Homosexuality is a debatable topic that is being increasingly discussed on television and in other kinds of media. Homosexuals are feeling more comfortable and open with their sexuality mainly due to the rise of new shows on American television that feature gay individuals and this exposure has resulted in a deep awareness of the issue of homosexuality amidst the general public. Today, gay and lesbian marriages are being made legal in some parts of the world. The media, by showing homosexuality from various angles, has helped in establishing that being homosexual does not make a person good or bad, and has thus enabled the acceptance of homosexuality by society (Hart, p. 59). But the media cannot be fully attributed to the way society views homosexuality. The impact of the media’s portrayal of homosexuality is dependent on the individual’s own beliefs and values, and his or her religious beliefs. Thesis Statement: Media representations of homosexuality particularly on film and television have helped in shaping the way Americans perceive it.
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According to a study titled ‘Portrayal of Homosexuality in the Media’ by Adam Shapiro et al (1), the topic of homosexuality permeates all kinds of media such as the news, television shows, movies, books, and magazines. There is a divided perception regarding homosexuality in society. While many people think there is nothing wrong with being gay, there are many who still believe it is immoral and unnatural. Because of conflicting viewpoints, the media too reflects different portrayals and stereotypes of homosexual characters. The portrayal of homosexuality in media plays a significant role in molding the perception society takes of these people.
Homosexual men have figured in many mainstream movies. The early comedies of the teens and twenties showed the possibility of homo behavior in a very subtle manner. In The Florida Enchantment, two women are shown dancing off together, leaving their bewildered menfolk to shrug and dance off together themselves (Sony Pictures 1). The Sissy was Hollywood’s first gay stock character – shown in a neutral gender perspective. Homosexuals were seen as comic characters whose humor was based on male effeminacy. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen notes: “There were sissies, and they were never addressed as homosexuals. It was a convention that was totally accepted. They were perceived as homosexuals just subliminally”. Actress Greta Garbo surprised everyone with her portrayal of Queen Christina (1933), in the movie of the same name. The movie is based on the life of a sixteenth-century lesbian ruler of Sweden (Sony Pictures 1). The movie showed hints of lesbianism in Queen Christina’s very affectionate relationship with her lady-in-waiting. When Christina is admonished by her Chancellor, “But your Majesty, you cannot die an old maid,” Garbo proudly retorts, “I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!” (Sony Pictures 1). Then followed a period of censorship during which homosexuals were not much seen on the silver screen and if they were seen, they were depicted as villains. Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter, Judith Anderson as the ominous Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon are some movie characters where homosexuality was used to make them look a little more menacing. The subtle expression of homosexuality continued in movies such as Hitchcock’s film Rope, Tom Lee’s Tea and Sympathy, and the movie Rebel without a cause. Comedy was also used to subdue the revolutionary aspect of homosexuality movies such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Lover Come Back (Sony Pictures 1). In the former movie, “there’s a gym full of bodybuilders who have absolutely no interest in Jane Russell” – singing “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” (Sony Pictures 1). Advice and Consent – was a movie with a subplot revolving around a US Senator (Don Murray) who is blackmailed about a homosexual affair in his past. William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, dealt with accusations of lesbianism in a girls’ school. Both these films dealt with homosexuality as something shameful, a dirty secret (Shapiro et al 1). The first movie to look at homosexuality in a positive way was Boys In the Band. This movie, provided an image of gay men as having this incredible sense of camaraderie, this sense of belonging to a group. It also presented a rather depressing collection of bitchy, vindictive, self-loathing queens. During this period, homosexuality was seen more of a disease and homosexual people were looked upon with suspicion. One of the miserable characters in Boys in the Band expresses the deep self-resentment and self-hatred faced by homosexuals as follows: “If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” This movie marked the liberation of gay people. Gay male supporting characters became more frequent in Hollywood movies (Sony Pictures 1). But, in most of these movies, gay male characters were either ridiculed, or blamed, or abused or murdered. Cruising, The Fan and Windows all depict homosexuals as psychopaths, who murder the objects of their affection. In the quirky movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Jeff Bridges taunts George Kennedy by clamping his hand over Kennedy’s mouth and kissing it. “I’ll kill you for that,” screams Kennedy. Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday is one of the first examples of a film in which homosexuality is presented simply as a part of the lives of the characters, without making a point about it. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane were used as comical homosexual team in 1996’s The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the play La Cage Aux Folles (Hart, p. 60).
