LGBTs on TV - does it get better?

by Douglas  Baulf
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Feb 7, 2011

'It gets better'... or so Dan Savage's campaign keeps telling us. However with what can only be described as 'endemic' homophobic bullying in schools in both the United States, and my native United Kingdom, you can forgive the kids who are struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. While Savage's campaign is entirely commendable, it can only do so much.

You have to look to a more ubiquitous media source as an agent of change on both sides of the pond.

"TV remains the medium used by most of Britain's young people, despite the predictions of its demise in an age of social media. Still watched by millions, it's helping shape shared social attitudes for decades to come" says Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the British LGBT charity 'Stonewall'.

According to 2010 reports released by both Stonewall in the UK and GLAAD in the United States, television has a lot of work to do in its efforts to depict gay characters and gay culture in a 'positive and realistic way'. The reports highlight a transatlantic problem. According to Stonewall's report 'Unseen on Screen', Gay youth are growing up in a society in which they are virtually invisible on TV, and where they are indeed visible, more often than not they are depicted in a negative or derogatory way. This negative representation is fuelling anti-gay rhetoric in Britain's schools. Consequently it would seem that television matters, and in an enormous way.

Stonewall's report found that half of all portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual people was stereotypical, including gay people depicted as figures of fun, predatory or promiscuous. An alarmingly small 46 minutes out of 126 hours of television portrayed gay people positively or realistically. More troubling still was that the internationally renowned BBC, funded by the British tax payer, offered just 44 seconds of 'positive and realistic' output in more than 39 hours of TV. It would also seem that on screen representation is almost solely male. More than three quarters (77 per cent) of portrayal of gay people depicted gay men. Just one fifth (21 per cent) of portrayal depicted lesbians. Oh, and don't even ask about transgendered people. They were utterly invisible.

Not much rosier in the U.S.

The situation isn’t much rosier on this side of the Atlantic. GLAAD recently carried out their annual survey on gay television characters for the year 2010. While the results were no where near as disheartening as those gathered by Stonewall, it would seem that American television, like its European cousin, has a lot of work to do. The survey found that of the 587 series regular characters counted across 84 programs on the five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC), 23 are LGBT, an increase of five from 18 LGBT characters counted in the previous year. While the increase in characters is unarguably an encouraging thing, 23 out of 587 seems somewhat minute. Even more problematic is the fact that some networks are doing a hell of a lot more than others. CBS for example scored a paltry 0.8% in the overall rankings. Compare this to leader of the pack ABC, who scored 7.2% with 11 LGBT characters, and it becomes clear that equal representation across the board of networks has yet to be achieved.

Stonewall and GLAAD have cultivated surveys that are enough to shake the most devout optimist. But lets take a step back for a second and have another look at the results. They certainly raise a few questions. Stonewall’s study especially places emphasis on the importance of ’positive’ and ’non-stereotypical’ representation.

But what exactly constitutes positive representation? We can all agree that ’negative’ representation pertains to depictions of homophobia that go unchallenged. The words ’gay’, ’queer’ and of course ’fag’ have become stalwarts on TV and film. Gay people have and continue to be the butt of a lot of jokes, and television and movie producers, more often than not continue to rely on lazy stereotypes. Think Will and Grace, and the overtly flamboyant Jack, or the figuratively castrated Will; forever defining himself through his straight best friend. However, does the term ’negative representation’ extend to the representations that depict gay characters struggling with their sexuality?

British soaps :: well-rounded is boring

We can gauge a sense of where Stonewall stand on the issue. During their survey ’Unseen on Screen’ they spoke with a 16 year old girl. "TV gives the wrong view of gay people because every storyline is about them being beaten up and discriminated against. They are never accepted by their family. In real life they just want to fit in," she told them. In recent years, British soap operas especially have tackled the issue of ’coming out’, and the inevitable pain and confusion this brings. On British television, soap operas attract significantly higher viewing figures than in the United States. Far from being relegated to the doldrums of late morning television, British soaps are shown in the evening and consequently have a much greater impact on public perceptions regarding homosexuality.

