The TV Showrunners: Sexuality, Mistakes and Audience Perceptions (Part Two)

In the first part of the TV Showrunners feature, I talked with both gay and straight showrunners to find out how they approach creating LGBT characters and writing LGBT stories. What they shared was that while we have definitely made strides towards more and better representation, there’s still some room to grow in many areas.

In this second part, the conversation continues by looking at when sexuality comes up in creating characters, what mistakes they see still being made in LGBT representation, audience expectations and much more.

Once again, the showrunners featured for this story are our straight showrunners: David Goyer (“Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Constantine), Hart Hanson (“Bones,” “Backstrom“) and Jill Soloway (“Transparent,” “Six Feet Under“). And our gay showrunners are: Marlene King (“Pretty Little Liars),  Caroline Dries (“The Vampire Diaries“), Carter Covington (“Faking It“) and Bradley Bredeweg, speaking on behalf of himself and co-creator Peter Paige (The Fosters“).

'The Vampire Diaries'"Chris Brochu is the latest gay character on TV (CW)

Shaping characters:

With any character, a writer generally tries to figure out who this person is from the first time they start thinking about the story they want to tell. That said, as a character’s journey commences, key elements that make up a character, such as sexuality, inevitably come up. So the question is when does sexuality come up in the conversation?

For some, it's very early. "Characters are defined by their wants, needs, and desires," Hart Hanson says. "Sex falls directly into those motivations." Marlene King agrees and says, "If a character is old enough to fall in love, as a writer, I need to know who the character might fall for. I'm a romantic so that's one of the first places I go when creating a new character."

Thinking of sexuality, in some cases, is a bit more organic. "We always let it play out naturally," Bradley Bredeweg says. "We never try to force sex or sexuality on our characters. Story will always dictate the right time to explore someone's sexuality on the show." For Carter Covington, he and his writers think about how that LGBT character is going to impact the other characters on the series. "When we're working on creating a character, we're trying to position that character among the other characters in the show and how are we going to have a different flavor to this character?"

Goyer also suggests that choosing sexuality for a character should be done for the right reason and maybe the right time as well. "I never want to tack on an attribute just to make a character more controversial," he explains. "It needs to make sense. Sometimes, if it isn't really something you're focusing on initially, it can be more interesting to reveal a character's sexuality later on. Some characters exist in a fictional world where being gay is permissive. Some are forced to hide it. Depends on the story arena and the era that your story is taking place. Either approach can be interesting."

“Honestly, in my opinion,” Caroline Dries states, “characters are straight until told otherwise. It’s still a ‘thing’ to make a character gay, so you have to be very intentional about it. It still feels like you’re ‘filling a role’ on the show. It’s like, first the character is gay, and then you fill in everything else about them.” Case in point, Dries brought in the first regular gay character in “The Vampire Diaries” last season. However, she explains that the sexuality of Luke (played by Chris Brochu) wasn’t the jumping off point for that character. “He wasn’t gay or straight when we thought of him. He was just a guy Katherine Pierce had befriended and was using for blood. But as I was writing him, and trying to picture who a savvy, badass vampire living a fake college identity would actually choose to be friends with, it occurred to me that she’d probably seek out a fun gay guy.”

Tipping the scales

While sexuality more than likely came up immediately in a show like "The Fosters" since it's centered around a family headed by an openly gay couple, what's the level of importance for delving into a character's sexuality and telling LGBT stories? I asked the showrunners on a scale of 1 (not important) to 10 (very important), just how important it was for them to tell LGBT stories.

The clear answer was 10 for a few of our showrunners. Hanson, who will have a gay character on his new Fox series "Backstrom" says, "If 10 is 'very, very, very important' then I'd say 20. Sex is a basic human need and a fundamental motivator for nearly every great story since Homer and probably before. The heart wants what the heart wants and empires can crumble as a result. So, pretty damn important."

King looked back to when she was writing the “Pretty Little Liars” pilot and establishing the sexuality of Emily (Shay Mitchell), who would come out during that first season. “I knew that when Emily came out, her friends would unconditionally support her. I’m proud that we had the opportunity to share that story with fans, and “model” an appropriate response to a friends need for understanding at such an emotional time. When writing stories about teens, sexuality is a 10 on the importance scale.”

