A Defense of Political Animals’s Portrayal of the Gay Son

Blogger Rich Dweck, author of the blog Jewish Gay Elephant, wrote a blog post the other day about the portrayal of the gay son in USA’s mini-series Political Animals, who, in the show, is portrayed as a recovering alcoholic, drug addict, and suicidal. Dweck criticizes the show, and asks why the gay son is portrayed this way, as opposed to his older, straight brother, who is beginning his career in politics and engaged.

Although the mini-series just premiered this week and is expected to run for, I believe, five more episodes, I think I can see why. The central character in the show — the former First Lady and current Secretary of State, played really well by Sigourney Weaver — briefly mentions the hardships and tribulations that her younger son had to go through as a result of being the first openly gay First Son. While it might be nice, on the outset, to have the gay son to endure whatever he had to endure to come out of the closet in a environment which certainly wasn’t conducive to doing so and emerging from that with a burgeoning career as a civil servant, I think this gives the younger son much more room to develop as a character.

Whether or not a six-episode mini-series provides enough time to develop a character  that much is up for debate, and I’m not sure if it is — but that’s a different issue entirely.

From a writer’s standpoint, being gay is an easy segue into being a drug addict and lost, whereas having the gay son succeed while his straight brother is failing would require the writers of the show to produce a completely new storyline for the straight brothers. However, I think this goes a little deeper Dweck points out that now, when queer people are becoming increasingly vocal and are afforded more opportunities than ever before, it is imperative to portray queer characters on television as equally successful.

To me, though, this seems to be strikingly similar to many of the complaints about Chris Colfer’s portrayal of Kurt on the television show Glee before he was joined by a host of queer characters. Colfer, many said, was portraying the only gay character on the show as “too gay,” and was painting the LGBT+ community, and in particular gay men, as a certain group of stereotypes that — let’s face it here — many gay men do perpetuate. Instead, many said, Colfer should be portraying a gay character that was less stereotypically gay to show that the LGBT+ community is really no different than the heterosexual community.

One of the issues I took up with this at the time, though, was the fact that while there is a time and place to show that we of the LGBT+ community is no different than our straight counterparts, television shows are not necessarily the place to do it, least of all in a show like Glee, where originality and deviation from the norm is actively encouraged (just look at The Glee Project). Additionally, Colfer’s portrayal of Kurt as actively perpetuating just about  every gay stereotype that I can think of put him in the unique position to show the world the types of problems that gay teenagers face in the process of accepting their sexuality, coming out of the closet, and dealing with bullying. In doing so, I believe, Glee helped highlight the problem that is bullying and the fact that it needs to be stopped.

I think the gay son in Political Animals is in a similar position. Today, Dweck’s right: there are successful members of the LGBT+ community out there, making names for themselves and showing the world that you can be queer and successful. People like Barney Frank, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, and David Levithan are all prime examples of that.

However, it’s equally important to note that coming out of the closet — and certainly not in the public way that the fictional gay son in Political Animals seems to have done — can drive people down a very different road that the aforementioned famous queer politicians, actors, and authors and the success that they built up to. In making the gay son the drug-addicted, suicidal, and recovering alcoholic person he is, the show is highlighting the fact that not every gay person ends up the same way as Ellen DeGeneres. For some, the troubles they face as a result of coming out of the closet does lead them down the path to drugs and suicide, as has been pointed out by the numerous and tragic suicides of queer teens in the past year. Depressing though it may be, Political Animals is showing the darker and still prevalent side to coming out of the closet. In doing so, it might highlight the fact that, although it is getting better and easier to come out of the closet, there is still this aspect to it, and that aspect needs to change. Or, rather, we need to change to make sure that queer people coming out of the closet do not end up the same way the gay son in Political Animals did.

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One thought on “A Defense of Political Animals’s Portrayal of the Gay Son

  1. Your point seems to be that the gay stereotyping (which I find very offensive) is acceptable if:
    (1) The character develops over the course of the miniseries into one that is not a negative stereotype, but rather a positive role model, or,
    (2) We take this character as a moral lesson to show the pain and difficulty of coming out.

    I don’t think either of these will work. As for (1), I doubt that we’ll see this. TV writers know nothing about character development. I’d bet something precious to me that the character in episode six is the same one as in the pilot. As for (2), this is 2012, not 1982. “Coming out” themes have been exhausted by Hollywood. People either have learned this “lesson” or they never will.

    So while I do appreciate your not simply taking a knee-jerk offense here and trying to dig more deeply into the show, I don’t think there’s justification for the stereotype. It’s uncreative pandering by the producers in order to get their show some audience: Middle America that buys the stereotype will be comfortable with it, and many LGBT people like me will have watched the pilot episode. But like many of my sisters and brothers, I won’t be back for episode 2.

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