In February 2020, Apple TV’s streaming service Apple TV+ premiered a five-part documentary series called Visible: Out on Televison about the history of LGBTQ content on TV. Through interviews with prominent celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, Billy Porter, Anderson Cooper, Sara Ramirez, Lena Waithe, and Janet Mock, as well as television writers, producers, allies, and activists, the star-studded docuseries explores television’s role in the LGBTQ rights movement over the past 50 years. Interweaving news coverage, archival footage, and clips from groundbreaking shows, Visible holds television networks accountable for reproducing stereotypes about and pathologizing LGBTQ people and praises more recent nuanced, well-rounded, and humanizing portrayals of LGBTQ characters.
As I watched Visible earlier this year, I noticed an important perspective missing from the series: scholars of LGBTQ television. I convened this roundtable to add our voices to the conversation, as academics and subject-matter experts who study television history and LGBTQ media: Beck Banks, a doctoral student in Media Studies at the University of Oregon; Mayra Bottaro, Assistant Professor in Romance Languages Department and participating faculty in the New Media and Culture Certificate at the University of Oregon; Hollis Griffin, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan; Alfred L. Martin, Jr., Assistant Professor of Communication and African American Studies at the University of Iowa; Julia Himberg, Associate Professor and Director of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University; Maria San Filippo, Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College; and myself, a doctoral candidate in Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University.
Our conversation covers a range of topics, exploring and challenging how Visible positions television as a cultural forum and confronting the gaps both exposed and elided by the docuseries’ discussions of representation, activism, and capitalism. What has emerged is an important conversation about the power of television — and lack thereof — to address social change and institutional oppression. In the middle of Pride month, and at a historical moment in which thousands of people have once again taken to the streets across the U.S. to protest police brutality and systemic racism, it’s clear that how we tell stories about activism shapes public perception of movements for rights and justice. Our collective analysis urges television producers, scholars, and critics to add nuance to these conversations.
“Visibility” is a fraught concept in media studies and LGBTQ studies. While mainstream movement leaders have historically championed strategies of visibility — coming out in particular — as a way to achieve rights and acceptance, many scholars have suggested that mainstream visibility often correlates with assimilationist politics, hegemonic incorporation of queer issues into capitalist imperatives, and an increase violence against the most marginalized (queer and trans people of color). How does Visible engage with, negotiate, or complicate ideas and debates about LGBTQ visibility in media?
ALFRED MARTIN: One of the important pieces that came out of Visible was when the writers of An Early Frost suggested that they “wrote the movie for Kansas,” and when Max Mutchnick talked about the ways that he wrote Will & Grace with heterosexuals in mind with no social commentary. While I don’t want to suggest that this is altogether problematic, it does signal the ways that the gay 90s was predicated on a quiet kind of politics that would go down easier with what Ron Becker calls the “slumpy demographic.” [socially liberal, urban-minded professionals] That kind of notion became clearer when talking about male same-sex kisses on things like Dawson’s Creek and even in the section where Adam Lambert talks about his performance on the Grammys. So, for all the advances that Will and Grace was supposed to have provided, the idea of two men kissing on television, particularly network television, remained problematic.
Part of what also happens, is that cable is reified as not only providing opportunities for different kinds of LGBTQ representation but also as a venue in which risk can happen, as Jennifer Fuller discusses. So, when the docuseries turns to Queer As Folk or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, part of the language in which these shows are discursively mentioned is through “taking the power back.” And that seems… a stretch.
BECK BANKS: Alfred, I am in complete agreement with you on the importance of the desired television audience. It’s not enough for queer representation to exist or for queer people to create the content when the goal is to explain queer to cisgender, straight folks, and/or fall into a tokenizing trap. This built-in power dynamic is how we got a disproportionate representation of sassy gay men, high-femme lesbians, and the trans people who mirror cisgender binaries. I would have liked some more insight into the limits of representation in place of “the power of television.” Becker’s slumpy demographic is still thriving, especially with transgender characters.
LAUREN HEROLD: I think that Visible tends to align with the media activist approach, which generally argues that increased LGBTQ visibility leads to wider social and political acceptance, and that nuanced and complex LGBTQ characters on TV help “humanize” queer and trans people to the wider (straight, cisgender) public. There are a lot of moments in the docuseries that reaffirm this message — the celebrities who participate frequently talk about how powerful television is as a medium and how important representation can be. At the end of the final episode, Oprah Winfrey says, “I just don’t know of anything that has a more powerful influence because it’s in your kitchen, in your living room, in your playroom, in your bedroom.” Like Beck and Alfred, I would have liked to see Visible complicate this message. I would have loved to see more critical engagement with Norman Lear’s shows, for example. Lear is celebrated in the first episode of the docuseries (“The Dark Ages”) as a progressive producer who broke ground by incorporating gay and trans characters into his shows. This may be true, but these characters were almost always relegated to Very Special Episodes, where they were designed to teach the straight and cis characters (and by extension, the audience) a lesson about tolerance. This established a troubling pattern and trope — for decades LGBTQ characters were sidelined as guests in Very Special Episodes on sitcoms and dramas.
MAYRA BOTTARO: I agree that the value of visibility is overblown, as is the power of television, if I may add. The narrative of the show praises the celebratory power of visibility while, at the same time, it is predicated upon a monolithic understanding of its value. By extension, it places an unrealistic burden on the mandate to represent! One can never overestimate the value of visibility for the audience’s self-identification and self-recognition, and in this sense, we can see many testimonials in the expression of gratitude of audience members sending letters to the Loud family or approaching actors to thank them for their portrayals, that had brought about a sense of relief to finally recognize someone “like oneself”. Also, of course, the contrast between the complete black-out on reporting the Stonewall riots and the need to capture the public opinion by the ACT UP movement in order to increase the government's budget for HIV and AIDS research-related funding is almost self-explanatory. Who could question the power of visibility in those instances?
