Recently the Decider polled LGBTQ entertainment professionals to create a list of the 50 Most Important LGBTQ TV Characters of All-Time. Decider staffer Brett White tweeted his own top 25, which has helpfully been gathered as a moment:
Brett's list included guest characters, and he referenced Jean from the "Isn't It Romantic" episode of The Golden Girls. That is an excellent episode.
I never saw it back then (1986), but I have seen it many times now. They do a beautiful job of handling the issue sensitively and balancing it with humor and playing to the characters' strengths. Someone being homosexual was often a punch line back then, in general and even sometimes on The Golden Girls, but not that episode.
(When I watch "Sick and Tired" where they address Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and think maybe they shouldn't have bothered trying to address special issues ever, "Isn't It Romantic" and "Have Yourself A Very Little Christmas" remind me that it can be done.)
It started me thinking about when I had first seen LGBT characters on television. It was the "Big Disease With a Little Name" episode of 21 Jump Street (1988).
I have only seen it once, but I remembered it as being well done. Hanson's assignment was to protect a teen with hemophilia who had contracted AIDS and who people did not want at school because of their fear of the disease. Naturally, other students assumed Harley was gay, and so that when Hanson was hanging out with Harley that they were dating, and you saw a lot of prejudice. Later we learned that Harley was gay; his parents made him blame it on hemophilia because they wanted to avoid the judgment that came with that. (That didn't really pan out.)
Looking back I am sure that there were things that weren't portrayed accurately. Harley died during the episode, not long after he had been attending school and riding his motorcycle. I'm just not sure it would have happened that fast. At the same time, the treatment that he faced (surely inspired by Ryan White), the fear to be open about his sexuality, Hanson's reluctance to drink from an unopened milk carton that Harley had touched (and how much that hurt Harley), and Harley thinking about killing himself instead of letting the disease take its course all felt pretty real. In the last scene, when Harley's mother called Hanson to tell him that Harley had died, and that Harley had said to tell him it was okay about the milk, that was pretty devastating.
I started wondering if other people had remembered it and been affected. I did find one post on it, but the writer spent a lot of time on the prejudice people with hemophilia face. A commenter asked whether she'd missed that he was gay, and the writer was really mad about that. She thought they took the easy way out.
I disagree with her characterization of it as the easy way out, but it only reinforces the point about representation. It had meant something to her to see parts of her struggle there, and then it felt like they took it away. It has become somewhat easier for LGBTQ people to find their stories, but it's still not that easy. I left off the IA because there is not much representation for them at all. That doesn't mean that if you are straight but have a dangerous disease or disability that the straightness is enough to feel included.
That goes back to what I wrote yesterday about needing many different movies with many different stories being told. It's important for us to see stories that are not like ours to have empathy, but it is also important to see stories that are like ours to know that we are not alone. It's not even necessarily representation for a small group, because what if there are lots of people who have the same struggle but they are all scared to talk about it? Or can't get anyone to listen?
Let me take one more side trip, and then I am going to circle back to Monday's post too, with the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
Recently on The Talk they were talking about Shonda Rhimes, regarding her recent weight loss and her saying she was invisible before.
Guest host Carnie Wilson kind of contradicted her. Even though she admitted that people treat you differently when you are fat, Carnie said she has always had boyfriends and men interested in her. It kind of seemed that she wanted to make sure that was known. And yes, that is true, there are men who don't worry about that, or like it, or are at least willing to consider it, though certainly having a famous parent and some amount of fame helps.
Back to the ride. I am a straight white woman, and I am also fat. Fat women are used as a punch line a lot. The original version has a fat woman being auctioned off. Although the more conventionally attractive women are scared or sad, the fat women appears to be good with it. Still, none of the pirates want to bid on her, so when the other women are running away from pirates she is chasing one who is scared of her.
That was just one more reminder that I could never be sexually desirable. Plenty of other entertainment messages backed that up, so I closed myself off to that. It was not always effective, and there were some ways in which it was freeing, but there was damage from it.
It was also not the only possible true story, as Carnie Wilson and others have pointed out, but it was the most common and I bought it.
What we see has an effect on what we can imagine and how we feel. We should be making room for everyone in that.