Sissies, Sambos, and Civil Rights: How Television Changed Everything

| April 23, 2013

It didn’t have to sit in the front of the bus, or burn its bra, or even host a kiss-in at a Chik-fil-A; all it had to do was be turned on. And it changed the world.

When Americans were introduced to television, television introduced Americans to themselves. And the introduction of non-WASPs, and minorities, came poco a poco to the heartlands and beyond — first swathed in stereotypes, bowing, scraping, and grinning, until later, often much later, the girl next door just happened to be black, and the goy next door just happened to like other boys. And humor, though often derogatory, was the key that unlocked those doors.

Beulah meet Mrs.Huxstable. Rip Taylor meet Will.

Getting to know a people via narrative devices has long had a profound impact on our culture, our society, and our laws. Whites aping blacks in minstrel shows were later replaced by African-Americans mocking the mocked. Meanwhile, in vaudeville, gay entertainers known as “pansy performers” received catcalls on the stage and sneers in the street.

Artful representation changes attitudes overtime and it normally begins with hyperbole. President Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to her Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “the book that made this Great War.”

When the Amos ‘n’ Andy Show shuck’d and jive’d its way from the radio to the Philco in 1951, it would take another seventeen years before a dignified African-American nurse, played by Diahann Carroll, Magnavox’d Julia into America’s living rooms in living color.

The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show was a hit with white America, though the NAACP complained that “every character [on the show was] either a clown or a crook, and Negro doctors are shown as quacks.” Though a commercial success, the all-black comedy came at a time when the issues of racial discrimination were bubbling to the surface. In addition to the criticism from blacks, many white-owned companies in the South were adverse to advertise on the show, so two years after its debut, CBS reluctantly pulled the plug.

Julia was only the fourth television show to feature a lead African-American character —Beulah, the Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, and The Nat “King” Cole Show were the show’s predecessors — and NBC developed the thirty-minute program as a direct response to the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s. Art imitated life and vice versa; and with that, Julia had crossed the River Jordan and the Rubicon at the same time.

But Julia was not without controversy; the NAACP referred to Carroll’s character as a “white Negro;” however, the program was, nonetheless, a palatable progression. And thirteen years after Julia hung up her nurse’s cap, Dr. Huxtable and his brood took up residence in a Brooklyn brownstone. And in between, African-Americans went from Good Times in the ghettos of Chicago to ascending with The Jeffersons to a deluxe apartment in the sky. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played Theo on The Cosby Show, summed up the transition: “The black middle class had always been in existence,” he said. “But like everything else in life, it’s not legitimized until it’s on television.”

Did African-American and homosexual characters become more realistic because America grew more accepting of its diversity, or did America grow more accepting of its diversity because of the manner in which gays and blacks were portrayed on television?  The answer is yes.

Familiarity, contrary to the much-abused maxim, does not breed contempt; it engenders empathy and acceptance. A psychological study from the 1950s coined the term “contact hypothesis,” which showed that bigotry — generally based on misunderstandings and oversimplifications — actually diminishes as groups become more acquainted with one another: It is this non-threatening exposure that has proven to lessen the power of prejudice.

And much in the same way that Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” exposure to different cultures via television became that passport to other worlds. Known as “parasocial interaction,” viewers’ opinions of groups of people are said to be altered by the people they see on television, regardless of whether they are real or fictionalized. It is through parasocial interaction that artificially intimate “relationships” are created — it is the same process explained by the aforementioned contact hypothesis: repeated contact with virtual realities engenders empathic realities.

Sambos and asexual sissies were the non-threatening court jesters who essentially parted the curtain to reveal, in time, realistic black characters sans blackface, and gay men sans feathered boas. It’s an old playwright secret: while you’ve got ’em laughing with the sweet stuff, slip ‘em the medicine.

Homosexual minstrelsy was the pink-socked foot in the door to America’s living rooms; unlike the two-dimensional black minstrels who preceded them, however, homosexuality was never mentioned in earnest.

The social mores at the time kept gays so closeted that if Americans actually did know homosexuals, most were probably unaware of it. For many viewers, their introduction to “what homosexuals were like” was by way of gays out Bette Davis-ing Bette Davis: the Paul Lyndes, the Charles Nelson Reillys, the Rip Taylors, These men amused yet weren’t real enough to offend. Relegated — while celebrated — to mostly games shows and children’s programs, Hollywood was content to showcase the comedians’ bigger-than-life facades but not show who actually existed behind the masks.

When Paul Lynde popped onto Bewitched as Uncle Arthur in 1965, his die was cast: the actor’s snide quips, followed up with his trademark snort-laugh, became his in-demand persona. Guest star appearances kept the actor in America’s living rooms off and on throughout his career but the comedian found his true métier while ensconced for thirteen years in the sweet spot on Hollywood Squares. Though he never admitted his homosexuality publicly he was certainly not afraid to allude to it on the hit game show and audiences roared partly with nervous laughter but mainly because Lynde was simply clever and knew how to deliver a punchline.

