Family Affairs: Gay Visibility and Hegemonic Masculinity in ’70s TV

Curator's Note

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.

Comments

Elana Levine's picture

OK, I really do need to

OK, I really do need to watch those Family DVDs that have been sitting on my shelf for months. It’s interesting to place moments like this in the context of ’70s prime time in general. How does this episode affect the way viewers may have read Soap’s Jodie Dallas, for example? Or the lessons about tolerance forced upon Archie Bunker? I think you’re absolutely right, Joe, to point to the ways these representations trouble boundaries of sexuality. I guess I’m wondering how exceptional a representation like this would have been, given the jokey way in which such boundaries were treated on, say, Three’s Company, with Jack playing at gayness, meant to be funny because we all knew he was such an over-sexed straight guy.

Greg Oguss's picture

Whoa, Dad admitting to a

Whoa, Dad admitting to a schoolboy crush? That suggests what i have often argued, which is that masculinity was somewhat more “fluid” in the 70s than the 80s and 90s (tho the emo era is complex in a different way). Androgynous rockers like Bowie, Morrison and Jagger (who wore female panties on stage, albeit b/c they made his package look bigger) started messing w/ gender roles in the late 60s. Even action flix like the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force depicted a gay vigilante cadre of police rookies who aped Harry’s style, suggesting Harry had been “queered” in a way. There’s some interesting homosocial flirting in that film. Tho as u point out, Joe, in the end, mainstream queer representations probably reveal more abt heterosex institutions, much in the way that Foucault argues discourses abt insanity “produced” the idea of reason in the West.

Joe Wlodarz's picture

Yes Elana, you must watch

Yes Elana, you must watch those Family DVDs asap!–the opening scene of the pilot is one of my favorite scenes in *all* of ’70s TV. And even though it follows Soap and Three’s Company, this episode is still pretty anomalous in late ’70s gay imagery because it represents an “out” young adult in the figure of Zeke. Also, unlike the “mistaken-identity” formula of the innuendo-laden 3’s Company, I find both the directness and the casual nature of this confession to still be quite striking. And as opposed to simply presenting a post-Anita Bryant form of liberal tolerance, the Family episode insists on bringing such sexual ambiguity into the home. In the same episode, tomboy Kristy McNichol is also prepping for her first junior high dance, and she has a great bonding scene with Zeke (who gives her a few lessons)!

Allison McCracken's picture

What strikes me again

What strikes me again here—and continually did as I watched the first season last summer (it’s addictive!) –-is Family’s renegotiation of the paternal role. Broderick is the chief support of the family financially according to the 1950s breadwinner model, but he’s also very accessible emotionally for both his son and his daughters according to a 1970s parenting model. Indeed, he often seems more emotionally vulnerable than his strong-minded, outspoken wife, played by the great Sada Thompson. But what’s unusual about Family, unlike dramas such as Little House on the Prairie, say, is that neither parent is privileged over the other (poor Ma!) or pigeon-holed by his/her sex role; each is valued for the specific mix of masculine and feminine qualities that s/he brings to the family unit. Elana, this is the show where Zwick and Herskovitz got their start—you must watch! And the pilot, as Joe indicates, is in a class by itself.

Avi Santo's picture

Thanks for sharing this with

Thanks for sharing this with us, Joe. I agree that Willie and his father’s interactions blur sexual boundaries even as they use Zeke’s coming out to rewrite discursive constructions of hegemonic masculinity. What really grabbed me in this scene was James Broderick’s almost admonishing statement that “everybody knows” that it is common for teenage boys and girls to have crushes on members of the same sex, and Willie’s retort “I’ve read the same books as everybody else”. At a moment of heightened anxiety over masculine authority, this reassuring father-son dialog seems to both blur and reaffirm normative rights of passage into manhood.

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