Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gay men, straight men, and soaps

Okay, so I'm not sure I'm going to be clear with this post, but I have been trying to put a bunch of ideas together here.

I. A lot of men (still) watch soaps. Roger Newcomb recently showed that a high proportion of soap viewers is men.

Using SON Toups' most recent ratings at the time of this writing, it breaks out like this (for men 18+):

Y&R, 26% male
B&B, 25% male
GH, 17% male
DAYS, 21% male
ATWT, 21% male
AMC, 20% male
OLTL, 18% male
GL, 21% male

Now, think about this! The advertisers ostensibly only care about women aged 18-39. So all the older women, and all the men (fully a fifth to a quarter of the audience!!) are irrelevant! Really? These advertisers can afford to throw away all these viewers in desperate times?

Okay--but that is not my point. Roger Newcomb makes this point much more eloquently in his post.

II. My point is....who ARE these men? More to the point, how gay are these men?

I don't have an answer. I think a lot of the male viewers are straight...attracted to the soaps by the mothers and grandmothers who watched when they were younger. Or by wives and girlfriends who drew them in. Or by a general love for drama (there ARE straight men like that). Or they are shift workers who either wake up or unwind with the soaps.

But I also think a lot of the male viewers are gay. I have no clue what proportion, but if the online internet community offers ANY guide, I think as many as 50% of those viewers could be gay men.

III. Now why would that be? Why would gay men love soaps?

I think there are a few reasons. (It is interesting to note that in the great soap history book, Worlds Without End, one essay posits that gay men have been a big part of the fandom all along).

1. I think a lot of gay men identified, from an early end, more with the matrilineal part of the clan. (This doesn't mean to imply femininization of gay men! Just that gay men may be less bound up less in the macho 'emotion suppression' thing of the straight male world). So, they could watch the soaps with the moms and grandmoms.

2. I think that soaps offer "high emotion" (at least they used to). And I think high emotion has always been an outlet for gay men in drama. (Yes, I'm referencing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and...). I think that the need to live such lives of quiet restraint and suppressed feelings while in the closet means that vicariously living through on-screen/on-stage characters who can cry FOR you, scream FOR you, feel FOR you is a big deal. Unfortunately, there have been relatively few such male-oriented "grand emotional displays". So, gay men have to gravitate to the divas to express those emotions for them.

Related to this is the idea that closet-induced depressivity means that there may also be a preference for "darker" themes in literature, music, art, and drama. Soaps have historically appealed to that.

3. Eye candy. This homoerotic aspect of soaps (and don't even TRY to tell me that OLTL isn't striving for the gay male demo these days...even though the numbers suggest they are failing) has been a growing influence since the 80s. is a powerful testament to it.

Soaps is a rare place where young straight women and gay men can jointly share their lust objects in a fairly safe way. After all, we're tuning in for the "story", not the sex appeal, right? A closeted gay man can claim he is "checking out the hot chicks"...and he "isn't even looking" at the hot guy next to the girl.

When ATWT was in the early stages of their Nuke romance, right after the first kiss, the male numbers started growing faster than on any other soap. You can't tell me that was not the gay male demographic, FINALLY seeing something authentic on American soap screens. Alas, we all know that Nuke has been largely squandered.


IV, All of this leads me to the point that, in the quest for reinvention and new audiences, I am perplexed that the soaps have not abandoned their strategy of pursuing the midwestern housewife. She's declining in numbers. Why aren't they aggressively courting a gay male viewership (reportedly a group higher in education and income than many other groups)?

(Institutional heterosexism? Nah, can't be that....)


V. In one of his blogs, Keith Boykin discusses "Why Gay Men Love Female Divas" (which I think is a part of the soap appeal...especially of the Melrose Place variety)

He says (speaking of singing Divas):

A few months ago I found myself talking to a group of friends who were pondering why gay men seem to love female recording artists so much more than male artists. Because gay men are attracted to other men, you might expect them to fawn over attractive male singers instead of female divas....I've never had a good answer for this phenomenon but it seems that part of the explanation is that most of the popular male recording artists don't seem to want our attention. While the female divas openly acknowledge their gay fan bases, the men seem afraid to admit that they have gay fans.

Boykin goes on to praise Enrique Iglesias (who appeared on Y&R last year) for actively embracing gay fans at one recent concert. And it strikes me that maybe soaps could take a page from that. Could you imagine: There might even be audience GROWTH in this time of spiralling decline!


VI. Now, I also get the sense that "classic soap" may be increasingly less appealing to modern, young gay men.

Historically, high drama (the aforemention Crawford, Davis, or Judy Garland) attracted the gay male viewer. Said Damien Cave in Salon:

[M]any gay men lived vicariously through Hollywood's women. In Judy Garland's drugs and multiple comebacks, they saw their own closeted battle between loneliness and survival. In the lines of Bette Davis' characters -- "You can lose everything else, but you can't lose your talent" -- they recognized the ability to overcome, even cackle at life's villains. And Joan Crawford, with her broad shoulders and masculine air, embodied the in-your-face assertiveness that gay men longed to express....Later, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and then Madonna also offered gay men real-life versions of Davis' and Crawford's wonderfully bitchy characters.

But Cave argues that as the closet door has loosened, so has diva worship declined. Indeed, my own perspective is that modern gay culture has a growing love for a kind of hyper-masculinity that, actually, would make something too bitchy, too campy, and too feminine actually UNAPPEALING for gay men. The low male numbers for OLTL right now seem to kind of confirm that for me.

So, if soaps DID want to leverage their appeal to gay male viewers (to grow audiences), I don't think the answer is bitchy camp. At least, not too much. I think "Nuke" is the template: Authetic portrayals of young gay men, in all their flavors. I also think that (see another post in this blog) there have actually been a fair number of gay characters on soaps by now. And most of the front burner stories have been "coming out" stories.

This means that a different kind of story...being a proud, out man (like Brothers and Sisters Scotty) ... or gay (in the background) but active in stories that have nothing to do with sexuality (like the new Dr. Julian on Night Shift) may be the way to go.

Indeed, I think Night Shift may really be the way to go. We have classic soap veterans and new characters. We have eye candy (Antonio Sabato Jr., Jason Thompson). We have fierce women (especially Dr. Robin Scorpio). We will soon have a bona fide gay icon diva (Anna Scorpio will guest). We have a front-burner out gay male (Dr. Kyle Julian), integrated into (for Night Shift) a new core family (the Julians). Indeed, Dr. Kyle's mother will soon be played by gay diva icon Kathleen Noone! Although Kyle has mostly been involved in non-relationship stories (with his straight female best friend)...and he will soon have a mature relationship (with out actor Chad Allen...dreamboat!). THAT, I think, is the template. I hope it succeeds for SoapNet...and I hope due to success, daytime follows suit.


VII. Do you think I am right? Do you think there is a disproportionately large gay representation among male soap viewers? Or does the male soap viewer look more like typical males...majority straight?

1 comment:

Norrth said...

I hadn't read the Boykin article before, thanks for the link to that. I think the question is an interesting one and have to wonder if daytime execs have asked the question and have an answer to it. I think it's interesting that they're beginning to offer gay characters in daytime, but that they still haven't figured out how to write for them.

Nuke is starting to feel like a tease to draw fans in, but that the writers are afraid to go "too far" and "offending" the older female audience. I think they're selling the audience short.

Have you ever seen 'DeGrassi: The Next Generation'? My teenaged nieces watch. The show features openly gay male characters who are more affectionate and have more involved storylines than Nuke. Daytime will never grow its audience and attract young viewers (straight or gay) by marginalizing couples like Nuke.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Bianca and Reese on AMC.