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Stories of sexuality go hand-in-hand with stories of romance and love, says Dries. "If the story is told right, the characters' sexual orientation should be the least interesting thing about the story. What we're trying to do on "TVD" is tell a story about a character who happens to be gay but we're not trying to have his characterization defined by his love story. It's defined by the fact that Luke is a witch and he's loyal to his coven. Him being gay or straight has no connection to that. In our small way, we're trying to say people are more than their sexual orientation."

Bredeweg uses “The Fosters” as an example for coming thisclose to choosing 10 on the scale, saying, “Sexuality is a very important part of any individual’s life and because we are a character-driven family drama, it is an extremely important part of our series. Romance, love, sex, is a natural story telling engine for us so I would say it is most definitely a 9 1/2. Yes, that’s right, I said 9 1/2.”

Covington, who says 8, adds that it's personal for him to have LGBT characters present in his work. "If I'm working on a project and there's no character on the LGBT spectrum then I feel like I'm writing something where a part of me is absent and that's not fulfilling for me creatively over time."

Goyer says it really depends on the story being told. "Obviously, in something like "The Normal Heart" sexual orientation is more central to the story than in "Battlestar Galactica." (Although I acknowledge that bi and gay characters were depicted in "Battlestar!")

Max (Adam Pally, left, with Damon Wayans Jr) on 'Happy Endings' was the anti-stereotype. (ABC)

Oops, they did it again…

Oh, the mistakes. For every depiction of an LGBT character that doesn't rely heavily on stereotypes and misconceptions, there are still many out there that do. But are we seeing more or less mistakes in how LGBT characters are portrayed on television? What are some writers still doing that needs correcting?

While King thinks things are in a good place and says, “I’m seeing a lot done right.  And that’s a great trend,” others think the same stereotypes and clichés are still a problem. “When the only characteristic that defines a character is his or her sexual orientation,” Hanson says, “then you have a stereotype, not an actual rounded character.”

Bredeweg is ready to step away from the tried and true gay character as the butt of the joke. "For years, for decades, the networks have been putting gay and lesbian characters on the air but typically we are the clown, the punch line to the joke and it's time to let that go."

Besides comic relief, Goyer offers that another mistake is "going the opposite direction and making the subject overly dogmatic and preachy. No one likes to be force-fed an issue. The best way to tell any story is to simply create a character that is well-rounded and memorable."

Specific to one gender, Jill Soloway feels, "No one does sex for women well on TV. We're absolutely inventing the female gaze right now. I need to put miles on the car, to draw as wide boundaries as possible to inspire women everywhere to join in and tell their truths about desire, identity, and sexuality from unconventional, queer and/or female perspectives."

Thomas Dekker's Gregory Valentine will be 'on the prowl' on 'Backstrom' (Fox)

While Dries admits she has to think logistics in terms of the size of her already large cast on "TVD," when creating characters, she does see one error still occurring. "One mistake I have noticed is that LGBT storylines are restricted to who they're dating. Storylines become solely about the character's sexual orientation. That tends to pigeonhole storylines and isolate the character(s) from the rest of the show's plot. That being said, I don't think people are going out of their way not to tell LBGT stories. I think a lot of the issue has to do with practicality."

The LGBT community is also a pretty wide spectrum in and of itself, says Covington, who, on “Faking It” already has a gay character in Shane (Michael Willett) and possibly lesbian or bi character in the still-figuring-it-out Amy (Rita Volk) and, exploring further, he’s tackling the subject of being intersex in the show’s new season (which begins September 23rd on MTV) with the character of Lauren (Bradley De Young). In other words, the LGBT community is a very diverse one and while he acknowledges that we’ve made great strides he also thinks, “Gay characters are expected to represent the entire LGBT community and so they’re held to a higher standard of behavior that people. Whether you’re LGBT or straight, watching a gay character, we have a tendency to make generalizations and to expand that to imply about the entire LGBT community behaves a certain way, and I think we’re such a diverse group of people that the more we can push back and get away from that, the better.”

Changing Minds and the Responsibility of Storytelling:

One thing's for sure, the more representation that's out there, the more minds are changed as they're exposed to lives and lifestyles different than their own. Case in point, "The Fosters" at ABC Family. "I hear from so many people almost every day saying that they didn't agree with the gay and lesbian lifestyle until they started watching 'The Fosters' quite simply because our family deals with the same trials and tribulations as any other American family. So perhaps there are viewers out there that don't believe they are ready to watch gay and lesbian characters on television but if they just give it a chance and turn on one of the many series that explore such territory, nine times out of ten, they realize that we look and act and feel and love in all of the same ways and that is the power of television! TV is a mirror."

