Helena Sewell, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick
This article examines the representation of gay parents in two US television shows through a thematic content analysis of two US series: Brothers & Sisters and Modern Family. Focused on the US, this piece compares television representations of gay parents with wider media and academic discourse. Inspired by Riggs’s 2011 study of filmic representations of gay men as parents, the conclusions drawn from Riggs’s study as well as wider literary research showed that television portrayals of gay parents often separate their sexual identities from their parental identities. A media analysis and a content analysis of the aforementioned TV shows supported this conclusion. It was also found that television representations also sanitise gay parenthood, and ignore the experiences of a vast proportion of gay men who have ‘naturally’ fathered their children before coming out as gay. The number of gay parents appearing on television shows has increased, but these depictions are potentially damaging due to their often unrealistic and benign presentations of gay parenting. Despite this, however, popular culture does provide ‘gay parents with a mirror in which to at least some extent they are reflected’, (Riggs 2011: 311) and further opens up the opportunity for public engagement, acceptance and understanding.
Keywords: Heteronormativity, ‘straight panic’, sexual and parental identity, ‘heterosexist gender role strain’, ‘natural fathers’, institutional heterosexism.
Gay parenting is a topic garnering ever more media attention, as the issue of gay rights and marriage equality are addressed in law courts across the globe. The US only recently sanctioned gay marriage across the country, yet there are still calls for greater freedom in relation to LGBTQ rights (Koren, 2016). With more legislation being drawn up to provide the gay community with rights equal to those of the heterosexual community, gay parenting is making many headlines. Television has been a key contributor in bringing about cultural change and projecting a positive image of gay relationships, with former US Vice President Joe Biden commenting that ‘Will and Grace (1998–2006) probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far’ (Stelter, 2012: 1).
In such a climate, it is topical to explore a rich yet often overlooked part of gay culture – parenting – to gain a better perspective on some of the more specific issues related to gay rights and gay families. For the purpose of the research presented in this paper, I will focus on homosexual men as ‘gay parents’, who have either had children through previous heterosexual unions or through adoption, surrogacy, in-vitro fertilisation, intra-cytomplasmic sperm injection or artificial insemination. Gay parenting was considered too shocking for television only a few decades ago, although the number of portrayals of gay parents in programmes has increased in line with a believed shift in cultural perceptions of gay parenting (Coontz, cited in Puente, 2010: 1). Consequently there has been an increase in the publication of sociological studies concerning gay parenting (Riggs, 2011: 299); however, much of this research has been centred on lesbian parents due to better access to statistics and relevant literature. Through the course of my research it became evident to me that gay men who were also parents were far less discussed than their female counterparts, and appeared in fewer sociological studies. Furthermore, review of my research suggested that gay men were less likely than lesbian women to raise a child. As a result of these findings, and amid much academic research and contemporary media debate, I have made gay men as parents the almost exclusive focus of this paper.
Riggs’s 2011 publication ‘Let’s Go to the Movies …’ inspired my own study by looking exclusively at filmic representations of gay men as parents. The study examined representations of gay parents through four key themes: (1) the capacity of gay men to parent and under what circumstances; (2) the relationship between gay men’s sexual identities and their identities as parents; (3) the agency of children who are cared for by gay men; and (4) constructions of kinship in the films (Riggs, 2011: 297). Riggs concluded that gay men as parents still experience significant marginalisation and that many of the images films projected of gay men as parents were benign and unrealistic, with films heteronormalising gay parenting and presenting it as ‘normal’ in order for the public to accept it (Riggs, 2011). Not only this, but wider research on the subject led me to works such as Margot Miller’s ‘Make Room for Straight TV’ (2007), and Benson et al.’s ‘From the Margins to the Center’ (2005), which shaped my interest in this area and encouraged me to consider the issue in more depth.
I have formulated three key research questions that will further the study of gay parenting on television. An initial group undergraduate study (Thompson et al., 2015: 2) compared TV representations of gay parenting with those in the films Riggs analysed; however, this research will simply apply Riggs’s first two criteria in a more contemporary and specific manner by relating them to two US television shows with gay parenting storylines, and to examine the realities of gay parenting in the US. One season of each show was watched, and key comparative themes were drawn from each show and explored through a content analysis and alongside my own questions. Online journals allowed access to relevant academic literature, and a sample of ten newspaper articles were selected from various US publications to determine the ways in which the issue was discussed in the popular media. From this research, three key questions were formulated:
- To what extent do gay parenting storylines on US television fully integrate gay men’s sexual identities with their parental identities?
