The Style Network (you know you’re reading about Gay TV when the first three words of an article are ”The Style Network” – but I digress) has recently started airing reruns of Melrose Place. In so many ways, the show is a precious time capsule of the ’90s – but most of all for its portrayal of resident gay Matt Fielding (DoorMatt, to Melrose aficionados). A latter-day Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, DoorMatt patiently endured ignorance and slurs as he educated all of Los Angeles on the evils of homophobia. (He was a social worker, for crying out loud.) Amid a world of psychos, prostitutes, and alcoholics, DoorMatt never lost his cool – or on-screen virginity; the show even cut away from his one kiss.
DoorMatt’s saintly legacy lived on through the ’90s in characters like Dawson’s Creek’s Jack (who adopted dying Jen’s baby in the series finale), Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom alter ego (who patiently guided her parents through her coming out), and, of course, Will Truman (week after week Will plays – excuse the phrase – straight man to Grace’s neuroses). Even South Park’s Big Gay Al, the lispy, earnest Boy Scout leader, seems to have been put in the Colorado burg solely to tell Stan that gay is okay.
Bravo’s could-have-been-derivative makeover show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is terrific and groundbreaking because it upends this saintly stereotype: These men are flawed and fabulous. They’re strong, pushy, and intolerant of those who don’t listen to them. And unlike Will & Grace’s Jack, they aren’t the butt of jokes – indeed, they actually excel at something. Says Neil Meron, executive producer of Chicago and ABC’s fall gay-themed sitcom It’s All Relative, ”Gay people have finally found their gonads.” (He’s speaking metaphorically, but more on that in a moment.)
The media – EW included – has thrown around a ton of labels to explain the turn-of-the-century gay phenom: Newsweek said we live in a post-gay world, while social anthropologists at The New York Times recently exposed a species known as the metrosexual, a straight guy who affects gay grooming customs. (The Times is more than fashionably late to this party: The Independent of London caught the trend about 10 years ago.) All that gay-speak seems a little dated now. Here’s another term to consider: gaysploitation.
Before you go all Foxy Brown on me, a bit of history. Blaxploitation films (most notably Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft) were made by African-American filmmakers out to exploit an untapped audience, not their casts. The genre embraced black stereotypes (virility, strength, ass-whupping ability) and exaggerated them. (Sound familiar, Carson?) To hear executives talk, today’s gay programming decisions come from a similar place. Says Matt Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime, home to Queer as Folk: ”Were we out looking for a show that explicitly portrayed sex among homosexuals? No,” he explains. ”Were we looking quite aggressively to serve underserved TV audiences, gays and lesbians among them? Absolutely.”