“How To Get Away With Murder” is a successful new show this season, conceived by one of the protégés of Shonda Rhimes, who has established a very lucrative career writing fast-paced soap operas about people who actually lack the human ability to enter into and maintain functional relationships (c.f., Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal). This new show has come to attention for a number of reasons, one of which is its frank portrayal of sex between men.
The showrunner, Pete Nowalk, has stated in an interview that one of his goals in writing the show’s sexually promiscuous homosexual character (Connor) is “to destigmatize gay sex on TV.” He goes on to say:
“Visibility leads to acceptance…I am a little surprised how much of a reaction it’s getting. Maybe it’s because I’m a gay man. We have another gay writer on staff and we’re just writing what we know.”
Two important observations need to be made here. The key line in the above quote is “visibility leads to acceptance.” This is simply not true. Visibility does not lead to acceptance; it leads to apathy and desensitization. And this leads to the second observation: while the starting point for my present reflection is the so-called “destigmatization of gay sex on TV,” what I am saying about apathy and desensitization applies to all portrayals of immorality on TV and films, not just gay sex.
If visibility leads to acceptance, then the fact that I regularly witness countless acts of violence on TV and in movies leads to the conclusion that such acts should be morally acceptable, even celebrated, because, after all, this is the way life really is. But that’s not true and no one defending violent content in media would seriously try to defend this.
The accumulation of violence on screen doesn’t lead to greater social or moral acceptability. It leads to our desensitization about seeing such things until we don’t really care that we’re seeing it. Pete Nowalk intends for greater social acceptability with his frank portrayal of gay sex. Chances are, people will eventually say that his efforts and the efforts of others like him have been successful in bringing the culture to a greater acceptance of homosexual persons. But it hasn’t. All that has actually happened is that we have become deadened to any sort of reaction to immoral actions on screen (and please remember that what I’m saying here applies to all portrayals of immorality on screen, including heterosexual and homosexual immorality, as well as brutal violence).
If Nowalk’s intention is to encourage greater respect for people with same sex attraction and a greater appreciation for them as more than stereotypes, he needs to stop doing them the disservice of characterizing them primarily by their sex lives. While we have largely moved away from the harshest stereotypes of persons with same sex attraction, Hollywood foolishly thinks that letting the audience see them having sex humanizes them. Seeing people engaged in sexual activity on screen (regardless of who is involved) doesn’t humanize the characters; it reduces them and de-humanizes both the actors and the viewers.
Maybe I’m just demonstrating myself to be hopelessly idealistic and old-fashioned. Maybe I need to see more so I’ll accept more. But I doubt it. We have mistaken apathy for approval and desensitization as open-mindedness. We deserve richer portrayals of human beings than focusing on who they’re sleeping with.