The Worst Gay Guy Ever: A Look at the Influence Television Has on Homosexual Audiences
If an interested party types "homosexuality on televison" into the Google search bar, this thoughtful person will find several sources almost immediately who claim that homosexuality is inaccurately represented in the media. This happens largely through the overuse of stereotypes, which cast gay and lesbian characters a very certain way, even though it seems that presenting gays and lesbians in the mainstream media is an attempt "to break down stereotypes and lead to an acceptance of gay individuals" (Douglas). A glance at a history of homosexuality on television will reveal that homosexual relationships were purposefully marginalized and downplayed, in order to reinforce the societal norm of heterosexuality. Stereotypes were carefully used here to support this aim: "stereotypes of the male gay have been replete in images of powerlessness tied to cultural beliefs surrounding effeminacy. In contrast, images of lesbians have been couched in butch representations, extolling a female threat to masculine power and status" (Manuel 276). One homosexual man, in a private interview declared, "I hate the overly flamboyant gay characters portrayed on tv!" He went on to state that homosexual men are "not all fashionistas and experts at interior design." Steve Sailer suggests that the increasingly intense media scrutiny of homosexuals on television is negative. He says, "The ongoing media hubbub may actually be clouding the public's understanding: so many of today's auto-pilot articles and paint-by-the-numbers newscasts depict homosexuals as merely one dimensional martyrs to prejudice" (Sailer). Clearly, this sort of misinformation gives rise to incorrect understanding of homosexuality and homosexuals among heterosexuals, and certainly must have some affect on homosexuals, themselves. Such a significant cultural message-sender in our society certainly holds sway. As Susan Douglas explains it, "Ideas about what people are like and how they are meant to be understood already prevail in our culture. They give meaning to our sense of self and allow us to position ourselves in relation to others" (Douglas). Douglas explains that even when homosexuality is depicted on television, it is "tailored" to fit a mainstream, mass-media context, whose consumers are primarily heterosexual. Matthew Wood points out that homosexuals are often "categorized" on television, so that they can be recognized as homosexuals. This is done through clothing, gestures, and language that allow viewers to very quickly understand that the character is homosexual (Wood 1). Wood states that, though this categorization is wrong, because it is stereotypical in nature, "it is...important to recognize the need for such categorisation when portraying homosexual characters due to a lack of physical differentiation from other characters" (2). Interestingly, gay sub-cultures have adopted some aspects of these stereotypes as signs amongst themselves. This envelopment of their prescribed stereotypes and willing use of them is a form of resistance to the attempted negative characterization of homosexuality (Wood 4). Stereotypes have great strength, even leading to the accusatory claims that someone who does not fit the stereotypes is "the worst gay guy ever."
Homosexuality in the Media
There are many "alternative" lifestyles common to American citizens today. Naturally, these lifestyles will be reflected in the various media available to consumers. Conversely, media have an effect on consumers that may be just as influencial as the reverse link. According to a report from The Williams Institute, 5.6% of Americans openly identify themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (Gates 3), which means that there are at least this many people directly influenced by media input. It is, therefore, a worthy goal to attempt to discover in what ways media, specifically television, affect the homosexual viewer, and what perceptions they create for homosexual about him or herself. There are two main ways media could be influencing homosexuals: first, the media might portray homosexuality primarily as a deviant behavior, which is something to be ashamed of and/or hidden. Second, homosexuality could be shown in an acceptable or celebratory light, which might be an inaccurate perception when taken into the real world, where homosexuality might not be as acceptable. Both of these scenarios are potentially unhealthy. The first, because shame and secrecy can lead to a host of social, emotional, and physical problems for the person experiencing these feelings. The second situation is equally undesirable, since a false expectation of acceptance in society could lead to feelings of personal inadequacy or shock when these expectations are not met in the real world.
