Better living through television

I find myself continually amazed at how much more inclusive home shows of various types are than, say, network dramas and comedies. For instance, Trading Spaces has long shown a variety of family situations (i.e., not just married heterosexual couples, but also friends, single parents and children, siblings, gay/lesbian couples, coworkers, etc.) and races. About the only thing that was fairly standard was the middle-classness of it all. But really, when you think about how invisible anybody but straight white couples are on TV (except in certain types of roles such as police commanders or sidekicks, it’s pretty remarkable that that show in particular presents single parents, gay couples, adult singles, people of color, and the like not only without judgment or comment, but just as plain old middle-class homeowners who dug redecorating just like anyone else.* And you have to wonder if that, and not just the will-she-glue-hay-to-the-walls drama, had something to do with the show’s popularity.

I did notice, though, that in most cases, whenever gay or lesbian couples would appear on Trading Spaces or While You Were Out, at least a couple of years ago, they fairly rarely were physically affectionate on camera, probably as a result of being conscious that they’re on television and that there are a lot of people who would do them harm, even though they might live in LA or San Francisco (and with those two shows, because surprise was a big element, the show didn’t necessarily edit stuff out).

Recently, though, I’ve noticed a real uptick in the on-camera physical affection of gay and lesbian couples on home shows. For instance, I recently watched an episode of Surprise By Design, where the surprised homeowner (a hairstylist coupled with a Broadway actor who made over their Weehawken backyard for him) kissed his partner right on the lips with the cameras rolling (plus, several members of his family flew out from Wisconsin to help out, and they were all just thrilled that he’d found love). And I was watching My First Home last night, and it struck me just how much pro-LGBT stuff they packed into the story of a lesbian couple who were buying a home in Oakland together; not only were they very physically affectionate on camera, they told the camera and the real estate agent that they wanted a backyard to have their wedding in — and not only that, but the show had someone talking about how, even though they can’t marry legally in California, they can register as domestic partners in California, which will protect the surviving partner’s rights to the house should something happen to one of them.
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* The cast, however, was fairly uniformly white. The only two people of color who were regulars were Vern Yip, who was awesome in his anal-retentiveness and how he could squeeze a thousand-dollar budget into fabulousness, and Kia Steave-Dickerson, who had an unholy love for wallpaper borders and who did a snow-camouflage-themed room for a military couple in base housing who’d asked for no military themes.


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19 comments for “Better living through television

  1. LS
    November 3, 2007 at 12:47 am

    Really interesting. I’d never thought about it before, but they do have quite a wide range on those shows. Hadn’t noticed the physical affection — I’ll have to watch more carefully now!

    Oh, and Vern’s designs were uniformly the best on the show.

  2. preying mantis
    November 3, 2007 at 12:52 am

    I don’t know if the lack of physical demonstration of affection from queer couples a few years ago was necessarily due to them self-censoring. I’ve noticed that with the older episodes, it can be hard to tell what anybody’s relationships are if you miss the beginning; the lack of PDAs from couples was fairly consistent, if completely weird.

  3. Alana
    November 3, 2007 at 5:03 am

    I’m not sure I buy your premise. Five years ago I might have agreed, but right now a number of network dramas feature (mostly upper-middle class) gay couples, single mothers, and people of color. Hell, most of those even feature such people without making all their story-lines explicitly *about* their minority identities.

    It’s really pretty cool.

  4. Cassie
    November 3, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Clean House is really great about having different kind of families on, too.

  5. Alaina
    November 3, 2007 at 9:25 am

    I’ll have to watch more home decorating shows! I’m sad that I missed the eposode with the lesbian wedding. That sounds awesome. Thanks for the semi-cheerful post! :)

    (The non-cheerful posts are great, too. It’s just nice to read something once in a while that makes the world seem a little bit nicer.)

  6. November 3, 2007 at 9:32 am

    I’m not sure I buy your premise. Five years ago I might have agreed, but right now a number of network dramas feature (mostly upper-middle class) gay couples, single mothers, and people of color. Hell, most of those even feature such people without making all their story-lines explicitly *about* their minority identities.

    Actually, if I remember correctly, the yearly GLADD overview of representation on network television found only 4 GLBTQ characters in primetime on the big network. And one of them was Oscar on The Office, who is a very small part.

    That could have changed a bit since then (new additions to the fall lineup, new characters on the show), and since most of my TV viewing is on DVD after the season is over, but I do remember being rather disappointed. I’m also constantly disappointed by the absence of people of color in primetime, but I honestly don’t watch out for single mothers.

  7. November 3, 2007 at 11:03 am

    And Clean House’s Niecy is just too freaking awesome. I love that woman.

  8. Hector B.
    November 3, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    There are some obvious reality TV omissions (unless I’ve missed them). Now we need some gay parents to call in Supernanny, and a gay couple to swap with a straight couple on Wife Swap.

  9. sunburned counsel
    November 3, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Not to be an absolute tv dork, but I did catch part of an episode of Wife Swap (or Trading Spouses) which swapped a lesbian couple (very boring, middle class and white…) with a conservative wingnut family. It was intense.