Still I think Beck is absolutely right that a more critical approach to the limits of representation would have benefitted the show enormously. The problem I see is that drawing from a media activist approach — as Lauren identifies — the show builds an emancipatory teleology (especially throughout the first three episodes) in which visibility equals inclusion and acceptance. It is true that this strategy seems somewhat frustrated in the last two installments of the series, in particular by the pairing of Ellen’s coming out with the subsequent cancellation of her show and the assassination of Matthew Shepard just days apart, or the inclusion of the Pulse massacre towards the end of the show. This is perhaps one of the reasons that the narrative seems so much more compact and well thought out in the first episodes. Still, I was hoping that these moments would challenge that overarching narrative in a productive way. But the fact that they remained as puzzles — how is it possible that TV visibility did not bring about less homophobia? — or as part of the “one step forward, two steps back” trope weakens the overall argument. In my view, it also reinforces the chrono-normative layout of the series. I found the temporality of the history of LGTBQ representation in TV as deployed in this show weirdly progressive and messianic. I would have liked a more in-depth analysis on what kinds of visibility strategies are deployed to serve different agendas and what regimes of visibility are exercised, by whom, and serving whose interests, along deeper explorations on who is visible among the LGTBQ community which brings into the conversation the question of intersectionality: race, class, and ethnicity.
MARIA SAN FILIPPO: With its very title, Visible: Out on Television maintains an untroubled endorsement of visibility and out-ness that those under the sway of queer theory have long challenged. That, alongside the “emancipatory teleology” that Mayra notes and its many celebrity talking heads’ affirmations of the “persistence yields success” adage, make Visible seem more than a bit wishful and dated, and deeply indebted to the approach taken by The Celluloid Closet 25 years ago in telling the parallel history of Hollywood. That said, there is considerable validity to the docuseries’ implied argument that TV’s industrial and technological evolution enables a weakening and even subversion of regimes of visibility: channel diversification expands the bandwidth for queer characters and storylines, OTT and subscription-based models protect against government-regulated and advertiser-determined programming, and streaming permits more spatiotemporal autonomy and interactivity on viewers’ parts. Those developments shouldn’t be equated with progress, but they do carve out infrastructural footholds for effecting change. Yet, pivoting off what others have said, there’s a lamentably missed opportunity here for probing television’s structural inequities and potentialities. Instead, Visible functions more as an ad for TV itself, namely for Apple TV+, in promoting the medium as a liberating force for LGBTQ folk and by inserting the newly launched VOD service into that liberal progress narrative.
An additional concern around LGBTQ visibility applies to our current “Peak TV” moment and the impending streaming wars, wherein queerness will be leveraged for its attention-getting appeal, reverting to the old “sweeps week” model of instrumentalizing — some may say weaponizing — sporadic departures from heteronormativity as a means to capture eyeballs and social media buzz. The newfound prevalence of sexually fluid characters speaks to an evolving acknowledgement of how attraction and desire actually function, no doubt, although a more cynical perspective might view it as a gambit for provoking media coverage and fan discourse — as my forthcoming book argues, sexual provocation as a publicity strategy has become all the more salient in our oversaturated TV marketplace.
HOLLIS GRIFFIN: As Mayra and Maria note, Visible: Out on Television offers a very conventional progressive narrative of once-we-were-in-the-closet-and-now-we-are-out. I am always tempted to roll my eyes at this for a slew of obvious reasons: it’s reductive, it’s self-congratulatory, it’s ahistorical, and on and on. There’s also the kind of glaring question of what this particular narrative does for this particular streaming service at this particular moment in time. Because I agree with Maria’s claim that LGBTQ visibility is instrumentalized and leveraged here in service of Apple TV+’s bottom line. Which is fine, I’m not one for drawing that hard line between business and politics that Katherine Sender and so many others warn against. It’s more that it makes me think of Ron Becker’s work on 1990s network primetime and the leveraging of queer characters then and there, as well as Anna McCarthy’s essay on Ellen and/as television history. There’s a part of me that feels cranky about it: here we are, 30 years later (God help me), still having the same kind of conversation about what this particular emancipatory teleology, to use Mayra’s term, is, means, and does. Academics have found other ways of telling this story — in fact, the best work insists on it. I know that the “emancipatory teleology” is important to people and has profound use-values — I wrote a whole book on it. At the same time, I might not have watched this series if not for the conversation we are having here if only because it’s such well-trod ground...
JULIA HIMBERG: I agree with the assessments here about the series’ uncritical take on visibility; after all, the series is called Visible. Indeed, throughout the series, stars hail the power of television visibility and its role in the U.S. fight for LGBTQ social acceptance and inclusion, along with legal rights and protections (though the Americanness of this conception of media visibility remains unspoken in the series). I expected this uncomplicated discussion of visibility partly because most of the people who made it and who appear in it are television industry insiders and thus committed to popular beliefs about its power to attract hearts, change minds, and even reform laws. In some ways, their professions bank on visibility — as LGBTQ performers and as out writers and producers trying to recruit and retain audiences (and often advertisers). Simply put, LGBTQ television in the U.S., depends on an investment in visibility as a form of power. Also, as part of Apple’s foray into original content to garner new customers, I wasn’t surprised by the relatively uncritical examination of visibility; these early programs are designed to set the tone for what defines Apple’s television brand, which of course is run by Tim Cook, who is openly gay: The Morning Show, Little America, and Visible, for example, suggest that Apple isn’t afraid to take a progressive stance on current issues including sexual harassment and assault, immigration, and LGBTQ history.
While the series makes the case that invisibility keeps marginalized people marginal, it does not fall into the trap of arguing that visibility is always good. For example, style guru Tim Gunn, star of Project Runway, recounts the abuse he received from his FBI-agent father who lashed out at Gunn as a child precisely after watching television news coverage about “homosexuals” during the McCarthy era. In an especially moving moment, Gunn talks about his own suicide attempt and hospitalization as the direct result of the images he saw on television, images that taught him “what not to be.” In stories like this one, Visible gives its audience a glimpse beyond the binary of invisibility/visibility.
