In Educating The Simpsons: Teaching Queer Representations in Contemporary Visual Media, Gilad Padva analyzes queer representation in contemporary visual media and examines how the 1997 episode “Homer’s Phobia” from the animated series The Simpsons can be used to deconstruct hetero- and homo-sexual codes of behavior and representation. It is in this episode that the Simpsons befriend John, a kitsch trader. When Homer tells Marge that he likes John and suggests they invite him and “his wife” over, Marge hints to Homer that John is gay. When oblivious Homer finally understands, he is horrified and Homer’s attitude towards John changes completely. The rest of the Simpson family continue to enjoy John’s company, especially Bart, who starts wearing Hawaiian shirts and dancing in a woman’s wig. This makes Homer uneasy, and he begins to fear Bart is gay, “not because Bart is attracted to boys, but because he does not behave manly enough” (157). Homer embarks on a series of ridiculous attempts to turn Bart into a “real man,” forcing him to look at a cigarette billboard featuring undressed women, escorting him to see a steel mill to see hard work, and taking Bart deer hunting. Homer ultimately accepts John and assures Bart that he will love him unconditionally, whether he is gay or straight. Padva explains, “The anti-homophobic contribution of this episode to the empowerment of GLBT young viewers is based on its three political premises: celebrating queer counter-culture, embracing gay-straight alliance, and promoting diversity and multiculturalism” (156).
It is important to recognize that Homer’s phobia primarily derived from ignorance; his reaction towards the gays depicted in the episode is caused by guilt for what he considers to be his son’s deviancy. Homer is therefore not demonized, but rather used as a tool to show how the naïve medium of animation has the capacity to “mediate sexual pluralism through comic situations that parody homophobia rather than homosexuals” (160). “Homer’s Phobia” went on to win four awards, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program and a GLAAD Media Award for “Outstanding TV – Individual Episode”. GLAAD called it “a shining example of how to bring intelligent, fair and funny representations of our community onto television.”
Upon reading Padva’s piece, I took a closer look at representations of gays and lesbians on television. The program that immediately came to mind was Ellen, which ran from 1994 to 1998 on ABC. This show was groundbreaking in tapping into how the televised picture of gay life can be designed to be acceptable to the gay community and still palatable to a mass audience. In late 1996, when GLAAD received the news that DeGeneres’ Ellen character would be coming out that season, it launched a “Let Ellen Out!” campaign to create grassroots support and developed “Ellen Watch,” a website dedicated to following the title character’s journey in her coming out process. Ellen’s coming out on “The Puppy Episode” was significant not only because it was the first time a leading primetime character was gay, but because the character was also played by an openly gay actor. Ultimately, 42 million people tuned in to “The Puppy Episode,” making it the most-watched program of the week and ABC’s most-watched program of the season.
But with all the praise came a negative conservative backlash. The right-wing group Media Research took out a full-page ad on the back cover of Variety claiming that ABC and Disney were “promoting homosexuality to America’s families.” A group of antigay right-wingers signed a scathing letter characterizing “The Puppy Episode” as “a slap in the face to America’s families.” As Ellen’s fifth season began, criticism began to mount that the show was no longer funny, possibly because it was “too gay” and ratings continually plummeted, forcing Ellen to be cancelled at the end of that season.
Ellen’s coming out and the frenzy that followed paved the way for other primetime shows with gay characters. It appeared that since someone had come out—both onscreen and off—America was prepared for other programs with a lead gay character (as long as they weren’t “too gay,” of course). Shortly after the demise of Ellen, in the fall of 1998, Will & Grace premiered on NBC and in the series’ eight seasons, it depicted one of network television’s first gay kisses and introduced discussions of gay parenting and marriage equality. Since then, the cultural and political climate of television has certainly changed. Series like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Glee, and Modern Family have certainly thrived and in some cases even exist because Ellen set the precedent for homosexual representation on the small screen.