In terms of LGBT characters, Covington feels we’re doing a good job “in terms of the L and the G” and sees the trans community getting more exposure. In fact, Soloway’s “Transparent” (premiering all 10 episodes on Amazon Prime on September 26th) focuses on a later in life father (Jeffrey Tambor) coming out to his family as transitioning to a woman. Soloway admits that portraying what it’s like to be trans is her biggest challenge but that hasn’t stopped her from telling the story. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person. I only know what it’s like to be the child of a trans person. But I am learning every day. I’ve read a ton of books,‘Whipping Girl’ by Julia Serano is amazing, I bought a bunch of copies and distributed them to all of our departments. Of course, I love She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by our consultant Jennifer Boylan.”

Soloway also feels an unexpected responsibility to telling the story and correcting terminology and dispelling myths about trans people. "It's a mantle I didn't necessarily expect nor ask for but I am proud and privileged to be at the forefront of this civil rights movement," she explains. "We understand that Maura is a confusing character for some because she has not medically transitioned. We explore her history of cross-dressing at one point in her journey. Neither hormones nor surgery define whether or not someone is trans. There's no one way to be trans. The trans community is incredibly diverse and that is confusing for our audience to navigate. But we are all going to learn so much from this season."

Some audience members were not happy with how Goyer depicted Da Vinci's sexuality on 'Da Vinci's Demons' (pictured: Tom Riley; Starz)

And then there’s the audience…

Hanson knows in network TV he may not have cable’s freedom to regular show “bare bums” but in his new Fox series, “Backstrom” the character of Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker) “is a former hustler who is enthusiastically gay,” he says. Aside from what they could or couldn’t show in the bedroom for gay or straight characters, though, he adds, “I don’t think there are any stories we won’t be able to tell about Valentine and his adventures. In fact, the character is designed to be the opposite of a non-threatening gay character. He’s randy and promiscuous and naughty, tattooed and horny and perpetually on the prowl. Hide your sons! I think America’s going to love him.”

While we’ll wait on the audience reaction to Valentine, Goyer knows all too well that the audience can oftentimes build their own expectations of where they want a story or character to go and that sometimes differs from the story the storyteller intends to tell. Goyer’s series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” is a show I covered extensively for during that first season since the series addressed an important historical occurrence in Leonardo Da Vinci’s life. “While developing ‘Da Vinci’s Demons,’ I felt very strongly that we needed to address the events surrounding Leonardo’s sodomy trial,” Goyer explains. “While Leonardo never explicitly referred to his own sexuality, that trial was definitely a pivotal moment in his life. There was some initial push back from others about waiting until the second season [of the series] to ‘go there.’ But I felt we had an obligation to depict the event. That we would be doing history a disservice if we didn’t. And in portraying the event, I thought we could subtly shine a light back on current events [and] the hypocrisy that was playing out in America and the justice system.

"While I know there will always be a portion of the audience that feels we didn't go far enough on 'Da Vinci's Demons,' I am proud of what we were able to pull off. We stood our ground and the network ultimately loved the story, even the 'gay kiss' at the end, which had been much debated internally. In fact, it proved to be our most successful episode during Season 1. That said, I'm sad a mere kiss caused so much turmoil. One day, hopefully, that won't be the case. There is an assumption at times that showrunners have complete autonomy. And that's just not true. We have coworkers, studios, networks or even advertisers or the FCC that occasionally inject their POV. It is a constant negotiation to stay true to your original intent."

Goyer contends that an audience's reaction does not impact his storytelling desires in his work. "I know that if we touch certain issues, we will become lightning rods no matter what we do and that's just the nature of the beast," he offers. "People are passionate. I understand and empathize. I don't have the experience of knowing what it's like to be discriminated against because of my sexual orientation. What I can pull from is having experienced religious discrimination as a child, other children calling me names or excluding me from events because of my faith. That's probably the closest I've come to experiencing something like that. And still, I know it's not the same. Although things are better, there are still grave inequalities that exist in our country. We've a long, long way to go. I hope that by the time my own children come of age, we will be living in a much more tolerant world vis-à-vis sexuality and gender."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

Got a comment for the LGBT site? Tweet @JimHalterman with your question.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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