a little ancient history: queers on tv

I told you about my guilty pleasure: watching that 1980s TV relic, the first of the great night-time soaps, "Dallas". I usually indulge in Dallas only while slogging through that other relic of mine, ironing. But yesterday I was exhausted, and I plopped myself on the couch for a mid-afternoon Dallas fix.

I saw something unexpected: a bit of queer history. The episode I watched, from the first full season (on DVD as Season 2), must have been a very early, positive portrayal of a gay person on mainstream TV.

In this episode of Dallas, young Lucy Ewing is in love with the heir of another oil fortune, Kit Mainwaring. Kit cares for Lucy and tries to make it work, but realizes that he cannot change who he is.

In a plea for advice, he first comes out to Lucy's uncle Bobby Ewing: "I can't marry Lucy. I'm a homosexual." Bobby is shocked, but after digesting the news, he tells Kit that's his own business, but why did he have to hurt Lucy?

Naturally, it gets more interesting. Evil J.R., who has known all along ("There's very little goes on in Dallas that I don't know"), wants the marriage for his own business purposes. He argues with Bobby, insisting that the marriage should proceed - "Lucy? What's she got to do with it?" - and claiming that Kit will be no match for his machinations. To which Bobby replies: "J.R., Kit Mainwaring is more of a man than you'll ever be."

Whoa! Our hero says that about a gay man on 1979 TV! How cool!

When Kit comes out to Lucy and breaks their engagement, he explains that it was only after sleeping with her that he realized he can never change who he is: "I wanted to be socially normal. But I can't live a lie. I have to learn to accept myself the way I am."

Even while she's crushed by the breakup, Lucy invents a story that will prevent Kit from being blackmailed. She knows he did the right thing. No character even hints that it's wrong to be gay - even J.R.

I don't know if this was actually ground-breaking, but I think it must have been pretty cutting-edge at the time.

For most people, myself included, the first gay fictional TV character was Jodie, in "Soap". (Hard to believe that was Billy Crystal, eh? Back when he was funny.) Apparently there were a few earlier shows with gay characters, but none as popular and long-running (1977-1981) as Soap.

Later, "Dynasty", with the openly gay character Steve Carrington, would become a gay cultural icon. (At least it was in New York!) But Dynasty first aired in 1981; this episode of Dallas was several years earlier.

I can't find anything online about possible reaction to this Dallas episode: a strange coincidence makes it difficult to Google. Do you remember the last name of Billy Crystal's character on Soap? He was called... Jodie Dallas.


James said...

A little modern history: I had Discovery Channel on as background filler on Friday (Lori was off with co-workers), and "Canada's Worst Driver" came on -- if you don't know it, it's a reality series which takes really awful drivers and tries to teach them how to drive properly. Unlike survivor, getting "voted off" is a good thing -- last one standing is named "Canada's Worst Driver". Each candidate goes through the show (and the trials) with a friend or spouse at his or her side, often the one who nominated him or her to appear on the show.

The episode that popped up featured, as one of the four couples, "Jason and his husband Allen" (not sure if I'm remembering the names right). It was handled quite matter-of-factly -- "Jason needs to stop listening to his husband's advice", "Allen needs to stop trying to give his husband advice", which was quite refreshing.

He was a pretty bad driver, though, and Allen definitely made things worse. They tested it, and found that Jason performed about twice as well if Allen wasn't in the car giving advice...

L-girl said...

It was handled quite matter-of-factly

I'm seeing that a lot lately, on CBC stories and elsewhere. It's great.

In the US, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?," Regis Philbin version, had a male contestant whose support-person in the audience was his male partner, clearly identified as such. It was also handled very matter-of-factly, and got a very good response.

Amy said...

I was an avid Dallas fan, but I have no memory of that storyline. How interesting. It is hard to remember what things were like in 1979---pre-AIDS, but post-Stonewall. I never thought of Dallas as terribly "progressive," so that is surprising.

Things here in MA are pretty la-di-da about gay marriages also. I work with several married gay couples, and it is just amazing to me how ordinary it now seems and how accepting even my most conservative colleagues are. Things DO change, and sometimes even for the better.

L-girl said...

I was an avid Dallas fan, but I have no memory of that storyline.

It was in the first full season, and the Kit character was never seen again. You'd have to be a real fanatic to remember it, I think.

I never thought of Dallas as terribly "progressive," so that is surprising.

Definitely not - but this definitely was. It made me happy to see it.

Things DO change, and sometimes even for the better.

They've changed for the better over and over in US history. Every single time change was made from the ground up. People organize, and the "leaders" eventually follow.

Jen said...

From Amy: "Things DO change, and sometimes even for the better."

From L-girl: "They've changed for the better over and over in US history. Every single time change was made from the ground up. People organize, and the "leaders" eventually follow."

It's pretty amazing to me how much social change has occured over the last 100 years: women's sufferage, Native enfranchisement (granted, it was quite late at 1960), Tommy Douglas & universal health, unionized work, the civil rights movement in the US with the corresponding reduction in racial discrimination in Canada, same-sex marriage. It's also amazing to me how well society on the whole (with--or in spite of--the requisite detractors) takes these on and adapts.

Discrimination in marriage (both based on race or on gender) were covered so well in a great speech by MP Marlene Jennings during the bill C-38 debate. I was in the viewing gallery that day--it was so moving. The hansard is reproduced here: http://www.equal-marriage.ca/resource.php?id=245

Huh. And to think JR had a hand in it all. Who knew. ;-)

James said...

Now all we need is for someone to come up with a better bisexual TV role-model than Tila Tequila...