The Representation of Gay People in Television Sitcoms or Soap Opera

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Illustrate and critically discuss the representation of gay people in television sitcoms or soap opera.

As the issue of representation is central to this essay, it is important to note that there have been problems with identifying a definitive meaning of ‘representation’. Several theorists have commented on the concept of representation.

Stuart Hall (1997: 61)) defines representation as ‘the process by which members of a culture use language…to provide meaning’. From this meaning, he says, we can already see that ‘representation’ cannot possibly be a fixed, unchangeable notion. While culture and language evolve and grow with human society, the same must therefore be said of the perceptions of ‘representation’.

Gillian Swanson (1991: 123) backs up Hall’s theory, observing that ‘there can be no absolute version of ‘how things are’ but only many competing versions’. She continues:

Ideas about what people are like and how they are meant to be understood already prevail in our culture. They give meaning to our sense of self and allow us to position ourselves in relation to others. Such meanings and attitudes are reproduced in representation but the way representations are constructed is as important as the ideas and meanings they project, since they offer positions for us, through which we recognise images as similar, or different from, ourselves and those around us. We continually define ourselves in changing relations to those meanings; images change over time and the meanings which are legitimated by the social or cultural context change as well.

The general idea of ‘representation’ then, not only changes over time, but may also have several different interpretations at any given point.

Alexander Doty and Ben Gove (1997: 84) argue that when discussing homosexual representation in the mass media and popular culture we must look ‘beyond understanding the ‘mass’ or ‘popular’ as necessarily meaning a mainstream media or culture that only addresses millions of heterosexuals’. They acknowledge another, ‘alternative’ mass media that runs parallel to the ‘mainstream’ mass media but has been pushed to the sidelines in the past. A conservative viewpoint would state that this is because the mass media should convey the will and desires of the ‘majority’ and therefore should not be made to positively represent anything that contradicts the society’s dominant ideology.

However, Doty and Gove note that in recent years the lines between these ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ mass media have become blurred with, for example, the screening of programmes written, starring and watched by lesbians, gays and queers on television.

Having said that, this by no means implies that there is less of an issue to be raised by the representation of homosexuality on television. The most obvious issue surrounding this is, of course, the stereotyping of gay characters on television and, in particular, television sitcoms.

While gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters did not appear in television sitcoms until the 1970s, modern television sees an entire genre of situation comedies featuring gays. These types of programmes are no longer written by the homosexual for the homosexual, but have become integrated within Doty and Gove’s ‘mainstream’ mass media. They discuss the importance of being aware of who finances, creates, publicises and exhibits a certain programme, and how these factors might affect the way that programme represents ‘queerness’. For example, the two creators of the ‘gay-best-friend’ sitcom Will & Grace are Max Mutchnick, who is gay, and David Kohan, who is straight. Arguably, the way in which ‘queerness’ is represented here may have benefited from having a homosexual and a heterosexual input. This way, the show has more chance of appealing to a wider ‘mass’ audience. Consequently, it is possible that the gay, lesbian or queer characters featured in television sitcoms may have been tailored, in a...
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