- Does the rise in gay parenting storylines on TV signify a change in attitudes towards the capacity of gay men to parent, and are these storylines accurate representations?
- What are the realities of gay men who are trying to adopt in the USA, and does television reflect these?
These questions will be answered through my own research on two US TV shows, the conclusions made by Riggs in his 2011 paper and contemporary media debate, in the context of relevant literature.
A review of the relevant academic literature
Contextualising my research against prior academic literature has been a useful exercise in understanding how academic and societal attitudes towards homosexual parents have changed. As Heller (2011: 666) argued, television and media representations of gay parenting have historically been inaccurate and regressive. Gamson (1998, cited in Riggs 2011: 300) supported this, arguing that on one episode of US TV show Ricki Lake, lesbian mothers were either presented as ‘people of worth’, who deserved their parenting roles, or inadequate and unfit parents. Riggs (2011) argued that although Gamson’s study alluded only to lesbian mothers, a similar kind of polarised discourse could be identified in contemporary media representations of gay foster and adoptive parents, with media portrayals embracing a ‘love–hate’ relationship with gay parents.
There has also been a suggestion that media representations of gay parents simply reflect the biases of enfranchised social groups (Shugart, 2003, cited in Jacobs, 2014: 320); Miller (2007) argues that Becker’s ‘Gay TV and Straight America’ study (2006) illustrated how gay, lesbian and bisexual TV characters do not ‘belong’ to the LGBT community, and do not constitute their history. Although television representations have improved attitudes towards gay parents (Massey, 2007, cited in Riggs, 2007: 298), it is debatable whether storylines are accurate portrayals of gay families.
Although Bozett (1989) argued that being outwardly gay is now more widely accepted, Jacobs (2014) suggests that one must question how mass entertainment images have affected public perceptions of homosexuality. This can perhaps be seen in a study by Benson et al. (2005), where the gay men who were interviewed expressed wishes to be family men and live the American dream, which in US culture and media only applied to heterosexual men. Furthermore, gay TV shows were found to be much less ‘queer’ than expected (Chambers, 2009, cited in Heller, 2011: 668), with programmes such as The L Word being seen to reinforce the hegemony of heteronormativity (Heller, 2011).
Instead, Becker suggests that the proven rise in LGBT characters on television is not simply a reflection of the moving times, but a reaction to ‘straight panic’, the ‘shifting social paradigms of anxiety over the instability of sexual identity categories’ (2006, cited in Heller, 2006: 671). Furthermore, as ‘straight panic’ (Miller, 2007: 202) became more widely felt, US television networks used gay content as a metaphor for multiculturalism, by pushing social and economic fears onto ‘affluent white gay characters’ (Miller, 2007). Heller (2011) suggests that the big US television networks tried to steer audiences away from cable companies in the 1990s by introducing gay characters and storylines that would be considered current enough to compete with ‘more provocative, uncensored cable content’.
An overview of the television shows
Two weekly US television shows were analysed in the context of my research questions: the ABC drama Brothers & Sisters, and the comedy Modern Family. Season 5 of Brothers & Sisters was reviewed, with season 1 of Modern Family analysed because it allowed for a fitting cross-comparison between the two couples as they embark on parenthood. Thematic content analysis was used when reviewing these shows to allow a broad evaluation of the two series to occur within the context of my wider research. A media analysis was conducted to garner US media opinion of gay parents, and specifically those appearing on primetime television. Media sources present a useful snapshot of public opinion from the time of their publication, and so offered a timeline against which to contextualise my study.
Brothers & Sisters, which first aired in 2006, follows the drama surrounding the Walkers, a large adult family with many siblings. Among these siblings is Kevin, a lawyer, who is gay and ‘out’ from the beginning of the series. As the seasons progress, viewers see Kevin get into a serious relationship with chef Scotty. It is during season 4 that they begin to look into the possibility of surrogacy; however, this proves fruitless with the surrogate unfortunately experiencing a miscarriage. After this they adopt a 12-year-old Latino girl called Olivia, and win a custody battle with her brother to create a family. Later they find out that the surrogate lied about having a miscarriage, and gain custody of their baby son Daniel, who is then also integrated into the family. The Walkers are extremely supportive of Kevin and Scotty, and make Olivia feel at home from the beginning. Season 5 was analysed because it was during this season that the men adopt Olivia and embark on parenthood.
