When Teletubbies aired in March 1997, it quickly became one of the most popular and controversial children’s shows on TV. By July, Tinky Winky, the purple character with a red handbag, was dubbed “the first queer role model for toddlers” and Tinky’s sexuality became a widely debated topic in popular culture. Some celebrated Tinky as a gay icon, going so far as to label him, “the next Ellen DeGeneres”. However, this colourful character unintentionally ignited a homophobic panic. Christian right groups claimed that Tinky’s “gay lifestyle [was] damaging to the moral lives of children”. The showrunners refuted any suggestions about Tinky, emphasizing that Teletubbies are asexual aliens. Teletubbiesillustrates how far we have come in regard to LGBTQ+ representation in media. In 1997, LGBTQ+ viewers were grasping at straws for representation, anything that strayed from heteronormative narratives was celebrated, even something as seemingly banal as an alien with a purse.
Today, television more closely reflects the world we live in with a record high of 8.8% of TV series regulars identifying as LGBTQ+. Thanks in part to more inclusive and diverse TV shows, Americans have shifted from discomfort and hostility towards acceptance and understanding of gay people as seen by the legalization of same-sex marriage and the increasing acceptance of a gay child. The impact of LGBTQ-friendly shows on public perceptions have been well-documented and appropriately dubbed “the Modern Family Effect”. Shows like Modern FamilyandWill & Grace have changed the political economy and encouraged networks to take greater risks by featuring more diverse and authentic storylines. Just as the heightened quality and quantity of gay and lesbian TV characters helped alter attitudes towards same-sex marriage, today’s increased media representation of trans people can protect their rights and promote acceptance. In the same way TV helped bring gay lifestyles into the mainstream, trans-inclusive shows have the potential to do the same.
In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden famously claimed that Will & Grace had “done more to educate the public”about the gay community than almost anything else. Popular culture critic, Billy Nilles, explained that “Without Will Truman, there [would be] no Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family, or Captain Ray Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Conor Walsh on How to Get Away with Murder”. Despite the early impact of Will & Grace, it is often Modern Family that is credited for the shift towards LGBTQ+ acceptance, hence why it has been dubbed “The Modern FamilyEffect”. This is largely due to the 2012 Hollywood Reporter study that found 27 percent of respondents said shows with LGBTQ+ characters such as those on Modern Family helped influence their support for same-sex marriage.
When Modern Family aired in 2009, it featured Cam and Mitch, gay parents who were described by the showrunners as “no more crazy of a family unit than the rest of the couples on the show”. In contrast to previous storytelling tropes, Cam and Mitch were not depicted as objects of ridicule nor were they added to the story as an afterthought to meet a “misguided sense of political correctness or need for inclusiveness”. They are central and complex characters who also happen to be gay. Cam and Mitch’s sexuality is never the punch line; their comedic moments are “driven by life’s everyday crises, not because of who they are as a couple”.
By its fifth season, Modern Family won 5 Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy awards and “became one of the few cross-culturally appealing TV works of the Obama years, viewed in red states and blue states, named-checked by Ann Romney and the president alike”. When Mitt Romney lost the presidential election in 2012, one Republican strategist provided the following explanation: Romney and his team were “a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America”.
Modern Family’s diverse characters have a large appeal. Jay, Mitch’s old-fashioned father, struggles to understand his gay son. As the series progresses, Jay’s strong oppositions eventually morph into acceptance, allowing conservative viewers to evolve alongside him. Unlike other mediums, television can provide Americans with a “no-pressure, no-judgment insight into communities they might not otherwise see or fully understand”. As viewers get comfortable on their couches, they may become more comfortable changing their minds.