As I write this, several high profile storylines featuring gay characters are running on British soaps, all of which include elements of difficulty and emotional drama. The BBC’s flagship soap Eastenders recently featured a controversial storyline involving their token gay character, gym addict and sexual predator Christian (John Partridge), and newcomer Syed Masood (Marc Elliot). Syed being Muslim, is subjected to an internal battle between what he believes is morally correct, and what he desires sexually. What ensued was months of deception as he cheated on his fiancé Amira, with the besotted personal trainer. After all was revealed Syed was disowned by his family, and now remains in a (somewhat) stable relationship with Christian.

Over on network Channel 4, their signature soap Hollyoaks is currently running two groundbreaking storylines with LGBT themes. Resident thug Steven Hay (Kieron Richardson) has found himself embroiled in a violent relationship with gangster Brendan Brady (Emmett J. Scanlan) and local teenager Jasmine (Victoria Atkin) has recently ’come out’ as Jason, shocking the suburban middle-class village with her new gender identity. ITV’s rural soap Emmerdale, also no stranger to tackling gay storylines, has recently shown Aaron’s emergence from the closet. In a journey fraught with difficulty born out of the fear of the potential damage to his hyper-masculinity, Aaron (Danny Miller) attempted to take his own life.

In each storylines, our protagonists have battled homophobia and prejudice; both internally and externally. By dramatizing the heartache that is an inevitable consequence of coming out, are soaps and dramas doing more harm than good? "That is a dilemma facing continuing drama and soap," says Gareth McLean, soap columnist for British publication The Radio Times and contributor to The Guardian. "Depicting happy, settled, and well rounded gay characters is, well kind of boring. Lets be honest, no one fares particularly well in soap opera."

Struggle is good

Indeed, why should gay characters lead exclusively stable and happy lives? Do they not deserve storylines which leave them as screwed up as everyone else? The depiction of gay characters struggling to be accepted can only be a good thing (sorry Stonewall). The journey of self discovery, no matter how tortuous, is an affirmative process. The storylines not only work to educate an often clueless straight majority on gay issues and culture, but also offer young LGBT people role models, that work to let them know that they are not alone in their confusion and anxiety.

The hazy definition of ’positive representation’ in Stonewall’s investigation wasn’t the only flaw detected. Stephen Brook, journalist and writer for premier British gay magazine Attitude, observed that the survey was problematic on account of the decision to survey such a limited period of television, as well as focusing on network television only, and not the multiple digital channels on offer (digital channels being tantamount to cable channels on this side of the pond ).

"The report defended its decision to ignore digital and pay TV and survey an extremely limited period, but it remains a fact that this snapshot missed out on so much" he argued.

Indeed it did. British soap and continuing drama has come leaps and bounds in the past 10 years or so. Gay characters are not only highly visible, but many are complex, devoid of stereotype and presented as being sexual entities; just like the straight characters. On Britain’s longest running and most iconic soap Coronation Street, Sophie Webster (Brooke Vincent) has recently embarked on a tender romance with best friend Sian Powers (there are indeed some lesbians, and on a show with enviable ratings too) and a few short years ago Hollyoaks featured one of its most successful storylines of all time; the romance between John-Paul McQueen (James Sutton) and Craig Dean (Guy Burnett).

Craig, portrayed as straight for years beforehand, found himself inexplicably falling in love with his best friend, the openly gay John-Paul. The storyline was immensely popular (it can be seen in its entirety on YouTube if you’re interested) winning a Stonewall award and earning legions of fans. What made the storyline unique was that both characters shattered stereotypical misconceptions of what gay guys are like; both personified what many deem to be ’straight’. This coupled with the fact that their romance was dealt with in an explicit way ( there was kissing and sex) in the early evening time slot of 6.30pm, and was viewed by a young audience, meant that the storyline was seminal in the fight to represent gay characters realistically, and above all else, honestly.

Gareth McLean notes that "Society (in terms of its attitudes towards homosexuality) has certainly moved on in the past 10/15 years or so. I think television has led that and represented that."

Back in the USA

But how far have we come in the States? The answer is that we are in a position akin to that in the UK. We are getting there too, albeit slowly. This is more than a tad remarkable in a country where the religious right bares an enormous influence over the socio-political landscape, and organizations like the Parents Television Council continue to breathe down the necks of network producers; factors which simply don’t come into play in the acutely secular United Kingdom. The soap opera remains the vice of those at home during the day, meaning that serial dramas and comedies are the mediums that make the biggest impact on American public perceptions.

