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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

When television pushes the social agenda

It's an odd state of affairs when some of the country's hot button issues - gay marriage, surrogacy - can't find a place on the political agenda, but wind up as plot lines in television drama.

But from this week, as House Husbands powers through its fourth season, that's exactly what's happening. There's a surrogacy storyline for same-sex partners, Kane and Alex, played by Gyton Grantley and Darren McMullen, whose relationship looks like trundling towards 'I do'.

The show's stars are pleased to be blazing a trail.

"I personally have been a big and vocal advocate of marriage equality for quite a long time," says Julia Morris, whose character Gemma will feature heavily in the surrogacy plot lines.

"At last year's Logies I bought my own dress so I didn't have to promote anybody, and wore a marriage equality ring [so I could talk about the issue on the red carpet]. It's very much in my world. So I am very proud to be able to wave the flag, and have my character produce a child for a same-sex couple.
Highlighting socially contentious situations in a television drama has long been cited as a way to force change.

Earlier this year The Atlantic noted the rise of American acceptance of gay marriage started in 2009 (according to Gallup poll figures), which was coincidentally – or perhaps not – the year TV viewers were introduced to Cam and Mitch (played by Eric Stonestreet​ and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), the gay couple living with their adopted daughter in Modern Family.

Ten million people a week watched the pair have a very normal relationship and get married when Californian law allowed them to.

And the same is now playing out on Australian TV screens, House Husbands adding its voice to the national call for change.

"We absolutely don't shy away from any of those issues," says Morris. "I like that we are delving into a number of the things that are driving our community at the moment.

"Maybe I'm kidding myself,  and maybe it's just the people I surround myself with, but I think we are more open about marriage equality than certainly the government gives us credit for. "

Grantley agrees. He's pleased his character's storylines are portrayed as nothing out of the ordinary. Why shouldn't it be unremarkable that Kane falls in love, wants to marry his partner, and is embarking on a journey towards parenthood once more, this time via a surrogate?

"[I like that the show is not] playing on the gay thing too much, it's just there. We don't have to push anything too much. There is just a mutual respect for each other and love and affection [between Kane and Alex]. And that plays well for our characters," Grantley explains.

He admits he is keen for his own sexuality - he's straight, but that's by the by – to be a non-issue when it comes to talking about what it's like to play Kane.

"You don't have to be a serial killer to play a serial killer. Ultimately, it shouldn't be a thing," he stresses.

"I think that's the best part – not playing on the fact that we are gay. A lot of people don't realise that our characters are, until they're told. And I think that is the important part. Because it shouldn't be an issue. It should be about how much we love our children, and how much we are dedicated to raising them lovingly as a family.

"It should be about being a house husband, and not about being a gay guy."

In 2012 a Hollywood Reporter poll found 27 per cent of voters said the way gay characters were depicted in television series had made them pro-gay marriage.

Before that, actor Dennis Haysbert said he believed his role in 24 - as David Palmer, the fictitious first black US president - had helped pave the way for US President Barack Obama's election in 2008.

"(Palmer) may have helped open the eyes of the American people," he said. "And I mean the American people from across the board – from the poorest to the richest, every colour and creed, every religious base – to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president."

Whether a cultural shift of that magnitude happens in Australia or not, Grantley and Morris both say they're happy to push the conversation, with Grantley saying he favours a softly-softly approach.

"I have just looked at [my storylines] as being about a man who wants to raise his children. And what he does in the bedroom shouldn't be an issue," Grantley explain. "And the more that is encouraged and projected, and the more it is presented as normal, means audiences will accept it as normal.

"If you present it as an issue, and say 'You can't do that,' then the audience thinks that too."

So, when the law does eventually change, and same-sex couples are allowed to marry, will we see this reflected on the show? Will Kane and Alex get their 'conventional' happily-ever-after?

"I hope so," says Morris. "Who knows?

"Hopefully if the referendum comes, or the law is passed through, they will be able to. But I wonder – we might have to hold that over for another series. "


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