Twenty five years ago, Celia Kitzinger, Professor of Conversation Analysis, Gender and Sexuality at the University of York argued that the change in psychological research toward a more liberal-humanistic view and representation of lesbians and gay men as ‘just like’ heterosexuals was not, in fact as positive and progressive as it might have seemed. Kitzinger argued that by viewing homosexuals as the same as heterosexuals reinforced a hegemonic (dominate) social structure, and by presenting both lesbians and gay men as a private matter, it neutralized homosexuality and the political challenges that homosexuality carries with it.
The same criticism can be made when it comes to the portrayals, and representations, of homosexual men on television. Most homosexuals grow up in a heteronormative society with few gay role models circulating around them. Television presents a false standard of what queer identity purports to be and homosexuals are susceptible to narrow portrayals of gay people in the mass media. Sexual minorities have gone unnoticed by conventional media and are treated as they do not exist; this keeps sexual minorities invisible to the mainstream media, without voice or power.
This article will look over homosexuality’s depiction within popular television, particularly American sitcoms, where homosexual characters consistently receive homophobic remarks from their fellow cast-members, or are purely to leer at from mainstream audiences. Unsurprisingly, white heterosexual males portray the majority of the representations of homosexual men on television.
If we are to understand how television aims to represent difference, first we must understand the medium of television itself. Television is quintessentially a domestic medium; a central axis in the Western home. As television remains an economic medium, to make a healthy profit it must reach as many audiences as possible. Prior to 1970, virtually no lesbian or gay characters could be found on mainstream television, and their invisibility on television continued through to the 1990s. In recent years, as mainstream attitudes to homosexuality have shifted, the number of shows with leading or recurring gay characters has varied from 16 in the 1997-1998 television season, to 29 in the 2000-2001 season (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
Whilst it is obvious that there has been an incline of openly lesbian and gay (and bisexual) characters on television, it is still relatively and disproportionately small in terms of their representation and population compared to the number of heterosexual characters represented on television. Television producers have continued to create a ‘sassy gay sidekick’ for a female lead and have failed to establish a mutli-faceted character that just happens to be gay. Topical television shows representing homosexuality include, Looking, The L Word, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and Orange is the New Black. Older shows include Ellen and the first ever show to portray a homosexual male, American sitcom Soap.
Soap ran from 1977 to 1981. The show was created as a nighttime parody of daytime soap operas, presented as a weekly half-hour prime time comedy. Jodie Dallas (portrayed by Billy Crystal) was among the first gay characters to appear on television, which visibly gained controversy for Soap and for Billy Crystal. Jodie Dallas, in the first episode is seen dressing up in women’s clothing singing Broadway songs – this implied that homosexual men are effeminate and narcissistic. The opening scene is followed by the first few episodes where Jodie expresses his aspiration to become a woman, providing a sinister insinuation that gay men desire to become female. The program’s dialogue included demeaning and belittling terms to insult Jodie, using words such as “Sissy” and “Homo” to “Tinkerbell” and “Pansy”, which reinforced negative perceptions of homosexuality to an overwhelming hegemonic heterosexual society.
Whilst the show could be commended for its progressivity, the condescending terms and treatment of Jodie sent negative messages that reinforced gay stereotypes and ideology. Soap reinforced conformist views of homosexuality; it depicted same-sex sexuality as a commodity or a fashionable add-on which trivialized and delegitimized homosexuality through cheap, homophobic humour. At such a time when same-sex rights were virtually non-existent and homophobia was a big issue (and still continues to be) the sitcom could be said to be responsible for adding fuel to the already very present homophobic fire.
In the early 2000s, the western world fell in love with Will and Grace, another American sitcom. Will and Grace featured two gay male lead characters with polar-opposite personalities. For this reason, Will and Grace should be praised. However, by watching the sitcom we can discern power imbalances between a generally masculine homosexual, and an over-the-top feminine homosexual. Will and Grace reinforced heterosexual norms and stereotypes by representing gay men as flamboyant, feminine and promiscuous. Will, a more reserved asexual character is contrasted with a more flamboyant, campy Jack, who is made fun of from all characters in the soap, especially from Will himself. Whilst the show contains openly gay humor, Jack, not Will, usually only provides it.
Will and Grace can be criticized for its exploitation of homosexual stereotypes. Through Jack, the show helped establish the loveless, narcissist and insensitive gay stereotype. We can also conclude that Will and Grace negotiates with the hegemonic heteronormative society by making the most important relationships between Will and Jack as heterosocial and quasi-heterosexual, suggesting that same-sex attraction is abnormal. Because Will and Grace fortified gay stereotypes that our society has seemingly created for homosexual men, the show itself has taken away substantial amounts of its credibility.
Modern Family—another sitcom—focuses on an American family. Two members of the family, Cameron and Mitchell, are gay partners with an adopted child, Lily from Vietnam. Like in Will and Grace, the Cameron and Mitchell representation dynamic is much the same as with Will and Jack– Cameron: a flamboyant, typical feminine, house husband (Jack), and Mitchell: a straight acting, masculine lawyer (Will). Cameron’s character is the stereotypical representation of a gay man; he represents the misconception that all gay men are fashionable, funny and flamboyant. Cameron remains throughout seasons the one that we as viewers, laugh at, whilst Mitchell is the one that we laugh with – usually at Cameron. As an audience, we laugh at Cameron because he has a high pitch voice, screams like a girl, has hissy fits and often cries when something slightly upsets him. It should be noted that as an audience (more often than not, heteronormative) it helps that viewers know that Cameron is played by a heterosexual male, which in turn makes it easier for an audience to find the humour funny – knowing it is entirely performed from a straight male.
Over the course of the past years, we can establish that there has been a frequent and recurring rise in heterosexuals hinting at, or experimenting with the same-sex on television. This can be seen in television shows such as Glee, Dexter, United States of Tara and Greys Anatomy. This can be seen as ‘heterofexibility’. Seemingly, television portrayals of homosexual characters, or same-sex attractions, signify a holistic appreciation and celebration of the LGBT community, sexual freedom and diversity. However, ‘heterofexibility’ can be critiqued as these representations often trivialize and depoliticize same-sex sexuality, as these ‘experimentations’ are presented in a way to confirm ones indispensable heterosexuality.
Television remains one of the world’s primary communicator of ideas, and this wields a unparalleled influence on the perceptions of minority groups. As viewers have little or no personal experience with homosexual subcultures, homosexual representation in popular television may perpetuate time-worn stereotypes. It can be suggested that the lack of portrayals and the ongoing negative representations of homosexuality on television may influence the belief among viewers that homosexuality is abnormal and amusing – television shows covered in this article prove this. Research conducted found that television viewing is related to strong pessimistic opinions towards gays and lesbians regardless of viewer’s political and social beliefs. So, the question remains, what are you watching?¹
¹For those of you that are interested you can find out more about changing LGBT media narratives and what to watch from GLAAD