Queer Voices

Gay Parents On TV: Why The 'New Normal' Is No Longer Just The Nuclear Family

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 05: Actresses Cierra Ramirez (L) and Maia Mitchell of 'The Fosters' attend the 2013 HRC National Dinner at Washington Convention Center on October 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 05: Actresses Cierra Ramirez (L) and Maia Mitchell of 'The Fosters' attend the 2013 HRC National Dinner at Washington Convention Center on October 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)

Married with two kids? How boringly 20th-century. Blended families and same-sex parents are increasingly vying for space with the nuclear family on the small screen in line with shifts in Western society.

Talia is about to give birth. At her side not one but two anxious dads, who trade a loving kiss. Welcome to "Mom and Dads," an Israeli series involving a menage-a-trois between two gay men and the mother of their child.

"Television is much better than cinema at picking up on changes in society, at responding to them in a fast and varied way," said the French film critic Xavier Leherpeur.

"That is especially true when it comes to gay marriage and gay rights."

Worldwide some 20 countries now allow gay marriage in all or part of their territory, including 16 out of the 50 US states.

"Clearly, Americans are the ones who tackle the subject the most," said Leherpeur.

The cult sitcom "Friends" drew mild controversy back in 1996 for an episode dubbed "The One with the Lesbian Wedding", while the sitcom "Ellen" broke ground in 1997 with the coming out of its lead character -- and that of series star Ellen DeGeneres.

Since then screenwriters have pushed the boundaries right back.

Shot as a mockumentary, "Modern Family" has notched up the Obama family among its fans since hitting screens in 2009. The comedy revolves around three interrelated family units: one heterosexual, one gay with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, and a third involving a sixty-something man and his younger, voluptuous Colombian wife.

"One big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family," runs the strapline for the show.

"It's a very open-minded series, which offers a chance to highlight lots of different types of family without pointing the finger at anyone," said Aurelie Blot, of Bordeaux university in France who has studied families on the American screen at length.

"The New Normal", which wrapped up its first and so far only season in the United States in April, follows a wealthy Californian gay couple who have a child through a surrogate mother.

"Sean Saves the World", on screens since October, is about a gay father and his teenaged daughter, while "The Fosters", produced by Jennifer Lopez, features a lesbian couple and their three kids.

'Men kissing on prime-time TV'

US television shows long revolved around an idealised nuclear family, from the 1950s comedies like "Father Knows Best" to the 1970s "The Waltons".

But these television families changed along with society, with "The Brady Bunch", which aired from 1969 to 1974, revolving around a large blended family with six children from previous relationships.

Blended families of all shapes and sizes were on display through the 1980s, such as in "Diff'rent Strokes" in which two African-American children learn to live with a white adoptive father and his daughter.

Likewise a divorced working mum, her live-in male housekeeper and their respective children were the stars of "Who's the Boss".

When shows reverted back to the nuclear family, it was often with a twist, like the all-black cast of the "The Cosby Show", or the comically dysfunctional family of 1990s hit show "Married... with Children".

"Right now we are in a cycle that is all about exploring new types of family," said Blot.

And same-sex parenting appears to be the issue of choice for 21st-century screenwriters.

In a different twist on the plotline of Israel's "Mom and Dads", in Britain "Threesome" is about a straight couple who have a child together with a gay friend.

"Shows like these teach us that these kinds of families exist, and that they have the same problems as everyone else," said Leherpeur.

In France, the hit sitcom "Plus belle la vie" (Life's so Sweet), which is followed daily by some five million viewers, first raised the issue of same-sex parenting two years ago.

It showed a gay couple tying the knot in June 2013, just a month after France legalised same-sex marriage.

"We tried to cover that storyline as we would any other," said the show's lead writer Olivier Szulzynger.

France has come a long way in the past decade, he says.

"At the beginning of the 2000s, it was hard to tackle gay issues in French fiction. People were not ready to see two men kissing on prime-time TV."

"Today people just don't think in terms of gay or straight any more."

"Of course our families have to change along with society," said Quoc Dang Tran, one of the writers of the French show "Fais pas ci, Fais pas ca", (Don't do this, Don't do that) which pits two families -- one strictly conventional, the other a laid-back blended family with a flock of children.

"There are no taboo subjects. The only thing is to be sensitive in how you tackle them."

Copyright (2013) AFP. All rights reserved.

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