Like, Mayra, I wanted to know more about the range of strategies of visibility deployed over the decades. I found myself particularly wanting to see more discussion about the work of LGBTQ advocates, who have played a pivotal role in this history. While Visible interviews GLAAD’s current President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, there is little accounting of the role of individuals and organizations like the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), which used strategies of coercion, persuasion, and even subversion to gain influence over television development and programming. These strategies were a way of seeking an active role in the creation of LGBTQ images. I appreciated the relatively long segment where activist Mark Segal, one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front, recounts crashing the live evening news in 1972 to bring attention to LGBTQ media invisibility. But the history of advocacy is almost completely erased from Visible, leaving out the mostly unknown and complex debates about television visibility had by those tasked with mobilizing media to transform society. I found in the research I did for The New Gay for Pay that media advocacy has historically been a crucial site of struggle over the terms of representation. It is true that these terms have often been set by those LGBTQ voices who are the most normative, and who consciously or not, subscribe to normative ideas and ideals of identity politics, namely making the case that LGBTQ people are the same as cisgender, heterosexual society. Critics have been troubled by myopic visions of mainstream advocacy organizations, which they perceive as focused on narrow conceptions of equality and freedom, although in reality, the inner workings of LGBTQ advocacy are not well understood by those outside it. A close look at advocacy efforts in the U.S. reveals a complex array of politics and practices, ranging from radical to assimilationist. While visibility is a fraught concept and the efforts of advocacy organizations deserve critique, the series misses a critical part of the story by omitting advocacy’s role in constructing television visibility.
Many documentaries about media representation consider multiple types of media in their narratives, often discussing film and television together. Visible is somewhat unique in that it addresses television as a medium on its own. How does the docuseries address the specificity of television history (broadcast, the development of cable, public television), genre (sitcoms, reality TV, soap opera, talk shows, news media), and/or technology? How does it track changes in television over time, alongside changes in LGBTQ representation?
ALFRED MARTIN: Part of what I found troubling about the series are the ways that it wanted to make early representation feel less weighty than future representation like Pose. In tracking television changes over time part of what it does is works to continue to create a kind of white gay history. When the conversation turned to black queers and Noah’s Arc, not a single white person spoke of its importance in the docuseries. There’s a kind of overarching theme that Noah’s Arc was important to black queers but not to White queers whereas something like Ellen or Will & Grace was understood as important to everyone. In calling on those black celebrities to discuss the importance of Noah’s Arc much of what occurred was reification of the connection between blackness and homophobia as if it was endemic to a singular, monolithic notion of a black community. Thus, for Empire’s engagement with Jamal’s youth, it not only (problematically) tethers budding queerness with cross dressing, but couples that with a homophobic father who literally throws his son in the trash, a narrative move that is “protected” because it mirrors Lee Daniels’ autobiography.
Visible seemed to almost wholly be concerned with a central premise that suggested that media representation and visibility equals power. And part of what was around the edges from a scholarly perspective were not only questions about media affects which were tied to discussion to stereotype but also parasocial relationships which again are tied to notions of the stereotype. In discussing what we might call a more cultural studies approach to visibility there was an “easy” connection between representation and what is going on in broader culture and change that felt facile. As if representation alone was the thing that effected change.
BECK BANKS: The scope of the series is ambitious, perhaps too much in terms of combining broadcast, scripted, talk shows, and reality television. The news could exist in a separate documentary instead of a means to create a historical context, which does produce limitations. I wanted more technology in this docuseries. It missed the mark a little by omitting and downplaying the changes in television’s reach, stations, and platforms. I imagine large swaths of the audience don’t understand that network and public stations were all people had for years. I suspect many people won’t understand the impact made-for-TV movies — or even Norman Lear — once made because of this.
LAUREN HEROLD: Like Beck I thought the scope of the docuseries was really ambitious. I was excited to see Visible engage news coverage of LGBTQ issues! Too often discussions of LGBTQ representation on TV only discuss narrative television programming, so I was glad to see the show track changes in TV news over time. I appreciated that the docuseries mentioned that there was virtually no TV news coverage of the Gay Liberation movement (like the Stonewall riots) because networks weren’t willing to discuss gay and lesbian issues on the air — I bet that was new information for most audiences. I’m also glad they touched on a lot of the big news issues of the 1970s, including Harvey Milk’s assassination and Anita Bryant’s homophobic campaign, and spent a considerable time talking about the stigmatizing news coverage of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The docuseries does a lot of work to educate the audience about LGBTQ history, which I appreciated as someone who educates students about the same thing. I noticed that the news content fell off a bit in the last two episodes about the 1990s and 2000s — we saw some clips about marriage equality and the Pulse massacre, but not much else. It would have been interesting to see the docuseries address more contemporary LGBTQ news stories alongside the historical footage.
MAYRA BOTTARO: I think the show does a better job detailing how different genres dealt with LGTBQ issues, than addressing changes in television history per se. It does, however, highlight the importance of the earlier live broadcasts as a shared familiar experience and the impact of interrupting a live broadcast, but at the same time it does not trace specific distinctions in regimes of visibility between broadcast, cable, or new modes of consumption like Netflix. There are some scattered references that point to the relevance of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City appearing on PBS, and explanations about how a show like Norman Lear’s All in the Family dealt with FCC regulations, but I would have liked to have seen a deeper engagement with the ways in which advertising and revenue from consumers shaped content distinctions. I agree with Alfred that it tends to look at cable in a favorable light, but it falls short of untangling its intricacies and complexities. A wider discussion on the creation of LOGO, its advertisers, and decisions regarding programming would have been useful to better understand its impact and audience. I was surprised that questions about the technological possibilities and transformations in delivery systems were completely absent, besides a brief moment that references discussions about how to shoot a kiss.
MARIA SAN FILIPPO: Agreeing with others’ assessments of how Visible downplays wonky TV industry details of delivery systems and the like, as someone whose work straddles film and television, I found Visible’s noticeable silence around cinema to be another aspect of its seeming like an advertisement for the television medium. That’s not to say it should have re-trod the ground already covered by The Celluloid Closet, but rather that it might have probed televisual specificity more directly and reflexively — both the behind-the-scenes issues of ad revenue and content control that others are noting, as well as modes of address, spectatorship, and reception.
