Tuesday, December 23, 2014

LGBT stereotypes: Modern Family vs. Desperate Housewives

Last Thursday, Tuc Watkins, who played the Bob half of Bob and Lee, a Desperate Housewives gay couple, vented a bit on facebook at what he thinks is stereotyping  in the portrayal of Cam and Mitch in Modern Family:
Hmm. I think “Modern Family” is clever, hilarious, even terrifically subtle at times. But, for the most part, I have a hard time laughing at the gay guys. In fact, I kinda cringe. It feels a little bit like the gay equivalent of “blackface.” It doesn’t feel “modern” at all. Sure, people come in all shapes, sizes, etc. So why are we fed such 80s stereotypes every week?
When the above was reported by Greg In Hollywood, Jesse Tyler Ferguson responded in a comment:
Sorry you feel that way Tuc. I know lots of guys who are just like Cam and lots of guys who are just like Mitch. We can’t be expected to represent every gay person. We can only represent these two people. Also, Mitch is basically a version of me…so I never know how to take it when people say that he is stereotypical. And in defense of Cam, I still can’t figure out how a clown & football coach who also happens to be gay is a stereotype. When all is said and done, it’s a family sitcom. I feel our writers do a fantastic job of servicing 11 characters each week in just 22 minutes. I am incredibly proud to play Mitch and I have a lot of pride in our show. As a closeted kid of the 80′s I would have loved to have had a show like Modern Family to watch with my parents. It would have meant a lot to me to see who I secretly was reflected on television. TV has come a long way and it continues to forge new ground. I am thrilled with the work that you did on Desperate Housewives. It opened the door for shows like ours and hopefully we can hold that door open for many more shows to follow us. At the end of the day we can’t please everyone..and we shouldn’t try to. Kinda just like life, right? Take care. Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Now Watkins has walked back the "blackface" remark but not his principal objections:
Dear Jesse,
     I’m glad to see that a FB post can stoke a fire that burns in the LGBT community, and supporters of our community.
     Many doors have opened in gay people’s fight for equality. Civil rights, marriage rights, and depictions of us individually and collectively on television. Great strides have taken us from tolerance into acceptance and towards true equality.
     Stereotypes still exist. They probably always will. And while the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, stereotypes polarize us. No news there. But while an explanation of a stereotype can make good, logical sense, it still leaves the stereotype intact.
     I’m glad to have played gay characters, but at the same time have been frustrated by the stereotypes I feel I’ve been party to in playing those roles. I’ve begged wardrobe designers so      I wouldn’t have to wear paisley shirts, directors to reconsider a “snap” at the end of a scene, and writers to remove “Hey, gurl!” from dialogue.
     I did it because when I was growing up, trying to figure out where I fit it in, I couldn’t seem to locate a role model. The stereotypes I saw made me think, “Well, I don’t identify with that so I must not be gay.”
     I can appreciate that one man’s roadblock may be another man’s role model. I feel like my growth was stunted, but understand that another person’s may have been bolstered. I believe that, as a community we want to make the path easier for those who come after us. I want that. I’m certain you do to.
     Some audience members can laugh through a character, but it can also distance others. We each come to the fight with our own baggage…as well as our own weaponry. “Revolutionary times call for revolutionary means.” My comments were extreme, and my use of the word “blackface” inexcusable. I regret creating dissension among the ranks, especially when we’re all in this fight together.
     I see your point. I hope you’ll consider mine.
Yeah, OK, as brilliant as the portrayals (and writing) of Cam and Mitch are, we're kind of on Team Tuc. Modern Family is hilarious, inventive and incisive and really is TV's best comedy, but Desperate Housewives could break through stereotypes and preconceived notions like nothing else on broadcast television when Marc Cherry and the program's other writers put their minds to it, as they often did. For one of many examples of that, watch the last video.

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