Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Chatting About Gay People on "The View"

I’ve been spending some time in Pittsburgh (my hometown) with my mother recently, while she recuperates from major surgery. She’s been unable to read very much, so I’ve watched a lot of daytime television with her, seeing shows that I’ve only read about otherwise. For instance, The View, with Rosie O’Donnell, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, crossed my radar screen mostly when Rosie replaced the African American woman whose name escapes me, and its ratings and visibility began to grow from the controversy. The show was also impossible to ignore in the last month or so, when Rosie’s remarks about Donald Trump’s pardoning the latest Miss America’s peccadilloes caused a major contretemps in which other shows replayed O’Donnell’s and Trump’s ad hominem attacks ad nauseum through several news cycles. Trump called Rosie fat and crass; O’Donnell returned the favor by combing over her hair in a perfect imitation and impugning his morality.

But I’d never actually watched the show until this week, when my mother’s amused commitment to seeing it each day let me tune in (see To my surprise, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. Although I don’t watch television talk shows of any variety, this one strikes me as a refreshing alternative to the shouting matches staged by male pundits, from progressives like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart to rightwing talking heads like Rush Limbaugh and other cable shows with similar express-yourself-loudly-and-provocatively designs.

On The View, the women talk in a seemingly spontaneous, extemporaneous format, raising issues in the news about which to exchange their opinions and ideas. O’Donnell and Behar, as the resident comics, pepper the conversation with witty one-liners, but their well-timed, sharp and smart remarks are rarely extraneous, but always pointed observations about the foibles of politics and its personalities. In the past week, during the show’s first hour of free exchange (followed each day by two different interviews with personalities including, while I’ve watched, an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nominee and a lead from a television series), I’ve heard the four women discuss the potential presidential candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; the picture of Rudy Guiliani and his wife Judith, which ran on the cover of the New York Post the day before Guiliani announced his presidential candidacy (see the cross-country, deluded, lust-induced and allegedly murderous adventures of fallen astronaut Lisa Nowak; and various other current events.

I appreciated that they roamed from gossip to real politics, and that their expertise wasn't centralized in, say, domestic issues (as in issues of the home or so-called private life, which is historically assigned as women's realm). They were very clear about being "ordinary women" (although anyone on a tv show this visible can hardly, really be called "ordinary") with a simple right to voice their own opinions into a public forum. As such, they offered a great example to the women in the audience, as well as those watching at home, for how to participate in civic, as well as more mundane, conversations.

One of the things that’s most impressed me, though, is the frequency with which the co-hosts address gay issues in the news, or even simply think through the implications of the news from a gay and lesbian perspective. O’Donnell’s presence has something to do with this marked amount of airtime devoted to queer issues, but, as she said the other day when addressing the Snicker’s ad that aired during last Sunday’s Super Bowl, she doesn’t want to be the “go to person” for gay issues. Her co-hosts agreed, and ably took up responses to the controversial commercial themselves, addressing homophobia on television and how ridiculous the ad was to feed on men’s fears of same-sexuality.

One of today’s topics was the recently rehabilitated Rev. Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who resigned from his post after a gay prostitute with whom he’d had regular sexual liaisons exposed what the escort called Haggard’s “hypocrisy.” Haggard claims that after three weeks in rehab, he was convinced of his heterosexuality and that “Jesus is starting to put me back together” (quoted in The New York Times, 2/07/07, A11). All four co-hosts seemed dubious about Haggard’s disavowal of his gay sexual encounters and his magical return to full-fledged heterosex. Their suspicions led to a fairly sophisticated conversation about whether or not one can turn sexual preferences on and off.

O’Donnell set the tone by proposing that sexuality is a spectrum, that everyone experiences a mixture of sexual attractions over the course of a lifetime, that no one is as fully queer or straight as we often proclaim. To illustrate her point, she described the two-year relationship she had with a man when she was 28-years-old, and admitted that although she was happy in the relationship and fond of the man, she knew that something was missing and eventually pursued the lesbianism for which she’s become one of America’s most visible spokespeople. Joy Behar carried on the baton, insisting that discussions about sexual possibilities are parents’ responsibilities, that when it’s clear their kids are attracted otherwise, they should ask their kids straight out (if you will) whether or not they’re gay or lesbian, without worrying, as Rosie remarked wryly, that the very question might “turn” them queer.

