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Homosexuality on All My Children: transforming the daytime landscape.

Publication: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media
Publication Date: 01-JUN-03
Format: Online - approximately 10032 words
Delivery: Immediate Online Access

Article Excerpt
Erica Kane's daughter is gay! (Greenlee Smythe, All My Children, November 2000)

When resident villainess Greenlee Smythe uttered the above line of dialogue, ABC's All My Children entered uncharted territory for daytime television. By revealing that a core character is lesbian--Bianca is the daughter of daytime's (straight) diva nonpareil, Erica Kane--the show initiated an innovative discourse about the possibility, location, and representation of lesbian and gay characters in a television genre historically predicated on the celebration of heterosexual courtship, romance, and family life. While the past decade has witnessed a growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gendered characters in prime-time dramas and situation comedies, daytime soap operas offer unique challenges (and possibilities) regarding the inclusion and "normalization" of varied sexualities in entertainment television.

This article examines the question of whether lesbian or gay characters can be included long-term in the world of daytime drama. This question is important because, as discussed below, daytime television is typically ahead of prime-time in exploring potentially controversial social issues--with the notable exception of homosexuality. What are the challenges in including gays and lesbians on soaps? How much "risk" has All My Children taken with the Bianca narrative, especially in an era of declining daytime ratings? I address these questions through textual analysis of the Bianca storyline, and more importantly, through analysis of the conceptualization, implementation, and development of gay/lesbian narratives as discussed during in-depth interviews with daytime journalists and other industry insiders.

This article thus emphasizes two different sites in the circuit of culture: primary text and professional criticism. The circuit of culture is a dialogic model of production which holds that cultural meanings are generated at a number of different sites and are circulated through a complex set of processes and practices (du Gay Hall, Janes, Mackay & Negus, 1997). Professional critics, in particular, play an important yet understudied role in the production of meaning in popular culture. Shrum (1996) suggests that critics of high art serve as tastemakers and gatekeepers, mediating the perception of an artwork to less knowledgeable consumers and acting as key participants in defining the cultural hierarchy (p. 10). In contrast, consumers of popular culture serve as their own critics "because television, their main form of participation, is not subject to formal criticism" (Shrum, 1996, p. 198). Indeed, the role of professional critics in daytime serials has not been fully institutionalized, and critics serve mainly as advocates for the genre rather than gatekeepers (Bielby & Bielby, in press). Soap journalists describe the relationship between daytime magazines and those they write about as a "reciprocal courtesy not to offend anyone" (quoted in Harrington & Bielby, 1995, p. 78). This is not to suggest that the various experts interviewed for this project are mere "mouthpieces" for the industry; rather, the interview data offer important insights into how particular interpretations of the history and future of homosexuality on daytime television are intertextually constructed.

Industry Context: Homosexuality on Prime-Time Television

As has been well documented, the U.S. television industry has a long history of ignoring, stereotyping, and marginalizing homosexuality (e.g. Buxton 1997; Capsuto, 2000; Gross, 1989, 2001; Gross & Woods, 1999). Gay and lesbian issues or characters were virtually invisible on television in the 1950s and early 1960s, as mainstream audiences were constructed as "replications of the idealized, middleclass nuclear family, defined as monogamous heterosexual couples with children" (Buxton, 1997, p. 1477). Networks geared programming toward this image and assumed that viewers mirrored it. The post-Stonewall visibility of gay and lesbian issues brought expanded opportunities for prime-time TV portrayals of homosexuality in the 1970s, though scriptwriters quickly settled on two "safe" ways to tell gay-themed stories: the coming-out script, and the "queer monster" script (Capsuto, 2000, pp. 4-5). Further. more, while the 1970s ushered in prime-time shows about gay characters, they were typically played by straight actors and marketed to a straight audience, a trend that continues today (Capsuto, 2000, p. 70). In the 1980s, depictions of homosexuality declined dramatically due to the conservatism of the Reagan years and growing concern about HIV/AIDS (and its association with gay male sexuality) (Capsuto, 2000; Gross, 2001).

