The Smithers Test

Willa Paskin sees mixed results in the portrayal of gays and lesbians on the box:

The preponderance of lesbians on TV [is] progressive—representation is a good thing—but not nearly as progressive as it first appears. While the characters on Orange [is the New Black], The Fosters, and The Killing are fully developed, on shows likes The Crazy OnesDraculaRookie Blue, and Mistresses, girl-on-girl dabbling is often presented as just another quirk of a sexually adventurous young woman, proof that she is fit to star in a straight dude’s fantasy, even if it’s also simultaneous proof of her emotional depth. (On Mistresses, Josslyn’s relationship with a woman was the most serious she’d ever had, while also being a kinky phase she could tease future boy-toys with.) Shows like MistressesRookie Blue, Betrayal, and Once Upon a Time put lesbians or bisexual women in supporting roles to signify their adult aesthetic.

Lesbian story lines are to network television what nudity is to premium cable: a turn-on masquerading as proof of seriousness. There is at least an upside to this: Lesbians have become shorthand for sophisticated, steamy, romantic, intriguing. In the interest of titillation, television has banished the stereotype of the sexless lesbian.

But while “women longing for other women may be hot, [men] longing for other men is still decidedly not”:

Other than the sweet first-love story between Kurt and Blaine on Glee, most gay men on television are non-sexual. (HBO’s Looking, about three gay men in San Francisco, will presumably do what it can to address this shortfall when it arrives early next year.) Modern Family’s Cam and Mitchell still don’t kiss much. Andre Braugher’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine is remarkable for being so stoically butch. Thomas on Downton Abbey is heartbreakingly isolated. And Sean Hayes’ character on Sean Saves the World gets less play than Will and Grace’s Jack did. It’s a great time for lesbians on television, but I eagerly await the romantic, sexy storyline about Prince Charming falling for Hercules.

Me too. But I’d give Downton Abbey a pass, for Pete’s sake. It’s a period drama. Daniel D’Addario also isn’t satisfied with how gay characters are depicted:

Call it the Smithers Test: Does a gay television character serve a purpose other than engaging with outdated stereotypes? Many straight characters across the dial live, love and laugh about all manner of things; they’re not the sum of their dating lives and aren’t governed by stereotypes about how straight men or straight women should act. But from Smithers — who exists to play out a mocking image of gay men — to the hirsute, messy Max on the departed “Happy Endings” — who was a waddling gay joke for the constantly-remarked-upon reason that he wasn’t like other gay guys — television is very good at commenting upon how gay people are perceived in our culture and less good at portraying gay people. It’s an endless feedback loop: Television has the power to create or reinforce stereotypes, and then it slyly comments upon them, as well.

Casey Quinlan focuses on the portrayals of bisexuality:

[D]espite some improvements in quantity and quality of bisexual male characters on TV, it still seems far more shocking for a man to be bisexual than for a man to be gay. Bisexual women may be portrayed more often, but their sexual preferences have been frequently portrayed merely as an aphrodisiac for men.

Why? In 2013, a straight male audience is more likely to understand that gay men don’t choose to be gay, but still can’t seem to grapple with why a bisexual man would choose to sleep with another man rather than a woman. Perhaps that’s because a straight male audience or an audience informed by the straight male perspective tends to believe the female body is innately more appealing than the male body. Seeing the world from this point of view, it’s easier to understand why a woman would stray from the acceptable heterosexual path, lured by the female form’s beauty. Thus, the bisexual woman’s preferences are more socially acceptable and are often seen as more natural than the bisexual man’s. A 2002 paper in the Journal of Sex Research titled “Heterosexuals’ attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States” reflects this: It showed that heterosexual men rated male homosexuals and bisexuals less favorably than female homosexuals and bisexuals.

Update from a reader:

ABC deserves some credit in this realm for Revenge.  Despite its flaws, the show has presented the character of Nolan Ross as a computer genius/billionaire/eccentric who just happens to be bisexual.  He’s been shown in relationships with both men and women, yet these don’t especially come off as any different from the other relationships depicted throughout the show’s run.

Another has some food for thought:

Smithers certainly does not exist “to play out a mocking image of gay men.” He exists to play out a mocking image of craven Capitalists. We know that Burns is in love with him, but are we sure Smithers is even gay?

From Smithers’ Wiki page:

Smithers was partly based on how numerous Fox executives and staff members acted towards Barry Diller. In many ways, Smithers represents the stereotype of the closeted gay man, and numerous overt allusions and double entendres concerning his homosexuality are made, though some of the show’s producers instead refer to him as a “Burns-sexual”.