Attempts at Realism
Though television is still rife with stereotypes, there are, perhaps some glimmers of accuracy. Some programs offer insights into both the good and the difficult sides of living a homosexual lifestyle. Some of this is achieved through balance in homosexual characters, as in the show Will and Grace, where the two male homosexual characters play out their homosexuality in different ways-- one in a reserved, doubtful manner, and the other in a loud, "flamboyant" way. The show attempted to introduce realism, according to a Harvard Independent article: "The show also portrayed the trials and tribulations that gay men face when negotiating through life — it isn’t all sunny on the other side of the closet" (Harvard Independent). Indeed, it is the depth of the two characters' personalities that creates the realism in the show (Douglas.) The problem faced by television writers and producers relates to how to include or feature homosexuals without making them so "ordinary" that their sexuality is minimized altogether, or so "different" that their homosexuality becomes stereotypical. Douglas says, "It is difficult to define a ‘typical reality’ or, to put it another way, to recognise a general gay ‘identity’ in which to categorise them" (Douglas). Specific television programs have had positive aspects and moments that are counter-stereotypical. For example, Modern Family discusses gay parents who have succesfully adopted children, while Glee shows a main character being bullied and "coming out" to his supportive father (Harvard Independent). Similarly, in the soap opera, Dynasty, the character, Steven, is presented as "an individual who happened to be gay" (Wood 2). His character was largely unstereotypical, though he did struggle in "coming out" to his father. One suggested problem with some of this sort of equalization of homosexuality on television is that is indicates that homosexuality is inherently inequal to heterosexuality. The Harvard Independent article says, "'normalization' of homosexuality admits that there exists a 'normal' and that there is a socially accepted paradigm of what relationships should be." Wood claims that typing homosexualities the way they often are on television forces the viewer to focus only on their orientation, which reduces them to only being known by their sexuality (4). Clearly authenticity is attempted by balance between identification of homosexuals as such and a sense that there is more to the characters than their sexuality. Further into his interview, the anonymous homosexual man said, "I do...enjoy shows like Glee that embrace homosexuality and raise awareness for LGBTQ youth to be who they really are."
Despite some negative effects of the media's presentation of homosexual characters, there are positive aspects, as well. An NPR article states that "the presence of gay characters on television programs decreases prejudices among viewers" (NPR). The article further suggests that though characters may not meet audiences' expectations of homosexuals, the diversity of gay characters presented there helps viewers get a more realistic idea of how homosexuals truly are-- different from each other, just as heterosexuals are. Attempting to make them fit some prior mold leads to inaccurate portrayals and thus perceptions, "TV shows cannot continue this trend of “normalizing” gay. Gay relationships are different, and every gay relationship is unique. Grouping them all together or tokenizing them does little to improve awareness and acceptance of homosexuality on screen" (Harvard Independent). Manuel posits that, "mainstream media can also be used as a contested space to challenge 'truths' and negotiate power imbalances. It can be differently utilized to offer alternative representations of marginalized identities, and alter the meanings surrounding them" (276). Sailer puts this altering of meanings this way:
We can never eliminate stereotypes. Instead, we should constantly search for more and better stereotypes, ones that more narrowly and accurately describe reality. The alternative is not some utopia without stereotypes, but our current intellectual dystopia, where the broadest, stupidest, and most dishonest stereotypes reign.
Therefore, though some aspects of mainstream media, especially television, paint homosexuality in a stereotypical light, and offer unrealistic expectations to viewers, the same channel can be used to create understanding of both commonality and diversity among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.
Is homosexuality accurately and effectively portrayed in the media?
"I can't be labeled...."
In conclusion, it is clear that television is certainly a major player in how society views homosexuality. The thoughtful researcher is left somewhat at a loss for a concrete answer. There is no doubt that media portrayal is influential, yet how does it influence? How should it? Douglas asks, "In an ever-changing culture, is the gay community in a state of confusion about which direction it wants to go, and how it wants to be represented when it gets there?" (Douglas). In the words of one man, "I like that I can express myself and not live up to what the media portray! I can't be labeled! I'm myself!"
Anonymous, male. Personal interview. 5 Dec. 2013.
Gates, Gary J. “How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender?.” The Williams Institute (April 2011): 1-8. PDF file.
"Homosexuality on TV: Not There Yet." HarvardIndependent.com. The Harvard Independent, September 26, 2012. Web. December 2013.
"How TV Brought Gay People Into Our Homes." NPR.org. NPR, May 12, 2012. Web. December 2013.
Maunel, Sheri L. "Becoming the homovoyeur: consuming homosexual interpretation in Queer as Folk." Social Semiotics 19.3 (2009): 275-291. Print.
"Stereotypes of Homosexuals on Prime Time Televsion." ufl.edu. Douglas, Susan, 2004. Web. December 2013.
"Why Lesbians Aren't Gay." isteve.com. Sailer, Steve, May 30, 1994. Web. December 2013.
Wood, Matthew. “The Portrayal of Gays and Lesbians on TV, and How Viewers React". (December 1996): 1-10. PDF file.