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When television programs approach controversial topics, they are not simply following the attitudes of public opinion; they are also creating contexts of discussion for those topics.
This is one of the critical points that Noah Oppenheim fails to address in his piece on April 25, "Coming out to Applause." Oppenheim argues that the network's decision to have Ellen DeGeneres openly state her homosexuality in an upcoming episode of "Ellen" is not a significant marker in the struggle for public acceptance of homosexuality. Oppenheim claims that television does not influence society; instead he insists that "to the extent that television has any significance whatsoever, the idea that television reflects society is far more convincing."
It may very well be correct to say that television shows do not tend to change public opinion directly. Certainly after Murphy Brown--as a single mother--had a child (an example Oppenheim uses), there was not a sudden increase in the glamour of single motherhood. In fact, there was a backlash, led first by Vice President Dan Quayle and soon picked up by others who would claim to be defending "family values." The show did not make viewers believe that being a single parent was fun or beneficial; on the other hand, it didn't condemn out-of-wedlock children either. Whatever influence the show had came in the public discourse that followed. The reaction by Quayle and then the counter-reaction created an environment of debate that forced the issue of unwed parents into the social arena. Of course there had been unwed mothers before Murphy Brown, but until then the networks had resisted depicting them as leading figures. The case of Murphy Brown was a break-through because the television stations decided to stop fighting against changing society and to reflect it accurately instead.
When Oppenheim claims that there should be no excitement over ABC/Disney's move to depict a lifestyle that America already knows exists, he is ignoring the fact that simply because television should reflect life does not mean that it does. Networks, with careful eyes to demographic groups and the mores of middle America, often lag behind the dynamic society. If homosexuality is prevalently accepted (as Oppenheim supposes), then why aren't there more openly homosexual characters? It is because the networks have resisted those depictions and are now finally realizing that they have to catch up and become more contemporary in their portrayals. Not to have homosexual characters would be a tacit disapproval of that lifestyle, a disapproval which is dangerous for the message it sends to a less-than-tolerant portion out there in TV Land.
Finally, Oppenheim complains that the Ellen case is foolishness because "Americans probably don't even care. They do not need nor wish to have issues of sexuality constantly thrust in their faces...The fact that Ellen likes women is no more important to my life than whether Jerry Seinfeld enjoys receiving fellatio."
If Oppenheim thinks that Americans are tired of sex, he has been watching a different set of sitcoms than I. Every episode of "Seinfeld" is about relationships, sexual misadventures and a certain giddiness of heterosexual love. Of course TV viewers are interested in sex and other portions of characters' private lives. We care about our characters' religions, political beliefs, quirks and sexual preferences, because that is part of the voyeuristic charm of watching TV. For every episode of other shows to parade heterosexuals protagonists going on dates, falling in love and suffering break-ups is to send a particular message about life in America. And now that the networks are finally going to create leads that reflect contemporary America, a more appropriate message will be sent, debate can be opened, and a healthier attitude can be created in our society. Justin M. Krebs '00
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