Dynasty and socially acceptable homophobia

An obscure satellite station has started rerunning Dynasty in a late night slot, one episode per night, and so I recently came across it.

Now I haven’t watched Dynasty – and I always have to force myself not to refer to it by the German title The Denver Clan, which is so much more fitting – in more than twenty years. And even back in the 1980s, I didn’t watch all that much of it and never saw the early episodes at all, because it aired on a school night and I wasn’t allowed to stay up that late. However, I remember Dynasty as this huge “must watch” show with a feature in the TV listings mag every other week and the most glamourous of the 1980s night time soaps, more glamourous than its rivals Dallas and Falcon Crest. I mean, Dynasty had its own fashion designer, still the only TV costume designer whose name I’ve ever known, and even gave its name to a colour, that very 1980s royal blue that is still occasionally known as “Denver Blue” in Germany. Plus, Dynasty had the season end cliffhanger to end all season end cliffhangers, the Moldavian wedding massacre, which is more than a bit reminiscent of the infamous Red Wedding in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, only that Martin, unlike the Dynasty writers, does not wimp out of actually killing off characters. And so, when I came across a Dynasty rerun while channel surfing, I thought, “Hey, this could be funny” and stopped to watch for a while.

Now rewatching films or TV shows for the first time after many years is always revealing, for some shows have held up amazingly well, some are much better than they used to be, while some suck hard. And you can never really predict what’s it going to be. Now I certainly did not expect Dynasty to turn out to be actually good, because I never liked it all that much in the first place. If anything, I expected a bit of campy fun and a good laugh at the hairstyles and shoulder-pad laden fashions. I certainly did not expect what I got.

Because Dynasty not just sucks, it’s nigh unwatchable these days. Instead of “glamourous”, the show looks tacky and cheap. Obvious back projections, obvious stock footage, even the sets look cobbled together in parts. Alexis’ stunning office with its glass plate desk resting on two elephant tusks, which I so envied as a teenager, looks decidedly unglamourous in the harsh light of hindsight. And the “First Bank of Denver” sign on what is supposed to be Blake Carrington’s corporate HQ was even noticable to my teen self, because I remember wondering why on Earth Blake Carrington had the wrong sign on his HQ. With a handful of exceptions, the actors either can’t act or can’t be bothered. Also, it’s notable how very few of the younger actors, the ones who played the Carrington children and their various love interests, had a career after Dynasty, though a quick check of IMDB reveals that several of them later found a place in daytime soap operas, probably because they’d become typecast. But the general tackiness was not half as shocking as the dated attitudes on display.

For you see, Dynasty had a gay character, Steven Carrington, younger son of Blake Carrington and Alexis, played first by Al Corley and later by Jack Coleman, one of the very few Dynasty alumni who still has a career and in fact pops up all over (e.g. in Castle or Heroes), probably since he could actually act. Steven was quite possibly one of the very first gay characters on TV anywhere. At any rate, he was one of the first gay characters I ever saw, predating Carsten Flöter from the German soap Lindenstraße by a couple of years. Not that Steven ever really got to be gay – indeed I remember being very confused as a teenager that Steven was constantly making out with women (Heather Locklear mostly, who also still has a career and can act), because wasn’t he supposed to be gay? Still, the character of Steven Carrington was probably the only thing about Dynasty that was actually sort of progressive.

So imagine my shock when the episode I tried to watch – after one of the patented Alexis versus Krystle catfights in a burning barn of all places, complete with bad stock footage – opens with family patriarch Blake Carrington, played by John Forsythe, walking into a room with a face so aghast you suspect that he just read the script and knows how bad the whole show is (in fact, I strongly suspect that he knew and just thought of the money). He turns on Steven, already played by Jack Coleman, and vehemently attacks him about “that man” in Steven’s appartment (“Yes, my boyfriend”, Steven replies) and how he wanted to make a present of Carrington oil shares to Steven’s infant son (by Heather Locklear’s character, product of one of Steven’s times of sexual confusion when he forgot that he was supposed to be gay), but won’t do it now, because of Steven’s degenerate lifestyle. And anyway, Blake will not allow his grandchild to grow up in such an environment and he will do whatever it takes to take the baby away from Steven and have him raised by Krystal, because Steven is obviously an unfit parent. They raged on for a bit, while I sat there, unable to believe what I was seeing.

Blake Carrington, the revered Dynasty patriarch, was a raging homophobe.

Now my teen self never liked Blake Carrington. I couldn’t stand him, in fact. I didn’t like him, because he was always so “mean” to his children Fallon and Steven and because he always claimed that he was the victim of Alexis’ attacks, even though he had dumped her to marry that boring Krystal (never could stand her either, besides she had the most stupid name ever), so Alexis had every right in the world to get her revenge on him. However, until last night, I would never have been able to articulate, just why I thought that Blake Carrington was mean to his children. It was quite possibly because the character’s raging homophobia felt wrong to me even as a teenager.

Now my intense teenaged dislike of Blake Carrington was a minority opinion. In general, he was considered the hero of the show along with Krystal, his sainted wife, while Alexis was the villain. Yet here was the heroic Blake Carrington, sprouting the worst sort of homophobic crap at his own son and threatening to take Steven’s baby away from him, just because Steven finally dared to admit that he’s gay. Meanwhile, the supposedly villainous Alexis treats Steven like he’s an actual human being and even the insipid Krystal (okay, so perhaps I was unfair about disliking her) defends Steven against his homophobic father.

But as I watched Blake Carrington tearing into his son for daring to be gay, I just sat there open-mouthed and thought, “Oh my God, how on Earth was this ever okay? How on Earth could a character as disgusting as Blake Carrington ever be considered a hero?” Now the episode I watched dates from approximately 1982/1983 (Steven is already Jack Coleman, but Fallon is still Pamela Sue Martin. Adam, the long lost oldest Carrington son, already exists, but long lost youngest daughter Amanda doesn’t. There is no Diahann Carroll and no Dex Dexter character), i.e. from thirty years ago. And yes, I’m aware that thirty years is a long time.

Nonetheless, it’s stunning to see that thirty years ago a character in what was the most popular show on TV at the time could be a raging homophobe and attack his own son for being gay and still be considered a positive character. A bit of googling also revealed that Blake Carrington also killed one of Steven’s gay lovers in a fit of rage and raped his wife Krystal in the early episodes I never saw (and people wondered why Alexis hated him?). Yet the media in the 1980s always portrayed him as a likable character. Googling “Blake Carrington homophobic” only got me this obituary of actor John Forsythe (who doesn’t deserve to be remembered like this, since he had a long and distinguished career) from 2010.

So even if we haven’t come as far as we should have in many social justice issues, at least a man like Blake Carrington, a rapist, homophobe and murderer, could no longer be considered a hero on TV today.

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5 Responses to Dynasty and socially acceptable homophobia

  1. dref22 says:

    Isn’t JR Ewing the same? He’s horrible and yet people all loved him. 🙂

    I recommend this neat interview of Jack Coleman where he talks about Dynasty, and playing a gay character back in those days : http://www.guyspy.com/life-and-style-choice-jack-colemans-independent-agenda/

    • Cora says:

      But J.R. Ewing was supposed to be a villain, only that audiences loved him because he was so great at chewing the scenery (and because the good guys were rather forgettable). But Blake Carrington was supposed to be a all around good guy and the patriarch of the Carrington clan, whereas the J.R. Ewing like “villain you love to hate” role was the Alexis character played by Joan Collins, who was truly marvelous at chewing the scenery as well. Blake and Alexis played the parents of Steven Carrington, yet supposed good guy Blake was the raging homophobe, while supposed villainess Alexis seemed far more okay with her son’s orientation.

      Thanks for the link BTW. That’s a great interview.

      • dref22 says:

        You’re welcome! I’m interested in Dynasty thanks to Jack Coleman. 😀

        • Cora says:

          Well, Jack Coleman is certainly one of the best things about Dynasty, because he was one of the few cast member who actually can act and also bothered to do so. And his character was interesting, even though the writers never explored him as well as they could have. Still, a gay single Dad in a 1980s soap, that was pretty revolutionary for the time.

  2. Pingback: Dynasty: Blake’s Trial & Homophobia and the Reincarnation of Steven Carrington | Reel Charlie

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