In the fourth episode of an already shaky third season, Revenge gave fans something to celebrate with the quick consummation of a will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation that began the moment Patrick (Justin Hartley) set foot in the Hamptons earlier that season.
“I just thought,” Nolan stammers, “you showed up at my party, and we saw each other at the beach club, that maybe we, uh…”
“We did,” Patrick finally answers, pulling Nolan into a passionate kiss.
With little fanfare, Revenge showed audiences a tender man-on-man kiss, something that shouldn’t feel revolutionary in 2013 but still proves to be noteworthy.
Contrast the Nolan-Patrick kiss — and the steamy embraces that followed — with Nolan’s fling with sexy con artist Tyler (Ashton Holmes) in Revenge’s first season. As sexually charged as their interactions were — largely a tribute to Nolan’s portrayer, Gabriel Mann, who has chemistry with just about everything — their coupling was relatively chaste. The first kiss, designed to out Nolan as bisexual, was implied, with the camera cutting away before Nolan or Tyler had a chance to slip some tongue.
In many ways, the transition from Nolan and Tyler to Nolan and Patrick shows how quickly things can change when it comes to LGBT representation. But while Revenge deserves credit, to be sure, the climate as a whole isn’t nearly as progressive as it purports to be. By and large, gay characters are sexless. And when they’re not, their trysts are still more insinuation than anything explicit. LGBT audiences aren’t looking for porn on network television, but we need more than the occasional hint that two same sex characters are attracted to one another. It comes down to depictional equality: If the straight couples on a show are making out, the gay couples ought be able to make out too.
The hard truth is gay sexuality is considered inherently more risqué than heterosexual sexuality. And that’s not limited to sex — a kiss between a man and a woman is expected on nearly every TV comedy or drama, but a same-sex kiss continues to give pause. Filmmaker Kirby Dick addressed this phenomena as it relates to films in his documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which pointed out a major discrepancy in terms of how the MPAA rates films with LGBT content. In a 2011 blog post on The Wrap, he wrote, “By rating films with gay subject matter more harshly, the MPAA is clearly saying there is something objectionable about gay sexuality.”
The thought process seems to be that the MPAA is protecting more conservatively minded viewers from what they might consider to be objectionable content. And television appears to be following the same model: Shows hold back on how much they depict of LGBT sexuality out of fear that viewers will protest — or, at the very least, change the channel. But representation is important, and that goes past stated identity. After all, the LGBT spectrum isn’t all about labels: As Tom Daley and Maria Bello have demonstrated, sometimes coming out simply means expressing a romantic attraction to someone of the same sex. TV is still stuck in the old model, where gay is something stated, not expressed. Because, well, expression can be scary.
On the whole, we knew this wasn’t going to be an easy year for LGBT representation on TV. Last season saw a slew of cancellations, many of which for shows with gay and lesbian characters. Smash and The New Normal may not have been to your liking — for the majority of critics and the viewing public, they weren’t — but they were series with complex and developed gay characters. It’s worth noting that neither show shied away from gay attraction, both consummated and not. Even Happy Endings, another canceled (and far more beloved series), had Max (Adam Pally), a gay character who rarely showed physical affection toward other men, but was at least quite open about his sex life. (He had an active one.)
As GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV breakdown notes, “Following a record high last season, the analysis of characters from the 2013-2014 scripted primetime broadcast television schedule found that 3.3% of series regulars will be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters. This is down from 4.4% in 2012, but still higher than the 2.9% recorded in 2011.” No big surprise there: Fewer LGBT-centric shows means fewer LGBT characters. In fact, it’s actually rather heartening that the percentage didn’t sink lower. But, while the Where We Are on TV report tracks the number of characters, it doesn’t track the way these characters are specifically presented. (At the end of the TV season, GLAAD does release a separate report, the Network Responsibility Index, which looks at the the manner of representation.)
Yes, representation is essential. At the same time, though, it’s been four years since Modern Family premiered. The mere presence of gay characters isn’t enough, and even the so-called politically charged story lines surrounding adoption and marriage equality are tame. Modern Family was groundbreaking, but it isn’t an example to be followed: It’s something to grow from. Characters like Mitch and Cam, two gay men who don’t seem to like each other let alone have a real romantic relationship, don’t carry the same weight as, say, Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy. The latter, for all their flaws, are women who are attracted to each other, both emotionally and sexually.
There’s still something amiss when a substantial lip-lock between Nolan and Patrick on Revenge is surprising. Glee fans lost their minds to see Kurt straddle a sexy grifter in “Previously Unaired Christmas Episode” — and the ensuing kiss lasted only a split second before the camera panned away — simply because Kurt and Blaine are so consistently unaffectionate, always opting for a hug after months of separation. It’s hard to imagine how thoroughly heads would explode if Mitch and Cam really gave in to a tender embrace. But seriously, married people have sex too!
