By: Andie Biederman
On June 26, we all watched history being made as same-sex marriage was legalized throughout the Unites States of America. Big day. Big. Huge. The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling kicked off a weekend full of pride celebrations not only in the U.S., but also worldwide. We witnessed same-sex couples in cities across our nation say, “I do,” as social media exploded with images and videos from pride parades all over the world. Even the White House was transformed into a rainbow. I found myself feeling a very strong emotion toward this momentous occasion, because let’s be real… this was a long time coming.
This got me thinking. Would this all be happening today, right now, if it wasn’t for pop culture and the media’s influence over society? Top-rated, Emmy award-winning television shows have been featuring gay characters and couples in leading roles for decades! It seems like 90s television brought with it a platform to make same-sex relationships a topical conversation in society. A lot of the credit goes to a little 30-minute comedy that debuted in 1998, “Will & Grace,” where two of its main recurring characters were gay. While it was nearly impossible to avoid criticism, the show went on to be an enormous hit and really had a hand in “normalizing” gay characters on TV.
But who knows how well-received Will Truman and Jack McFarland would have been if “Ellen” didn’t open the door just a few years earlier. What became a groundbreaking series after Ellen DeGeneres’ character came out, the sitcom helped pave the way for shows like “Will & Grace” that followed. Not only did the fictional Ellen come out, but also Ellen DeGeneres came out in her real life at the same time. But society wasn’t quite ready for it at that stage in the evolution of sexual equality; there was virtually little to no positive or empowering conversation surrounding the topic prior to that moment. It was a new, sensitive subject that was just beginning to surface.
Fast-forward to 2009 when “Modern Family” hit the airwaves, and people’s attitudes about same-sex relationships really started to shift. We were introduced to Mitch and Cam, a lawyer and a teacher who, when we met them in the pilot, were adopting a daughter. The great thing about the show is that the writers do a phenomenal job at depicting the trials and tribulations of any long-term couple, while appropriately fusing in hiccups associated with that fact that they are gay without making it an uncomfortable, negative, awkward focus. Like when Mitch’s dad, Jay, takes issue with them officially tying the knot.
A recent article in The Atlantic stated that a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll found that 27 percent of likely voters said that depictions of gay characters on TV made them more pro-gay marriage, and there are news accounts of people crediting their newfound sympathy toward gay people to “Modern Family”. Variety staff writer Tim Gay hit it on the nail when he said, “’Modern Family’ has become a pop-culture touchstone, an easy and safe way to expose audiences to many different relationships in a way that doesn’t feel threatening.” Since the times of “Ellen”, “Will & Grace”, and now “Modern Family”, several other shows have continued to follow suit and feature gay characters as leads like “Glee,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Orange is the New Black,” and even politically focused shows like “Scandal” and “House of Cards.”
TV has enabled us to live alongside gay individuals and same-sex couples as they developed day after day, week after week and year after year. And through the media and its ability to weave itself into just about every aspect of our lives, we’ve watched as this once controversial topic evolved into a staple conversation in today’s society. The rise of digital media in particular made it possible for the LGBT community to really join forces and work together toward a common goal, and it clearly made a difference.
Kathy Griffin made a great point about the power of the community in Variety’s special report, which came out following the recent Supreme Court ruling, “This is a revolution that has been rapid and admirable. As a feminist, one of the reasons I admire the LGBT community so much is that this is what they do so effectively, and frankly, women should learn from it. Women have great, great strides to make. We’re not even close to equality, while the LGBT community is so good at working together, legislating, sticking together.”
She’s right. The LGBT community is really one to admire and follow when it comes to bringing other issues such as gender equality to the front lines, and using media as a platform to convey a message. If someone told us back in the 90s when same-sex couples were beginning to surface more in the media that gay marriage would be legal in the U.S. two decades from then, we would have probably laughed in their face and walked away. But in retrospect, and now having an understanding of the power of media, it’s not as shocking as we might have once thought.
As PR people, it’s even more important for us to truly understand this power, as we’re contributing to societal trends that could potentially influence future generations to the point of changing laws, as we’ve just seen with our own eyes. With a little help from pop culture and the media, same-sex marriage has been gaining support from celebrities, athletes and other influencers for decades. And at long last, we can now add the United States government to that list.