Ryan Murphy’s catalog is a diverse one. A drama about plastic surgeons, a horror anthology, a sitcom about a gay couple, and a dramedy about singing misfits are just some of the things one finds while scrolling through his IMDb page. But there is at least one thing all of these programs have in common: they each take in-depth looks at issues of identity and–in particular–queer identity. Every show Murphy has been at the helm of has not only featured at least one LGBTQ character, but has also built narratives around those characters that allowed them to be full-realized: queer but also more than that and able to deal with issues directly tied to their sexualities and those that are not.
To further my definition of “fully-realized,” I look to Bonnie Dow’s discussion of the “rules” in place for queer representation in the 70s and 80s. Dow writes that queer characters were: 1) incorporated into shows as one time only appearances “rather than as integral elements or regular characters in a series narrative;” 2) depicted in ways that showed their sexuality as “‘the problem’ to be solved” as well as 3) revolving around its effect on the lives of heterosexual characters; and 4) not partaking in sexual encounters or even having desires (Row 99/46). In Murphy’s shows, however, none of these rules apply. Instead, Murphy seeks to do as Kate Hahn writes and tell “stories that do not skirt the issues that some minorities face” (Hahn).
As mentioned, Murphy’s shows often deal with other issues of identity–race, class, gender–but I will be looking solely at his incorporation of LGBTQ characters and narratives, as I feel this is the identity area he is most consistent with, as well as the one he (usually) handles the best. In particular, I will be looking at how he does this in Fox’s Glee–a show that, according to Hahn has “perhaps the most kaleidoscopic cast on TV”–and NBC’s The New Normal (Hahn).
It is important to note that Murphy’s inclusion of LGBTQ characters and ability to construct three-dimensional narratives for them stems from his own personal experience. Openly gay since he was a 15-year-old in Indiana–not unlike Glee’s Kurt Hummel–he was even once quoted in Vogue as saying, “All of my stuff has been autographical” (Van Meter). He is able to provide insight into the lives of the queer community through the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in a particularly pointed manner, because he is a member of that community himself.
To discuss this trend, I have investigated certain distinctive themes and/or ideologies that seem to surround the LGBTQ characters in Murphy’s work and Gleeand The New Normal especially. Some of these themes are: 1) promotion of acceptance, 2) issues of non-acceptance, and 3) being “more” than just queer.
First, let us look at how Murphy incorporates the idea of promoting acceptance. Aside from simply including queer characters, he typically places them in lead roles.Glee’s Kurt Hummel, for example, is introduced less than a minute into the show’s pilot and it is clear he will be a reoccurring character by the 10-minute mark (“Pilot”). And Kurt generates notions of acceptance almost immediately: not only is he is accepted by all members of the Glee Club, but he is out to every character–including his father–by the show’s fifth episode. Further notions of acceptance are displayed via Kurt throughout the series, including when his father stands up to his future step-brother Finn when Finn calls Kurt’s decorating sense “faggy” (in the first season episode, “Theatricality”) and when he ventures into his first serious relationship with another openly gay character, Blaine (who he eventually marries, in the show’s final season).
Glee’s acceptance message does not stop with Kurt, however. Notable other examples include the season two episode “Born This Way,” where Brittany–an ambiguously bisexual character–shows support for her then-closeted best friend (and future wife) Santana, and season six’s “A Wedding,” when both Kurt and Blaine and Brittany and Santana are married in a double-wedding.
Acceptance is also a prevailing theme in Murphy’s short-lived sitcom, The New Normal. Centered on a gay couple trying to have a baby via surrogate, the show’s main message was that of accepting “non-traditional” families. Not only are main characters, David and Bryan, gay (departing from heteronormative ideals of “family”), but they extend their concept of family to include their young surrogate mother, her daughter, her conservative grandmother, and her ex-husband.
On the flip-side of this promotion of acceptance, Murphy’s shows also deal with issues of non-acceptance for their LGBTQ characters. We see this constantly in Glee.One such example is in “Blame It On the Alcohol,” when Blaine thinks he might be bisexual and Kurt responds that, “bisexual is a term gay guys use in high school when they want to hold hands with girls and feel normal for a change.” Another is in “Heart,” when Principal Figgins tells Santana and Brittany he has received complaints about their public displays of affection, to which Santana points out that no one says anything about Finn and Rachel kissing in the halls.
