by Joe Reid
This week on Ugly Betty, be sure to tune in for a landmark episode: Justin comes out of the closet! Sorry to spring it on you so suddenly; I'll give everyone who just plotzed a moment to regain their composure.
For four seasons, Justin's sexuality has been the worst-kept "secret" on TV, to the point where most viewers probably didn't even realize Justin wasn't already out. Isn't this Betty's nephew, the Broadway-loving, fashion-forward, Wilhelmina Slater-worshipping lad who appears to have sprung fully-fierce from the forehead of Christian Siriano? Well, yes. But while he was never entirely "in" (at least not to viewers of the show), Ugly Betty has always handled the Justin story with great care and precision, rarely (if ever) saying the "g" word. He was Johnny Weir Gay, for lack of a better term. Never explicit or in so many words, but ... come on.
But the character never felt closet-y (even during the short period this season where Justin asserted his "heterosexuality"), because showrunner Silvio Horta and performer Mark Indelicato have been so consistent in telling the gay teen story in a realistic way (or at least as real as it gets on a show where brace-faced adults get their teeth stuck to diamond-encrusted bras).
But wait! This show actually has two gay characters! After the jump.
In fact, with only two episodes to go in Betty's final season, I'd venture to say that with its cancellation, we stand to lose the two most forward-thinking depictions of gay characters on network television. Again, that's going to sound strange to someone who's never watched the show, or perhaps lapsed along the way. With its hyper-stylized "telenovela" approach, responsible characterization never felt like a goal Ugly Betty would be interested in -- particularly when Michael Urie's evil-office-gay character Marc St. James first minced onto the screen, all lavender color scheme and catty quips.
But as the series wore on, Marc grew more complicated and more prominent. This was mostly due to a rare quality among network gays: Marc was allowed to develop as a character independent of his sexuality. Marc's stories were never about discrimination in the workplace or proving his equal worth. The episode where Marc came out to his mother (played by Patti LuPone) was the exception that proved the rule, and even that played on viewers' incredulity at Patti not knowing what was fabulously obvious. Of course, with Betty set in the fashion industry, it makes sense that Marc's sexuality was a non-issue.
Whatever the reason, it allowed Marc to develop as a kind of shadow protagonist to Betty's more structurally central character. While leaving room for a romantic subplot here or there, Marc's story has been one of professional fulfillment and navigating the treacherous waters of corporate/fashion culture. In other words, his story has been almost exactly what Betty's story has been, minus a whole lot of hand-wringing about keeping it real.
But as I said, Marc works in fashion, where he's not much of a minority. Maybe it's too easy to have a gay character not experience the roadblocks and resistance that come with being gay in America in 2010. That's where this show's other rare feat comes in: two gay characters. Again, we'll allow room for plotzing. It's quite the concept.
Through Justin, Betty was able to explore the challenges in growing up "different," even in a world that's rapidly coming around. Coming-out stories used to play like the dropping of nuclear bombs. One minute you're skulking in your room with Calvin Klein ads tucked in your schoolbooks, next thing you know you're hollering "I'm Gay!" at Laura Dern across a crowd of air travelers who just want to hear their gate assignment.
It's not true everywhere and with everyone, but more and more, the world doesn't screech to a halt for "I'm gay!" anymore. That doesn't mean it's not a phrase loaded down with significance. Justin's family couldn't be more supportive, but even as recently as last week's episode, he was keeping his first-ever boyfriend under wraps. It's still a coming out process, even if everybody knows, and Ugly Betty understands this. (To look at another show that's depicting teen sexuality as a similarly push/pull affair, check out the rather excellent United States of Tara.)
As an added bonus, by allowing Justin's story to unfold under its own momentum, we also got to see the development of the Marc/Justin mentorship, which, in terms of gay TV characters, is probably rarer than anything I've mentioned. Not only has it allowed for some of the most touching, well-performed scenes on the show, it also gave Justin's story a refreshingly post-2k feel, where gay kids maybe don't need to grow up alone with their secrets anymore. Even if we're dancing around the word, we still got to see a gay character offer guidance to a gay youth. In terms of minority representation in the arts, that's like if the homeless black teen in The Blind Side were adopted by a rich black lady.
Gay representation on TV can be a numbers game. Ideally, that's what it should be. Get big enough numbers, and it stops being necessary to examine every single character for how he reflects upon the whole. But until we get there, the Justin Suarezes and Marc St. Jameses will have to put up with accolades for being the class of an underrepresented group.