Modern Family is a sitcom concerning the lives of three families who are all related to each other. The show’s pilot depicts the programme’s gay couple Mitch and Cam on a plane home with Lily, the Vietnamese child they have adopted. As the show continues, viewers see the couple deal with a range of hilarious situations, get married in season 5, and enjoy a loving relationship with their daughter Lily. Mitch’s father Jay initially shows displeasure at the thought of Cam and his son adopting a child, arguing that ‘children need a mother’, but he comes around once he meets Lily. Season 1 was analysed, because it was the season where Mitch and Cam were finding their feet as new fathers, and thus compared well with Kevin and Scotty’s experiences as new fathers in season 5 of Brothers & Sisters.
To what extent do gay parenting storylines on US television fully integrate gay men’s sexual identities with their parental identities?
In his 2011 study, Riggs identified that many popular culture representations of gay parenting only projected heteronormative benign images which were seen as acceptable for public viewing. This implied that gay characters, in film at least, were limited to showing affection in private, or not even showing affection at all for fear it would be too shocking for the public’s eyes. Furthermore, Riggs questioned the relationship between gay men’s sexual and parental identities in the films he studied, with his findings seemingly reflecting the public disdain for realistic images of gay men being affectionate while also being good parents. This was also reflected in the US television shows that made up my own research. As soon as Scotty and Kevin adopt Olivia in Brothers & Sisters, all on-screen affection vanishes between them. This is particularly noticeable because prior to this the audience often see Scotty and Kevin kissing, hugging or being passionate. The seeming ‘inappropriate’ nature of affection once a child is brought into their storyline can perhaps be seen as reflective of the divide between their sexual and parental identities, with not one episode in season 5 showing an on-the-lips kiss.
This is also reflected in Modern Family, with Cam and Mitch not seen sharing a kiss in the entire first season. This became the subject of an online petition to get the couple to kiss on screen, which highlighted the fact that the men had not kissed in the eight months the show had then been running, despite heterosexual couples around them repeatedly kissing (Roberts, 2010: 1). The site read; ‘ABC isn’t afraid of gay characters, so why won’t they let them show some love?’, and garnered over 5,000 supporters, including the actor who played Mitch in the show (Roberts, 2010: 1). With Modern Family’s strapline being ‘One big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family’ (Laubie, 2013: 1), it is then not only surprising that Mitch and Cam do not kiss like the other couples on the show, but that the media considers such a lack of affection as a realistic portrayal of their relationship, with one article stating that gay couples were ‘just like other families … normal, unremarkable, no big deal’ (Puente, 2010: 1).
Although the subject is tackled in the season 2 episode ‘The Kiss’, it is attributed to Mitch’s dislike of public displays of affection, and the episode ends without the couple even sharing a kiss then. The lack of on-screen affection between gay characters appears to have created a warped perception of the reality of gay couples with children, with Benson et al. (2005) identifying cultural gender ideology which suggested that ‘being gay and being a father were mutually exclusive identities’. This absence also seems to have influenced gay men’s behaviour, with many not realising there was an option to be in a loving gay relationship and be a father: ‘There was nothing on TV, nothing in Time magazine … you just didn’t realise there was an option’ (Benson et al., 2005: 12). The lack of affection on US TV suggests then that there is still considerable stigma around the sexual identities of gay parents, reinforced not only by the absence of identity integration from supposedly ‘forward-thinking’ TV shows, but by recent academic literature where the underlying theme is the difficulty for gay men in reconciling their parental and their sexual identities (Bergman et al., 2010).
Not only this, but neither Kevin and Scotty nor Cam and Mitch were shown to be parents while engaging with homosexual culture at the same time. ‘Heterosexist gender role strain’ among gay fathers has become increasingly prevalent (Bergman, 2010), with gay fathers being unable to fit into the heterosexual parenting world due to their sexuality, and being unable to fit into the homosexual world because they are parents. Bergman et al. (2010) highlight the largely singles-orientated gay culture, and suggest that gay parents struggle to be accepted. High-profile examples of discrimination by the gay community have been documented in the media, with recent comments by fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana such as ‘we oppose gay adoptions … the only family is the traditional one’ garnering huge attention (Duffy, 2015: 1).
