So I wrote this thing for a local LGBTQ ‘zine and now the ‘zine has been published so I can post it here. It’s US-centric because it’s a local publication.
The Importance of M*A*S*H in LGBTQ Representation on Television
Set during the Korean War, which was waged from 1950 to 1953, the television show M*A*S*H was a groundbreaking eleven season series airing from 1972 to 1983. The show tackled issues such as racism, sexism, feminism, and in one episode, sexual orientation in a time when those issues were barely discussed and often did not pass television censorship. The episode “George” originally aired in M*A*S*H’s second season on February 16, 1974.
George Weston, a decorated Army private and a patient at the 4077 MASH unit, approached the chief surgeon Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce regarding bruises and contusions that did not appear to be caused by combat. “Doc, two guys got beat up in my outfit: One colored and one homosexual,” Private Weston confessed. Weston inadvertently admitted he was gay during a drunken evening on leave with some of the men in his unit. As a result, he was assaulted.
Hawkeye responded, “Funny, you don’t look like a Negro.” The comment was delivered in comedic fashion and intended to be a statement of one who is supportive.
It’s important to note that many fans believe Hawkeye Pierce was a bisexually coded character, although neither the creators, actor Alan Alda who played Hawkeye, nor the studios have confirmed that belief. Hawkeye was often seen interacting with both male and female characters in a mannerism that could be interpreted as flirting. In one scene, he neither confirmed nor denied accusations that he might be “one of those” and was called a “Mary,” a gay-coded word.
While Private Weston was not the first depiction of a gay character on primetime television, he was one of the first gay characters treated as sympathetic and even heroic. In 1970’s television, gays and lesbians were often portrayed as murderers, pedophiles, sexual assailants, or people suffering from mental illness.
An example is the 1973 episode of Marcus Welby, MD entitled “The Other Martin Loring.” Loring, a patient of title character, was diagnosed with depression and alcoholism. As the episode progressed, Loring later admitted he may be gay. Welby tells Loring that he was in fact not gay, but the fear of being gay led to his depression and alcoholism. In addition, Welby assured Loring that with treatment he could go on to lead a “normal” life. This episode drew the ire of the Gay Activists Alliance, who advised the portrayal of homosexuality in the episode was negative.
When asked about the episode “George” in 2004, M*A*S*H creator and producer Larry Gelbart said, “CBS was extremely nervous about this episode. The subject [of homosexuality] was more to be avoided than confronted in those days. The network demanded certain changes and it was a challenge to place them while maintaining the integrity of the idea.” The episode opened doors for CBS and other networks to begin portraying LGBT characters in more positive roles.
In 1976, the second episode of Alice introduced Jack, a gay man who befriended Alice and her preteen son Tommy. Jack invited Tommy on a fishing trip, which Alice initially balked at. She later realized Jack’s sexual orientation didn’t matter. An All In the Family episode in 1977 dealt with the death of Edith Bunker’s cousin Liz and the revelation that Liz and her roommate Veronica had a relationship “like a marriage.” Although her husband Archie disapproved of it, Edith immediately accepted the relationship.
Forty-five years later, LGBTQ representation on television is still problematic and producers often use minor characters to gay bait or as expendable. M*A*S*H’s positive episode “George,” though, paved the way for LGBTQ representation such as Billy Crystal’s character Jodie, an openly gay main character on the sitcom Soap; the first lesbian kiss on television between CJ Lamb and Abby on the drama LA Law; and David Duchovny’s portrayal of transwoman Agent Denise Bryson on Twin Peaks.