Pop culture gets a lot of credit for expanding support for LGBT rights by distributing sympathetic depictions of gay characters to huge audiences, sometimes before those viewers had experiences with people they knew to be gay in real life. Vice President Joe Biden cited the sitcom “Will and Grace” in announcing his support for marriage equality. Ellen Degeneres’ coming out and continued success in the entertainment industry helped change perceptions about the commercial viability of gay characters and the power of LGBT people to move product–she’s a spokeswoman for J.C. Penney. And more recently, breakout “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox has used her platform to call attention to the particular challenges that trans people face.

This undated image released by A&E shows Phil Robertson from the popular series
Phil Robertson, star of the popular series “Duck Dynasty.”  (AP Photo/A&E,)

All this attention to LGBT characters and actors, though, ignores another important question: How has pop culture treated characters who hate, fear, or simply don’t understand gay people? The death of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, which distinguished itself as one of the nastiest anti-gay organizations in the country, comes at a time when openly homophobic characters in pop culture are not the threats they might have been. Instead, they are often simply ridiculous. That trend is part of a long cultural process of not just portraying gay people as normal and unthreatening, but of painting homophobia as distasteful and embarrassing.

Mass culture has a long tradition of treating people who are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with gay people as if they’re ignorant but educatable, rather than actively harmful. That trope is convenient, because audiences who would likely reject a portrayal of their own ideas as vicious and damaging might more easily identify with characters who seem capable of being educated, and behaving better in the future.

In the “Cheers” episode “The Boys in the Bar,” which aired in 1983, former baseball player Sam Malone (Ted Danson) supports a former teammate when the other man comes out of the closet, but must deal with his regulars’ concerns that Cheers will become a gay bar, and that they will no longer be comfortable there. When Diane tells the regulars that there are gay men in the bar at that very moment, the regulars fixate on a table of customers they have not seen before and try to chase them out. But it turns out that they have gone after the wrong men. Two actual gay men step up from the remaining crowd to plant kisses on Norm Peterson (George Wendt). His response? A shrug, and “Better than Vera,” Norm’s wife.

“The crew LOVED ‘Boys in the Bar,’” Ken Levine, who co-wrote the episode, recalled of a crucial test of the script almost three decades later. “Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.”

Norm is far from the only classic sitcom character who survived his encounter with gay people no worse for wear. On “The Golden Girls” Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) discovered that she could live with the prospect of her brother marrying another man once she sat with the idea for a few minutes. And “All in the Family” drew a clear distinction between Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton), who came to accept her cousin Liz’s partner Veronica after spending some time speaking to her, and her husband Archie (Carroll O’Connor), who is nasty and aggressive. Edith ultimately manages to moderate Archie’s behavior by telling him she can’t believe he would expose Veronica just to get custody of a tea set .But the episode ultimately emphasizes how little he is capable of changing.

In a darker convention, violently anti-gay characters in pop culture sometimes turn out to be homosexual themselves. That idea has shown up in movies and television for decades. In “Cruising,” the 1980 William Friedkin serial killer movie, Al Pacino plays a detective who goes underground in leather bars to track a serial killer. By the end of the film, there are suggestions both that the experience has unlocked parts of his own sexuality that were previously dormant, and that he has begun emulating the murderer, perhaps to the point of violence. Nineteen years later, the suburban drama “American Beauty” ends with a deeply closeted gay man, a retired Marine (Chris Cooper), murdering a neighbor who rejected his advances (Kevin Spacey). On FX’s crime drama “The Shield,” a closeted cop, Julien Lowe (Michael Jace) administers a severe beating to a transgender prostitute with HIV who bit his female partner. His enthusiasm is both an expression of self-loathing, and a way to inoculate himself from being the target of homophobic violence again, as he was earlier in the series.

There is real power in the idea that trying to destroy a part of yourself comes at a cost, and that it may lead you to harm others. But ultimately, the trope is only a limited critique of homophobia. Confronting characters who violently attack LGBT with the truth about their sexuality still relies on the idea that being exposed as gay is a humiliating, dangerous thing.

More recently, these depictions have given way to another characterization. Now, anti-gay characters who pop up in movies and television are often merely ridiculous. In “Saved!” a 2004 satire of evangelical Christianity, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), a devout, popular student at the Christian school where much of the movie is set, clings to her belief that homosexuality is a sin to maintain her conviction that she is more devout and deserving than her peers, even as her senior year fails to proceed the way she hoped. Ryan Murphy, the showrunner who created both “Glee” and “The New Normal” trots this idea out frequently. On “Glee,” cheerleading coach-turned-principal Sue Sylvester (out lesbian Jane Lynch) spouts wildly creative homophobic insults at gay students, but she hates them for other reasons, too, and homophobia is only part of her generalized, eccentric nastiness.  In “The New Normal,” Ellen Barkin plays an Ohio Republican who is horrified when her daughter decides to be a surrogate for a gay couple who want to have a child. In both shows, homophobia is a kind of cruelty that is defanged by its own ridiculousness. Camp, that particularly gay cultural tone, colonizes anti-gay sentiment and neutralizes it.

And on reality television, homophobia has become a quick way for a show to define a villain. Last summer, CBS included racist and anti-gay comments captured on the “Big Brother” live feeds that broadcast from the house 24 hours a day in the episodes that aired on television. But homophobia can also be an irritant. When GQ published a long profile of the family that stars in A&E’s hit “Duck Dynasty” last December, patriarch Phil Robertson suggested that some of his beliefs, including his bewilderment about sex between gay people, had been censored to make him more palatable.

To be sure, homophobia can still be lethal, whether anti-gay bullying is driving students to suicide, or legal restrictions on same-sex sexual contact are undermining HIV treatment programs in Africa. But in pop culture, homophobia shows up less as a trait of educated, sophisticated people, like the Main Line lawyers who were the villains in HIV drama “Philadelphia,” and more as a trashy, petty expression of powerlessness. Fred Phelps may have believed his hatred for gay people marked him as godly. But long before his death, he was fighting that battle in a mass culture that had decided that his viewers were marginal and ridiculous.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.