The first weekend of Outfest, I decided to spend Saturday afternoon at a TV panel where the writers of some of the shows with gay characters (and most of them gay themselves) would talk about how TV comedy writing has changed to embrace gay characters over the past 25 years.
The panel included six writers with some extensive credits (Modern Family, Glee, Will & Grace, Family Guy, Frasier, Nurse Jackie, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, etc), two women and four men. They actually represented a pretty good cross-section of experience – the women spoke about how most television is written by men, one male panelist spoke about his contract on one show requiring that he and his writing partner stay in the closet, while the others exclaimed that they couldn’t believe that! etc etc. They got into the nuances of writing gay characters and trying to write for the overall show while paying attention to being honest for the gay audience. It was pretty insightful.
There is always an elephant in the room for me, at these events. Where are the butch/less than femme/other queer gals? Why is no one writing them? The panel started with a great montage of queer moments in TV comedy: Billy Crystal on Soap, Roseanne‘s lesbian kiss, and a clip from the upcoming The New Normal (from Glee’s Ryan Murphy), to name just a few. I was excited that in The New Normal, the scene they showed had a lesbian couple cuddling their baby while walking down the street. One of the lesbians was butch (!!! Julie Goldman, of course) and the other was kind of heavy. Both were in plaid shirts. (see them in the trailer here at 50sec) Great, right? I go in search of alternative lesbians, and I find them, right? Sort of.
My problems are several-fold: one, those characters are probably not leads, or even recurring, on the show. The show is about gay men. Sigh. Two, those characters are the butt of a joke – a funny joke, but still. Ellen Barkin’s overbearing mother character sees the lesbians, and says that she appreciates the gays because without them no one would know how to do her hair. When her daughter points out that the couple is actually two women, Ellen Barkin says “Oh no, dear – those are ugly men.”
Why do we always have to be “ugly men?”
I mean, it’s funny. But still. Ali Adler, the writer/co-creator of New Normal went on to talk about writing love scenes and affection for gay characters, and how it follows the same rules as writing those scenes for straight folks – only the attractive actors get the sexy affection. It was pointed out that Cameron and Mitchell don’t get all kissy face on Modern Family any more than Gloria and Jay do, but only because they’re all not “attractive” in the same way that most heartthrob straight characters are.(Gasp! Characters that have to be REAL PEOPLE and can’t just exist to sell sex!) She made her point clear – people only want to see Hollywood sexy people in love. And I couldn’t help but hear the undertone that butches and real looking lesbians are therefore less than. And this from an out lesbian showrunner who knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the writing room.
Stan Zimmerman, the writer from Roseanne, however, shared something that really resonated with me. He wrote on the episode where Roseanne kisses Sharon Stone. At the end of the kiss, Roseanne apparently improv’d the part where she wipes her mouth on Sharon’s sleeve. The producers loved that – thought it was hilarious. Stan thought it was degrading, and it wasn’t in the script. He thought the kiss should just be a kiss… but he was overruled. And at this point in the story again someone else chimed in with the idea of Roseanne’s relative attractiveness as killing the kiss from being real.
I wanted to ask them a question about this directly. Why can’t they write a more butch lesbian? I mean, even soft like Ellen (read: my category)? Is it just generally considered that butches are too unattractive? Do we always have to be brutish and goofy, prison guards and prison inmates and female jocks and all that? And I’ve certainly cashed the checks I get from playing those characters, but I’d love to have, oh, I don’t know, a storyline? And attractive clothing?
Why aren’t we “attractive” enough to play real characters? When will we be?
Who’s going to take that risk? I think the audience would embrace it.
I couldn’t figure out how to ask this question at that panel – I can’t get the wording right, without it being too on the nose. It’s also something to be a butch-identified-actor and to stand up and ask that question, like I don’t want it to just be about me looking for a job. But I am here because I believe we should be seen, all of us. I just want to know when, or if, they think the tide will turn.
I think it will or else I wouldn’t be here. But it would be great to hear it from those who are actually writing it.