When Television Made a Difference and How

Auckland   Sometimes the little things turn out to be big things or at the least added with lots of other things, become very big indeed.  That was part of the message I got from Cory Albertson’s book, A Perfect Union? Television and the Winning of Same-Sex Marriage, and our discussion on Wade’s World recently.  Albertson’s thesis is that part of what drove a 9% surge in approval of same-sex marriage and relationships prior to the pathbreaking 2015 Supreme Court decision was the increasingly common and positive depiction of such relationships in major, popular television shows, and that change helped to drive the social change in popular attitudes.

The power of television may be diminishing compared to the decades when it dominated news and entertainment venues, but Albertson is correct in arguing that it can still move the needle.  The continued power of Fox News as a rightwing megaphone for the President and his policies is of course a current example before us on a daily basis.

Importantly, as Albertson thanks television for its blessing of same sex relationships, it is important to note that there is a question mark that looms heavily over this thesis, just as it does in the title of his book.  Television played a positive role in his argument, but not without a potential long-term price because of what he termed its obedience to heteronormativity.  It didn’t just legitimize the relationships, it presented them stereotypically as duplicating heteronormative relationships with marriage, two parents with different roles, etc, etc, etc, that one expert he quoted called “compulsory heterosexuality.”  Similar to any other stereotype, doing so puts more pressure on those outside of the norm, implicitly portraying them as deviant, rather than simply diverse.

Albertson came to his thesis by watching all of the episodes of a number of popular television shows like Gray’s Anatomy, The Queer Eye, Modern Family, Glee among others in order to unpack how they handled same sex romantic relationships.   He claims to have been unscarred by the experience, but most of us would have to say he took one for the team in doing the hard time even if he jokingly claimed he was in bed eating bonbons at the time.  This “homonormativity,” as he quotes one expert is burdensome, often idealizing same sex marriages on an even higher pedestal than heterosexual marriage.  In handling same sex relationships, Albertson also found, not surprisingly as we are constantly learning from all reports of many executives’ behavior, they catered to the “male gaze,” tricking out many lesbian or bisexual women as sex objects for heterosexual men as part of the television package.

So, yes, Albertson’s finds that television contributed to the creation of a “Badiou event” meaning something that disrupts the normal “rules of the situation” sufficiently to enable social, political or other changes.  Albertson also finds there may be a steep price in the role television played that will require continued struggle not just to help change a law, but to win full recognition and acceptance of the diversity of expression of same sex and other non-heteronormative behavior and lifestyles.

It’s hard to argue that he isn’t making a valid point, whether you turn the television on or off in these situations.

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