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his 1993 performance in Philadelphia as an AIDS-stricken homosexual attorney. Philadelphia depicts the relationship between Andrew (Tom Hanks) and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), his anti-gay, ambulance-chasing lawyer. The movie tends to depict gay men as gentle souls, straight men as bigots, and Andrew’s large family as a monolithic, enlightened entity (Sony Pictures 1). Fighting for his rights as an AIDS victim, he is supported by his family members. Andrew’s father: “We’re incredibly proud of you.” Andrew’s mother: “You get in there and you fight for your rights.” Andrew: “Gee, I love you guys” (Maslin, p. 2).
Brokeback Mountain is a recent award-winning movie in which homosexuality is a major theme. The movie has two cowboy leads, played by Mr. Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal who discover erotic feelings for each other while herding sheep in the mountains of Wyoming in 1963. The movie portrays their lives over two decades during which they drift into sham marriages and share periodic trysts under the guise of “fishing trips.” Brokeback Mountain is particularly notable for its depiction of homosexuality as a natural force. The movie discusses the theme of homosexuality in a very open manner. Screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana use the raw material of Westerns to play the genre against itself (Galupo 1). Rodrigo Prieto’s photography of the Canadian countryside is both a context and a tool of evocation for homosexuality. Here, in the rugged countryside, homosexuals live constantly with the risk of murder or mutilation. Mr. Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar is a typical cowboy with a sling blade accent and clipped cadences, which are not an expression of manliness. Rather, they are a symptom of Ennis’ inability to grapple with his self-identity. Critics have said that the film is likely to be a pedagogical tool for the intolerant. Mr. Lee, the director, says the movie has the resonance of a “universal love story”. People may accept or reject this statement depending on how they individually view homosexuality. It could either be a sin, a forgivable aberration or, simply, a morally neutral category. Michelle Williams, who plays Ennis’ wife, is portrayed as a character that can judge Ennis, not for his sexuality but his honesty (Galupo, p. 1).
Christina Roush and Tawnia Simpson in the study titled “Portrayal of Homosexuality in the Movies” point out that the first reality show to portray the life of a homosexual on national television was MTV’s The Real World in 1992 (Shapiro et al, p. 1). Today, there are a large number of television serials with homosexual characters.
Will and Grace is a very popular sitcom mainly based on characters that are homosexuals. The show features two gay male leads with polar-opposite personalities to de-stigmatize the representation of the homosexual man. Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a successful gay Manhattan lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), an interior designer, are soulmates who support each other through happy times and sadder ones. Will’s gay friend, Jack, played by Sean Hayes is completely different from Will. Will remains very subtle and guarded about his sexual orientation whereas Jack is consistently presented as the stereotypical flamboyant queen (Alwood, pp. 72-73).
The first television program on gay men and the gay lifestyle was the CBS Reports Documentary The Homosexuals (1967). The program featured assessments from psychiatrists such as “The fact that somebody’s homosexual… automatically rules out the possibility that he will remain happy for long,” or uncomplimentary self-assessments by gay men such as “I know that inside now I’m sick – I’m not sick just sexually; I’m sick in a lot of ways” (Alwood, pp. 72-73). Like in movies, homosexuals remained primarily as objects of ridicule for several years, until they gained support through the gay liberation movement. NBC’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was the first network television show to approach the subject of gay men and their lifestyles with some regularity through the effeminate character Bruce in 1970 (Hart, p. 59). A 1973 episode of ABC’s prime-time series Marcus Welby, M.D., portrayed homosexuality as a serious illness that subjects gay men to unfulfilling lives. This view was strongly challenged by the American Psychiatric Association that same year (Lyons, p. 70).
When AIDS was linked to gay men, homosexuality began to be viewed with suspicion. Gay men ultimately entered the respected stage of representation on American television, in the 1990s. The drama series Thirtysomething introduced two recurring gay male characters who ended up sleeping together and were shown together in bed. In the mid-1990s, the sitcom Roseanne introduced two recurring gay male characters Roseanne’s business partner Leon (Martin Mull) and his lover Scott (Fred Willard) – who ultimately participated in a wedding ceremony on the show. Beginning in 1995, producers of the daytime soap opera All My Children introduced several gay characters and featured them in interesting storylines – one of them being a romantic relationship between Michael and Brad that included a New Year’s Eve proposal and the men establishing a joint life and home together (Kent, 1997).
