the waters on how audiences would feel about shows starting to have open conversations about these topics and issues. With early discussions of legalising gay marriage in the US on the rise at the time, gay characters and relationships were on their way to being better discussed and normalised across the media. Or so we thought…

Potentially one of the most well-recognised sitcoms of all time, Friends, dabbled in queer representation through its years of airing. Despite the main cast consisting of borderline to full-blown homophobic characters, a few queer side characters made appearances over the years. This of course includes Ross’ ex-wife Carol and her new partner Susan. Their wedding episode was one of the first gay weddings aired on mainstream US television, which led to the show gaining two GLAAD Media Award nominations and one win for Outstanding Comedy series. Despite this, many still point out that these queer storylines exist for the purpose of ridiculing the main cast. Aside from this being the case with Ross and his ex-wife, it is of course present with Chandler’s father. From the start, the fact that Chandler’s father is gay is instantly the punchline of jokes made to embarrass him. This is of course made worse when the show reveals that his father is a drag queen, coded as a trans woman and played by a female actress. The obvious lack of understanding and distinction between doing drag and being transgender has definitely aged terribly. Overall, Friends’ queer representation track record is far from perfect, as supported by the hour-long supercut that existed of all the homophobic jokes made across the show.  

On the other side of the spectrum, Will and Grace is an example of a show that made waves when it first aired for its representation and normalisation of gay lead characters. The show followed a straight woman and gay man who were roommates and the various antics they got up to within their careers, romantic pursuits and friendship groups. While it did receive some heavy critiques for still adhering to certain stereotypes when it had opportunities to be subversive, particularly when it was initially released, the show continued to gain supporters over time and became a much-beloved classic. 

And of course, we can’t talk about gay sitcoms without talking about Ellen DeGeneres herself. While her reputation over the last few months has been quite spotty, her coming out story and position as the first gay lead on television showed major progress. When her self-titled sitcom aired her coming out episode it was met with 44 million viewers, which was 3 times more than the show’s average. Despite the show being cancelled in the following year, Ellen DeGeneres still went on to become a pop culture icon with her talk show still airing today after almost 17 years. 

Queer characters in sitcoms nowadays tend to be a lot more common and usually come with a lot less homophobia on the side. Modern Family was another more recent show that normalised queer characters through featuring a gay couple, Mitchell and Cam, as part of the main cast. They are healthily represented as a happy married couple with an adopted daughter and loving extended family. Though, the show has still received its fair share of critiques including the stereotypes it often leans into with Cam in particular being portrayed as quite feminine and the couple acting negatively toward lesbian characters. Many also critique the fact that the couple rarely kiss, and when they do, it is always abrupt. The showrunners attempted to directly address this within the show stating the couple just weren’t big into PDA.

While queer representation has definitely improved, this isn’t to say all representations go without criticism. Titus Andromedon from the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is just one example of a gay character who was initially critiqued for being incredibly stereotyped. Titus is the gay black best friend of main character Kimmy and on paper, the stereotypes are clear. He’s loud, dramatic, and dreams of performing on Broadway. For a lot of the show he also seems incredibly selfish, often wrapped up in his own issues and totally ignorant of his friend’s problems. Though, over the course of the show his character does evolve a little as we get to know him better. The introduction of other gay characters with a variety of other personalities also assists in unpacking these stereotypes.

One Day at a Time, the 2017 reboot of the classic 70s sitcom, re-launched with a fresh diverse cast and some much-needed queer representation. The show follows three-generations of a Cuban American family living their life, with oldest child Eleanor starting the show trying to discover her sexuality and eventually coming out as gay. Beyond just having one character come out, it explores a range of issues including dating as a queer person, harassment queer couples face and respecting pronouns. The second season also follows her blossoming relationship with her non-binary significant other, Syd. When Netflix cancelled the show after three seasons it was quickly picked up by PopTV, marking it the first time a Netflix show has been revived by a traditional network. The show has a dedicated and loyal fan base, and it’s really easy to see why.

Schitt’s Creek, having just recently aired its finale, has also been praised for its queer representation. Dan Levy, one of the creators of the show, plays David, a pansexual man, within the show. The show explicitly made the choice not to show any homophobia, with all the characters simply accepting who he is once his sexuality is revealed. US promotions for the show also featured billboards of main character David and fiancé Patrick kissing, with the creators stressing the importance of having this kind of representation out there for queer people who often don’t feel seen or celebrated.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is among one of the most mainstream sitcoms currently airing with plenty of queer representation to boast.  Two lead characters in the main cast are explicitly queer including Captain Raymond Holt, a black gay police chief and Rosa Diaz, a Mexican American bisexual detective. Both representations of their sexuality are explored in different ways, with Holt’s being established from the first episode while Rosa comes out over the course of the show. Having queer characters of colour in a show is already quite difficult to find, so having two key characters within the same show feels truly monumental. Don’t say you didn’t cry after hearing Holt’s speech to Rosa when she came out. We all know you did. 

Speaking of the Schurverse, The Good Place’s main character Eleanor has also been confirmed by the show’s writers and creator to be bisexual. While Eleanor does casually flirt with a few other women on-screen, she never explicitly states she is bisexual, and the show never explores any past relationships or experiences she has had with other women.

Unfortunately, other identities in the queer community are still greatly underrepresented in sitcoms, including transgender people. While shows have existed focusing on trans storylines including Boy Meets Girl in the UK and The Switch from Canada, neither have managed to gather particularly large audiences. And while trans and non-binary characters have made appearances in shows such as Glee and One Day at a Time, they haven’t been a part of the core case of characters. 

Additionally, the queer representation that does exist seems to predominantly focus on the white, upper-middle class gay experience, which still comes with a whole lot of privilege. As you may have noticed, most of the old examples listed from the 70s to 90s solely feature white representation, usually amongst a solely white cast. While there have been examples of queer characters of colour in sitcoms in the past, the likes of which include Roc (which featured the first same-sex wedding on network TV), these were far less mainstream. While there are more recent examples airing on TV today, they are still heavily outnumbered by the amount of white characters present.

In looking for representation across their other favourite shows, many viewers have picked up on moments that could hint that their favourite characters aren’t as straight as they appear. This has sprung up one of my new favourite genres of YouTube video, that being compilations of popular sitcom characters and their gayest moments played to NSYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’ (of course spelt as “Bi Bi Bi”). With the power of the internet, audiences can band together to theorise and show support for their favourite queer headcanons, something that wasn’t possible back when the genre first started.

From this leap back in time we can clearly see that queer characters and storylines in sitcoms have come a long way. Fortunately, queer representation has become a lot more mainstream with LGBTQ+ characters being more readily accepted amongst shows with predominantly straight casts. Regardless, there’s always room to improve when representing a more diverse array of queer characters. This includes acknowledging when beloved shows do get things wrong and recognising where improvements can be made. In the meantime, may I suggest bingeing more of those Bi Bi Bi compilations? Trust me, the YouTube algorithm is more than willing to provide.