Monday, April 4, 2011
I survived Shameless and all I got was this lousy idea. I mean, it can be powerful when William H. Macy’s drunk, abusive father isn’t stealing the spotlight with his drunk, abusive antics—par for the course for Showtime’s asshole antiheroes we’re supposed to root for—especially because it’s these interludes where the show is actually about something, the way these people on the margins, the economic state of nature, pull themselves together to survive. But what most blows me away in the age of Kurt and Blaine and Victoria Jackson is Ian Gallagher, played by Cameron Monaghan as a gay kid who expresses his gayness not through fashion or decorating or beating up fags but through gayness itself. Fancy that.
I know it seems like the gays have taken over every program like a glitter experiment gone awry, but check again: we’re still recurring and supporting, and when we’re regulars, we’re skittish about actually being gay, aren’t we, Oscar and Kurt and Kevin and Saul and Mitchell and Cameron? Over a decade later and we’re still hiding behind Ellen and Will. Convenient how gay kids on television are constantly struggling with their identity, a nice, family-friendly way to include gay characters without having to go through all the icky of actually depicting homosexuality. Take it from me, some of us have always known we’re gay, not because we just wanted a pair of sensible heels for Christmas a la Kurt Hummel, either. Some of us are just T-shirt-and-jeans people who happened to catch the right glimpse of Lt. Tom Paris when we were 9. (Hey, Sally Draper had The Man from UNCLE, so, you know, no judgment.)
But marginalization comes in 31 flavors. There’s the aforementioned bait-and-switch, where a show spotlights a gay kid coming to terms with his identity rather than indulging it. There’s the Sweeps Stunt, a brief flirtation with same-sex romance culminating in a liplock, also known as the Mischa Barton guest arc. A spin on this is the Dumbledore, where showrunners run out the clock keeping Lt. Gaeta effectively in the closet. There’s preaching to the choir via niche programming, usually soaps of the teen (Greek, Gossip Girl), camp (Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty), or afterschool (DeGrassi, Glee) variety. But mostly there’s your basic ghettoization, where Kalinda Sharma can make out with all the guys she wants but when it comes to the girl-on-girl, a tasteful cut is in order.
Over on Shameless, Emmy Rossum’s boobs keep the lights on, and everyone else having sex is missing more than a shirt, but Ian Gallagher requires careful composition and editing. Now, Cameron Monaghan is 17, and by all other markers, Shameless is the most progressive representation of homosexuality mass-audience TV drama has ever known, so I’ll chalk it up to age. It’s a step in the right direction that Ian 1) knows he’s gay, 2) isn’t particularly dismayed by the fact, and 3) acts on it often and with great relish.
The same is true of the season’s other quiet trailblazer, Jesse on In Treatment, who singlehandedly proves that you don’t need to show anything to present sexuality graphically and realistically. United States of Tara just started its third season, and I hope Marshall Gregson can regain his former glory as one small step for gay teens. The girlfriend arc was understandable and the anxiety about gay sex was reasonable, but yesterday’s liberal is today’s conservative and Marshall's one excuse away from the hell reserved for Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. There's more than one kind of unresolved sexual tension.
It’s not about prurience. It’s about normalization. The same way all those economic numbers made Billion positively blasé, television can make gay everyday. But it can’t do it by pretending homosexuality is an affinity for celebrity gossip and bitchiness rather than good, old-fashioned horniness. Kurt and Blaine may be the Entertainment Weekly poster boys, but as long as they’re choir eunuchs, they’ve got nothing on Ian Gallagher.