None of this is to take away from the significance of matter-of-fact gayness, which has become the norm in terms of LGBT representation on TV. Displays of affection or not, it’s refreshing that both the characters and the audience simply accept that Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Captain Holt is gay and married to a man named Kevin. While certainly a step in the right direction, that doesn’t mean it’s enough.
Given Captain Holt’s demeanor and professionalism, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see him making out with his husband — and that’s fine! See also: Nashville’s Will, who is too deeply in the closet to act on his same-sex impulses. (He did, in fact, kiss Gunnar in the first season.) But what’s stopping everyone else? The occasional instances of LGBT characters displaying physical affection are still too few and far between. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t be noteworthy when it happened.
Of course, there are exceptions: the aforementioned Grey’s Anatomy as well as Cyrus and James on Scandal are reminders that showrunner Shonda Rhimes continues to be far ahead of the curve. There’s also The Carrie Diaries, which has done a surprisingly grounded and honest job of portraying Walt, a gay teenager barely emerging from the closet, as he navigates his first same-sex relationship. It’s not quite the steamy lovemaking you might see on other CW dramas, but then The Carrie Diaries skews a little younger. Again, it’s a matter of upholding depictional equality: Walt and Bennett are about as explicit as Carrie and Sebastian.
And then there’s cable. GLAAD wisely includes a separate section for cable in its annual report, as cable tends to far exceed network when it comes to LGBT representation. And indeed, the number of out regular characters this year was 42, by GLAAD’s count, with 24 recurring LGBT characters. That’s impressive, surely, but are these representations more tell than show?
Because cable is free from network restraints, it’s generally more explicit when it comes to things like nudity, language, and — yes — same-sex action. ABC Family again proves itself committed to showing the realities of the modern family: With The Fosters, we saw an interracial lesbian couple who displayed real affection for one another. On Pretty Little Liars, Emily’s relationship with Paige wasn’t limited to hugs. These were teenagers being teenagers: They make out — and then, yes, we cut away before they get down and dirty, because, well, this is a youth-oriented network.
Special credit goes to the less family-friendly Teen Wolf on MTV, which offered one of the hottest and most explicit gay sex scenes in recent basic cable memory: Ethan the werewolf and Danny in the haunted motel. Who needs subtlety and suggestion when there’s guy-on-guy nipple licking?
And yet, even on cable, there are questionable moments of restraint. Showtime’s Masters of Sex is one of the channel’s best dramas in years, in part for its candid exploration of sexuality through the lens of its subjects, real-life researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The scenes of Masters and Johnson watching their subjects masturbate and have sex are not pornographic but matter-of-fact — female pleasure, too often censored on TV and in film, is on full display.
Gay sex, on the other hand, remains curiously in the shadows on Masters of Sex. When Dale, a male prostitute taking part in the study, offers to show Masters how men have sex, the researcher accepts. The scene does indeed show Dale and another hustler disrobing and kissing — but then it cuts away. It’s a strange choice, given how much Masters of Sex is willing to show when it comes to opposite-sex encounters. And it’s even stranger when you remember that Showtime is the channel that brought us Queer as Folk a staggering 13 years ago. For however outdated that series as a whole may seem, the gay sex there was more explicit than anything currently on television.
It often feels as though LGBT representation is a one step forward, two steps back situation, though that isn’t entirely fair. Streaming content, including original programming from Netflix and Amazon, definitely made its mark in 2013. And Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black showcased TV’s most honest and, yes, uncensored lesbian relationships, both romantic and sexual. (Not to mention an admirably diverse cast, including a trans woman played by a trans woman, still a rarity.) If even cable is still holding back, we can at least turn to streaming content for the kind of true-to-life LGBT representation it’s difficult to find elsewhere.
And 2014 is another year. While it does sometimes feel that we’re moving backwards, the larger picture is that LGBT representation as a whole is increasing every year. In January, HBO’s Looking premieres. The series, which centers on gay men in search of love and sex in San Francisco, promises to be honest and frank in its depiction of gay male sexuality. If it lives up to its mission statement and finds an audience, we can hope for other series like it. Because while it’s great to see more LGBT characters on TV, we can no longer settle for Mitch and Cam’s chaste union or Blaine and Kurt’s G-rated canoodling.
LGBT representation isn’t just about identity: It’s about affection, desire, and consummation. While TV has done impressive work in pushing forward the message that gays are just like everyone else, it’s high time we recognize what being like everyone else actually means. Sex, however messy or uncomfortable, will always be an essential part of that picture.
Update: A previous version of this story indicated that GLAAD only looks at the number of LGBT characters on television. While the Where We Are on TV report is only numbers-based, the end-of-season Network Responsibility Index explores the manner of representation for LGBT characters.