The importance of popular media representation is often underestimated to the average eye. Television, movies, books, and video games are just a few of the many examples of media to are available to an increasingly growing audience. Although forms of media are not reality, they are representations, a looking glass for society at large to identify with and see themselves in. How many times have we watched a big-time action flick and felt strongly connected with the lead character, began rooting for their victory? How many times have television and movie directors, in the span of a few hours, drawn us to the side of the protagonist? Regarding the protagonist characters especially, the feeling of being to identify with a hero and look up to someone similar is important to many minorities. Media speaks volumes about the social atmosphere and acceptance, and also has the power to affect the audience's perception of real groups of people and mold their actions toward these groups. Stereotypes are often used in media, reinforcing existing preconceptions, negative or not. Unfortunately, minority groups, including LGBTQ people, are often portrayed in a stereotypical light, or not at all, when it comes to popular media. Not only does this way of representing queer individuals hurt the group, this perpetuates something called 'heteronormativity', or the assumption that heterosexuality is the only sexuality, or the only norm. Consequentially, this can lead to bullying, isolation, and other negative consequences to the LGBTQ group – however, how does LGBTQ representation, or lack of, in popular media perpetuate heteronormativity?
The concept of heteronormativity takes its roots from Gayle Rubin's essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex” and from Adrienne Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality in her essay, “Reflections on Compulsory Heterosexuality”. In the essay, she addresses the ways in which heteronormativity denies women of their sexualities and comfort in exploring themselves, and how it produces myths (such as the vaginal orgasm) that prevent women from having non-heterosexual relationships. She says that her essay was “to complicate the proverbial, i.e. heterosexuality, in an attempt to include different realities, i.e. homosexuality” (Rich 9). In other academic essays, heteronormativity is connected to a graduation of sexual practices that society can consider “good” or “bad”, levels of sexual deviancy. Rubin terms this graduation the “sex hierarchy”. The bad sex in this hierarchy is “any that involves transvestism, transgenderism, fetishes, sadomasochism, prostitution, or pedophilia” (Krupat 46). Gay couples also fall within this spectrum, and it is reason as to why “gay people are likely to be harassed or arrested for engaging in “deviant” sexual practices” (Krupat 46). By falling in this spectrum, LGBTQ people receive the stigma of being more socially deviant by doing actions that heterosexual people also often engage in, such as consumption of pornography or sex in public places. This stigma and harassment is perpetuated by popular media, often by reinforcing the ideas that LGBTQ people are deviants, immoral, or that they do not even exist naturally. “The fact that queer people continue to face discrimination and horrific abuse in some contexts suggests that there is still a vital need for visibility in both the mainstream and queer presses” (Beetar 44).
The lack of queer people in popular culture is a warped reality of the world we live in. Whenever LGBTQ people would like to look at a representation of themselves, they find it is a daunting task to find much of anything catered to them. For example, Haynes found notable “the lack of queer girl magazines” (Haynes 422). The participates in a study she conducted, having nothing for them in the media, utilized “ironic or ambivalent readings and imaginary creations [to]... negotiate between heterosexual girl magazines and lesbian magazines that are geared toward an adult audience” in order to claim the image of their social identity in society (Haynes 422). The fact that queer individuals are rarely represented is an example of how heteronormativity is perpetuated in media. This type of situation happens often; observations have been made in the queer community about queer youth projecting themselves onto non-queer media to create an area for themselves. A lesbian may see a woman's relationship with her female friend as being queer in nature, or a transgender person may see a fictional character as possibly being transgender as well. Because these marginalized groups have little visibility, sometimes this is the only way for them to relate to media. However, what little visibility queer individuals may take for themselves are often questioned or challenged. Because of heteronormativity in the media and our society, if those in the media are not out-right revealed to be queer, the consensus and final decision is that they are heterosexual, or that the person in question's same-sex relationships are simply platonic in nature. The media has the tendency to give “privileging of homosexuality over heterosexuality in the concept of platonic love” (Gates-Young 345).
