What Scholars have to say about Lesbian People in Entertainment Media

My main question entering into this project was about discussing the effects of a lesbian character’s death on viewers, especially viewers who identify as lesbians or bisexual. In finding articles, I did not necessarily find much about the effects of lesbian character death on viewers. What I did find were numerous articles on the general topic of LGB representation in entertainment media.

As mentioned in previous posts, entertainment media explicitly excluded depictions of homosexuality. When gay people were included they were done so in implicit and subtle ways, usually adhering to certain negative stereotypes. In addition to the social norms that forced this exclusion, financial motivations are another factor that interplay into how LGB characters are portrayed on television. As Lee and Meyer (2010) affirmed, because of the economic drive that forces television to appeal to a large audience, writers usually don’t violate societal norms in hopes of gaining and retaining the most viewers. For instance, this means that creators have to cater to the ideals of advertisers especially on network television such as CBS and ABC. Writers and creators have more freedom on premium cable stations like HBO and Showtime.

Scholars discussed the differences in representation between different genres. Raley and Lucas (2010) noted that comedy programs in their portrayals of LGB people, made fun of them through Gay-themed jokes and stereotypes such as the effeminate male and the butch female. These stereotypes undervalue expression of self and relegate the group to the status of ‘other’. Additionally, a genre I never thought to include in my discussion was the reality television format. In his work, Gamson (2014) discussed the intricacies of LGB representations on reality television with programs like The Amazing Race on CBS and The Real World on MTV and talk shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Jerry Springer Show. Gamson (2014) noted that though it showed real people, the producers of these programs would still have “their own interests and practices set the terms of visibility” (p. 228). In that way the “real” people you see would still be heavily produced to fit into a mold that would get the most views. As Gamson (2014) puts it, LGB people on reality television and talk shows would become “stealers of other people’s boyfriends and girlfriends, secret admirers, exhibitionists, sisters of women who dress like sluts, and so on…as goofy, dysfunctional, funny, nasty, emotional, and combative as everyone else” (p.230). Furthermore, Gamson (2014) said the guests on talk show programs were there to show viewers that LGB people were just like straight people. I understand that the sentiment behind this is empathy but one does not necessarily need to share characteristics with others as to not receive ridicule and violence (as is/was common place in people’s lives).

In addition to Lee and Meyer (2010), Evans (2007) made the distinctions between cable and network television. Evans (2007) noted that because of the financial motive, network television “include gay characters among a cast of heterosexual characters and downplay their sexuality by forcing them to constantly interact with ONLY their straight counterparts” (p.10). This observation is telling of the limitations to society’s acceptance of LGB individuals. With these interactions, characters seem to be accepted ‘in spite’ of their sexuality. I say ‘in spite’ for two reasons. Firstly, many characters whose storylines are like this receive lines like “it doesn’t matter that you’re gay, I still love you”. It should definitely matter since it is an important aspect in one’s life. Secondly, the LGB character’s lack of involvement in a community they belong to, shows viewers that issues the LGB community face are not as important. In summation, one should not have to disregard an aspect of someone’s life to have to accept them. In the case of pay-cable networks like HBO and Showtime who do not have to worry about commercial advertisers, “they are able to take more risks and create more authentic gay and lesbian characters who uninhibitedly express their sexuality without worrying about alienating or offending viewers” (p.10). This ‘risk’ taking culminates in showing more compelling characters. This aspect is also evident with subscriptions services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon video, that bring viewers programs that delve into LGB characters’ lives, exploring aspects other than the issues they face with their sexuality.

Though, this does not mean we should not still be critical of their roles and how they’re treated on the entertainment programs. Lesbian characters are still subject to stereotypical portrayals. Many of the articles I read categorized them as either ‘Hot Lesbians’ or ‘Butch’. Jackson and Gilbertson (2009) went into further detail and described ‘Hot Lesbians’ as stylish, hetero friendly (non-threatening in appearance and mannerism), for example Samantha from Sex and the City who tries out a relationship with a woman in the series. ‘Butch’ characters who are more masculine and therefore physically unbecoming as a woman. Interestingly, though these stereotypes are seen as negative and do limit how people see lesbian folks, it is still important to note that there are people who look and act like this in real life. We cannot discount their expressions of self because it has been deemed stereotypical. Many times people are scorned or have assumption thrown upon them based on how they look but presentation of self is a conscious and purposeful act. People do understand that how they dress and act sends many messages and hopefully are equipped to handle the receptions to their presentation.

