thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Gay Days: Will Horton’s Coming Out Storyline on NBC’s Days of Our Lives

In Television on July 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Guest Contributor Drew Beard

When I was fourteen years old, I was sentenced to a month of doing dishes for getting caught watching the NBC daytime soap Days of Our Lives. My parents didn’t feel that soap operas were appropriate viewing material for a teenage boy such as myself. When I protested that it wasn’t particularly racy or violent, my mother replied that “only old women watch soap operas,” revealing that this was more about genre and gender norms than it was about content (I made that connection even then).

Of course, this didn’t stop me, as my parents both worked and I was home alone after school. I was just more careful about my Days watching—after all, I needed to find out who killed Curtis Reed, and I couldn’t bail in the middle of a murder mystery storyline. In fact, I’ve continued to watch off and on for the past two decades or so, and never tire of pointing out to my parents the futility of their anxiety over a daytime soap like Days and its potentially insidious influence on my development as a young man.

Like sands through the hourglass, anxieties surrounding gender and sexuality, especially queerness, have long been part of how we think about soap operas.

I take this anecdote as my starting point to show how soap operas have long been informed by anxieties surrounding gender and sexuality, especially queerness. Soaps have historically been gendered female and ridiculed as such, considered the province of bored housewives and melodrama-starved gay men. While this demographic stereotype betrays the diversity of the daytime drama audience, it does contain the proverbial kernel of truth. A considerable queer audience exists for daytime soaps, despite the fact that these programs, for the most part, revolve around heterosexual romance along with traditional notions of family and community.

Despite a concentrated introduction of queer characters and their increased visibility in the past decade, queerness in the daytime soap actually dates back to the 1970s, with lesbianism being treated (briefly and rather negatively) in The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives.  All My Children introduced a short-term lesbian character in the early 1980s, and As the World Turns did the same with a gay male character later that decade. However, these characters appeared for a year at most and were not part of the established families on their respective programs. They were written out once queerness, as a “social issue,” had been explored through reactions by heterosexual characters comprising the regular cast.

Beginning in the early 2000s, however, daytime television began to respond to cultural shifts regarding queerness: since the late 1990s, queer characters and “out” celebrities had became more visible in primetime television. All My Children once again featured a character coming out as a lesbian. But this time, it wasn’t a minor character: it was Bianca Montgomery, the teenage daughter of Erica Kane, who happened to be the show’s long-running diva played by Susan Lucci.

In the years that followed, other soaps did the same, depicting members of core families as being attracted to members of the same sex. The Young and the Restless did it with Philip Chancellor III, As the World Turns with Luke Snyder (who became part of the Luke-Noah “supercouple”), General Hospital with Lucas Jones, Passions with Simone Russell, Guiding Light with Olivia Spencer, and The Bold and the Beautiful with Karen Spencer (no relation to Olivia); Passions also revealed the Chad Harris character to be bisexual (then they killed him).

Most of these characters can be considered what soap scholar Sam Ford refers to as “legacy characters,” those belonging to large families represented in each show, “woven into storylines of several generations of other characters.”[1] Of these, All My Children, As the World Turns, Passions, and Guiding Light have all gone off the air; The Young and the Restless and General Hospital have written out their queer characters; and it’s too soon to tell what will happen to Karen on The Bold and the Beautiful, although they have given her a long-term partner, which is promising. While these characters were all embedded in their programs in a way that previous queer characters had not been, queerness remains a contested presence in daytime soaps.

Will Horton gets his first gay kiss. It has to beat kissing that psycho Gabi Hernandez.

For the purposes of this blog entry, I’m less interested in questions of whether these representations are progressive or not, good or bad, realistic or not, than how they attempt to integrate queerness into the series narrative. To this end, I will be specifically looking at Days of Our Lives and its recent coming out storyline for the college-aged Will Horton character (played by Chandler Massey, who just earned a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Younger Actor in a Drama Series).

Joy V. Fuqua’s work on One Life to Live and its treatment of homophobia and AIDS in the early 1990s can provide a framework for thinking about how queerness operates in soap opera. When the genre does deal with queerness, it has historically done so as a social issue or problem, much as it has done with incest, alcoholism, rape, and abortion, among others.[2] Fuqua writes: “Conventionally, the issue du jour is introduced to the soap opera community (Pine Valley, Llanview, Oakdale, etc.) through the arrival of a new and oftentimes marginal or peripheral character.”[3] By doing this, “the network ensured that the representation of a peripheral gay character would not be read as offensive and thus cause loss of audience and advertising revenues.”[4] And should the marginal queer character be read that way and threaten such consequences, he or she can be removed with little difficulty.[5]

Although technically a “legacy character,” Sonny Kiriakis has been less central to the Days narrative and seems to have been introduced to test the waters for featuring a queer character before proceeding with Will’s coming out.

Other characters used to embody social issues, Fuqua states, “are occasionally made a permanent part of the soap opera community if the problematic issue can be ‘disembodied’ or, rather, ‘detached’ from the character.”[6] This might work for a character embodying rape or alcoholism as social issues (problematic or not, these can be minimized or even written out completely over time), Fuqua declares that “the problem of ‘gay sexuality’ can never be disembodied from that same marginal character,”[7] leading to their relatively limited appearances and participation in soap opera narratives.

Will Horton. You know. Before.

