Near the end of last night’s episode of Ugly Betty, after being rejected by his mother, Marc St. James (Michael Urie) announced to Betty (America Ferrera) that he is "freaking fabulous."
Indeed, Marc is a fabulous character (with all of the various implications conveyed by that word), but even more fabulous is Ugly Betty the show. Now nearing the end of its freshman season, Betty has established itself as arguably the most queer-friendly program in the history of broadcast television.
It’s not just that Ugly Betty is set in gay-friendly Manhattan in the gay-friendly world of fashion. Nor does the fact that it features three queer character make the show so extraordinary. That doesn’t mean that every Thursday night millions of Americans don’t tune in to laugh at Marc’s sarcastic quips, check out transgender character Alexis Meade’s (Rebecca Romijn) sexy new figure, or smile at the pre-adolescent antics of is-he-or-isn’t-he, tap-dancing, show tune-loving Justin (Mark Indelicato).
No, what makes the show so extraordinarily gay-friendly is that its sensibility is so gay — and not just its fashion sensibility. Every week, Ugly Betty delivers a message about self-acceptance and being true to oneself, and it reminds us that mere tolerance isn’t enough. No, in Betty‘s world, true understanding and acceptance are what this show is all about.
While not every GLBT person grows up feeling as if they don’t belong, while simultaneously dreaming of a better life where they do fit in, it’s probably fair to say that more feel that way than don’t. It’s all of these elements combined that make up the queer sensibility percolating throughout Ugly Betty, and that is what makes the hit dramedy so extraordinary.
Ironically, the character who most embodies the show’s sensibility isn’t Marc, Alexis or Justin; it is the straight Betty Suarez herself. Betty is the quintessential outsider: the ugly duckling whose beauty is on the inside waiting to be spotted by the right guy. She is the outcast with her nose pressed to the window wanting to be on the inside with the cool kids who reject her.
Week after week, while trying to fit in or be who she thinks others want her to be, Betty gets involved in some scheme, only to learn by the episode’s end that being yourself and carrying yourself with pride is the only way to truly live. She is the perfect reflection for Marc, Alexis and Justin, who each yearn and strive to be accepted and loved for exactly who they are.
Best of all, Betty is the character with whom most viewers best identify. It is her journey in which the audience is most invested — and most probably don’t even realize just how much they are identifying with such a gay sensibility.
But Ugly Betty‘s extraordinariness goes beyond this. So often in the past, gay characters on television shows were used in only one way. There was the funny gay, the evil gay or the sainted, best-friend gay. Yes, they occasionally had their "own" episode where they fell in love with someone, but, of course, it never worked out, and the next week they went right back to being funny, evil or sainted.
Marc may be funny, and he may be Wilhelmina Slater’s (Vanessa William) "seeing-eye gay" and "evil" henchman, but he’s never meaner than Willy herself. And, as viewers saw when he bonded earlier in the season with Justin about their shared interests and struggles, he, too, has a heart.
Justin may be precocious, obsessed with fashion and, yes, swishy, but his family loves him fiercely, and neither he nor they make any apologies for who he is. Rebecca Romijn’s Alexis may be stunningly beautiful, but the show never lets you forget for long that this is a person facing down some of society’s most ingrained prejudices.
On Ugly Betty, each of these characters is just as fully fleshed-out as any other character. Most importantly, their sexuality is not a punch line to laugh at or something used to make the other characters — or the audience — feel uncomfortable.
In last night’s episode, perfectly titled "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," the show’s gay sensibility blazed especially bright. Marc finally told his mother (played wonderfully by Patti LuPone) that he is gay.
Not wanting to disappoint her, he had misled her for years, having various women — including co-worker Amanda (Becki Newton) — pose as his girlfriend. But when his mother said of Justin, "I don’t even know what that is; he’s just so swishy," Marc was finally compelled to tell his mother the truth about himself. His mother responded by saying, "I have no interest in knowing the real you."
Marc wasn’t the only child rejected last night. Alexis again heard her father Bradford Meade (Alan Dale) discuss her sex change with utter contempt, calling her "the son I wish I’d never had." Her brother, Daniel (Eric Mabius) was hardly better, consistently referring to Alex as "him" or "my brother" with only slightly less contempt than his father. But by the episode’s end, he had made considerable progress and finally wrote an accepting letter in which he referred to his sister as "her."
So in one episode, Middle America witnessed a coming-out, two parental rejections based on sexual orientation and transgender issues, a defense of a swishy pre-adolescent, heard the praises sung about one’s chosen family, and delivered a message that being honest about who you are is nothing to be ashamed of.
You can’t get much more queer — or freaking fabulous — than that.