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The Representation of Gay People in Television Sitcoms or Soap Opera

By kikoo135 Apr 21, 2013 2634 Words
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 sense, for a heterosexual audience. This could go some way to clarifying why Will & Grace, unlike many other similar sitcoms of its kind, has become so popular. Stephen Tropiano holds a simpler view, claiming that ‘the success of Will & Grace really comes down to one thing – it’s funny. What separates Will &Grace from the gaycoms that only last a few months has little to do with its politics and more to do with the talent of the performers and the quality of the writing and direction (mainly, James Burrows, one of the best in the business).’

Swanson notes the ‘extreme and caricatured way in which [stereotyping] draws on commonly-held impressions and assumptions’. It may be assumed that the views Swanson talks about are ‘commonly-held’ by the dominant, heterosexual audience that the mass media is seen to address. If this is the case, then this may account, in part, for some of the stereotyping of gays in television sitcoms. A more positive (and therefore acceptable) representation would make the programme much more accessible to a much wider audience.

But what could be regarded as a ‘positive’ image of gays and lesbians in television? Doty and Gove note that many of the images regarded as ‘positive’ by, and that received praise from critics and watchdogs were ones that played down homosexuality or ignored the issue altogether, depicting gays as being ‘just like everyone else’ in their attempts not to make it a focal point.

On the other hand, those images where gays were more explicitly depicted fared no better. Joshua Gamson (1998: 21) found that studies of the portrayals of gay men and lesbians in film and television ‘have soundly demonstrated how homosexual lives have been subject to systematic exclusion and stereotyping as victims and villains’. For example, Gamson cites Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, in which Russo argues that television has produced ‘stereotypical conceptualisations of AIDS that vilify gays and legitimate homophobia’. Doty and Gove take this a step further, observing that:

By the late 1980s and 1990s, the recurring televisual image of gay men with AIDS sparked heated critical debates over exactly what kind of image it was: ‘negative’, because it depicted homosexuality as a victimhood that, yet again, ended in death; or ‘positive’, as it encouraged sympathy and even admiration for gay men through images of their courage in the face of death.

They identify a bit of a grey area concerning the labelling of the representation of homosexual images as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in that different people will look at these images from a variety of perspectives; there can be no universal interpretation of any given image.

The same can be said of trying to define ‘realistic’ images of gays, lesbians and queers on television. Doty and Gove observe that there are two ways in which people recognise these ‘real’ images; some note that text expressively marks the imagery through dialogue or by showing physical or sexual activity. Recent examples of this are Matt Fielding (Melrose Place), Simon and Tony (Eastenders) and Beth Jordache (Brookside). Other people feel that realistic images do not need to use explicit text to gauge a character’s sexuality on the basis of other signs. Many viewers see characters like Mr Humphries (Are You Being Served?) and Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess) as being gay, lesbian or bisexual.

These two binary explanations of what constitutes as a ‘realistic’ image of queerness shows the difficulty in even defining what ‘reality’ is for gays, lesbians and queers. It is difficult to define a ‘typical reality’ or, to put it another way, to recognise a general gay ‘identity’ in which to categorise them.

Essentialist theorists state that they are bound together by the fact that their identities are determined by their sexuality. Donald Hall (2003: 42) suggests that such theorists would argue that ‘same-sex desiring individuals have always existed and that however much their context may have changed, they were, without a doubt, aware of their sexual desires and they must have thought of themselves as belonging to a distinct group of similar individuals’.

While it makes sense that the individual would have been aware of their sexual desires, constructionist theory would perhaps note that historically they may not have been aware of any sense of belonging, rather one of detachment due to the cultural influences in society at the time. Constructionist theory, says Hall, emphasises language and belief systems in order to determine identity. Richard Dyer (2002: 19) observes, rather importantly, that ‘a major fact about being gay is that it doesn’t show…the person’s person alone does not show…that he or she is gay’. He argues that there are ‘signs of gayness’ such as expressions, stances and clothing that ‘make visible the invisible’. Typification is a near necessity, says Dyer, for the representation of gayness, which he argues is the product of social, political, practical and textual determinations. He deduces that the social factor is an integral one from which gay people can be recognised:

The prevalent fact of gay typification is determined by the importance of a social category whose members would be invisible did they and the culture not provide lifestyle signs with which to make recognition possible…It is probable that most gay people are for most of their lives in fact invisible. Acting and dressing gay may only be an evening or weekend activity; in particular, it may not be practised at the workplace, or for married gays at home either. Equally, many people who are homosexual may never identify with the various gay lifestyles, never, in this sense, define and produce themselves as gay.

What Dyer conveys here is that to be classed as ‘gay’, a person must be able to identify with not only the inner, biological aspects of ‘gayness’ (as put forward by essentialism) but also with the cultural aspects around them (as suggested by constructionism). This in itself is quite stereotypical because of the presumption about what is ‘gay’. Those who do not conform to this ideal are classed as ‘invisible’.

Accordingly, the images we have been seeing of gay characters in television sitcoms may only be representations of certain types of gay people, and it is difficult to know whether or not these people are a majority or a minority.

