AfterElton has a fascinating interview with Disney Channel President Gary Marsh, on the topic of gay characters on Disney Channel shows. The topic is introduced by this quote from Marsh, from 2008:
“Well, just to speak sort of in the 30,000-foot level first, we don’t deal with sexuality on the Disney Channel in general. That’s just sort of not where our audience’s head’s at. They’re really a pre-sexual audience, for the most part, and so sexuality is not how we look to tell any kind of stories.”
I’ll echo AfterElton’s sentiment: It’s not meaningful to talk this way about same-sex couples. For example: How is it not sexual for a kid to know he has parents of opposite sexes, but somehow sexual for him to know that some other kid has parents of the same sex? And hey, why isn’t it sexual when Zack and Cody are ogling all those girls?
The article goes on to make it clear that Marsh is okay with characters on the Disney Channel being widely interpreted as gay, but that those characters won’t ever be coming out in any way.
We leave it up to our audience to interpret who these characters are and how they relate to them. It’s great that this child has interpreted [Shake It Up! character] Gunther [as gay] and that it speaks to him in a way that makes sense for his life. And that’s what we’re trying to do — create a diverse cross section of characters on television that kids can have different access points and entry points to connect with.
It’s like the Hays Production Code all over again: You can have gay characters, they just can’t be identified openly. (Of course, Disney’s moved quite a bit forward from Hays, in that gay characters don’t have to die horribly at the end of the story, or suffer in silence — they can go on to Julliard instead.)
I can’t imagine the Disney Channel budging on this issue anytime soon, due to what I’m sure they perceive as market pressure. So, is it better to have coded gay characters like Ryan Evans, who’s widely interpreted as gay but may convey the message that it’s not okay to be out? Or is it better to only have clearly heteronormative characters on kids shows? I’m not satisfied with either option.
When my home state began recognizing same-sex marriage, many people felt that the world would fall apart somehow. But as the years have rolled by, it seems like less and less of a big deal (except, of course, for those whose marriages are now recognized, for whom it is enormously important). If mainstream television networks like the Disney Channel had an openly gay character now and then, perhaps the social order wouldn’t really be rocked for all that long? After all, glee‘s been pretty darn successful (in some part because of a fabulous openly gay character), and many parents already shun Disney Channel for being a bad influence on their kids, and ban it from the living room (just look at these google search results).
Yeah, an openly gay character on the Disney Channel would probably make executives and stockholders a little nervous. But I can’t help but wonder if people were nervous when my grandfather was lobbying for Bill Cosby to be cast in a leading role in I Spy. Sometimes change makes you nervous. Too bad.
And hey, if you’re looking for an example of an excellent (and thoroughly non-sexual) portrayal of lesbians in a children’s television show, this clip from Postcards from Buster is for you:
“Boy, that’s a lot of Moms!”