In the case of how romantic, intimate, and sexual acts involving LGB people are shown in television, it is still minimal and not as intense as straight sexual acts. Gilbertson and Jackson (2009) asserted for instance, in cases where two women are kissing on a program, it is usually shown as a performative act for male viewers. They came to this conclusion by the responses of the teenagers they interviewed. The boys mentioned they watched the show The OC to see two of the female characters’ kiss. Additionally, the girls’ group that was interviewed also noted that if they saw girls at parties kissing, they assumed the act was for the male onlookers cheering. If we look at girls kissing each other on programs with this view, it potentially devalues the significance of lesbian relationships by implying the women involved in these acts do not get sexual gratification from it but are only doing it to please male viewers.

In other expressions of physical intimacy, Raley and Lucas (2010) affirmed that LGB characters are unable to express their sexuality through romantic relationships because sexual images “are threatening to heterosexual audiences who consider the display ‘flaunting’ sexual orientation” (p.25). This reminded me of a book titled Covering by Kenji Yoshino who discussed the issues involved in expressing physical intimacy or just oneself in general as a gay person in the real world. In entertainment media, Raley and Lucas (2010) further noted that the extent of the displays between Gay and Lesbian couples that are shown are most likely non-sexual acts of affection. This includes holding hands and giving hugs. Kissing and implications of sexual activity would be very unlikely to be shown. Lee and Meyer (2010) uphold this view by further discussing lesbian characters, whether they are regular cast members or minor characters featured in a few episodes who “tend to be portrayed as lacking sexuality (i.e., they are rarely represented in intimate relationships or situations), personal rights (i.e., they are treated as undesirable and avoided by other characters), and are often afraid of being publicly exposed based on their sexuality” (p.236). It is significant to note the difference between what is shown on television programs and real life. This is due to the paradox of being underrepresented is some instances and being overly sexualized in other instances. Although the lack in representation of same-sex couples relative to their heterosexual counterparts is problematic, it doesn’t stray far from the reality of same-sex couples. Who constantly worry about displaying their affection publicly because they live in a world that over-sexualizes and stigmatizes their behavior.

As Evans (2007) mentioned in his work that not only are children “uniquely impressionable but…are continuously inundated with these images, thus helping shape their perceptions of the real world” (p.3). Children use the images they see to build their understanding of the world and their place in it. In conjunction, Gomillion and Giuliano (2011) discussed how lesbian and gay youth use multiple media programs to learn about lesbian and gay identity. Characters could provide viewers who may have low self-esteem, with comfort and positive self-concepts especially when they shared characteristics with the character. Though, as I discussed before, viewers need to be wary where they find connections with entertainment media characters. Creators could have heterosexist and homophobic views that perpetuate negative stereotypes in their characters. If young LGB viewers were given an array of portrayals of characters, it would underwrite the stagnant stereotypes that include characters shown participating in unhealthy behaviors such as excess drug use and unprotected sex. If young viewers are being exposed to these behaviors it is not a far cry in assuming they would think this is how all LGB people act in real life. Some might even emulate the actions. Additionally, Evans (2007), Gomillion and Giuliano (2011) noted in their individual works that some of the people they interviewed mentioned that during their childhood they did not have the acknowledgement that gay people existed and could lead average lives, and that if they had seen positive depictions, the experiences would have positively influenced their understanding of gay and lesbian people. An individual Gomillion and Giuliano (2011) interviewed said that “positive role models were crucial to letting me know I wasn’t alone” (p.336). The need for representation can be crucial to people who already feel marginalized in society.

In discussing what ideals go into creating entertainment media, we need to keep in mind the interplay between creator’s reinforcing societal norms and the financial rewards of doing so. These circumstances create works that potentially affect someone’s sense of self, sense of the world, and themselves in the world. To connect to my original question, if what viewers are seeing of lesbian characters are them dying or just enduring tragedy and unhappy endings, they would think that being a lesbian means you are underserving of love and a happy ending. I think some steps in the betterment of representation of lesbian people include, viewers un-learning negative and harmful stereotypes and be critical of the images they see. Conjointly, creators should be more cognizant of the messages they perpetuate in their works that could potentially either provide comfort to a viewer or further damage an already damaged self-image. Both these solutions are continuous hard work but totally worth it if it leads to more representative and dynamic characters and satisfied viewers.

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