Those studying queer media representation posit a dichotomy wherein film’s immersive power conveys queerness through highly identificatory, fantasy-fulfilling means, as opposed to TV’s seriality, immediacy, and familiarity, which ostensibly make it better poised to normalize queerness. Of course, that objective of normalizing queerness itself needs troubling, but as the film/TV divide increasingly breaks down in the streaming era, and as the televisual medium becomes ever less tethered to its once-intrinsic characteristics of everydayness and liveness, Visible’s celebration of TV’s power for LGBTQ normalizing and humanizing is put in question. And while TV has long programmed cinematic content, the plethora of LGBTQ-themed works that Netflix algorithms can send your way has given viewers an experience akin to having a queer-owned video store right down your block.
On that note, I also felt tested by Visible’s lack of acknowledgement of the feature filmmaking to which it is clearly indebted, and the déjà vu effect this provoked for my viewing experience. As appreciative as I was of the second and third episodes’ focus on TV’s importance for LGBTQ political activism, those episodes weren’t as affecting for me as were the documentaries to which I couldn’t help comparing them, that covered these queer milestones earlier and (frankly) better. The sequence paying tribute to Harvey Milk all but recreates the luminous candlelight procession sequence in the Oscar-winning 1985 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, while the ACT UP footage owed a nod to video compilations like Fight Back, Fight AIDS and the more recent How to Survive a Plague. This quibble aside, the argument Visible makes for TV news’ indispensable role in documenting LGBTQ community crisis was highly persuasive, and the enduring resonance of those TV media events within our current landscape of mass shootings, police brutality, and COVID is sadly all too evident.
Still another issue here is TV’s ephemerality and excessiveness and hence unwieldiness as a text both for (re)watching and remembering. For example, for all its landmark status, An American Family is underseen and underrecognized in our historical imagination, owing to its longtime unavailability except in excerpted segments posted on YouTube. Advertising and daytime TV (game shows, soap operas), the programming “detritus” of what has historically been a commodity-fueled medium, also get swept under the rug or lost to history when we’re constructing these cleaned-up, classed-up queer TV canons.
HOLLIS GRIFFIN: I agree with the thread running through these comments insofar as the series feels like a promotion for television itself — it is, as we’ve all noted, being used to help launch a new streaming service, after all. But the discursive frame of “television history” is meaningful for people given the medium’s trenchant associations with family viewing in the home and push vs. pull models of content delivery. Historically, television was the content you got when you didn’t necessarily “ask for it.” In that sense, thinking of LGBTQ visibility here, specifically, still carries a significant amount of ideological weight. It signals “acceptance” in some way, in ways that other media do not--or, at least, not as readily. The boundaries between different moving image media have always been tense and fraught (e.g. movies screened on television, etc.), but that is even more the case in the digital era. Visible is, at heart, popular historiography. For that reason, “television” as an institution with a relatively discrete set of associations lends itself to the kind of historical narrative told in Visible. Popular historiography is nothing if not inchoate, partial, contradictory, and on and on.
JULIA HIMBERG: I too was impressed by how much Visible tries to cover about changes in LGBTQ U.S. history and the television industry. When Apple started promoting this series, I was excited about a 5-hour documentary focused exclusively on television. It is true, as Maria points out, that the histories of other media have greatly influenced the story of LGBTQ representation in the U.S. So, as I watched the docuseries, I wondered how many of us might use it in our teaching. Precisely because Visible tends toward an overly neat narrative of how television and representation have changed (and improved) in tandem over time, it offers a useful starting point to complicate notions of how TV operates, what representation means, and how the telling of history matters.
Covering so much ground, however, inevitably means that turning points and the people involved in them will be left out, and others simplified, while some selected content will be overemphasized. A gap I noticed, for example, was limited engagement with the commercial nature of the television industry itself, especially its multiple stakeholders, including advertisers, audiences, brands, measurement systems, and regulatory bodies (both external like the FCC, and internal, like network Standards and Practices departments). The history of regulation, which is really a story of deregulation, was noticeably absent. It’s a long, complicated, and often dry history but the impact of the push for deregulation that began in the late 1970s cannot be understated; it has created an industry dominated by six global media conglomerates, which are vertically and horizontally integrated, and which make minority and independent media ownership difficult, to say the least.
While these big-picture aspects of the industry were left out of the Visible story, the docuseries did deliver — whether intentionally or not — insight into the role that notions of the “audience” play in TV development and production. This occurs mostly in two contexts: in actors’ and producers’ impulse to offer images of queer youth they wish had existed for them in decades past and in discussions about TV’s imagined “domestic audience” whom the industry, advertisers included, have dared not offend. Wilson Cruz, Chris Colfer, and Sara Ramirez, for example, talk about the sense of responsibility they feel playing LGBTQ characters and how moved they are by the letters they’ve received from queer youth whose lives were changed for the better by television. In these conversations, they note how meaningful it would have been to have had those representations when they were young. Openly gay show creators like Peter Paige (The Fosters) and Max Mutchnick (Will & Grace) similarly articulate a motivation to provide inspirational and well-rounded LGBTQ characters for youth audiences. Yet, these efforts are often limited by conceptions of the “domestic audience,” which go all the way back to the 1950s when the practice of “least offensive programming” (LOP) dominated decision-making. When Mutchnick talks about the success of Will & Grace, he explains it as the direct result of the writers’ overt attempts to “write for our parents.” Although brief, his comment encapsulates a great deal about TV industry operations; it echoes LOP practices, which established an image of TV’s audience as socially and politically moderate and resulted in the kinds of assimilationist programming we’re so used to wherein LGBTQ people seek acceptance from heterosexual (i.e. normative) society or where the heroes end up being the straight parents who come to accept their LGBTQ child. What commentary like this also reveals, though, interestingly, is how much is left up to individual initiative, for better or worse, to challenge or reinforce heteronormativity. In the case of Will & Grace, Mutchnick underscores the ways insiders project narrow visions of LGBTQ life onto television audiences (i.e. “write for our parents”), fundamentally affecting how TV gets made. I ultimately found that many of the stories in Visible point to how much of content development relies on personal experience and assumptions about others who may be watching, rather than on internal process-driven systems including audience research.
