In fact, “Coming-out narratives are cliches,” according to Ron Becker, author of “Gay TV and Straight America” (Rutgers University Press, 2006).
But a quarterback on a pro football team coming out in the locker room to his teammates, “There’s some real potential for drama in that context,” Becker says.
He and other analysts cite reasons such as the symbolic prominence the quarterback enjoys in football imagery and the NFL’s warrior depiction of masculinity for the possible potency of that story line, which the USA cable channel is tapping in its season finale of “Necessary Roughness.” The series about a fictional professional football team ends its second year Wednesday night at 10 with Rex Evans (Travis Smith), quarterback for the New York Hawks, telling his teammates that he’s gay at a halftime of a big game.
If the half-time, big-game, clock-is-ticking part sounds hokey, you’re probably not a fan of sports movies and TV shows. I like the added drama the uber-context of the game lends to such a narrative — as artificial as it might be. I want to see the hero use his newfound sense of liberation to go out on the field in the second half and whip those who would traffic in hate against him. But then, I’ve seen “Hoosiers” too many times to count.
As entertainment, USA does a credible and reasonably engaging job of telling the quarterback’s story. Last week’s episode focused on Evans talking to the team psychologist (Callie Thorne) about rage he’s been feeling. In the course of that conversation, he says he wants to speak out about being gay — for himself, his partner and their relationship.
Wednesday night’s finale, the more dramatic of the two parts, deals with him acting on that desire — while a rabid, tabloid press bangs on the locker room door and he encounters some genuine homophobia within.
For those not familiar with the series, Thorne’s character, Dr. Dani Santino, is the central figure — not the quarterback. She’s based on executive producer Donna Dannenfelser, who holds a doctorate in education from Dowling College and was formerly team psychologist for the New York Jets. (Some Baltimore Sun readers might best remember Thorne as Baltimore City Police Detective Laura Ballard on NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” from 1997 to 1999.)
The main role of Thorne’s Santino in Wednesday’s episode is to be supportive of Evans. It’s his story, not hers, in terms of entertainment.
But, in terms of the sociology of TV shows that are telling such stories about gay, lesbian and transgender identity, hers is the one that matter most, analysts say, because she is the one with whom heterosexual viewers are most likely to identify. And, more important, she is the character to whom they will look for cues on how to behave.
“I think it’s especially important in a cultural sense when you have a gay story line and it’s in a TV show that normally does not skew gay,” says Northern Illinois University Professor Craig Seymour. “In our niche marketing, there’s a lot of gay stuff on television, but a lot of that is for gay viewers or gay-friendly viewers. This is different.”
Having a gay story line in a show that’s not generally gay-themed allows heterosexual viewers “to experience issues of gay identity by proxy through characters they have identified with and have come to really enjoy,” says Seymour, author of “All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C.” (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2008).
“And for some people who might not normally be supportive of gay issues, it gives them a way to be supportive,” he adds.
Seymour compares the cultural impact such TV shows can have on heterosexual viewers to the effect the 1967 feature film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” had on some white moviegoers in “generating authentic conversations” about race.
“And television has been able to do it over and over, week after week,” he adds, reaching back to 1971 to cite an episode of “All in the Family” that features a former football player whom Archie Bunker holds up as a model of manliness turning out to be gay.
“And, of course, television is even a more intimate medium than film,” Seymour says. “I don’t think the average viewer would be reading a book on how to become more sensitive on gay issues. But TV gives them a way to think through and symbolically live through these issues in a completely non-threatening manner. And I think that matters.”
David Bergman, editor of “Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) sees the “Necessary Roughness” story line as evidence of a “growing awareness that gays are everywhere.”
“We've seen gay men as lawyers, doctors, nurses, funeral directors, high schoolers and househusbands,” the Towson University professor of cultural studies says. “Sooner or later, someone was going to get around to athletes ... Football has traditionally been the most homophobic of the sports. … Various football players have come out, but not while still playing.”
Bergman says the relationship between media depictions and the social reality of gay life is complicated, and real-world progress is can be difficult to measure – a truth recently borne out during Super Bowl week.
“The NFL culture has come a long way from four years ago,” Baltimore Ravens linebacker and same-sex-marriage supporter Brendan Ayanbadejo said in a post-Super-Bowl interview with Russell Simmons. “The younger generation of players are a lot more open-minded, forward thinking and accepting of the LGBT community.”
And yet, Media Day at the Super Bowl was tarnished by homophobic remarks from San Francisco’s 24-year-old defensive back Chris Culliver, who said there was no room for a gay athlete in the 49ers’ locker room. Worse, even as he apologized the next day, he seemed not to understand one bit how offensive and harmful his words were.
What matters, Bergman says, is that TV continues to tell stories about gay identity, even if it doesn’t always get it right.
“The most harmful episodes of the way gays were treated were during a period when it was not to be spoken of among Christians,” he says. “… But once you start talking about it, then a real conversation can begin. One of the things that made it possible for this gay football player story is the removal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ The recognition that gay people were in the armed forces and in combat has done more than anything else to change the sense that warriors exclude gay people. And now, we have a TV story talking about a gay man as a ‘warrior’ in the world of professional football … and you and I are talking about it.”