On Monday, ABC made television history by airing When We Rise, the first installment of a miniseries by Dustin Lance Black that documents the progress of the LGBT rights movement. The timing couldn’t have been better. Just days after the Trump administration rescinded education guidelines protecting transgender students, this production was a moving reminder of the need for different vulnerable groups to work together for equality.
Did you watch it? Probably not. The ratings were the lowest among the big four networks during the 9 p.m. Monday time slot, despite having a star-studded cast, opening to positive reviews, and following ratings juggernaut The Bachelor. When We Rise pulled in just 2.95 million viewers; that was less than sitcoms like CBS's Superior Donuts and Two Broke Girls.
If you were watching Two Broke Girls instead of a groundbreaking depiction of our history then, well, you're part of the problem. In an era when LGBT folks, people of color, and their rights are under attack, positive representations of us and our movement are more essential than ever to preserving progress. In our hearts, we understand this. This is why millions of people showed up at demonstrations like the Women’s March, as well as airports to protest Trump’s travel ban. It’s why people deleted Uber and shopped at Nordstrom. And it’s why countless more have committed to marching on Washington, D.C., this July in a mass demonstration of LGBT pride.
Numbers matter, which is why Trump was so infuriated that the crowd from his inauguration looked tiny when juxtaposed with Obama’s and that of the Women’s March. So, why can we trek to the National Mall, ride Lyfts, and shop at a high-end department store, but we can’t turn on the television set to support productions that are supporting us? This is the easiest way to resist Donald Trump and his army of trolls. They also understand the power of numbers. It’s why they worked to ruin the all-female Ghostbusters film and campaigned to delete Netflix in response to the upcoming television production of Dear White People.
In contrast, LGBT people and their allies are doing an abysmal job in viewing and supporting queer content. Moonlight, a film about a black gay youth, made history by winning the Academy Award for Best Picture — yet it had the lowest box-office numbers of all the nominees. Last week, poor ratings also caused CBS to pull Doubt, the first network TV show to feature a trans actress (Laverne Cox) in a regular, main-cast trans role. The timing was cruel and horrible, occurring in the same week that the trans education guidelines were rescinded and celebrities cried “protect trans kids.”
Do you want to know how to protect trans kids? Protect trans TV shows. If Doubt were still on the air, viewers on CBS — a network with real red-state reach — could have seen Cox’s character, an attorney, strike up a romantic relationship with a cisgender man and help defend a trans victim of violence. These storylines would have been firsts for the network, and they would have occurred in a crucial moment leading up to trans student Gavin Grimm’s Supreme Court battle this month. This yanked trans representation is a missed opportunity to debunk the harmful "bathroom predator" myth. It also would have helped countless scared trans kids across the country know they're normal and not alone.
Yet, in Doubt's place, CBS will be airing Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, a show about travel- and immigration-related crime, which is not exactly a coup for liberals. For their part, CBS assured The Advocate that Doubt was pulled due to low viewership, and not politics.
"The programming decision regarding Doubt was based solely on ratings, nothing else. The series opened to disappointing numbers and declined significantly in its second week," said a CBS representative, who promised that the "11 remaining episodes of Doubt will be broadcast on CBS at a later date and will be presented on cbs.com as well."
It's comforting to know that Doubt will air — and it is truly a sign of progress that network television is airing queer content at all. But let’s be real. For Hollywood, LGBT rights are not a charity case. This is a business. If you want to see a transgender lawyer, a queer activist of color, or a gay prince charming on TV, then you’d better view the show. Support it. Tell your family and friends about it. If you don’t, then the production will fail. And if it fails, that decreases the likelihood that another show showcasing queer characters will make it to air.
Start tonight, when When We Rise debuts its second installment. Watch it. It’s an excellent review of the modern LGBT movement, with some amazing performances from a fine ensemble. Even if a historical drama is not your cup of tea, the miniseries contains many lessons about how to organize and resist, which presents a wonderful educational opportunity for the times we live in. And remember, Doubt is coming back to the air, most likely in the summer months. Let’s be prepared and mark our calendars when the date is announced.
After its win, Moonlight is going back into theaters in wide release this weekend. Watch that, too. It’s stunning, beautiful, topically important, and made history as the first LGBT film to win Best Picture. Let’s not disappoint it again in the box office.
#OscarsSoWhite was a wonderful wakeup call to the entertainment industry that they must create and honor diverse productions; but if no one sees these productions — and if we, as queer consumers, do not accept some responsibility for the content that is created, and match our outrage for erasure with a movie ticket — then there is no financial reward for Hollywood to make more.
For if these television shows and films succeed, they have the power to change hearts and minds. Frankly, we can use all the hearts and minds we can get right now. We also must show Hollywood and the world the strength of our numbers, which have never been greater. We have power. We are a force to be reckoned with. We have risen.
But if these productions fail, then our narratives and our voices are lost. In a time when so much is at stake, this is a failure we cannot afford. After all, there are worse fates than watching network television.
DANIEL REYNOLDS is an editor at The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @dnlreynolds.