Although media articles do highlight examples of lack of acceptance by members of the gay community, this has not translated into gay TV storylines in the US, with gay fathers such as Kevin and Scotty shown to largely remain in heterosexual circles and receive much support from their family and friends. This skewed representation of the homosexual community reinforces the gap between gay men’s parental identities and their identities as fathers; one interviewee in a study by Benson et al. (2005:15) said that ‘we don’t fit in the gay community, we don’t fit in the heterosexual community’. This, alongside many other testimonies, illustrates the stigma received from both communities when gay men become parents.
Does the rise in gay parenting storylines on TV signify a change in attitudes towards the capacity of gay men to parent, and are these storylines accurate representations?
This research question also drew on one of the key themes identified in Riggs’s 2011 study on filmic representations of gay parents. The possibility of surrogacy is only explored in Brothers & Sisters; when their surrogate miscarries Kevin and Scotty are forced to look to adoption to start a family, stating they are ‘more interested in being parents than passing on their genes’ (Kevin and Scotty, 2011: 1). Adoption is presented as the more straightforward option, with the couple able to start visits to Olivia only one episode (or a short time) after meeting her. Adoption is similarly presented as the ‘easy’ option in Modern Family, with Cam and Mitch able to bring Lily into the US seemingly without issue and integrate her into the family with little legal difficulty. However, with 94,627 same-sex households with children in the US in 2012 (Lifelong Adoptions, 2015), and only 21.2 per cent of those containing adopted or step-children (Lifelong Adoptions, 2015) there are many other options that gay men are exploring in order to start a family. Television programs such as Glee and The New Normal present the audience with gay families started through surrogacy; however, in Glee this is barely mentioned, and The New Normal was cancelled after one season.
Having researched the topic further, it became clear that US gay TV storylines do not represent the group of gay fathers who conceived during a heterosexual relationship and later embraced their homosexual identities and ‘came out’. With 25–50 per cent of gay fathers being ‘natural fathers’ to their children (Bozett, 1989: 138) as a result of a prior heterosexual relationship, it is odd that such a large proportion of gay parents are not represented on television. The lack of attention for this family structure was shown by Benson et al. (2005) to impact on gay parents, with one man interviewed in their study saying that he felt like ‘the only man on the planet who is a father and also gay’.
Riggs (2011) suggested that films only released benign images of gay parenting, and television has arguably done a similar thing by only presenting gay families where the fathers are have already formed their gay identities and are in committed relationships. Cam and Mitch have been together for eight years, and over the five years Brothers & Sisters aired the audience saw Kevin and Scotty grow ever more committed to one another. Perhaps an explanation for this is that the break-up of heterosexual unions and the identity crisis that men go through in the context of being fathers is too ‘messy’ for television. It could be viably argued that fathers working out their sexual identities receive huge amounts of stigma and televisually would appear far less acceptable to audiences than the benign image of fathers who had accepted their gay identities a long time ago and are in committed relationships.
What are the realities of gay men who are trying to adopt in the USA, and does television reflect these?
While television programs such as Brothers & Sisters, Modern Family and Desperate Housewives have shown gay couples as being able to adopt children relatively easily, academic literature and media debate statistics suggest otherwise. Mallon identified a shared experience among all the subjects interviewed in his 2002 study on gay men as parents ‘violating two of society’s unspoken rules: that gay men should not be trusted with children, and that women, not men, are the preferred primary nurturers of children’ (Mallon 2004: xiii). Kevin and Scotty adopt Olivia easily over the course of five episodes; however, in reality social work has maintained institutional heterosexism (Logan and Kershaw, 1994, cited in Hicks, 1996: 16). This has meant that many gay men who attempt to adopt are subject to much more scrutiny and discrimination than the experiences of gay characters would suggest. One in four LGBTs have been told they cannot adopt (McCormick, 2014), with Campion (1995: 39) finding that the chances of homosexual prospective parents adopting a white baby in most western countries are ‘virtually zero’.
