This section will consist of facts about human sexuality, such as what are the dominant ideas and themes felt about sexuality; what are the criticisms; and what significant changes have been happening about sexuality over time. All facts listed in this section are pulled from Our Sexuality by Robert Crooks and Karla Baur.
In order to accurately speak about the changes that the media, specifically television, has brought about in the way Americans view sexuality, one must first have a broad view of the way sexuality is defined by the general public. This is not an easy task, as many commonly held beliefs about sex are antiquated or blown out of proportion by none other than the media itself. To get accurate facts one must go back to science, where these issues are studied regularly.
First, is there one widely held belief about sexuality that can be pinpointed to? The short answer is no, there is not. Even when looking at the broad cultural and racial makeup of the American public, across races, cultures, religions, and sexual orientation there is not one commonly held belief to be found (4). In fact, within each of these groups the beliefs can vary widely (5). Take for example; people who practice Catholicism, over 70% of Catholics feel that the Pope should endorse the usage of contraceptives for married couples, but those who practice Orthodox Judaism hold much more conservative views concerning contraceptive use (5). What can be agreed upon for most people, however, is that sex is important in life; countries polled this question said sex was very important, and when males vs. females were polled males said sex was very important (a score of 83), whereas females also said sex was important, but their score was much lower at 63 (6).
Second, is there a widely held criticism of sexuality that can be found? This answer can be found more easily by looking at gender roles. When psychologists focus on gender roles, they find all sorts of fun facts, and one of the predominantly held beliefs by both men and women is that when women have many sexual partners it means she is a "slut," or "loose,," or whatever the term is for a woman who is not acting ladylike in society (9). She is somehow a lesser person because she has had many sexual experiences in her life. Is this considered an antiquated idea? No, as the males and females polled were in their teens, which means that this is a commonly held criticism about sex that is still around today (10).
Which brings us to, what changes have been happening about sex over time? There is so much information out there, about how sex has changed over time, but the important part in America happened in the 1960s when gender roles began to changes with the war (16). This brought up all kinds of questions about women and their rights, which brings us to the most important sexual shift in America, the Sexual Revolution, bringing about birth control pills, IUDs, the morning after pill, and contraceptive usage by couples being legalized (16). After these changes for women, changes came about for homosexuals as well when in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the DSM as a metal disorder, highlighting homosexuality in the media, at first in a negative way, as there was violent backlash in the public (16). But, finally in the 1990s gay characters were being introduced to some of the television shows well-known and loved today: ER, Sex and the City, Roseanne, Ellen, Will & Grace, Six Feet Under, and The L Word (17). "A key element in popular and professional understandings of the history of sitcoms 'evolution,' this is the idea of the genre as a mirror of broader currents of social change." (McCarthy 90) The media has been instrumental in bringing positive changing attitudes about homosexuality, and portraying well-rounded characters in these pioneering shows (17).
Ellen and The L Word: Themes
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres made history by becoming the first major television star to come out publicly as being gay, which she mirrored in her character Ellen Morgan on her television sitcom Ellen (McCarthy 89). Sexuality at this time was gaining steam in the media, and although the decision to come out was a personal one for Ellen, it set the wheel in motion that suddenly it was alright for a main character or even a lead character to be gay on television, much less a sitcom (McCarthy 89). Although "many in the industry would hold up the example of Will & Grace's 2000 Emmy sweep to argue that even though Ellen 'failed,' it 'won' a place for everyday, serialized leading gay characters at the sitcom table." (McCarthy 100).
Some common themes that ran through the episode "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," which was the episode following "The Coming Out Episode," was the idea of coming out to parents who didn't understand homosexuality and represented the closed minded average American ("Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah"). Ellen DeGeneres and the writers for this episode really incorporated some humorous scenes about how Ellen's parents think of the movie Tootsie when asked about homosexuals, leading Ellen to become more nervous about coming out than she was before knowing that her parents have no basic understanding of being gay ("Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah"). Of course, the serious undercurrent to this episode is that Ellen is trying to make her parents see that she is still their daughter, she's not different, she still wants the same things in life that she did before she came out, and that she's "normal."
That was the first major introduction of a gay character, but that was the 1990s, and ultimately Ellen did not last for very much longer after coming out as gay (McCarthy 91). Since then a whole host of shows have come and gone with gay characters, basic and premium cable shows alike (Class notes 5), but this is the 21st century now, and what is the one type of show that has never been done before? A show entirely about lesbians and that culture subset, bringing Americans Showtime's The L Word, which premiered in 2004 and has been going strong ever since. The L Word is definitely not a sitcom, real life is represented, but with a lesbian only community, a unique twist for a show, in fact, the straight people in the show are mostly supporting characters, not main ones ("Let's Do It").
Now, for 2004 the themes have changed, and in this particular episode "Let's Do It," there is no big coming out moment, almost all of the women portrayed in the show are "out," except for some by choice; the focus of this episode is a lesbian couple who have been together for seven years and want to have a baby, but the major thing stopping them is trying to find a male willing to give them sperm ("Let's Do It"). This brings up themes of long-term gay relationships, homosexuals' raising children, and race issues, as one of the potential male donors is black and the couple had not discussed the possibility of raising a bi-racial child. "What is clear already, though, is the different made by the show's generous contextualization of its characters intertwined lives, where no single character, relationship, or issue need be a lesbian one." (Sedgewick B13) Indeed, The L Word seeks to seriously change how the public sees lesbians by providing a new reality for viewers (Sedgewick B11).
Sexuality: A Marketing Tool
Sex has been a main marketing tool for televised commercials for many years now, it is common knowledge that the number one way to sell and product, idea, or service is to use sex (Crooks and Baur 20). But, how long has someone's sexual orientation been used as a marketing tool? Well, ever since advertisers figured out that gay and lesbians represented a niche market, and they sought to gain access to that market by running commercials aimed at educated homosexuals with disposable income, also known as "slumpy." (Class notes 31).
Although some ads can trivialize sex by making it seem easily attainable by purchasing a certain product (and you automatically get to spend the night with a lesbian couple), some ads are now being targeted directly toward homosexuals (Crooks and Baur 20). Such as the recent JC Penney ad that came out in their May 2012 mailer, depicting an average lesbian couple with their two daughters, smiling happily in their albeit JC Penney outfits (Block). Perhaps JC Penney is trying to make some bold political statements about being pro-gay, but more than likely they are just trying to break into that niche market of gay parents with kids who need a place to buy more clothes, thereby getting a leg-up on Kohl's, their main competitor.
Of course, what better way to get serious leg-up than introducing Ellen DeGeneres herself as a spokesperson for…