Today, GLAAD announced the extensive list of nominees for its annual Media Awards, a ceremony that honors all the best queer art of the year prior. More (or less!) specifically, according to GLAAD’s website, the awards aim to “recognize and honor media for their fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the issues that affect their lives.” That’s great, and though GLAAD’s effort to include as many ally nominees as possible is worth applauding, the mission statement of their awards fails to acknowledge the excellence of truly next-level queer art by insisting on including as many blatantly queer works as possible. This leads to undue attention being given to something like Freeheld while truly outstanding films, such as Tangerine, suffer in lesser categories.
The selective nature of awards shows like the Grammys or the Oscars is necessary in those venues, where the whole glut of films and television shows and music produced in a year — hundreds, even thousands of pieces of work — is considered for awards. The GLAAD Awards, which have been going strong and increasing in relevance since the first ceremony was held in 1990, don’t have that advantage; their field of contestants is inherently limited by the even more selective basis of the awards themselves, which is to honor LGBT-related media of the past year.
It’s maybe splitting hairs to say that the GLAAD Awards are too inclusive of their exclusive nominees, that their many, hyper-specific categories allow for too many nominations, but the 2016 media landscape is not the 1990 media landscape. The creation of these awards was important, having come about in an era that was pre-Will and Grace, pre-My Own Private Idaho, pre-Ellen coming out. The creation of GLAAD happened only 17 years after the end of the Hays Code, which banned any clear depiction of homosexuality on film. Needless to say, gay or even queer media was not as prevalent then as it is today, a fact that’s blatantly clear in the first group of winners at that first awards ceremony. LA Law? As the World Turns? Pretty slim field. So it’s understandable that the awards’ creators saw fit to later establish categories as narrow as Outstanding Individual Episode (in a series without a regular LGBT character), but today, that’s just unnecessary back-patting. Things in 2015 were very different. There was no lack of gay entertainment, even if some of it was bad. Very bad. And yet these very bad products are in awards contention, simply because of their gayness.
Let’s take a closer look at the problematic big players in this year’s pool of nominees: we’ve got Freeheld and The Danish Girl nominated for Outstanding (Wide Release) film; Modern Family for Outstanding Comedy Series; I Am Cait managing continued relevance based solely on its star-powered existence; and the Outstanding Drama Series category is filled with question marks. This is to say nothing of the inclusion of shows that feature very minor gay players. (Why should shows be applauded for simply including gay characters in their heteronormative narratives? You’ve represented the world with heightened accuracy for a single block of 22 minutes, congratulations.)
Maybe this is all taking the GLAAD Awards too seriously, a case of a minor ceremony given too much attention, too much scrutiny, kind of like people who get angry over the Razzies. But the GLAAD Awards are not some tossed-off commentary on bad films; they’re awards that were created to honor excellence achieved by folks who recognized and celebrated the LGBT community. Somewhere along the line, that thesis changed to simply honoring all mainstream work that acknowledges the community. And that’s fine, I guess. It’s just not ideal.
Seeking the ideal, especially in the world of Hollywood and mass media, is dangerous, foolish, and altogether not worth it. But so are awards shows. The ideal would be, of course, that Carol, the best biggish-budget queer film of 2015, wouldn’t get snubbed in most major Oscar categories, or that Modern Family wouldn’t continue to be held up as a pillar of queer storytelling even though its primary representation of homosexuality relies on over-the-top flamboyance paired with (what is angled as) a comically overweight character. (And, though sex does not equal proper representation, either, the news-making first gay “kiss” on this show, and the few that have followed, were tame enough to read as make-believe even to fifth graders.) One could argue that the gayness in Modern Family is beside the point, and that’s what makes it so subversive, so “powerful.” Fine, then. But that doesn’t make the show good. Good or not, though, what all of these nominees have in common is that a clearly defined “gay,” “lesbian,” or “trans” character appeared in them.
The rapidly ascending idea of sexual/gender fluidity seems to have no place at the GLAAD Awards. Where is The D Train, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Overnight, Casual, or even Mr. Robot? The ambiguity of the characters in those films and TV shows is maybe too hard to market, too subtle to champion, and so they’re sidelined because they don’t fit in squarely with the gayness of GLAAD. But (thankfully) this is where the queer world is heading, at least the most progressive part of it. The closest GLAAD came to acknowledging this development was to nominate the gender-fluid Miley Cyrus’ laughable, in-your-face And Her Dead Petz album, while someone like Courtney Bartnett — who was even nominated for a Grammy! — goes missing, simply because it’s so barely, if at all, related to her lesbianism.
And so maybe the failure of the GLAAD Awards is a failure to adapt, not only to the increasingly high-quality art that deserves to be elevated above the trash of pandering films like Freeheld, but also to the generally shapeshifting nature of the queer community it has for so long supported so well. It was only recently — 2013 — that GLAAD acknowledged the existence of and started fighting for trans and bi members of the community. One cannot expect the organization to quickly dip its toes into the seemingly murky water of gender nonconformity or sexual fluidity so soon after they’ve become topics whispered by the mainstream, but ignorance to nuanced content hints at a larger ignorance, ignorance of the best queer art that’s being made, and ignorance of what sorts of celebrations are important to the truly needy members of the LGBT community.