Initially on Days of Our Lives, Will was in a dopey relationship with then-ingenue Gabi Hernandez (she now has some poor girl locked up in a basement somewhere). Will was shown being supportive to his friend Sonny Kiriakis, who came out as gay to his crime boss grandfather Victor Kiriakis shortly after he first appeared on the show. Victor proved supportive, as did Sonny’s parents, Justin and Adrienne. While Sonny is a legacy character in that he is part of the Kiriakis family (part of Salem since the mid-1980s), he appears to have been written into the show primarily to test the waters of depicting queerness on the sole surviving NBC soap. Sonny has never been a front-burner character, suggesting the peripheral, tentative nature of queerness described by Fuqua.

Eventually, Days broke up Will and Gabi and began hinting that Will had some questions about his own sexuality. This February, Will shared a same-sex kiss at a party, which he confessed to his psychiatrist grandmother Marlena, but explained it away as the result of being drunk. In the March 27 episode, Will first came out to Marlena (who signaled her acceptance of Will by referencing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” surely one of the most bizarre moments in the history of the series, and that’s saying quite a bit given the history of Days). Will’s father Lucas proved incredibly supportive, mother Sami initially made it all about her (because she’s Sami) before coming around, and grandmother Kate was accepting and even claimed she had known for some time.

The only negative reactions that Will received from family stemmed from their fears of the homophobia he would encounter in Salem. These fears proved accurate when Will experienced some shunning after he was publicly outed by the media, the result of being given an alibi by same-sex date, paradoxically getting him off the hook for shooting the local supervillain, Stefano DiMera.

Will is neither saint nor sinner, and has been given time to come out to his loved ones and himself.

What sets this coming out storyline apart is the amount of time and space it has been given to develop, the focus on Will’s experience of coming out rather than how his family and friends experience his sexuality, and the refusal to rush Will into a same-sex coupling or supercouple. The rather leisurely development of this storyline (it was rumored back in early 2011, almost a year before it really got going, not that Days is known for fast-moving stories) has been attributed to a change in writing teams and the much-ballyhooed “reboot” of the series that occurred in the fall of 2011. Nevertheless, the extended duration afforded this storyline has lent it a more realistic feel than others of its kind, avoiding the “social issue/problem to be solved” feel that had tended to dog earlier soap opera coming out storylines. Coming out is a process, not a story arc fitting neatly into days and weeks and months and television seasons. NBC willing, this process will be playing out for years to come.

The focus on Will’s subjective experience, rather than solely on his straight family and friends’ reactions to his sexuality, has also been instrumental in differentiating the approach taken by Days as it attempts to integrate Will into the storyline not as “Gay Will” but as a complex and rounded character, just like any other Salem resident (after all, he is the great-grandson of gone-butp-not-forgotten town matriarch Alice Horton). Finally, the show has been in no hurry to put Will into a committed relationship. Some may decry this as shying away from actual depictions of queer romance, but let’s face it, not everyone comes out and is ready to pick out curtains and book a church. There is often the feeling that queer characters in these shows are quickly coupled up to assure conservative viewers that, after all, queers are “just like them,” forcing queer characters into the same ideologically problematic romantic situations that cause so much heartache for straights in soap operas.

Will Horton has been given time to come out to himself, the result of his status as a legacy character, with his coming out story woven into a number of prominent or “front-burner” storylines rather than being presented a social issue to be resolved as in the past. Days has also refused to make Will a “nice gay boy” in the manner of Sonny (who is just a little too sunny for my tastes, much like the Matt Fielding character on the 1990s nighttime soap, Melrose Place). Blackmailing (and seemingly flirting with) the underworld-connected EJ DiMera (who was once Will’s stepfather, during which time Will shot him in the head), Will is morally ambiguous, neither saint nor sinner, like most of us are, gay, straight, or otherwise. In other words, in the world of soap opera, he gets to have just as much “fun” as everyone else.[8]

Can this queer legacy character remain front-burner in the months and years to come, or fall victim to writing staff changes or cancellation as many others before him in daytime? Tune in tomorrow: like all coming out stories, Will Horton’s is a work in progress.

Drew Beard recently completed his PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He spends a great deal of time watching old soap operas on YouTube.


[1] Sam Ford, “Legacy Characters and Rich History: How Soap Operas Must Capitalize on Their History and Pay Attention to the Lessons of the WWE,” Convergence Culture.org, last modified November 3, 2006, http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/2006/11/legacy_characters_and_rich_his.php

[2] Joy V. Fuqua, “‘There’s a Queer in my Soap!’: The Homophobia/AIDS Storyline of One Life to Live,” in To Be Continued . . . Soap Operas Around the World, ed. Robert C. Allen (New York: Routledge, 1995), 200.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 205

[5] Ibid., 200

[6] Ibid., 201

[7] Ibid.

[8] While for space and time reasons I chose not to go into extended considerations of this storyline’s reception, for a fair sampling of viewer responses when the storyline was first announced in 2011, see http://michaelfairmansoaps.com/news/ew-com-learns-days-may-have-gay-storyline-in-the-works/2011/03/22/. It seems to have been pretty evenly split down the middle, with some viewers willing to see where the storyline could take a show that many saw as “creatively dead,” while others reacted angrily to the possibility of a queer storyline in Days. This demonstrates that even as the soap opera continues to decline in terms of viewership, there remains much at stake in the representation and reception of queerness in a long-running program such as Days of Our Lives.

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  1. Thanks for the reference, Drew, and nice to see this piece (and to come across something by you!)

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