In terms of diverse, complex, and honest (and by this I of course mean sex, and lots of it ) representations, the place to be is cable. After Queer as Folk set the bar with its deliciously explicit depictions of serial man eater Brian Kinney’s (Gale Harold ) sexploits, producers at channels such as Showtime and HBO have been given free reign to employ gay characters and make them integral parts of its dramatic programming.

If you want a really gay show then look no further than HBO’s True Blood. As GLAAD have observed, the show currently has a respectable 6 LGBT characters and it certainly doesn’t shy away from depicting gay sex in all its glory. Many other characters are sexually ambiguous (cast your minds back to that scene featuring Swedish Demi-God Alexander Skarsgard ). A prominent gay couple on the show, Lafayette and his new boyfriend Jesus, are both of color (Lafayette is African American and Jesus is Latino), which satisfies a demographic that is severely underrepresented on other programmes. Lafayette especially undermines engrained societal notions about gay masculinity, and is consistently represented as a strong, independent, assertive, and for the most part accepted individual within his provincial Southern town. More significant still is the fact that he simply isn’t defined by his sexuality. He is drug dealer and general bad ass first and gay man second.

Skins crosses over

MTV’s Skins (a rehashing of the phenomenally successful British original) features Tea Marvelli, a lesbian cheerleader, in a role that not only represents female homosexuality, but also assaults the stereotype of the butch or masculine lesbian. Interestingly, though, the major change between the British and American version is the elimination of its sole male gay character, Maxxie, replaced with the lesbian Tea.

Other new shows that feature lead LGBT characters include Greek (Calvin Owens is another gay character of color ), The United States of Tara, Shameless, Nurse Jackie, and Pretty Little Liars amongst others.

Network television isn’t doing quite as well.

"Unfortunately, while the number of characters is increasing, many members of our community still do not see stories reflecting their lives. It is troubling that the broadcast networks will not feature even one black LGBT character or one transgender character in the upcoming primetime lineup" said GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios.

Despite this, networks shows are working hard to develop more complex and convincing gay characters. On ABC shows Brothers and Sisters and Grey’s Anatomy leading characters such as Kevin Webster and Dr. Callie Torres are presented in long-term and committed relationships ( Kevin is in fact married to Scotty and Callie was dating Dr. Arizona Robbins ).

Producers at ABC haven’t shied away from depicting the physical side of the relationships either. In fact, Grey’s Anatomy recently featured a steamy guy-on-guy kiss between a soldier and his dying boyfriend; a bold statement in the context of ongoing debates over ’Don’t ask don’t tell’.

90210 and Glee

Teen drama 90210 is also setting a positive example with its recent coming out story. Viewers have witnessed Abercrombie and Fitch model wannabe Teddy Montgomery (played by the chiseled Trevor Donovan) embarking on a relationship with the openly gay Ian (Kyle Riabko), and over on the sickly sweet Glee Chris Colfer plays the lovable Kurt Hummel, a role which has very recently earned him a Golden Globe award. What is noteworthy about Glee is that it refuses to just depict a gay character. It also attempts to tackle issues that are pertinent to the gay community, such as gay bullying; an issue that is especially pressing given the recent teen suicides.

Dramedies such as the darkly comedic Desperate Housewives and the painfully witty Modern Family also feature leading gay characters. They are all however male, which again works to remind us that we have some way to go.

The fact remains that, while progress is undoubtedly slow with regards to ’positive and realistic’ representation of gay characters, TV networks are beginning to listen. On both British and American screens, soap and continuing drama are developing characters and storylines that more accurately reflect the lives of LGBT characters, which in turn positively influence public perceptions of the gay community. While much needed reports by organizations like Stonewall and GLAAD undoubtedly cast a shadow over the progress that has been made, we must bare in mind that progress towards justice is a slow journey. TV has come a long way when it comes to all things gay, especially since the Reagan induced silence of the 1980s, and it will more than likely come even further in the years ahead. In fact, it wouldn’t be naïve to believe that things may well and truly ’get better’.


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