Then one must beg the question, how do you tell if a person or character in mainstream media is queer without outright stating it? The answer to that is: stereotypes. Homosexual men are portrayed as nearly ubiquitous with the way media portrays heterosexual women; they are often shown as effeminate, flamboyant, overly-dramatic, and campy. Homosexual women, meanwhile, are portrayed in the same light as heterosexual men; they are shown as butch, masculine, and dominant. Transexual men are shown in the media as very obvious and the list goes on. So even when queer individuals are presented in the media, often it is with a backhanded lash at the queer community. The idea of metrosexual, and the Queer Eye fad exemplifies this. With these concepts, “the formula of a typical Queer Eye episode functions as a ritual that supports the sociosexual order while seeming to challenge that order’s heterosexist attitudes and values. [They] point out how that ritual defines straight men and straight sex as natural and accords them unquestioned sociosexual centrality while simultaneously domesticating Queers and Queer sexuality by delineating how, when, and why Queers may enter the heternormative social mainstream” (Westerfelhaus 428). Because these images of queer individuals are the only ones shown (or shown and believed by the majority of the audience), the stereotypes are perpetuated, and these stereotypes thus perpetuate heteronormativity. This method of representation “[undermines and reinforces] mainstream concepts of gender [and sexuality]” (Gates-Young 345). But heteronormativity permeates through popular media as well as queer studies, surprisingly enough. Even academic essays and studies deal with a particular type of orientation or gender presentation, and “while scholarship on girls' relations to popular culture has grown over the last decade, most emphasizes mainstream culture's enforcement of hegemonic values on young audiences. The girls in these studies are often seen as passive recipients” (Haynes 421). A broader spectrum must be studied and shown to the audience at large in order to proceed with any more progress. The first Lesbian and Gay Pride March in South Africa, in 1990 “set a primary goal of challenging the media to 'present images of homosexuality in responsible and appropriate ways that counter the dominant negative myths'” (Beetar 44). Present images, in South Africa and in most areas that present queer culture in mainstream media, white cis-gendered males are the majority of the queer people represented. This is a social issue because there exist many, many more identities than that, of varying able-bodiness ethnicity, genders, and orientations. More queer visibility portraying different identities is an important issue to combat the stigmas and stereotypes presented by popular media.
One of the most difficult things in representing a group in media is delivering them their own sexuality and storyline in a way that doesn't marginalize them to only their sexuality. It isn't as simple as just portraying them, or portraying them in a positive over negative light. The problem is assuming everything the audience sees is through a heterosexual light. Queer sexuality and gender is often portrayed using heterosexual terms to describe them, perpetuating heteronormativity by catering the media to heterosexuals. In an episode of the FOX television show, Glee, “two gay male characters perform a song and dance routine before an auditorium full of screaming and cheering girls, one of whom hands her phone number to one of the boys at the end” (Mediasmarts). Although homosexual relationships are being shown, the homosexual characters have to validate their sexuality and relationship. In another FOX television show, House, the main characters Gregory House and James Wilson are frequently portrayed as having a very intimate relationship, and throughout the series they themselves and their co-workers make jabs at the nature of their relationship. However, through the eyes of a heterosexual audience, their relationship is purely platonic in nature, no matter how much innuendo and subtext is given, because neither of the characters states (without joking) an attraction to men. Queer audiences often find that their representations in media have to prove themselves to be queer, or that they are not accurately represented because of the stereotypes, or that, even in media, they are portrayed as something abnormal, as 'freaks'. So until this trend comes to a stop, heterosexuality will always be the same 'normal' in society.
Beetar, Matthew. "Questions of visibility and identity: an analysis of representations of the Mr Gay South Africa pageant." Transformation 80 (2012): 44+. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 July 2013.
Gates-Young, Amy. "Barbara Mennel. The Representation of Masochism and Queer Desire in Film and Literature." Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature 35.2 (2011): 345+. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 July 2013.
Haynes, Janell. "Queer Girls and Popular Culture: Reading, Resisting, and Creating Media." Women's Studies in Communication 31.3 (2008): 421+. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 July 2013.
Krupat, Kitty, and Patrick McCreery. Out at Work: Building a Gay-labor Alliance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. “Reflections on Compulsory Heterosexuality.” Journal of Women’s History: 2004
Rushbrook, Dereka . "Cities, Queer Space, and the Cosmopolitan Tourist." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.1 (2002): 183-206. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Jul. 2013. .
Westerfelhaus, R. Lacroix, C. (2006). Seeing “Straight” through Queer Eye: Exposing the Strategic Rhetoric of Heteronormativity in a Mediated Ritual of Gay Rebellion. Critical Studies in Media Communication