Heroes lovers, here is a mid-season surprise for you: Zach is not gay.
An NBC publicist told AfterElton in a phone conversation that Zach "is not gay", that it was something that was "for sure" and "in all certainty." AfterElton contacted NBC for confirmation after being told by Thomas Dekker's management (Dekker plays Zach), the character of Zach is absolutely straight.
For those that have followed the show closely and taken even a cursory look at NBC's marketing efforts around the show (which have repeatedly insinuated, implied and led most viewers to believe that the character is gay), this is interesting—and troubling—news.
What does it mean when a network's website portrays a character as gay, and yet the publicity department suddenly claims that he isn't? Or when the series creator and writer are quoted in an interview conducted before the show premieres that the character is, indeed, supposed to be gay? [Ed. Note: See creator Tim Kring's response to the controversy on the AfterElton.com blog.] That's not even factoring in all the loaded dialogue and the character's gay-friendly Myspace page (how many straight teens love Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Velvet Goldmine, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch?). Is it possible for a character's very sexuality to be mis-marketed? Or is there a different, more disturbing situation occurring?
While hats are off to Dekker for landing the plum lead role in the upcoming Terminator spin-off series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles (as announced on Thursday), it does make one wonder exactly where the pressure to bury the character's gayness might have come from.
Two scenarios seem the mostly likely: for unknown reasons, NBC suddenly shied away from the idea of a gay character. Or Dekker's management wanted Zach to be straight. (Dekker's management declined to comment on the topic.)
Considering that Dekker has notably played gay on television before – in a hilarious turn as an obsessed gay teen fan on the short-lived 90210 satire Grosse Point – why should there be any concern on his part with playing gay? Indeed, so many actors have now done so it seems hard to believe it should be an issue for any actor. It's beyond disheartening to think that in 2006, a peripheral character's sexuality could be such a volatile matter for studios, actors, and management – particularly when it's obviously not an issue for the show's fans.
As for NBC, the network wasn't able to explain exactly how Zach got “gayed” in the promotional materials, but they suggest that it's all some kind of miscommunication. However, in the entertainment industry, where shows, careers, and breakout phenomena are based on a myriad of interlocking, carefully-thought out parts, “miscommunication” can mean anything from a genuine “mistake” to “change of mind.”
A few things are clear, and can be backed up by evidence from interviews with the show's creators and in the show's official publicity materials: Zach was conceived as a gay character, he was developed as a gay character, and as of the November 20th “Homecoming” episode, he was a gay character. And yet a decision was made by someone – be it studio execs, talent management, or otherwise – to “straighten him out”. To get a better idea of how the character of Zach – or perhaps more importantly, public perception of Zach – has changed over the last few months, let's pull a Hiro Nakamura and jump back in time…
Zach appears in the series' very first episode as the newfound best friend and only confidante of Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere), a Texas cheerleader who has recently discovered that she has the ability to regenerate instantly. What by all rights should be a peripheral, two-dimensional role (each of the other “heroes” has their own rather unrealized sidekicks) manages to be more than that thanks in no small part to Dekker.
Zach is an awkward but surprisingly self-assured kid whose sensitivity makes his sexuality a subject for debate with the other kids at school. In the first episode of Heroes, there's a crack about Zach getting an erection in the locker room – typical high-school gay-baiting. Zach doesn't operate within the school hierarchy – he's a loser who hangs out with a pretty cheerleader, and for that he's labeled an outsider.
Gay viewers are used to seeing unfortunate, misunderstood straight boys getting gay-baited because they don't play sports and having to suffer the apparent indignity of being considered homosexual. This is nothing new; given it is 2006, it's actually a bit tired. But Heroes opted to go in a decidedly different direction with Zach. A few episodes later, when Claire is debating what she should do about her horrible secret, Zach asks her if she is planning on “coming out” to her parents – as a superhuman. Interesting wording for a character whose sexuality is under apparently very public scrutiny.
This hardly serves as proof Zach is gay. After all, superhero comics (upon which Heroes is modeled) have long made the parallel between “otherness” and homosexuality. That's one of the reasons that the form is so attractive to gay youths
But in the November 20th episode of Heroes (titled “Homecoming”) Claire and Zach are walking through school when a rival cheerleader says something about Claire taking the “gay-boy” to the Homecoming dance, and that maybe he should be the one wearing the tiara. Claire punches the girl in the face, knocking her out cold.
Later in the episode, Zach climbs into Claire's window to encourage her to go to the Homecoming dance, despite being grounded. When she asks if he wants to be her date, he says he can't, for “millions of reasons”. He then launches into a heart-to-heart that is both encouraging to gay teens and incredibly frustrating in its refusal to commit.