Visible features interviews with many well-known celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Billy Porter, Sara Ramirez, Lena Waithe, and Janet Mock. How do these interviews function to narrate the story and argument of the series? Which interviews intrigued, surprised, or frustrated you? How does the form and genre of the docuseries (talking head interviews, television clips, themed episodes, digital streaming platform) impact the narrative of Visible?
ALFRED MARTIN: I want to begin by suggesting that visible is affective as hell. There were times I was crying from some of the footage particularly the Pulse nightclub footage in the fifth episode. While it was extraordinarily effective to see LGBT workers within the culture industries discussing different kinds of LGBTQ representation, there was a sense that they also needed to protect their own positions within the industry. What I mean by this is that it seemed that there was little critique of particular kinds of representation because the overarching premise of the series was a progress narrative and that many of these folks wanted/needed to continue to work. But, seeing many of the television clips was an extraordinary way to tell the story. At the same time, I don’t know that Visible told LGBTQ visibility in a way that has not been done before (say, through Katherine Sender’s pair of documentaries). And there are still a number of absences that come into the series - although they have the better part of five hours to tell the story. Chief among those absences is the integration of raced queerness. In the rush to talk about Ellen and Will & Grace there is an almost complete elision of Spin City. One of the quotes in the series is that “a lot of closet doors (were) closing after Ellen” and I thought: but Spin City debuted the following year. This is one of the ways that I believe through the docuseries and through the talking heads format that a lot of things got lost because of the particular ways the story was told by the people they chose. In other words, the talking heads seemed to be talking about the things with which they had an affective and/or personal relationship.
LAUREN HEROLD: I was both impressed and overwhelmed with the number of celebrity talking heads in Visible. I totally agree with Alfred that the narrative of the series relies immensely upon the stories of LGBTQ actors and producers, who seem reluctant to question the progress narrative -- perhaps because their careers depend on it. The few activists interviewed (like Karla Jay, Peter Staley, and Miss Major Griffin Gracy) added a different perspective, and I would have liked to see more activists share their thoughts on the topics at hand. What I loved most were surprising moments when celebrities shared their experiences as audience members rather than industry insiders. There was a wonderful short segment in the fourth episode where Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres talk about past TV characters that were coded as lesbians, like Sabrina on Charlie’s Angels and Alice from The Brady Bunch. In these moments the docuseries provides an eye-opening look at queer television reception, rather than just production.
BECK BANKS: Lauren, I was living for the moments of queer audience reception. When Ellen mentions that she related to Gilligan, it opens the door for how queer people watch television and look for gender identity when it’s overtly absent. I’m not sure you have to stretch much to make Xena Warrior Princess or Cagney and Lacy queer, though. D’Acci wrote Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacy, which lays bare the lesbionic and feminist forces and audiences that helped drive the show as well as the negotiation of this with the network. Even Lucy Lawless (the actress who played Xena) said that Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle were basically married. Plus, warrior princesses are inherently queer. Just a fact.
As a trans scholar, my inner red flag always raises when Caitlyn Jenner appears. This series addressed the ever-problematic Jenner and did so politely. That’s something I respect about the series a lot; it is extraordinarily good-natured in its approach. The show didn’t shy away from Jenner’s MAGA-like politics, and the issues that entails as cisgender people continue to see her as “the” trans person. I’m glad Jenner was in the series. I’m pleased that she was not in control of the entire trans narrative or even her own narrative in the larger context of trans representation.
Elliot Fletcher, a trans actor who plays trans, briefly mentioned that he feels fortunate to play trans characters, but he would like it if they were more developed. Same. It was a relief to see him address this. Ryan Murphy’s Pose and Jill Soloway’s Transparent are the exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to transgender content. Television is still totalizing and tokenizing transgender characters.
MAYRA BOTTARO: I was surprised by the lack of inclusion of academics among the interviewees. I believe the show relied heavily on impact-driven first-person affective testimonials mainly and lacked more critical approaches. It also contributed to reinforce the myth that television is the result of a struggle of creative minds fighting for inclusion and for a place to “tell their own stories,” while at the same time, fostering the narrative of advancement that reflecting our world and our identity, television is best when you can see yourself because that means you are “part of the culture,” “part of the nation”. Even the story of LGTBQ+ representation is told in terms of LGTBQ+ tropes (e.g. “the coming out moment”, the need to “teach” about LGTBQ+ people). On the one hand, it pushes the idea that television dynamics reproduce societal dynamics, but on the other, it seems too deterministic, implying that television changes our perception of ourselves and, in that sense, it shapes who we are by reflecting our identity. I think both ends of the spectrum are problematic. I was pleased with the inclusion of Ryan O’Connell and his brief discussion of the difficulties of ableism, as his show and character bring a more nuanced understanding to the complexities of gay representation. At the same time, I would have wanted to have seen a bit more pushback on Caitlyn Jenner’s privilege and her access to wider visibility as a direct result of it.
MARIA SAN FILIPPO: I agree, Mayra, that the absence of any television scholars among the interviewees was frustrating, especially given the degree to which Visible follows the script of Steven Capsuto’s Alternate Channels. It made me reflect on our roles as influencers — even creators — of these historical narratives, and thus our complicity in their troubling tropes and omissions, but also our lack of compensation for and recognition of the labors that go into producing this knowledge and advocating for the preservation of queer TV’s archives. In relative terms we educator-scholars enjoy considerable privilege, yet we also are all to some degree benefitting from the profit – literal and figurative – that comes from the professional recognition and cultural resonance our intellectual labor brings about. Our choice to conduct this conversation in an open access, crossover forum like LARB attests to the mutual benefits it offers us and our readers. At the same time, I’m concerned about the way that academic gatekeepers — namely hiring and tenure committees — devalue this type of “public intellectual” work in favor of knowledge production within more intellectually rigorous but increasingly rarefied registers of peer-reviewed journals and university press-published books. So, speaking of visibility, I’d have liked to see represented among the “who’s who” of queer TV history’s influencers our own celebrity line-up of folks like Ron Becker and Lynne Joyrich, as well as shout-outs to the importance of pioneering work like Henry Jenkins’s studies of TV’s queer fan cultures.
