LGBT+ in Media: The Solution Lies in the Cause
When we are born, we are born the same. We are clean slates, without difference, without label, without judgement. We just are. We are not born religious. We are not born with political affiliation. We are not born racist or sexist or intolerant and we are not born with hate in our hearts or a drive to find what separates us. We are born the same – one, human, equal – and it is the strongest connection we will ever have to one another. But eventually we all forget this, and we divide. Because we are taught.
We are taught by our elders that we are too young to know what is best, just as they were taught by theirs. We are taught to adhere to an expired guideline that has been handed down by generations who believed they had it all figured out. We are taught by the religious opinions and political experiences of others when we should be taught to observe, self-educate and then trust our own instincts. We are all influenced – effectively brainwashed – by our parents, by religious, political and educational systems, by everything around us from the moment we are able to understand the concepts each of them present.
We are taught that we are not enough. We are taught what is normal, accepted, okay. We are shown what is the standard and we are taught that to be anything else is to be unworthy, feared, ridiculed, unhappy. We are taught categories in which to file ourselves and through this life-long process, the divide pushes us further and further apart. We have been taught to be afraid of who we are, to patch over our supposed weaknesses by consuming what the world is selling. Life is one long sales pitch and we’re all scrambling for the ideal, and the truly tragic thing is that we will never know what our true ideal would have – could have – been without these exterior influences.
Media is one such exterior influence, and one of our loudest. Its power has been used for centuries to sway, control and sell ideals. It has the ability to unite or divide, spread love or hate. It can create worldwide change for the better while possessing the same power to fuel wars. It has the power to influence how you see yourself, how you see others, how you observe concepts you have no prior knowledge of and even those you do. It is both mighty and terrifying, capable of great beauty and tremendous evil. It is a coin with two sides and a person at the top of the chain controlling how it lands.
Homophobia has been taught. It has been observed, preached and enforced as far back as 609BC when King Josiah of Judah outlawed the practice of what he deemed were homosexual religious rites – which, incidentally were the practices of Assyrian male priests who chose to imitate the goddesses they loved and worshiped. Hebrews already viewed sex, genitalia and nudity in general as shameful and these combined attitudes sealed a concept that bled through into various religious texts over the centuries, which were then fuelled by politics and the media, and resulted in the campaign against the LGBT+ community we still have today. It is mildly horrifying to think that the intolerance we know is the result of one person; a person who decided the acts of others were embarrassing to the person he was – and then formed a concept with which he could control others into thinking the same.
This concept has been carried through hundreds of years and into the subconscious of those who decide what we see on our screens. It’s unbelievable that this message of hate and discrimination is still being pumped at us on a day-to-day basis. It’s even more disheartening when it’s so frustratingly clear that the problem also holds the solution. Homophobia and its variations are fuelled by the content we see in our media. Our films and television shows are the only resources many people have about the LGBT+ community and it helps shape their opinion of it, which is a damaging reality for those who do not know members of the community in real life and don’t understand that we are all the same. Human.
Recent studies have shown that those who are not exposed to people of the LGBT+ community in real life situations are influenced by the LGBT+ characters they see on screen. It’s a window of opportunity to positively exploit, there for the picking. Film and television – Hollywood in particular – quite literally hold the power to turn homophobia on its head. But is that something the media wants?
Perhaps. LGBT+ representation is improving, but at a snail’s pace. During the 2006-2007 television season, GLAAD analyzed broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW and MyNetworkTV. Out of the 679 series leads or supporting characters, there were nine gay or lesbian characters with an additional five recurring characters announced. Bisexual and transgender characters simply weren’t represented. It amounted to 1.3%. 1.3% of all characters on primetime broadcast networks were LGBT – and this was following a year of lauded LGBT visibility in film with the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica.
Last year, out of the 881 regular characters expected to appear on primetime television, 35 (4%) were identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual with an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters. The number of regular LGBT characters counted on cable increased from 64 to 84, while recurring characters increased from 41 to 58. A 3.7% improvement over nine years. It’s an abysmal improvement, but it remains progress. Paid subscription services like Netflix and Hulu are broadening their content without issue, probably because they are run specifically to meet the individual needs of the subscriber while broadcast television is deemed more of a public domain. It’s getting there, very slowly. But for the LGBT+ community, it’s a small step in a much bigger battle.
The stereotypical portrayal of LGBT+ characters onscreen is dictated by certain systems and certain people, and these people are usually older, usually white, usually male, usually straight and they control the money involved – and with our society being educated largely by media, it’s safe to assume the representations these people deem as ‘accurate’ are anything but, based on old values that simply don’t apply to this generation. These producers, unfortunately, are at the top of the food chain – and they control what happens in the writers room of your favorite film or television show.
The result is the minimum exposure of LGBT+ characters and harmful, stereotypical portrayals that teach the average viewer that those of the community are promiscuous, flamboyant, obnoxious, weak. Incapable of ‘picking a side’. Incapable of monogamy. Different. And probably the most destructive trope of all – they do not get happy endings.