The ABC sitcom Ellen made television history in 1997 by introducing the first lesbian lead character on a prime-time series. Other shows that had regular gay male characters were Chicago Hope, Cybill, Frasier, Melrose Place, Party of Five, Profiler, Roseanne, The Simpsons, Spin City, and Unhappily Ever After. Though American. In the 1990s, Fox network launched three popular programs with regular gay characters – Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, and Party of Five. Beverly Hills, 90210 first represented the issue of gay male sexuality early in the show’s second season, in the form of the “confused” teen. In this episode, Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) is confused as to why an attractive male teen did not seem interested in her sexually. When she confronts him about his sexual orientation, he is not able to reply, and then, they decide to be friends. This led to a flood of letters from young gay viewers thanking the producers of Beverly Hills, 90210 profusely for the episode. Melrose Place included a regular gay male character, Matt Fielding (Doug Savant), and by featuring a gay male character each week who was consistently likable, well-adjusted, and civic-minded, Melrose Place took a major step forward in the representational right direction. In one particular episode, they introduced a likable gay man named Jeffrey who is a naval officer and hence has to keep his sexual orientation a secret. Matt develops a relationship with Jeffrey over three episodes and when he finally makes Jeffrey reveal his secret to his naval commander; Jeffrey is transferred to the East Coast. When Jeffrey returns in the ninth episode, he reveals that he is HIV- positive and decides that he and Matt should simply be friends. This brings out the complexities of homosexuality even in the light of social acceptance. Fox’s Party of Five features a gay male character Ross (Mitchell Anderson) who encounters obstacles resulting from his sexual orientation in his attempt to adopt a baby. However, he succeeds in adopting a beautiful baby girl and is a great parent to her. This episode proved to be a symbolic victory for gay men in American society.
Another reality show, Survivor has homosexual characters. Richard Hatch who won this very popular reality television show in 2000, credited his survival success in large part to his homosexuality. Veronica’s Closet has a lovable character Josh, who is in denial of his homosexuality until the day he is about to get married. Through serials such as these, people are learning to appreciate homosexuals for their openness and bravery. This also underlines the openness of society in accepting homosexuals.
However, there seem to be some gender differences in society’s acceptance of homosexuality. During television’s 1997-1998 season, ABC’s Ellen became the first television show ever to feature an openly lesbian lead character, Ellen Morgan, played by actress Ellen DeGeneres. Initially, the viewers seem to find Ellen’s sexuality positive but when the episodes began to unfold the troubles faced by Ellen after she discovers that she is a lesbian, the audience seemed to slip away. There was widespread criticism of the show and this forced ABC to cancel the program at the end of the season.
Adam Shapiro and Natalie Sampiller say that homosexuality in movies is of two types: mainstream movies that have gay characters and gay-themed movies (Shapiro et al, page 1). As far as mainstream movies are concerned, gays are portrayed in a positive frame in some movies and in a negative way in some other movies, though the negative slant is found in most of the movies. Usually, the mainstream movies provide a superficial treatment of the homosexual characters emphasizing most the way they act, look and talk. Some strong examples of stereotypes in mainstream movies are Mean Girls, As Good as it Gets, and My Best Friend’s Wedding. In Mean Girls Damien, who is played by Daniel Franzes, is shows as wearing feminine clothing. In As Good, as it Gets Simon, who is played by Greg Kinnear, is portrayed in a very similar, feminine manner and he is shown to be the owner of a tiny, yipping dog, which is often associated with women. Lastly, in My Best Friend’s Wedding, George, who is played by Rupert Everett, is also portrayed in a stereotypical, feminine way, with his flamboyant laugh and his song number, “I Say a Little Prayer for you” (Shapiro et al 1). Thus homosexuality in men is shown as equivalent to the feminization of men as far as mainstream movies are concerned. This feminine stereotyping of gays is only perpetuating the myth that gay men are flamboyant and women trapped in male bodies. In truth, these ongoing stereotypes- that gay men are feminine and lesbians are masculine- are far from adequately representing the gay population in America today.
Media and the growth of the media have greatly contributed to placing the issue of homosexuality in the limelight. By showing homosexual men with different personality typing, media has succeeded in changing the overall image that the public had held on regarding homosexuality. It has succeeded in bringing to the world at large, new angles to view the issue of homosexuality thereby ushering in a new understanding and respect for gay men and lesbians. While the portrayal of homosexual men in most of the media has tilted towards feminization, the news and broadcast of interviews of real-life homosexual couples are helping the viewers of media get a better perception of gay men. For the present, the media has opened the door to acceptance of homosexual people by society at large. However, the power of the media is not that strong as to influence the attitudes and beliefs of the individual viewers. It needs to be researched whether media can play a role in changing the beliefs and values of the viewers and whether media can succeed in presenting the positive side of homosexuality to conservative-minded people, in an effective manner.
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- Galupo, Scott. Circling the Wagons; Critics Laud ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Depiction of Homosexual Cowboys. Newspaper article; The Washington Times, 2005.
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