Family Affairs: Gay Visibility and Hegemonic Masculinity in ’70s TV
by Joe Wlodarz — University of Western Ontario
March 18, 2008 – 03:01
The above clip is from a 1978 episode of the ABC dramatic series Family, entitled “Rites of Friendship.” Created by Jay Presson Allen and produced by Mike Nichols and Aaron Spelling, Family was a prime time “quality” drama that grappled with contemporary political and social tensions through the representation of an American nuclear family. Influenced by both the sitcom All in the Family and documentary series An American Family, Family used the dramatic serial format to stage an often dark and highly critical examination of both family and society in the late 1970s.
In the “Rites of Friendship” episode, Willie’s (Gary Frank) best friend Zeke (Brian Byers) is arrested after brawling with police who harass him in a gay bar. Zeke comes out to Willie in the police station—in one of the rare “coming out” scenes featuring a young adult in ’70s TV—and the rest of the episode focuses on Willie’s struggle with this revelation. Willie initially shuns Zeke for “lying” to him about their friendship, but later, in the bedroom scene with his father (James Broderick), he admits to his own anxiety about what Zeke’s confession suggests about his sexuality. Backed by a prominent poster for George Stevens’ Giant—itself an epic of masculinity in crisis—both father and son (!) admit to their gay crushes as teenagers before Willie runs off to make amends with Zeke.
In the shift from connotative to denotative homosexuality in seventies television, gay male visibility typically cast an interrogative light on figures and forms of both hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality. As this scene suggests, once gay men come out on prime time TV, straight men have to as well. For the “out” and masculine gay man in seventies TV not only tests the presumed security of the homo/hetero binary, he also incites an interrogation of masculinity and male sociality. In fact, the coming out of the masculine gay man often tells us more about norms of gender and sexuality than about gay culture, gay masculinity, or gay sex. And yet, what’s important about the many confessional scenes that gay male figures incite in ’70s TV is that such scenes often refuse to codify or contain the boundaries of either homosexuality or heterosexuality. Although James Broderick insists that Willie should “know what [he’s] going to say” to Zeke before searching him out, Willie’s uncertainty tells us more about the unstable place of both homosexuality and hegemonic masculinity in ’70s prime time television.