“In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at—or something to pity—or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people … and gay people what to think about themselves,” Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet.
Any discussion on the representation of gays and lesbians on television must consider the commercial demands of the medium. In her article “Gay Activists and the Networks,” Kathleen Montgomery discusses the process involved in creating a made-for-television movie that featured a gay character in a prominent role. Since the main objective of the movie was to reach as wide an audience as possible, various compromises were necessary: The story had to be told within the constraints of a popular television genre: the crime-drama. The narrative had to focus on the heterosexual lead character and his interactions with gay characters. The movie could not depict any scenes of affection between characters of the same sex. Montgomery concludes “these requirements served as a filter through which the issue of homosexuality was processed, resulting in a televised picture of gay life designed to be acceptable to the gay community and still palatable to a mass audience.”
In recent years there has been some improvement in the representation of gays and lesbians on mainstream television. The popularity of shows such as Will & Grace (fig-1), La vie, la vie… and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (fig-2) demonstrates that networks are willing to feature gay characters, as long as the show draws high ratings, and generates profits for advertisers. This profit motivation means that networks are careful in their portrayals of gay and lesbian characters and as such characters are still portrayed in a very stereotypical way. While Will & Grace features two openly gay male characters, there is little if any discussion about gay relationships or romance. The two gay characters are friends, not lovers, and are rarely shown in romantic situations. The primary relationship for both gay men is with the heterosexual female characters. In fact, this seems to be an emerging trend.
In the past few years, Hollywood has developed a new genre: the gay/straight romance. Television shows such as Will & Grace and films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Object of My Affection, and The Next Best Thing all portray a gay man and straight woman as the “perfect couple.” While some critics have suggested that this trend represents an attempt to include gay and lesbian characters, others state that such representations still marginalize and silence the experiences of gays and lesbians.
In 1999, Channel 4 made history when it broadcast a mini-series focusing on the lives and loves of three gay men living in Manchester. The series, called Queer as Folk (fig-3), was highly rated not only by the gay community but also by the mainstream press. The series was not without controversy—some complained that the subject matter was inappropriate and others were upset that one of the characters was only 15 years old. More viewers worried that it portrayed gay men as over-sexed. But despite these criticisms, the series also enjoyed international success. It aired on ShowCase, Canada’s specialty channel and it also inspired an American version, which aired on Showtime. Many people see the success of Queer as Folk as evidence that “lesbigay” shows can still be enormously popular and profitable. However, advertisers and sponsors are cautious about affiliating themselves with such cutting-edge programming. When the American version of Queer as Folk was in production, fashion houses such as Versace, Prada, Polo Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch refused to allow their brands to appear in the series. And although the show is set in Pittsburgh, the marketing director of the Pittsburgh Steelers wrote a letter to the producers demanding that all references to the team be removed.
Recent controversies over Hollywood’s negative depiction of homosexuality have focused on how such portrayals marginalize and silence gays and lesbians. Organisations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) argue that films such as Basic Instinct and The Silence of the Lambs demonize gays and lesbians by portraying them as psychopaths. In his book The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo analyses the representation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films from the 1890s to the 1980s, and demonstrates a history of homophobia. He states, “The root of heterosexual fear of male homosexuality is in the fact that anyone might be gay. Straight men aren’t threatened by a flamboyant faggot because they know they aren’t like that; they’re threatened by a guy who’s just like they are who turns out to be queer,” V. Russo (The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies)p.7. Russo argues that Hollywood’s portrayal of lesbians and gay men has often been cruel and homophobic. Gay and lesbian characters have been defined by their sexual orientation, and lacked any complex character development.
During Hollywood’s early years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, homosexuality was often presented as an object of ridicule and laughter. The character of the sissy was popular at this time, and Russo asserts that such a character was a source of amusement and reassurance for the audience. The sissy was not a threatening representation of homosexuality because he occupied a middle ground between masculinity and femininity. The offensive phrase ‘who’s a sissy’ is supposed to be an insult, as is calling a man effeminate, for it means he is like a woman and thus not as valuable as a “real” man.
The popular definition of gayness is rooted in sexism. Weakness in men rather than strength in women have consistently been seen as the connection between sex role behaviour and deviant sexuality V. Russo (The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies) p.4.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, religious and women’s groups criticized Hollywood films for contributing to immorality. As a result, the industry introduced a self-censorship code that affected the portrayal of homosexuality. During these years, films could not feature overtly homosexual characters, so homosexuality was suggested through mannerisms and behaviour. This strict code was loosened in the 1960s and 1970s, which also saw the dawn of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement. While gays and lesbians were becoming more visible and vocal in public life, their representation in films was becoming even more homophobic. At this time, gay characters were often represented as dangerous, violent, or even murderous.
Since the 1990s, Hollywood has improved its portrayal of gay and lesbian characters. The popularity of films such as The Birdcage, Philadelphia, To Wong Foo, Flawless and In & Out demonstrates that audiences can and do enjoy films with gay and lesbian characters. But despite these advances, critics say that the industry is still too cautious in its portrayals of gay themes, characters, and experiences. Hollywood films are designed to appeal to as large an audience as possible; and producers fear that focusing on gay and lesbian themes risks offending a large portion of the audience, as well as potential investors.
The media are making progress in its depiction of gays and lesbians. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the active courting of gay and lesbian consumers through gay-positive advertising and marketing campaigns. In 1994, IKEA aired a commercial that depicted two gay men shopping for a dining room set, making the store the first company to actively target gay consumers (fig-4). Since then, many companies have started to target gay and lesbian consumers with gay-positive marketing campaigns. These campaigns are typically directed to a specific market: gays and lesbians, who live in cities, are single and have a large amount of disposable income. Advertising critic Michael Wilke questions whether this trend is actually an attempt to court gay consumers. He says that advertisers are capitalising on the cultural status and perceived hipness of the gay lifestyle only as a way of selling their products—and are not specifically interested in attracting gay consumers.
Writer Michelle Moinier disagrees. In an article in Altema, a publication on consumer trends, Moinier maintains that certain products, though not actually considered for the gay population, are nevertheless marketed that way, with messages and images clearly targeted at the profitable gay market. Critics argue that the visibility of gays and lesbians in advertising is not an indication of the increased social acceptance of gays and lesbians, but simply an attempt by advertisers and TV executives to access an untapped market. They worry that after years of political struggle, gay and lesbian rights have been reduced to increased consumer choice. An increase in positive representations of gays and lesbians in commercials, films, and television is an improvement, but such progress does not signal the achievement of social and political equality.
The public’s perception of homosexuality and the image that is assumed with the word is one that has been planted by decades of media enforcement. In the last few years homosexuality has started to be represented more freely, in both television programmes and films. However, the image that is presented is one that assumes a feminine male or a butch female. It is hard to decide whether the perceived image of homosexuality has improved or worsened over the last 100 years. What was once invisible is now shown as something stereotypical and often incorrect.