  10. November 3, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    I also think the success of the Bravo reality shows might have added to the gay factor.

    I was watching old reruns of Project Runway today and I’m still struck at how much the Bravo network really celebrates queerness. Still, most of the Bravo shows don’t offer an opportunity to show interaction between partnered relationships — aren’t they usually single person challenges?

  11. zuzu
    November 3, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    Clean House is really great about having different kind of families on, too.

    Yes, definitely. And I really need Niecey and crew to come deal with my mayhem and foolishness.

    I also think the success of the Bravo reality shows might have added to the gay factor.

    True; Queer Eye was a huge phenomenon, at least for a while, but it was valuable for showing straight guys interacting with gay guys, yes, in a somewhat stereotypical way, but there was real warmth and appreciation there, especially in the first season episodes.

    Interestingly, during the first few episodes, there was a rumor started by the New York Post, IIRC, that a Port Authority Police officer who appeared on the show got in trouble with the department brass for allowing one of the Fab Five to wear his uniform jacket while they were doing the initial raid. But when another tabloid in town checked out the story, the guy’s commanders were all like, “Are you kidding? We love the show!”

    Which, interestingly, was a different reaction than the FDNY had when a firefighter appeared half-naked with Samantha on Sex and the City; in the firehouse, if I’m not mistaken.

    I think the home shows are especially powerful for this kind of thing because you’re seeing people you don’t normally see on TV and getting a glimpse into their very average lives. Plus, because it’s reality TV, there’s a concept and a formula, and the thing that changes is the homeowners. They already know the formula works, so the idea of using different kinds of people as the homeowners doesn’t need to be focus-grouped within an inch of its life or run past the advertisers, like a drama or comedy would have to be.

  12. preying mantis
    November 3, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    “Not to be an absolute tv dork, but I did catch part of an episode of Wife Swap (or Trading Spouses) which swapped a lesbian couple (very boring, middle class and white…) with a conservative wingnut family. It was intense.”

    One or the other filmed an episode where a straight couple swapped with a male gay couple, but the straight husband flipped out half way through and filed a crazypants lawsuit in which he alleged that the producers were trying to wreck his marriage and ruin his mental health. I don’t think they ever seriously considered airing it after all the problems they’d had to deal with both during filming and in court.

  13. Arianna
    November 4, 2007 at 10:27 am

    I don’t care what anyone says about hay-drama. That episode of Trading Spaces like five years ago, before Paige Davis hosted it, when Genevive redid the master bedroom with moss glued to the walls and natural stone floor? I loved it.

  14. Olivia
    November 5, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    I’ve noticed the inclusion of all types of families/couples in home improvement shows for a long time. At first I thought about how great it was, and now it’s become normal. Just as it should be.

  15. ekf
    November 5, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Between Vern, Frank and Edward, there isn’t a single gay guy? I’ve never dug into their personal lives, but all three of them seemed rather fey, with Frank’s farmhouse kitsch bad taste being the only aspect that made me think he could possibly be straight. And yes, I’m dealing with stereotypes here, but so does television, hence my having felt safe in making assumptions.

  16. November 6, 2007 at 4:10 am

    @EKF– Frank made some reference to ‘his wife’ in one show. ‘His wife,’ no doubt, also named Frank. I agree with — nay, I embrace — your stereotype-driven perception of extremely flamboyant and generally well-dressed (save Frank — another straight card?) male interior designers.

    And you have to wonder if that, and not just the will-she-glue-hay-to-the-walls drama, had something to do with the show’s popularity.

    No, seriously. Hilde jumped the shark on that one. That was the episode where I had to stop watching the damned show. I can’t believe you’d dare bring up something so sensitive out of the blue like that. *grabs tissues and cries*

  17. robienne
    November 6, 2007 at 8:34 am

    FYI on Frank:

    Married to a woman, home in texas, originally a floral designer, and because I used to cross stitch, a cross stitch pattern designer don in country kitchen kitsch.

    I personally loved Vern and Edward, and hated Hilde, Doug, and Gen, as well as Kyra? One time I watch her make this fake garden flowerbed thing, and was thinking, are you crazy? I would stay up all night ripping it down if I was the neighbor.

  18. November 6, 2007 at 10:01 am

    About the PDAs, it might not be the couples themselves being self-censoring. These shows are heavily edited by the producers to tell the story they want to tell.

  19. zuzu
    November 6, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Between Vern, Frank and Edward, there isn’t a single gay guy? I’ve never dug into their personal lives, but all three of them seemed rather fey, with Frank’s farmhouse kitsch bad taste being the only aspect that made me think he could possibly be straight. And yes, I’m dealing with stereotypes here, but so does television, hence my having felt safe in making assumptions.

    Well, gay male designers aren’t terribly remarkable on home shows. I figured Edward was definitely gay, Vern was probably so, and Frank was fey but had at least the outward trappings of heterosexuality (i.e., we met his wife a few times, and he had an obvious and fairly sexual crush on Leslie Segrete when she became a carpenter — in one weird incident, he asked her to put on a jacket because he was so distracted by her collarbones).

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