Modern Familyhas received some criticism for downplaying Cam and Mitch’s sexuality. As Suzanna Walters, director of gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern University, said Modern Family “offers a narrow slice of gay life – two wealthy white men who never touch each other”. Yet, every well-received depiction of gay people provides a stronger platform for the next LGBTQ+ story. The political economy of mass media tends to reinforce inequalities, forcing networks to rely on past formulas rather than innovate. TV shows and media which have been successful in the past will be encouraged at the expense of more diverse stories. When ABC took the chance on Modern Family, they altered the political landscape, proving that LGBTQ+ shows can not only be profitable but can receive critical acclaim: over the course of 10 seasons, Modern Family won 22 Primetime Emmys. The show “pierced through the cultural zeitgeist and began more than just a show” said a chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Television. It lay the foundation for the future of comedy and television. With today’s increasingly diverse and inclusive media, “Cam and Mitch seem a bit old-fashioned, which is in itself a sign of progress that they might deserve some credit for”.
The entertainment industry tends to give voice to the most privileged members of our society: white, straight, wealthy men. As Variety editor, Daniel Holloway states, “Television is not being broadcast to a nation of white boys”. Showrunners are quickly realizing that diversity no longer means niche and many of 2018’s top shows feature LGBTQ+ characters such as Grey’s Anatomy, Handmaid’s Tale, and the Walking Dead – which recently announced half of all relationships are interracial or LGBTQ+.
Despite the leaps and bounds achieved in terms of the rights and onscreen representation of gay and lesbian people, transgender people – those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned with at birth – have been largely overlooked. The statistics are devastating: “trans people are more likely to be victims of murder or assault than any other minority… [and] up to 50% of transgender teenagers attempt suicide”. It is estimated that between 0.1 and 5 percent of the global population is trans, genderqueer or intersex, but with even the most conservative estimates this accounts for more than 700 million people worldwide. Celebrated trans actress Julia Serano puts it another way: “In the U.S., the number of transsexuals is roughly equivalent to the number of Certified Public Accountants.”
One study found that roughly 11 percent of respondents knew a close friend or family member who is transgender, “compared with 58 percent that knew someone who was lesbian or gay”. However, due to the percentage of transgender Americans, the likelihood of personal contact is relatively small, which presents a significant hurdle for transgender rights activists. These statistics alone are indicative of the difficulty of eliminating transphobia, as knowing someone who is a member of a minority group may increase knowledge, reduce anxiety and increase empathy towards the group. Consequently, the majority of people learn about the trans community through the media which historically has portrayed trans people “in ways that arouse feelings of shock, betrayal and titillation” which has further alienated trans people.
The trans community is experiencing an immense amount of turbulence. The Trump administration is rapidly stripping trans people of their rights. First, by rescinding the efforts made by the Obama administration that allow trans students in federally funded schools to choose which bathroom they prefer. More recently, the Trump administration announced plans to more narrowly define gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth”.
“Make no mistake,” the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote on Twitter, “trans people are under direct attack from the Trump administration – but we #WontBeErased. We’re here. You can’t define us out of existence”.
However, there are glimmers of hope. Despite the retrogression in trans rights, 2018 has been a historic year in regard to TV representation of the trans community. Pose, which premiered this summer, broke the scripted TV record for the largest number of transgender actors in series regular roles. Additionally, this fall, The CW’s Supergirl will introduce Nia Nal/Dreamer, the first transgender superhero played by trans activist, Nicole Maines.
“I think that we are in a place in our country and in our society right now, where we really need a trans superhero… who trans kids [can] look up to” explained Maines. Thanks to shows like Pose and Supergirl and trans celebrities such as Laverne Cox (from Orange Is the New Black) and Caitlyn Jenner (from Keeping Up with the Kardashians), transgender people have only recently garnered positive national attention.
LGBTQ+ friendly television can give its audience the tools and vocabulary needed to understand minority groups. Often, we alienate minorities by their “otherness”. People who are not gay or transgender may think of themselves simply as “normal” given they may not have the words to describe their own sexuality and gender identity. One notable example is that “heterosexuality” made its dictionary debut fourteen years after “homosexuality” was introduced. Today, “heterosexuality” is commonly understood as “not homosexual or bisexual”. Hopefully, with continued trans representation, “cissexual” or “cis” will simply mean “not transsexual”. Television’s ability to educate the public about foreign concepts can drastically change attitudes: “if being cis isn’t normal but merely common, that changes everyone’s understanding of how gender shapes our lives”.