Claire asks if he can't be her date because of what the other cheerleader said, and Zach says that he doesn't care what she said, that he knows who he is and is proud of it. He's more worried about Claire, who can't come to terms with her own “otherness”. He says, “You've got to embrace your inner freak … the only thing you'll regret is denying who you really are.”
Many viewers took that exchange as Zach's coming out.
Technically, he never says “I'm gay”, but even NBC's website was fooled by all the subtext – its official recap of the “Homecoming” episode states that Zach “stammers with his reply, admitting that he's gay”. At least it did. NBC recently edited those words out of the transcript. If the network's own marketing efforts can't get the facts straight, it's not outlandish to think that millions of viewers may have been led to the same apparently erroneous conclusion.
Further evidence that Zach is gay can be found on Zach's Myspace page, which is presumably maintained by NBC. Zach's Myspace handle is “Zachtothefuture,” and his page lists his Orientation as “Not Sure”, his favorite movies as Rocky Horror, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine, Withnail and I. His blog also include the comments “I'm still not interested in Claire, trust me”.
Zach's Myspace page also features a large number of gay and gay-friendly peers that Zach has in his network – many of whom appear to be actual Myspace users who weigh in with supportive comments after the episodes.
Comments like “Just know that you are special, too!”, “There are rumors going around that you're gay. That's so cool! I'm all for that!”, and “It's 2006 – people don't care about this kinda stuff anymore” are all over the place. It's interesting to note that there's not one derogatory or potentially gay-bashing comment on the site – although of course the comments could be monitored by the show's publicity department.
It is significant that NBC publicists have decided to tickle viewers gaydar via the internet. The use of Myspace, an immensely popular site for teenagers, for a teen character's personal blog is a pointed targeting of young viewers. Teens are more likely than anyone to check out Zach's blog and see both his dealing with his sexuality and the support that he's found through his online buddies. And for a gay teen going through a similar process, that could be enormously validating.
But the network-sponsored Myspace page isn't where the discussion ends. Message boards have been discussing Zach's sexuality and his relationship with Claire for months.
All of this begs a question: if the character was never gay in the first place, where did all these insinuations, hints, and outright declarations of his gayness come from? In interviews that took place prior to the series' premiere, creator Tim Kring and openly gay writer Bryan Fuller explicitly stated that Zach's character was intended to be gay (a fact that would be revealed later in the season) but that NBC network executives seemed resistant to the idea.
Kring noted in an interview with Out Magazine by Matthew Breen that, “it's always been a battle with networks on that sort of thing. There's a subversiveness that you're forced to think about these things with. You try to come in through a side door.” In this case, it looks as though even the side door has been barred – an interesting thing to happen on the network that did so well with Will & Grace just a few years back.
It's nothing new for a television show to lead viewers along with misdirection and red herrings in order to keep them tuning in. But using a character's potential sexuality – particularly a teen character – flirts with exploitation. Is it advisable to engage the vested interests of young gay people at an extremely volatile and confusing time of their lives and then reveal that they had been identifying with someone who wasn't gay after all, but merely a marketing gimmick?
Likewise, for a sprawling genre show not to feature a gay character is no big deal – in fact, it's the norm. Lack of representation isn't the issue here (or, at least, not the specific issue).
What's troubling is the fact that a character apparently conceived as gay (as explicitly stated by the creator and writer, although they noted that they hadn't discussed the idea with the actor playing Zach at the time), written as gay (his repeatedly being called gay and never denying it, as well as his pointed lack of interest in Claire, are among many less-than-subtle suggestions), and promoted as gay (both on NBC's website and the fake Myspace page for the character) has seemingly and suddenly been forced back into the closet.
These contradictions lead one to wonder how exactly the character of Zach went from proud gay teen to suddenly straight. Given Dekker's likely exit from the show for his new gig (and considering what happened to him in the mid-season finale), Zach might soon be a moot point anyway, gay or straight. Watching a character's sexuality become the casualty of a marketing mistake is unfortunate, but the idea that Zach's de-gaying might have been the result of a calculated decision is more than simply disappointing, particularly for a character that gay teens could so easily identify with.
Whatever the reason—NBC's anxiety over portraying an out gay teen or fear about the impact of the role on Dekker's future—the manner in which the sexuality of Zach's character has been handled both on the show and in the publicity materials is insensitive at best, exploitative at worst. Viewers are used to losing beloved characters to the villains on these shows – it's part of their drama.
But it's a shame that helping a gay teen character hold on to his sexuality was apparently one feat that these Heroes couldn't manage.