Will & Grace attempts to deviate from the stereotypical notions of ‘gayness’ through its two gay main characters, Will and Jack, and provide an insight into ‘invisible’ gayness.

James Keller (2002: 124) describes the two main male characters as ‘foils representing diversity within gay masculinity, a diversity which argues for and against gender stereotypes about gay men’. The name ‘Will’, Keller says, signifies resolution and courage while the surname ‘Truman’ suggests that Will is a ‘real man’. This is also put across in the way he dresses. As an attorney, his conservative style and uptight personality mean that Will shows little of the usual stereotypical traits that signal to an audience that he is gay. Keller compares him to the modern sensitive male (such as Ross Geller in Friends), and his primary relationships focus mainly on women, namely Grace.

The name ‘Jack’ is reminiscent of a joker or jester, a clown basically. While ‘Truman’ represents composure and respectability, ‘McFarland’ implies waywardness and outlandish behaviour. Tropiano asserts that, similarly to Will, Jack ‘isn’t exactly gay either: he’s hyper-gay’. Keller describes Jack as ‘silly, irresponsible, immature, narcissistic, effeminate, insulting and promiscuous’, the epitome of the negative stereotypical gay male, ‘made lovable by humour and childlike unselfconsciousness’. Their apparent contradictory personalities are, says Keller, the ‘respective embodiments of the familiar and the unfamiliar, although, paradoxically, what is coded as familiar here is actually unfamiliar in the history of gay representation’. He notes that Will is presented as the ‘norm’ whilst Jack is portrayed as unusual among gay men in a respectable, middle class situation. While Will is offered as the ‘preferable alternative’ to the stereotype of the gay man, because Jack is much funnier and more stylish than Will he could, points out Keller, easily also be a preferable alternative. This presentation of two very different types of gay men, both preferable to the stereotype, serves to not only expand the culturally accepted notion of ‘gayness’ (as part of its political agenda) but also works as a hook to keep its audience interested (the main function of the programme).

In addition to this, Will and Jack have enough depth, enough layers in their personalities, to represent – arguably – a certain sense of ‘realism’. Tropiano explains ‘[Sean] Hayes and the writers have created a three-dimensional character who, beneath his somewhat shallow exterior, is a strong, confident person. As a gay man, he’s also completely comfortable with his sexuality.’ Will, on the other hand, though smart and successful, is the character that most needs personal guidance, about love and relationships in particular, and Jack is often on hand to give this advice. Between these two characters, then, are a fair number of characteristics that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight people alike would be able to relate to in some way.

Furthermore, Will & Grace compromises with the dominant ideologies by making the most important relationships in the lives of the two gay characters heterosocial and quasi-heterosexual. By doing this, the problems identified in earlier ‘gaycoms’ such as Ellen (which was axed for being ‘too gay’ and overly political) are overcome and, as a result, more meaningful, contemporary representations of gay people seen in the show are able to ease naturally into cultural ideology as opposed to being forced through.

Vito Russo (1987:325) argues against Richard Dyer’s (and others’) theory of invisibility. He says that ‘gays have always been visible…it’s how they’ve been visible that has remained offensive for almost a century’. Joshua Gamson supports Russo, pointing out that, until recently, gays and lesbians had very little input into their own representations. Dominant ideologies have therefore held virtually all control over how gays have been represented in the past, leading to negative stereotypes of gays. To remedy this, Gamson argues that ‘more exposure is the answer’. However, this in itself poses problems, such as when considering the positive/negative images approach. Doty and Gove note that its critics have suggested that ‘most definitions of what constitutes a ‘positive’ image would restrict the range of gay and lesbian representation as much as so-called ‘negative’, stereotypical images do, by encouraging only bland, saintly, desexualised mainstream figures who might as well be heterosexual’.

But herein lies the problem: dominant cultural ideology has, throughout history, commanded how gay people are represented in society and on television, and only recently have they been able to acquire some control themselves. After a period of trial and error, the television sitcom Will & Grace, with its innovative balance of hetero and homosexual political comedy, could be making its mark on society. During this time, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders have been continually trying to become fully accepted as part of mainstream culture. However, the images approach has been criticised for attempting to do just that. In an ever-changing culture, is the gay community in a state of confusion about which direction it wants to go, and how it wants to be represented when it gets there?

References

• Craig, Steve (1992). Men, Masculinity and the Media. London: Sage Publications Ltd. • Dyer, Richard (2002). The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. London: Routledge • Gamson, Joshua (1998). Freaks Talk Back. Chicago: University of Chicago Press • Hall, Donald E. (2003). Queer Theories. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan • Hall, Stuart (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications Ltd. • Keller, James R. (2002). Queer (Un)Friendly Film and Television. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. • Lusted, David (edited by) (1991). The Media Studies Book: A Guide For Teachers. London: Routledge • Medhurst, Andy and Sally R. Munt (1997). Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction. London: Cassell • Tropiano, Stephen (2002). The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV. Kent: Combined Book Services Ltd. • Russo, Vito (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & Row

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