The sheer consistency in which LGBT characters, namely lesbians, have been slaughtered onscreen is a practical example of what most religious texts preach – that to be such is to be punished by death – and it’s usually painted under the problematic guise of heroism and self-sacrifice for the greater good. Aside from showing the broader public that LGBT+ people are condemned to miserable fates, killing off the token LGBT+ character onscreen then removes the representation the community has altogether. It’s an absolute cop-out that leaves a bitter taste, and it brings to mind the image of some Hollywood producer sitting somewhere in Los Angeles, believing that they are doing the community a solid. Look at how diverse we’re being. Happy? Here’s your gay character – Enjoy them. Now watch them die a hero! Badass, right? You’re welcome.
“The good thing is that now that it is acknowledged, that it’s recognized that it’s a pattern, we can actively work against it,” Emily Piggford of web series That’s My DJ said during a recent periscope discussion on the subject.
So what can the media do to work against the very thing they’ve been broadcasting all these years? The key is positive visibility. Normalisation. Remembering that LGBT+ people and characters are just like us, human, and making that the standard it uses to educate.
“I think that there needs to be a mix of increased visibility for the LGBT+ community, and it’s good to identify [sexual orientation] clearly on the head and that way is good because that definitely increases visibility with certainty. We’re acknowledging that a character is of the LGBT+ community,” Emily also says, “But on the flip side of it, I also want there to be more representation where, say a character identifies as [a member of] the LGBT+ community and it’s not commented on. They’re just living a life. We need both to make this change happen.”
A prime example of this ideal kind of representation can be found in characters Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane in Freeform’s Shadowhunters. Fans of the show want these characters to identify and be labeled specifically as gay and bisexual respectively for the purpose of their own visibility and validation, but it is in the show’s refusal to do so that helps normalize these characters and sets them up as equals among their peers. While both men have been identified as gay and bisexual through low-key affirmations around them, neither man’s sexual orientation has been labeled out loud, which helps both to avoid having that be their sole defining characteristic. Their sexualities are therefore a non-issue. By not having it be a talking point, they aren’t being treated any different to any other character on the show. This is positive progress, and the more this kind of representation is shown in film and television, the more it will help to educate people the right way.
Another positive example can be observed in the likes of Lito and Hernando, and Nomi and Amanita of the Netflix series Sense8. These gay, lesbian and transgender characters are verbally identified, but save for Lito’s storyline being driven by keeping his sexuality separate and secret from his career, their relationships are regarded without fuss. The straight characters around them do not comment or label their relationships and simply accept them as is – human beings in love, and they are. Both relationships are healthy, loving and deeply committed. Also noteworthy was one particular event in which straight characters became psychically linked with LGBT characters in the throes of intimacy, and came out of the experience with no horrified, homophobic or negative reactions.
Magnus is a shining example of the kind of representation the bisexual community – especially the rare commodity of bisexual men onscreen – needs. Alec, Lito and Hernando paint over effeminate gay male tropes with their inherent masculinity, Amanita showcases a badass, open-minded, unconditionally supportive and endlessly loving lesbian woman and Nomi presents a strong, intelligent, yet vulnerable transwoman in an industry that is in severe need of accurate transgender representation. Frequent use of these examples shown in film and television will make it the new standard to be measured against, and the sooner that happens, the sooner it can positively influence the people that view it. The more it influences, the more we will understand, relate and sympathize, and the more that happens, the closer we get to undoing the damage of those generations before us.
There still exists the double standard of who can play what – straight actors are often cast to play LGBT+ characters, but gay actors are rarely cast to play those that are straight, which is more than a little ridiculous considering the nature of the business – acting. An actor’s sexual orientation does not skew their ability to act, yet it’s an issue where it shouldn’t be. This thinking, however, will eventually change the more visible and normalized LGBT representation is on our screens. The familiarity, the reminder that we are all the same – human – will eventually return to us and these issues will be the non-issues they should have been all along.
But, how do we raise the standards when the biased call the shots? Well, that’s the power of the internet. The evolution of the web and related technology means we are now more connected than we have ever been in history. We now have the ability to mobilize, protest and share opinions on a worldwide scale, and that kind of power is enough to bring big corporations to their knees. Consumers have the ability to control their own content by opting out of what does not serve them.
Food giant McDonalds bowed to pressure to phase out the use of chickens raised on antibiotics. Confectionary company Cadbury was forced to backtrack on their decision to add palm oil to their recipes after their New Zealand market began to boycott their products. SeaWorld reported an 85% drop in profit a year after the documentary Blackfish, which highlighted the cruelty of SeaWorld’s whale program, was released, and SeaWorld has since confirmed it will phase out its breeding program and its possession of captive orcas. Public and political outcry after the dreadful Orlando Pulse Club shootings forced a 14-hour filibuster that demanded a crack down on gun control. After efforts failed to pass 4 measures through Senate, 200 prominent leaders in the music industry signed an open letter to Congress demanding the very same thing in the wake of Christina Grimmie’s death. That particular fight is ongoing, but it doesn’t detract from the truth – the public is a force that has the power to make change happen. Don’t like something? Don’t buy into it. Want to see more of a particular thing? Support it. We do not need to follow the beaten path because we have been taught to do so. Because that’s just it. We have been taught.
It is time to unlearn the old influences that have brought us here and build a path that can take us – and future generations – forward. As one, as equals. As human beings.
Other Sources: Rictor Norton, A History of Homophobia “1 The Ancient Hebrews” 15 April 2002, updated 28 February 2012.