HOLLIS GRIFFIN: Given my own affections for the Professor I am going to agree with Beck — Ellen claiming Gilligan fandom was a high point. The roll call of familiar LGBTQ television personalities was not all that surprising and was part of what made the whole shebang feel like a metacommentary on television itself. As others point out, there was also an opportunity here for some theoretical grounding in the large and growing body of work on these issues in the academy. How I wish it had been taken…
JULIA HIMBERG; Visible is star-studded. It’s an impressive amount of star power in one docuseries. Given that the series focuses exclusively on TV, I did wonder why more industry insiders and influencers, such as showrunners — Alan Ball, Ryan Murphy, and Shonda Rhimes for example — or executives like Robert Greenblatt (head of Warner Media and former President of Showtime), or someone like Robin Roberts of Good Morning America weren’t included (or declined participating). But, what I really appreciated was how the docuseries integrates personal reflections from so many stars. Aside from HBO’s The Out List (2013), Visible is the only series I’m familiar with that offers these personal stories all in one place. Activists like Karla Jay and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy are featured (which was great and they should have been a larger part of the story) but Visible is primarily a vehicle for television’s LGBTQ stars — both in front of and behind the camera – to tell their stories. Although many of the celebrity coming out stories in the series at times feel overly packaged, hearing Sheila Kuehl talk about her experience coming out as lesbian while she starred in The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis (CBS, 1959-1963) in the same series that Raven-Symoné describes the ways her lesbianism came into conflict with the family-friendly genre in which she had been molded to fit for the Disney Channel’s That’s so Raven (2003-2007) provides the chance to make comparisons and connections across these experiences. These personal stories of coming out are the narrative device by which the series moves viewers through historical turning points, using key words, moments, and tropes as bridges across time. This simultaneously fashions a conversation among celebrities, while still rooting each person’s experience of coming out within a specific moment and place.
The resulting effect of Visible is just that: to bring out into the open that which is typically represented as a private, individual experience. LGBTQ visibility is after all premised on the “closet” and “coming out” — in order to be visible, you have to come out — and the broader logic of this experience is that one “discovers” their sexual orientation or gender identity, and then must “come out of the closet” in an act they hope will be empowering and freeing. But it is a fundamentally solitary experience. Throughout Visible, celebrities recount their coming out stories - to themselves and to others, or their experience being outed, as in the case detailed by T.R. Knight of Grey’s Anatomy in episode four. Taken together, coming out becomes less isolated or privatized, and, as such, it becomes more connected to the cultural context that produced it.
Visible is self-conscious about the fact that the majority of LGBTQ television representation has historically featured white, cisgender, and monosexual gay and lesbian characters. How does Visible engage with identity, power, and privilege? How does it address race, trans identity, and bisexuality more specifically?
ALFRED MARTIN: Visible is indeed self-conscious about the over-arching whiteness of LGBTQ representation. And in many ways it focuses on adding the B and the T to the LGBTQ. As I have already mentioned, I think it does a poor job with respect to race, while I think it really works hard — and in many ways succeeds — in trying to put the “T” in there as well as the discussions of gender nonconforming individuals in the fifth episode. At the same time, the series seems to have an investment in the postracial which suggests that both race and representation is important but that is also not important because we are all human, but also, black people are homophobic.
It is also not until the fifth episode where there is a discussion, and a deep discussion of labor practices and casting practices. And that discussion occurs around trans identity. Candis Cayne discusses this idea when she is talking about how it becomes important for trans actors and actresses to be able to portray themselves across media and Jill Soloway discusses how casting Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent was ultimately a mistake. Thus, what scholars like Kristen Warner and I have discussed around “best actor” discourses seems to lack some semblance of import when applied to trans representation. I would have liked to have seen more of that critique throughout the series particularly with respect to gay and lesbian representation and how the “bravery” discourse and the accolades that follow, remain attached to heterosexuals taking on gay roles, as folks like Lisa Henderson have discussed.
LAUREN HEROLD: While watching, I wondered if the diverse array of celebrities included in this docuseries was in some sense designed to “make up” for the whiteness and cis-ness of the canon it discusses. The series makes sure to feature interviews with LGBTQ people of color throughout the episodes: Billy Porter, Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Wilson Cruz (one of the series’ producers), MJ Rodriguez, Don Lemon, Lena Waithe, and Sara Ramirez, among others, are prominent narrators. These narrators (and Billy Porter in particular) are then given the burden of discussing how race and/or trans identity and the lack of representation impacts them. So while I was glad to see a wide range of folks included, it felt like the queer and trans people of color still bore the brunt of making sure the documentary attended to race and trans identity. I also left wishing there was a more in-depth discussion of bisexuality in particular, which felt more or less absent to me in the docuseries, despite the fact that there has been a huge increase in the number of bisexual/queer/fluid/non-monosexual characters in the last 10 years.
MAYRA BOTTARO: Yes, Lauren, totally agree with you there. The show felt mostly like the history of white LGTBQ representation on TV, placing the burden of explaining the importance of particular instances of less packageable representations on the African American and Asian American interviewees. It would have been interesting to have a wider discussion of common tropes like traditional pairings of black gay partners with WASPs, or single gal with gay sidekick, as well as a deeper engagement with the way in which non-white LGBTQ+ characters are often depicted as “race neutral” (like Calvin Owens in ABC Family’s GRΣΣK). While there was a brief mention of the importance of Belize in HBO’s Angels in America, I think there was insufficient discussion of the way in which Mike Nichols’ made-for-cable miniseries portrayed intersectionality with complex characters intersected by different races, ethnicities, classes, and genders and coming from different parts of the political and religious spectrum.