By the 1990s, adaptation to (rather than elimination of) homosexuality had become the dominant narrative strategy (Buxton, 1997). This shift is attributable to a number of related factors, including increased media activism (Buxton, 1997; Capsuto, 2000; Montgomery, 1989); the growing proliferation of cable channels, which placed new economic demands on the networks and led to more expansive programming (Buxton, 1997; Capsuto, 2000); (1) growing stigma attached to anti-gay prejudice (Capsuto, 2000); and growing recognition of a gay consumer market (Griffin, 2000; Gross, 2001). The 1990s seemed to usher in a radically new era. Approximately 50 network series had lesbian, gay, or bisexual recurring characters, more than twice the total of all previous decades of television (Capsuto, 2000, p. 248). In 1997, prime-time viewers witnessed the first lesbian lead actress/character on network television (Ellen Degeneres/Morgan on ABC's Ellen), and in 1998 NBC featured the first network gay male lead in its hit show Will & Grace.

In many respects, the 1990s seemed to transcend the longstanding "rules" for representing homosexuality on television: (1) Gay or lesbian characters must be restricted to one-time appearances in televisions series or one-shot television movies; (2) Gay and lesbian characters can never be "incidentally" gay--instead, their sexuality must be the "problem" to be "solved"; (3) Their problem should be explored in terms of its effects on heterosexuals; and (4) Gay and lesbian erotic desire must be completely absent (Dow, 2001, pp. 129-130; see also Gross, 2001). While certainly there are more representations of homosexuality than ever before, scholars caution against the presumption that these are necessarily better (i.e., more progressive) representations. As throughout television history, gays and lesbians are still more likely to appear in comedies than dramas (where the line between "laughing with" and "laughing at" remains strategically ambiguous); erotic desire is largely absent (many believe Ellen was cancelled in 1998 because the show became "too gay"); sexual orientation is typically treated as a purely personal issue, denying the political reality of gay and lesbian life in the United States; and, with the notable exception of Ellen DeGeneres on Ellen, gay and lesbian characters are still typically portrayed by straight (or not "out") actors and marketed to straight audiences (Battles & Hilton-Morrow, 2002; Capsuto, 2000; Dow, 2001; Gross, 2001).

The continued ambiguous treatment of homosexuality in prime-time television is apt illustration, from a production of culture perspective, of the difficulty of innovating cultural products. Since media content ultimately lives and dies by profits (Gross, 2001, p. 4), in the face of conflicting demands from audiences, advertisers, advocacy organizations, and others, media organizations in general tend to simply reproduce past practices, thus preventing innovation and maintaining the status quo (Cantor, 1980; Bielby & Bielby, 1994; Gross, 2001). As such, while the representation of homosexuality on prime-time in the 1990s is certainly different from that of the 1970s, it remains constrained by a complex set of competing organizational norms, priorities, and practices. In this "fiercely imitative" cultural arena, networks are most open to approving gay or lesbian content when gay issues are high-profile in the national news, or when an existing show with gay characters is pulling high Nielsen ratings (Capsuto, 2000, p. 271).

Industry Context: Homosexuality on Daytime Serials

While most research focuses on the marginalized treatment of homosexuality in prime-time, the limited presence of lesbian or gay characters or narratives on daytime soap operas is perhaps even more surprising given the enduring legacy of the genre (with more than 70 years on radio and television), and the fact that "daytime television ... is known for addressing sensitive, issue-oriented material long before prime time tests the waters" (Pela, 1997, p. 46; see expanded discussion below). Compared to prime-time, daytime serials face somewhat different constraints to developing innovative programming, with more conservative advertising sponsors, a narrower audience (Anger, 1999; Pela, 1997), (2) and genre restrictions that emphasize continuity and respect for history over innovation (Anger, 1999; see below).

The first "fully realized" gay character was conceptualized on NBC's Another World in 1974 but the story never aired due to nervousness among network executives (Lenhart, 2001, p. 52). In the past 20 years, daytime soaps have featured openly gay or lesbian characters in substantive roles only four times (not counting All My Children's current storyline). The first occurred in 1983, when All My Children (ABC) introduced child psychologist (and lesbian) Lynn Carson. The character's primary function was to assist a young core character in confirming her own (hetero)sexuality. Lynn was a marginal character, resided only two months in Pine Valley (the fictional location of All My Children), and had no on-screen romantic life. In 1988, As the World Turns (CBS) introduced gay clothing designer Hank Elliott. Hank appeared regularly on the show but his presence, too, was short-lived and the character departed in 1989 to care for an...

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