This same theme is also present in The New Normal, particularly in the episodes “Baby Clothes” and “About a Boy Scout.” In “Baby Clothes,” David and Bryan are confronted by a bigoted man while out shopping. The man asks them not to kiss in front of his daughter, saying he does not want to have to “explain that” to her later. Later in the confrontation, when Bryan explains he and David are trying to start a family, the man calls them “disgusting” and says he “feels sorry for that kid.” Similarly, the characters face non-acceptance in “About a Boy Scout.” In this episode, former Eagle Scout David is excited to chaperone a Cub Scout overnight event, but instead has his Scout membership revoked because one of the boys’ fathers is not comfortable with him.
Finally, there is the third theme, of being “more” than queer, which Murphy weaves throughout his shows. His characters, as evidenced with the last two themes, face triumphs and tribulations rooted in their sexuality, but also exist in ways not directly tied to their queerness.
For example, in Glee, Kurt cares for his sick father on several occasions, is constantly vying with other Glee Club members for solos, tries (and eventually succeeds) to get into NYADA, has an internship, starts a band, and deals with Finn’s death–all story-lines not directly pertaining to his gayness. Brittany, similarly, goes from being a shallow, dumb character to a math genius known for her empathy. However, inGlee, Murphy is not always successful at building rounded narratives for his queer characters: Blaine, for example, largely functions as a compliment for Kurt and Santana is often little more than a caricature, a catty antagonist who may or may not have a heart of gold (as evidenced by her love for Brittany).
As for The New Normal, many of Bryan and David’s struggles and successes revolve around their gayness, but there are exceptions. Issues directly pertaining to parenting–like picking a godparent for their child (as they do in “The Godparent Trap”) or deciding who should stay home from work once their child is born (“Stay-at-Home Dad”)–are universal.
Altogether, incorporation of these three themes, as well as unnamed others, are Murphy’s attempts to humanize and naturalize queer characters. He does not always succeed, as evidenced by Glee’s bisexual male erasure; the occasional flatness of some LGBTQ characters; and the fact that of the nine frequently reoccurring queer characters in Glee’s six seasons (plus Bryan and David), only three are of ethnicities other than white. But in general, Murphy seems to have good intentions when it comes to queer representation.
In conclusion, it is a tendency of Ryan Murphy’s to include LGBTQ characters in his work. But, he does so in a way that tries hard to represent people of that community in as three-dimensional a way as possible. He promotes acceptance of queer characters (and, by extension, people); acknowledges the struggles they face with things such as non-acceptance; and also recognizes that, while their sexuality is an important part of who they are, they are also more than that. In all of his shows, but in Glee and The New Normal in particular, Ryan Murphy works to make TV a more understanding and equal place for the queer community.
1. “A Wedding.” Glee. Fox. KTBC, Austin. 20 Feb. 2015. Television.
2. “About a Boy Scout.” The New Normal. NBC. KXAN, Austin. 26 Mar. 2013. Television.
3. “Baby Clothes.” The New Normal. NBC. KXAN, Austin. 18 Sept. 2012. Television.
4. “Blame It On the Alcohol.” Glee. Fox. KTBC, Austin. 22 Feb. 2011. Television.
5. “Born This Way.” Glee. Fox. KTBC, Austin. 26 Apr 2011. Television.
6. Dow, Bonnie. “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility.” InFeminist Television Criticism: A Reader, eds. Charlotte Brundson, Julie D’Acci, and Lynn Spiegel. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. 99/46.
7. Hahn, Kate. “TV Diversity Apparetn in Stars, Not Script.” Variety. 2 June 2011. Web. 3 Apr 2015.
8. “Heart” Glee. Fox. KTBC, Austin. 14 Feb. 2012. Television.
9. “Pilot” Glee. Fox. KTBC, Austin. 19 May 2009. Television.
10. “Stay-at-Home Dad.” The New Normal. NBC. KXAN, Austin. 15 Jan. 2013. Television.
11. “Theatricality.” Glee. Fox. KTBC, Austin. 25 May 2010. Television.
12. “The Godparent Trap.” The New Normal. NBC. KXAN, Austin. 23 Oct. 2012. Television.
13. Van Meter, Jonathan. "Ryan Murphy's Hope: Is America Ready for The New Normal?" Vogue. 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.