Tolerance and the city
I like The Carrie Diaries, the prequel to Sex and the City on the teen-focussed CW network, a lot. It’s a fun show, but there’s an underlying issue-of-the-week earnestness to it which differentiates it from Gossip Girl (with which it shares a production team) and which I like to think is a period detail, harking back to 1980s programmes like Grange Hill. The way it negotiates the period setting for an audience of contemporary teenagers is interesting, with the way a mild griminess stands in for pre-Giuliani New York, or everyone wears technically-accurate 80s clothes that happen to align neatly with what’s fashionable today as 80s revival (except for the antagonists, the mean girls, who wear the clothes people actually wore in the 80s). But the most interesting revision of 80s mores is the way the show portrays homosexuality, or more precisely how it portrays tolerance of homosexuality. One of the main characters, Walt, is a young gay guy, who struggles with accepting that he is gay and is, unsurprisingly, reluctant to come out at his small-town high school. What is surprising, though, is that not a single named character in the show is homophobic. Walt is worried about unnamed jocks at school, and his equally unnamed parents kick him out; Carrie’s dad is even briefly uncomfortable with Walt after he finds out that he’s gay, but he soon loses that discomfort as they bond over episodes of Golden Girls. So the show just about acknowledges the existence of homophobia, but it makes no effort to personify it.
There’s certainly something kind of fantastic about this. In the thirty years between when the show is set and now, we’ve gone from a situation where a show aimed at teenagers wouldn’t consider having an openly gay character, to a situation where the CW imagines its teenage audience as not only perfectly happy to be sympathetic to a gay character, but imagines its audience as uncomprehending of the idea that anyone wouldn’t be sympathetic to a gay character. But there’s also something a bit suspect about this frictionless inclusion; it avoids the (still, I think, presumed straight) audience having to think about how actually ending homophobia might challenge them. It’s limited because there are always limits to toleration; even when toleration is assumed, it’s still a limit. I joked on Twitter that, as The Carrie Diaries doesn’t seem to have been a big ratings hit, maybe the CW would do better making a prequel to Tales of the City. If there’s a point to that joke, it’s that it’s still unimaginable that the CW actually would make something like a teenage version of Tales of the City. It’s one thing to make a show in which heterosexual characters tolerate the existence of gay people; it would be another for a network like the CW to make show which centred on queerness as the foundation for a recreation of social organisation.
Or maybe I’m being too pessimistic. A couple of weeks ago, The Carrie Diaries introduced AIDS to its carefully constructed 80s world, leading to a surprisingly strong, for prime-time TV, statement of a gay anti-assimilationist case: