Dallas Isn’t ‘Brokeback Southfork,’ But It’s Pretty Gay

Dallas, Linda Gray, Sue Ellen Ewing

You go, girl

By today’s standards, “Dallas” isn’t a “gay” show. Southfork never hosts a “Brokeback Mountain”-esque love story. There are no same-sex office romances at Ewing Oil. Dusty Farlow wears ascots to keep dust out of his face, not because he’s fabulous.

Yet “Dallas” is very much a show with gay sensibilities. It regularly explores themes – empowerment, identity, gender roles – that resonate with gay audiences, and often in ways that are surprisingly smart.

I didn’t catch a lot of this while watching the show in the 1980s, when I was a pretty confused gay kid. But when I think about those years now, I wonder if “Dallas’s” gay subtext helps explain its appeal to me. Maybe my middle-school gaydar was stronger than I realized.

Kit, But Not Much Kaboodle

“Dallas” makes subtle references to homosexuality in early episodes like “Election,” when J.R. questions Cliff’s close relationship with his male campaign manager, and “Call Girl,” when J.R. creates a scandal by making it look like Pam is involved in a three-way relationship with a man and another woman.

The show stops dancing around the issue in “Royal Marriage,” the 1979 episode where Kit Mainwaring, an oil-and-cattle heir who is secretly gay, breaks his engagement to Lucy and comes out of the closet. This episode, which reflects the ’70s trend toward “socially conscious” television (see also: “All in the Family,” “Lou Grant,” et. al.), is handled with surprising sophistication, making Kit one of prime-time television’s breakthrough gay characters.

Kit is also a footnote: “Dallas” ran 14 seasons and produced 357 episodes, yet he is the only character whose homosexuality is ever acknowledged on the show.

There are only fleeting gay allusions in later episodes. During the sixth season, Lucy wonders if John Ross’s camp counselor Peter Richards is gay because he doesn’t want to date her (she doesn’t realize Peter is in love with Sue Ellen), but the show never again identifies a character as being gay.

This isn’t altogether surprising. Prime-time television mostly retreated to the closet during the AIDS hysteria in the 1980s. Also, once “Dallas” became television’s most-watched show, it embraced its escapist bent and pretty much stopped doing “issues” stories. Both factors probably explain why the producers notoriously dropped plans to make villainess Angelica Nero a lesbian during the 1985-86 season.

Sue Ellen: Icon – and Avatar

The absence of gay characters on “Dallas” doesn’t mean the show lacks characters and storylines gay audiences could identify with. Consider Sue Ellen, whose boozing, philandering and sharp tongue make her an icon among gay fans who love camp.

But Sue Ellen shouldn’t be treated only as a joke. If you consider her arc during the course of the series, she makes an ideal avatar for gay audiences.

When “Dallas” begins, Sue Ellen is the show’s most sexually repressed character. In the first-season episode “Spy in the House,” she tries to spark J.R.’s interest with a sexy negligee, only to have him cast it aside and accuse her of being unladylike. J.R.’s rejection sends Sue Ellen into the shadows, where she finds sexual fulfillment with other men and develops her drinking problem. This double life must have felt familiar to gay men and women who spent the ’70s and ’80s trapped in the closet.

By the end of the Reagan era, when AIDS was galvanizing gay people and giving the gay rights movement new momentum, Sue Ellen finally begins pulling herself together. She quits drinking, embarks on a successful business career and leaves J.R. for good.

During Linda Gray’s final appearance on the show in 1989, Sue Ellen turns the tables on J.R. and tells him off, one last time (“You will be the laughingstock of Texas.”). All “Dallas” fans cheered this moment, but for gay viewers, I suspect it had special meaning. Sue Ellen was standing up to her oppressor at a time when many gay Americans were beginning to do the same – in the voting booth, in the workplace, in the streets.

There’s Something About Gary

“Dallas’s” gay viewers might see themselves in other characters, too.

The series often explores the theme of confused identities. Two notable examples: Pam and Ray each learn they were raised by people who aren’t their biological fathers, and for both characters, this discovery triggers a lot of angst.

“Dallas’s” recurring theme of estranged fathers and sons is probably familiar to a lot of gay men. At various points, Jock has tense relations with each of the Ewing boys, especially Gary.

In fact, the dialogue during Gary’s homecoming in the second-season “Reunion” episodes makes me wonder if the producers were considering making the character gay. Pam points out Gary is “different.” Bobby calls him “gentle.” Lucy says she hopes Val will “straighten” him out. Was this coded language, dropped into the scripts to lay the groundwork for Gary’s eventual coming out?

Maybe, maybe not. But a gay Ewing is an interesting idea to contemplate.

Are you listening, TNT?

Do you consider “Dallas” a gay-friendly show? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. This is a nicely written essay. I was surprised to see how well the Kit story was handled. It’s a shame the show shied away from having more gay characters, but as you said, it’s likely that the AIDS crisis caused a lot of shows to do so.

    • Thanks, honey. I enjoyed writing this one. It’s fun to think about “Dallas’s” gay subtext and why it has such a strong following among gay audiences.

  2. archielipkin@yahoo.com says:

    Nice piece. Dallas has a strong gay following but it doesn’t get talked about as much or explored as Dynasty’s or other shows. I just watched the Kit episode again and it really is amazing in itself. Charlene Tilton gives one of her very best performances, she proves herself as an capable actress and one of the show’s best assets. The script is a wonder, and manages a feat it seems no one else could do at the time, it actually features the subject without ever having to be insulting or degrading to gays. Even JR’s reaction, which could have sunk to a low level, manages to be somewhat respectful. It’s a life-affirming episode, and supportive all the way through. It’s nice that the Bobby Ewing character, the moral center of the show, implies to the audience how they should handle the situation. Kit is never treated with disgust- and back then, it was common to do so. It’s a great episode.

    Both Sue Ellen and JR are campy characters in many ways and easily attractive to a gay audience. JR’s witty bitchy dialogue is a delight and he can be as vicious as Sue Ellen is tragic in the early days. The show has many qualities a gay audience would be receptive to.

    • Thank you for this comment! It sounds like we’re very much on the same wavelength. The “Royal Marriage” is a sentimental favorite of mine, but I also feel like it doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. The depiction of Kit is really progressive and holds up surprisingly well. If you haven’t read my critique of that episode, I hope you’ll check it out: https://dallasdecoder.com/2012/05/07/critique-dallas-episode-26-royal-marriage/

      I also like your point about J.R. being witty and bitchy. Very true. His one-liners put him in a league with many other gay icons. (Bea Arthur, I’m looking at you.)

      Thanks again.

      Chris B.

    • Anonymous says:

      I just watched that episode- I’ve been watching Dallas 2.0 and it made me nostalgic (in college in the 90’s my friends and I used to drink etc while watching Dallas reruns) so I searched online looking for contemporary opinions on how the gay storyline was handled. I’m so glad I found this post! Yes, it was surprisingly sophisticated and relatively, for the time, unhomophobic (sic?). I agree with archielipkin’s comment about JR even being fairly respectful, considering he could have been WAY worse. It was clear though that he considered Kit’s homosexuality becoming public an issue that would bring shame upon everyone in his life, which would be disappointing now, but for 1979 on network TV is impressive (not that there was anything but network TV in those days). Money is the all important thing to him, So JR’s ‘acceptance’ speaks more to his greed than his compassion.
      Thank you for posting on this.

  3. “Dusty Farlow wears ascots around his neck to keep thus dust out of his face, not because he’s fabulous.”
    LOL! Thank you for that comment. I’m rewatching Season 5 as we speak and I love Dusty’s unwavering devotion to his ascots.

    Ok, now I’m off to read the rest of your article, but I had to stop and appreciate that line!

  4. Interesting thoughts about Gary – too bad that idea wasn’t explored on the series, but I guess the time was just too early…

    • Yes, it would have been pretty groundbreaking to make Gary gay in 1978. I do think it’s time for a gay Ewing, though. Perhaps one of John Ross or Christopher’s half-siblings will turn out to be gay. It’s time, “Dallas”!

  5. I completely agree with your opinion and I remember 3 more scenes with lgbt context. First was when Lucy asked Jimmy, the lost Barnes-Mohanan cousin if he liked men at the first Ewing Barbecue. He said ‘yes’ or ‘sure’ while eating. And she said ‘not in that way. THAT way’. And Jimmy asked ‘what way?’. Lucy: ‘you know.. Oh forget it’ she left and we see that he was clearly teasing her. Other scene was somewhere in season 3 or 4, I dont know exactly, when the Ewings were all at dinner table except Lucy that was at Muriel’s and Jock implied somehow if she was a lesbian because they were always together. All the Ewings laugh. I dont recall if it was the same great scene Jock said ‘Muriel? I didnt know people still used that name nowadays!’ classic. The other one was way to the final seasons when Michelle Stevens arrived at Dallas in one of her first scenes with Bobby. I think Bobby was trying to protect Cliff from her but he didnt explain why he’s doing that. Michelle asked what type of relationship they had. Bobby was somehow evasive and she asked if they were together! It was amazing her looks, lol.

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  1. […] course, I’ve had a soft spot for Sue Ellen since I was a kid. I’ve come to see the character as an avatar for the gay rights movement, but the truth is, Sue Ellen serves as a stand-in for anyone who has ever had to stand up for […]

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