BECK BANKS: I, too, agree with Lauren. It was clear that many of the black and Asian people in the piece were having to compensate for the blindingly white and/or cisgender portrayals of queer people on television. We could always use more race, trans, and bi (or pan) in the mix. I really appreciate the efforts the series made. It would have been nice to see these topics addressed earlier and the portrayals unpacked more. When the series talks about The Wire, I wanted Snoop, not just Omar. With the exception of Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black is absent. That show is packed with diverse, queer characters. Where was the discussion of the first regular trans male cast member on television, Max from The L Word? Maybe one day we will see more about the overtly gender non-conforming stars of Game of Thrones: Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth. RuPaul’s Drag Race helped launched the careers of a variety of transgender and non-binary people, such as Peppermint, Carmen Carrera, Eureka O’Hara, and Adore Delano, to name a few. While we get Richard Hatch, the story surrounding the on-air outing of Zeke Smith on a season of Survivor All-Stars is missing. Many of the aforementioned topics involve very messy and difficult conversations. I wanted more of those.
MARIA SAN FILIPPO: I agree that Visible’s most effective attempts in this area attended to trans and gender nonconforming representation and issues, while its treatment of race and intersectionality tended to avoid (as Becks calls it) “the messy and difficult conversations.” That bisexuality receives only cursory attention was both irksome and unsurprising, given what I discuss in (my first book) The B Word as bisexuality’s representational ubiquity yet illegibility. On TV, bisexuality has conveniently served to certify a show’s hip/edgy credentials (more of those “very special episodes”), while recurring characters rarely stay bi for long — Grey’s Anatomy’s Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), who gets some well-deserved screen time in Visible, being a key exception. Soap’s Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) and Dynasty’s Steven Carrington (Jack Coleman) are cited as early examples of bisexual characters who “get over” their bisexuality; for me the much later and more egregious case is The L Word’s Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey), who went from bi pride in season one to total disavowal for the rest of the series’ run.
It’s especially vexing that TV treats bisexuality and other non-monosexualities so reductively, given that, as a serial medium, TV doesn’t have nearly the same teleological drive as feature film and so has the potential to more organically accommodate the fluidity and contingency of its characters’ sexual identities and behaviors over time. This would seem to be a boon to bisexuality in particular, given that our monosexist assumptions about people (or fictional characters) being either straight or gay — often determined, absurdly, by their present object choice — make bisexuality illegible unless “the b word” is used outright. While TV’s temporally expansive narrative structure has the ability to override this default monosexism, it’s rarely taken advantage of; though I’d point to Desiree Akhavan’s recent Channel 4/Hulu limited series The Bisexual as a gamechanger in rendering “the b word” explicitly and in all its complicated contours.
HOLLIS GRIFFIN: I can close my eyes and imagine the defensiveness of the creators regarding the whitewashing of queer television history… Given the plenitude of queer programs featuring PoC on webseries, there was a vast array of people the creators could have had on to address these issues in thoughtful ways. Alas…. I do wonder what an addendum to this series would look like — something that was mindful of AJ Christian’s work and Eve Ng’s work, and the burgeoning work on global queer TV from scholars like Jamie Zhao. This issue stuck in my craw to such a large extent that I’m turning it into an assignment the next time I teach queer television: storyboard an additional episode that would better attend to questions of diversity. Who would they interview? Which characters and series would they feature?
JULIA HIMBERG: Visible makes a sincere and explicit attempt to provide a diverse range of voices and to cover television’s historic lack thereof. Each episode is narrated by a different actor, who, not coincidentally, each identify with one of the letters in LGBTQ: Lena Waithe as lesbian, Neil Patrick Harris as gay, Margaret Cho as bisexual, Janet Mock as a transgender woman, and Asia Kate Dillon as nonbinary. And white narrators are the minority. The series also opens with Ellen DeGeneres’ voice; you don’t see her, you just hear her, which right out of the gate acknowledges her ubiquity in the conversation about LGBTQ television history. DeGeneres does get significant airtime, and notable stars, including Wanda Sykes and Anderson Cooper, praise her for recruiting audience members newly open to watching a show helmed by an openly lesbian entertainer; Cooper says, “the ripple effects of [Ellen] are incalculable.” I was amused by the ending of episode four, where Sykes comments on the throngs of adoring fans of DeGeneres and her talk show who previously had turned their backs on her when she had come out on her fictional eponymous TV show in 1997. Sykes offers a piercing yet humorously delivered critique of these viewers, which concludes the fourth episode of the docuseries: “you wishy-washy motherfuckers.” The series also gives the final word to Lena Waithe, representing “The New Guard” as the episode title promises; Waithe completes the narrative arc that began with DeGeneres “and/as television history,” as Hollis so aptly describes it.
Although I agree with comments that have been made here about the series’ engagement (or lack thereof) with race, trans identity, bisexuality, and intersectionality, it was refreshing to see a highly commercialized docuseries, aired on the streaming service of one of the most brand-conscious global corporations in the world (which data indicate could have more subscribers than Hulu or Disney Plus) feature black and transgender, and to a lesser degree, Latinx and Asian, voices. Unfortunately, white voices barely discussed racism or the need for racial diversity, so indeed, as others here have pointed out, the burden continues to fall only on actors, writers, and producers of color to talk, for example, about the need for and influence of representations of LGBTQ characters of color on television. I hope this is only the beginning of deep and sustained efforts to change the landscape of television. As Waithe says in closing, “That’s [television’s] job, to tell the truth.”
Visible tracks a number of key moments in 20th and 21st century LGBTQ history. How does Visible tell LGBTQ history? What moments were highlighted and why? What might have been left out?
ALFRED MARTIN: In terms of what Visible leaves out, the discussion of Spin City felt slight. I also don’t recall a discussion of Ugly Betty and its treatment of a young Latinx boy whose family is supportive of his budding gay identity. I would have also liked to see some semblance of a discussion of the trope of black gay characters most frequently having white partners within television. The outlier here is Empire. But generally, this still mostly felt like a white retelling of queer television history. And the exclusions felt deliberate in some ways, given that there was a lot of time across five episodes.
