Reading Julia Himberg's recent book in public, even in Los Angeles, is a bit like wearing a statement piece to church. Fellow coffee shop dwellers, lunchers, and friends see the rainbow-colored television screen emblazoned on the cover, their eyes run over the title, and one question generally leads the conversation: "What is The New Gay for Pay?"
"Gay for pay usually brings one or two things to mind," Himberg told me. "First is probably porn, when a straight actor plays the role for money. There’s also business gay for pay, which is when a company appeals to LGBT consumers basically for the sake of financial gain."
Himberg's book looks at shows like Will & Grace, Glee, and The Fosters and explores how their LGBT storylines are constructed and how those calling the shots — producers, publicists, and even the networks' corporate social responsibility officers — help construct narratives on queer life that help shape public opinion.
The topic is polarizing: Many see mainstream corporations, of which TV networks are a part, as incompatible with LGBT people (take, for example, the recent uproar over corporate sponsorship of Pride festivals). But Himberg, who holds a Ph.D. in critical media studies from the University of Southern California and currently teaches at Arizona State University, understands the relationship as complex — a system of both support and profiteering — and brings forth surprising evidence in her research that gay-for-pay business can sometimes benefit LGBTQ communities.
These conflicting ideas must be kept in mind in order to understand the function of contemporary LGBT television and advocate for effective media policies, Himberg argues.
"The reason that I went to that old notion, or used 'gay for pay' in [the title] is that these are things that are thought of as exploitative by some and others think of them as kind of liberating," she said. "The television industry and those working in it live this contradiction each day. Their work in many ways is liberating. They’re working diligently for LGBT audiences, and they’re also meeting the needs of the industry, which can mean exploiting those same audiences at other times."
It's difficult to imagine companies with traditional needs (growth, profit) and traditional customers advocating for LGBT communities. But in her extensive industry interviews with the likes of Andy Cohen, who was executive vice president of original programming and development for Bravo at the time, and former president of entertainment for Showtime Robert Greenblatt (now NBC Entertainment chairman), Himberg found it to happen more often than she expected.
"The thing that was most fascinating to me was how much activism truly happens under the radar within the television industry," she said. "When I say under the radar, I mean that it is strategically kept out of view because of how many audiences television tries to please."
Another difficult thing to comprehend: If a company or a prominent executive does pro bono or charitable work for an LGBT organization, why not publicize it?
"Audiences are fragmented, segmented," Himberg explained. "We see that so embodied in Fox News versus MSNBC, where television is seeking very specific audiences, and yet there is still this demand to please people of all different political affiliations and social values." Networks accomplish this through a variety of means, including multicasting, defined by Himberg as the process of drawing in audiences to programming based on demographics shaped and refined by market research.
That balancing act can make even objectively charitable work a danger for those in positions of power. In an interview with an executive at Disney ABC Television Group, she heard the story of an openly gay man who had struggled to come out and find acceptance within his family. The executive told her that he oversaw programs that supported LGBTQ homeless youth, programs he said were close to his heart.
"He was really clear that those kinds of initiatives were kept strategically out of view, because, he said, 'I get to make the kind of changes I want, I get to advocate for the people I believe in supporting,' but he actually says, 'Many of our viewers are people who would vote for Mike Huckabee.' So he gets to pursue things that are important to him, and at the same time he meets the demand of the company, which doesn’t want to alienate a portion of the population."
Himberg said she was surprised to learn about this under-the-radar activism. "What do you mean you're serving the interests of Mike Huckabee voters and serving LGBTQ youth?" she asked, laughing. "You can’t imagine how those things go hand in hand, and yet when I learned about what was going on behind the scenes, those were the kinds of practices happening every single day."
Other interviews Himberg conducted proved just as surprising. When speaking with Bravo's Cohen, he put forth the belief that the network's branding mirrors his own sexuality. "We're gay without necessarily having to come out of the closet," he said, which Himberg sees as specifically positioning gay identity as not a primary factor in the network's image.
Cohen had previously described the network as having a sexual identity in a 2012 interview with NPR, saying, "People always ask me if Bravo is gay, and I always say I think Bravo is bi, because I think Bravo is open enough to go home with whoever is most attractive at the end of the night."
Bravo originated shows like Project Runway, the Real Housewives franchise, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which market themselves to gay audiences as well as affluent, educated, high-tech audiences that aren't necessarily LGBTQ, as noted in The New Gay for Pay. According to Himberg, Cohen's method of labeling the network's sexuality, always with stipulation, works at a larger strategy of audience attraction.
"There is a very popular idea out there that we have somehow reached a post-gay era," she said. "There is a desire to create characters and programs with the belief the fact that they are LGBTQ is irrelevant to the storyline, is not important to their character development, doesn’t affect plot. … And it’s very aspirational."
The ability to move beyond a character's sexuality represents social and political progress in networks' eyes, Himberg says, and allows them to market themselves to socially and politically progressive demographics while theoretically doing less to leave non-LGBT audiences feeling alienated.
Cohen's post-gay belief isn't an uncommon one, and one that can be seen in a host of influential media: Call Me by Your Name, for example. The relationship within the film is centered around two male characters, but the point of the film isn't a decided, explicit take on LGBT communities' place in a political or social landscape. The film's director, Luca Guadagnino, has stated publicly that Elio will not necessarily be gay.
"This is where in some ways the entertainment industry keeps its audiences in a much more utopian world than actually exists," Himberg said. "When you look at the statistics of the number of trans women of color who are attacked, brutalized, murdered — those are the stories that are hard for people to hear about. That’s where we need to be focusing money, attention, and advocacy work."
With the exceptions of Moonlight or Tangerine, Himberg says, "we aren’t seeing those stories being told because they don’t fit a post-gay discourse. They contradict it."
Himberg sees this as part of a larger trend that revolves around catering to networks' built-in audiences and aspirational, post-gay thinking.
"If you think about the shows that they’re bringing back with gay characters (Will & Grace, Queer Eye), they are gay characters — they are white gay men, middle- to upper-class, educated, and they’re very clearly gay," she said, linking the normativity of the shows to audience comfort. "Because media does influence policy, it does risk taking away essential resources from people who need it the most — who need protection and need legislative protections. It runs the risk of perpetuating already existing forms of homophobia and gender discrimination and potentially overlooking where the resources need to go."
Acknowledging the amount of positive change that has been made for LGBTQ people in a relatively short span of time, Himberg stressed the importance of remaining vigilant and knowing how to create change, especially in the current political climate.
"I think we need to be mindful of how quickly, how easily things can be taken away in our current political climate," she said.