Viewers loved Lynde for his self-effacing quips: Even at a time when singer and anti-homosexual activist Anita Byant was taking a public stance against a Florida ordinance that protected gays against discrimination, Lynde laughed it off. When host Peter Marshall asked: “According to the old song, what’s breaking up that old gang of mine?” Lynde sniggered, “Anita Byant!” On another episode, Marshall asked the center square, “What do you call a man who gives you diamonds and pearls?” The comedian cooed, “I’d call him ‘darling!’” Audiences lapped it up.

The most flamboyant, and beloved, gays of early television dared not speak of their homosexuality officially. Though it was assumed and even written about — either couched or directly — many of their defenders swept away the gay accusations with “it’s just an act” or that’s “just showbiz” defense. Even the ermined Mr. Showmanship himself, Liberace, sued The Daily Mirror for calling the entertainer a “giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” And when the famed pianist was awarded the equivalent of over $20,000, he whiplashed a telegram to the paper saying, “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.”

The inimitable Charles Nelson Reilly, with Broadway and playwright credits to his name, never quite got away from being typecast as himself. Save his lead role as the magician HooDoo in Sid and Marty Krofft’s children’s show Lidsville, Reilly’s effete persona and dry wit were much in demand on game shows, and he and his sidekick Brett Somers ruled Match Game in all its incarnations.

By the 1970s Hollywood was using gays as an almost indispensable ingredient to flamboyantly flavor up their game shows. Rip Taylor’s confetti-plumed shtick often took over Reilly’s spot on Match Game, just as Reilly had done for Lynde on Hollywood Squares. Most famous for his stints on The Gong Show, and Sigmund and Sea Monsters, Taylor, who still works today, and even played himself in a cameo on Will and Grace, has lived to see a time when he was not only celebrated for his comedic timing but also embraced for who he is. In 2006 the comedian even led the gay pride parade in Washington. D.C. The tides had turned: the gay jester had become the out-and-proud grand marshal spraying confetti in the shadow of Supreme Court Building that would —only seven years later — debate his marital fate.

While there were many twists and turns with realistic gay characters slipped into television show along the way, the two biggest signposts on the road to equality were undoubtedly Ellen and Will and Grace.

Glittersnipe spoke to Laurie Wolfe, CEO of ChicGayTraveler.com, who believes that Ellen DeGeneres’s dual coming out both on her show, Ellen, and in real life changed everything. “It was one of the first sparks that began to change people’s perceptions,” Wolfe said. “She [DeGeneres] represented the normalization of being gay — not an extreme stereotype of a butch, evil or sexless lesbian, which is previously what had been served to us by the networks.”

Christopher Zara, senior culture reporter for International Business Times, believes that Ellen was the spark that lit the fuse to Will and Grace’s powder keg of “normalcy.” Glittersnipe spoke to Zara about the shift from minstrelsy to mainstream:

“I think Will and Grace is when you really saw homosexuality normalized in the mainstream. The Ellen coming-out episode was a major event, but it was based around the idea that homosexuality is something to struggle with, or come to terms with. For the character of Will, gayness was secondary. He was a lawyer who also happened to be gay. And because he didn’t dwell on his gayness, the audience didn’t notice it. That’s the hallmark of assimilation — that moment when something important actually becomes invisible.”

And while the character of Will, it should be noted, was technically the star of the show; the real star was Will’s flamboyant friend Jack, played by Sean Hayes. It was a perfect segue from flippancy to pseudo-reality: Will was the medicine and Jack; the spoonful of sugar.

In May 2012, when Vice President Biden threw his support behind marriage equality on ABC’s Meet the Press, he cited Will and Grace as an important touchstone in the gay rights movement, saying the show “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

And empirical evidence exists to prove this. Professor Edward Schiappa of the University of Minnesota along with his colleagues conducted a five-part study (based on parasocial interaction and contact hypothesis) that proves gay characters on television — specifically Will and Grace — have actually lessened people’s prejudices against homosexuals.

Schiaapa told The New York Times that he believes attitudes have changed, adding that “they don’t change bigots into saints. But they can snowball.”

And the snowball continues, having gathered speed as it’s taken on more characters, as well as openly gay entertainers, from Modern Family, Glee, The ‘L’ Word, the Rosie O’Donnell Show, and the Ellen DeGeneres Show. And with more gays on television — real and otherwise — an avalanche of acceptance has come far faster than most could have dreamed.

And the buckets of strewn glitter and sharp-tongued zingers that preceded that time, didn’t just introduce gays to straights; those jesters actually introduced gays to themselves. Unlike African-Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s, who hollered with glee that a “black person’s on TV!” homosexuals didn’t grow up among their own tribe, as it were; they kept quiet. And over time as they became comfortable with themselves, and society shunned them less, the brave ones stepped forward, on television and in life, and became the everyman and everywoman who happened to be gay.

Sixty-two years after the first Negroes appeared on a television, billions of screens showed an African-American standing on the steps of our nation’s Capitol. And he didn’t bow, and he didn’t scrape, and blacks no longer needed to alert the neighborhood that “a black man’s on TV!”

Yet the civil rights journey would not be “complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said. And gays no longer had to hide —they cheered, and much of Americans cheered alongside them — and hopefully, more than a fistful of confetti was flung skyward in honor of those men and women who paved the way.

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  1. Jeffrey Stine says:

    Entertaining, informative, and actually inspiring. Well done! :)