LAUREN HEROLD: Visible hit most of the TV milestones I discuss with my students when talking about the history of LGBTQ TV. Steven Capsuto, author of Alternate Channels: Queer Images on 20th Century TV, was the lead historical consultant on the series, and the series closely follows the landmarks he highlights in his book. Again, I was confused about the lack of attention to LGBTQ news from the 1990s through the 2010s — it would have been interesting to hear more about the political context of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years (i.e. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, Lawrence v Texas, Proposition 8, etc.). Perhaps there was so much other TV to discuss that the news was pushed aside in the last couple episodes.
I also wish Visible did a bit more work to historicize trans issues. As Susan Stryker discusses in her book Transgender History, in the 1990s a number of factors (the emergence of the Internet as a medium that could connect people around the world, a number of high profile trans homicides, the rise of queer and trans theory in academia) catalyzed a new wave of trans activism that has grown into a national movement over the past 30 years. I wish Visible told trans history a bit more in depth to give context to the trans representation it covers. Finally, I was most surprised by Ryan Murphy’s absence in the docuseries! Visible definitely discussed his shows, namely Glee and Pose, but I kept wondering why he wasn’t interviewed. As one of the most powerful and prolific gay TV producers working today, his absence was very notable to me.
MAYRA BOTTARO: A glaring omission in my view is the lack of discussions surrounding commercial advertisement that I think goes hand in hand with the docuseries’ goal to reinforce the myth of television’s social importance, which only works if you consider it in a vacuum, detached from monetization trends or from companies profiting from wider visibility and wider access to hard-fought rights. The history of TV advertisement placement was absent, from the coded messages in 90’s advertisements, like Subaru (1999) that emphasized the legend “Entirely comfortable with its orientation,” or Ikea (1994) that showed two gay men shopping for a dining room table and that prompted an evacuation due to a bomb threat, to companies like Gap (2012) or Amazon (2012), or Nike’s 2016 ad featuring transgender athlete Chris Mosier that aired during the Olympics, to Coca-Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl ad that included gender non-conforming pronouns and people, to Laverne Cox’s Smirnoff (2018) ad or Trixie Mattel’s Skyy Vodka (2019) campaign, to more inclusive ads like Gillette’s 2019 portrayal of an African American father teaching his transgender son how to shave for the first time or Verizon’s inclusive 2019 ad that extended beyond homonormative representations.
Also not addressed in the docuseries is one major influence of LGTBQ+ TV representation in pop culture: the linguistic contributions that transitioned out from the exclusivity of queer enclave slang into America’s mainstream lexicon (e.g. to slay, to throw shade, Yas queen, fierce, etc.).
MARIA SAN FILIPPO: While I agree that advertising as a text is conspicuously missing from Visible’s analysis of queer (mis)representation, it looms large as an industrial force in Visible’s narrative of networks kowtowing to advertisers’ demands. Otherwise I appreciated that a range of programming was addressed – not just series comedies and dramas but news, sports, late night/talk shows, and reality shows — even if the unwieldy corpus made Visible increasingly prone to a “greatest hits” reinscription of the canon of TV’s LGBTQ milestones. Reflecting on how we as TV scholars-historians are complicit in this, I’d have liked to have seen included more of queer TV’s B-sides, by which I mean not just more bisexuality (though that would be nice) but alternative and indie works — from cable access programming like Dyke TV to web series like Brown Girls, F to 7th, and The Outs, what A.J. Christian has named “open TV” for the way its low-budget/DIY model creates possibilities for more creative autonomy and individuality.
The “bad queer” in me appreciated the nods to the irreverent, subversive shows and figures (like Soap and Paul Lynde) that somehow snuck through even in the FCC-dominated broadcasting era and garnered cult fandoms (though Pee-wee’s Playhouse — unless I missed it — was a glaring omission). Additionally, it’s almost too obvious to bear mentioning, but Visible is unabashedly US-centric, a particular shame given how much groundbreaking queer programming emerged from the UK (from Agony to The Naked Civil Servant to Ab Fab to (the original) Queer as Folk to the just-aired polyamory drama Trigonometry and dark comedy Feel Good).
While admirably if at times overly ambitious in scope (as others note), in stretching to encompass so much Visible sacrifices analytical depth as well as teachability; as someone who regularly assigns the more manageably feature-length The Celluloid Closet at the start of queer cinema courses — to give students an overarching history that we’ll then go on to problematize and explore in depth — I see Visible functioning as more of a primer for lay viewers looking to get woke and/or the historically-curious Millennial/Gen Z viewer. While it could all too easily serve as a SparkNotes to queer TV history, I hope instead that it proves a gateway to discovering those (explicitly) cited shows and figures and (implicitly) cited films and influencers that documented and determined the changing courses of LGBTQ history.
HOLLIS GRIFFIN: One of the things I liked very much: the episode dedicated to AIDS on television. This was a place that was crying out for input from Alex Juhasz, mind you, but it was also a place where the documentary shifted its focus from a self-congratulatory mode of address about “how far we’ve come” to the kind of ideological work that LGBTQ-themed television does in the world in which it circulates. It reminded me of what I like so much about Julia’s work, an insistence that we consider the material impact of television on the politics of sexuality beyond the medium itself. The episode foregrounded how the AIDS Crisis was as much an issue of framing and representation as it was an issue of legislation and medicine. For those of us who came of age at the height of the crisis, television was both liberating and terrifying — offering glimpses of gay lives alongside painful, awful gay deaths. That the series paid attention to that in a concerted way — I thought it was a high point. It had all the markings of popular historiography, of course — simplistic narrative, ahistoricism — but, in my opinion, it was the one episode where television’s cultural power was made most plain.
"Visible: Out on Television": an LGBTQ TV Roundtable
June 23, 2020 • By Beck Banks, Mayra Bottaro, Hollis Griffin, Lauren Herold, Julia Himberg, Alfred L. Martin Jr., Maria San Filippo