Similarly, recent media stories from the US have presented a situation where gay men find it ever more difficult to adopt, with Michigan, Louisiana and Mississippi implementing restrictions on adoptions by gay parents (Warikoo, 2015). It could be argued that Modern Family alludes to this discrimination, with Mitch and Cam adopting a Vietnamese child rather than an American baby; however, this is speculation and such reasoning is never mentioned in the first season. Campion (2005) also illustrates how adoptive parents need to be ‘extraordinary’ to succeed in adopting a child, while such high expectations are not extended to biological parents. During Kevin and Scotty’s custody battle with Olivia’s brother, it is remarked that the couple were only able to adopt due to their white, rich, middle-class credentials, supporting Campion’s theory that gay adoptive parents must be ‘qualified’ – in this case, economically.
Hicks (1996) also illustrated how many gay adoptive parents are only considered as a ‘last resort’ for problem children (Community Care, 1993, cited in Hicks, 1996: 15). This is arguably reflected in the experiences of Kevin and Scotty: Olivia is from an ethnic minority, perhaps reinforcing Campion’s (1995) suggestion that children of different ethnicities are easier to get custody of than white babies. Olivia is also unable to read and on one occasion steals Scotty’s wallet, suggesting that she is perhaps a ‘problem child’. This suggests that the ease with which Scotty and Kevin are able to adopt her correlates to her difficulty as a child, and reinforces the discourse Hicks (1996: 23) identified whereby authorities expect gay adoptive parents to ‘take what they can get’ and take on the more difficult children. Such conclusions can make for depressing reading; however, further research does suggest a change in attitudes, with more gay men and lesbian women becoming parents. A US Census report from 2000 was cited by Gates et al. as indicating one in three women and one in six men were raising children through a variety of means (Gates et al., 2007, cited in Brodzinsky et al. 2012: 13). However, gay adoption is still a problematic and ‘controversial’ issue in the United States; the book And Tango Makes Three, the true story of two male penguins in New York City Zoo who formed a bond and were given an egg to raise together, became the most banned book in the country in 2009 (Brodzinsky et al., 2012:15). Adoption may be on the rise, but stigma remains attached to the gay men and women who attempt it.
Having assessed all the relevant academic literature, media debate, statistics and my own findings, results suggest that television representations of gay families are neither accurate nor further gay men’s integration into society. Gay parenting storylines of television have educated the American public on the issues surrounding gay parenting; however, these storylines largely present benign images of gay men as parents. Affection between gay men in front of children on TV was a rare occurrence, meaning that while audiences get used to gay men on television, they are not being shown a realistic representation of a relationship.
As I have argued here, supported by the findings of Benson et al., Bergman and Duffy, as well as the results of my own study, gay men’s sexual identities and their parental identities were made separate by this lack of affection. I have also argued that gay parenting storylines did not accurately reflect the stigma gay fathers receive from the single-orientated gay community, with media stories such as Dolce and Gabbana’s support of ‘traditional’ families suggesting that a potential lack of acceptance in the gay community can leave some gay fathers feeling that they can be neither one nor the other. While this approach is undoubtedly damaging to the self-esteem of gay parents, it is not necessarily representative of a dominant narrative within the gay community.
Academic research indicated that a notable proportion of gay fathers were ‘natural’ fathers, yet television failed to reflect this in storylines, suggesting that such situations were seen as perhaps too ‘messy’ to show to the public. Adoption storylines were both inaccurate in representing the ease with which gay men are able to adopt, and only partially reflective of the ‘difficult’ children they are expected to be grateful for. Therefore, while US television has reduced some of the stigma surrounding gay parenting, these images are not entirely representative of the diverse range of issues homosexual parents face. However, these findings should not necessarily be viewed as a negative. It is a marker of great progress within US media and society as whole that gay men as parents have been represented on mainstream television. Not only this, but as my study and further research has illustrated, society is (slowly) becoming more acclimatised to images of gay men as parents. Riggs (2011: 311) identified that popular culture does provide gay parents with ‘a mirror in which to at least some extent they are reflected’ – it just remains to be seen whether this mirror will ever reflect a true likeness.
 Helena Sewell graduated from the University of Warwick last July with a BA Hons in History. She is currently working as a paralegal, which is a step towards her ideal career as a lawyer.
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To cite this paper please use the following details: Sewell H. (2017), 'A Critical Exploration of the Representation of Gay Parents on Television: Reading Brothers & Sisters and Modern Family', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/archive/volume10issue2/sewell. Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this paper or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.