While ordinarily, I’m wary of O’Donnell’s status as Ms. Lesbian USA, I was actually impressed and pleased by the nuanced discussions about gay identity she launched in this completely mainstream popular forum. For the Snickers ad debate, she referred frequently to GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, see and their stand on stereotypical queer representations, shouting out to an important progressive LGBTQ non-profit that’s done good work protesting excessively insulting portrayals of queer people in the media and films. On Haggard, O’Donnell said it’s impossible to “pray the gay away.” Later in that show, when she described a party favor the show’s guests were invited to take home, she mistakenly said everyone would “gay” instead of “get” a gift certificate, which prompted Behar to remark that “every day is gay day here” on The View.

Where I expected a certain level of tension among the women about Rosie’s predominating lesbian presence, and over her insistence on being out (not to mention loud and proud), I found instead a kind of openness and camaraderie that was infectious and fairly politically liberal, given the show’s context and its audience. The studio spectators are panned quickly at the top of the hour, as in many talk shows, to secure the fact that they’re there, that their applause isn’t canned—although it’s impossible to know if they’re looking at signs telling them when to laugh or applaud—and that they’re “ordinary people” happy to be invited into the audience to watch the hosts talk. At a glance, the audience looks mostly white, middle-class, and middle-America, with a fair share of unfashionable haircuts and less than stylish, informal clothes.

In fact, to secure the presumptive class status of their audience in the studio and at home, The View (this week, at least) began the last few shows with the co-hosts modeling clothing from various low-end fashion outlets, like TJ Maxx. A resident clothing expert apparently chooses their outfits, then each of the four co-hosts walk in front of their common desk to model everything from their footwear to their accessories. Rosie invariably camps her modified runway moment, which calls ironic, playful attention to her hardly model-like shape.

This morning, as Barbara Walters modeled her TJ Maxx outfit, Rosie quipped about Walters’ more petite build, saying, “I was that size in seventh grade.” But the repartee among the women seems affectionate, even as their views are flung fast and firm into the stew of their conversation. The mod glass desk they sit behind is a marked improvement on the clichéd living room sets standard for many daytime, woman-hosted talk shows. The more professional look emulates, in some small way, the set for shows with more conventional (and more male) political pundits.

While the conversation on The View today was certainly LGBTQ studies 101, watching with my mother (who just turned 70, a short 20 years my senior), I felt a welter of emotions. I couldn’t help but feel how remarkable it was that four women of various ages and levels of fame or notoriety were having a conversation on day time network television in which they considered gay and lesbian sexuality positively (although “gay” was the word used exclusively during the conversation, never “lesbian” and never “queer”). When I came out to my parents in 1981, after coming out to myself and my friends in 1978, this kind of popular discourse about sexuality was rare or non-existent on tv.

In fact, I remember watching with my parents an episode of Medical Center—an early doctor show with Chad Everett that ran from 1969-1976—about an illicit lesbian relationship between a younger (victimized) and older (predatory) woman. I recall being painfully aware of their disgust and discomfort, of how easily they followed the cues Medical Center sprinkled liberally through the episode about how immoral and corrupt the women’s relationship was and how much the older woman deserved to be punished for her desire.

I remember trying to keep my cheeks from flushing with the identification and curiosity I felt, with the painful admixture of amazement that my own desire was being represented on television at all and the inevitable self-doubt (if not self-loathing) about how horrible this sisterhood into which I was bravely stepping seemed to be considered by society at large. When my parents knew about my sexuality, those inadvertent moments of watching television together when some gay topic or another came up were even worse, because none of us, including myself, could confront the elephant in the room (watching Making Love in 1982 or An Early Frost in 1985 both come to mind as prompting those awkward moments).

Twenty-five or so years later, there my mom and I sat in the same family room in the same family house, companionably watching Rosie and Joy cut up about sexuality, and listening to four women on daytime tv admonish the likes of Ted Haggard for his blatant falsehoods and evasions and chastise Snickers for thinking that their homophobic ad might sell candy (the ad has since been pulled, thanks to protests from queer organizations like GLAAD). I found myself moved by how far we’ve come (publicly and privately, in society and in my family), if it’s now possible that gay and lesbian issues can be raised as easily as the unfortunate exploits of obviously psychotic astronaut Lisa Nowak, whose story followed Haggard’s as fodder for The View's co-hosts.

Perhaps The View is politics lite; of course it’s politics lite. But I wasn’t sorry that my mom heard Rosie and Joy and Barbara and Elisabeth discussing gay issues so positively, and I was glad, in fact, that other women of her age and predilections across middle-America were hearing the same. If change happens by accretion, the views expressed on The View, openly and articulately shared with what seems to be its fairly conventional audience, are a very good thing indeed.

Surprised and impressed,
The Feminist Spectator