Without 'Men On Film' There Would Be No 'The New Normal'
Anyone who has read Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet knows that gays have a long history of serving as flamboyant comic relief in film. And though the roles were offensively stereotypical, they played an important role in developing today's infinitely more-nuanced gay roles on the small screen.
Take "Men on Film" (shown below), a recurring sketch in the predominantly black early 90s comedy show In Living Color. In the sketch, actors Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier played the effeminate film critics Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, two men who regularly dismissed chick-flicks with a catty, "Hated it!" and rated any film starring hot guys with "Two snaps, a twist and a kiss!"
NPR recently interviewed Grier about his acting career and he explained his portrayal of Merriweather:
"Damon Wayans and I would rate movies using snaps. The fun of In Living Color was exposing black culture, and in that sketch, gay culture, that I don't think America had ever seen at that point. I had already done Dreamgirls on Broadway, and being in a musical and working with other performers who were gay, I was privy to that vocabulary backstage. They were being themselves. So a lot of it was hijacked from what I heard in the theater and what was permeating around. Now at that time, if a gay person was going to read you — to tell you off — it was always accompanied by snaps. Now I don't know if it was a gay thing, but it was also a very black thing."
Though their over-exaggerated effeminacy, flouncy apparel and non-stop innuendo may seem old hat or even offensive now, at its time, "Men on Film" was one of the rare portrayals of gay men on non-cable TV.
It seems that any non-white non-male folks who want to enter the media mainstream have classically had to first appear a laughingstocks or as villains—consider the blackface minstrel shows of Jim Crow; the whooping Indian savages of spaghetti Westerns, Mickey Rooney's buck-eyed, slanty-eyed Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's; or the countless number of transexual serial killers and murder victims in both TV and film.
They're all sad proof of the tired and enslaving stereotypes each group must endure in their rough introduction to the American viewing public.
And though we now have the knowledge and sensibility to introduce new identities without this perfunctory "walk of shame," without Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather it might have taken even longer to get to gays in TV shows like Modern Family and The New Normal