Thoughts on ‘2011: A good year to be gay’

Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out magazine, recently celebrated the progress made on the depiction of ‘gay culture’ in American TV shows. He writes in The Guardian:

In many ways the transformation of attitudes has been ongoing for decades, accelerated in large part by the impact of Aids, which reconfigured gay identity around community and relationships. In TV shows such as Glee and Modern Family, gays are no longer comic stooges or punchlines, their relationships treated with the same respect as those of their straight counterparts. They hold hands, they kiss, they even share the same bed. This was a quantum leap on 1990s shows such as Will & Grace, in which the gay characters had the whiff of “confirmed bachelors”, to use the archaic euphemism of obituary writers, rarely presented in functioning relationships, much less in love. (Via The Guardian.)

While it is important to celebrate positive changes, there’s still a long way to go. Most of the shows Hicklin discuses play it relatively safe in their portrayal of queer sexualities, while the depiction of heterosexual desire and heterosexual sex is more overt.

For example, Hicklin mentions the limitations of previous trail blazer shows, such as Will and Grace. When I used to teach gender and sexuality, most of my students thought that Will and Grace had done wonders for the acceptance of LGBTQ people. While it’s true that the show was both popular and progressive for its day, the gay characters (Will and Jack) were largely portrayed as sexless beings. They were rarely seen kissing the men they dated, nor did they show much physical affection with their lovers. The heterosexual women characters (Grace and Karen) were more overtly sexual in their antics, storylines and behaviour.

Queer as Folk pushed the envelope a lot more with its portrayal of romance, relationships and sex (both the UK and US-Canadian versions). In the American version, on-again-off-again lovers Brian and Justin danced, laughed and had graphic sex on a regular basis (as did most of the other characters). Similarly the American show The L Word had sex scenes, but the focus was more on the women’s emotional entanglements.

Hicklin also mentions True Blood – another show that is more diverse in its representation of characters, yet the show has been more graphic in its portrayal of heterosexual sex. Tara’s sex scenes with her girlfriend have also been more lingering than Lafayette’s sex scenes with his boyfriend. 

The changes in popular culture are headed in the right direction, but heteronormativity still prevails. That is, heterosexuality is still the focus and ideas of heterosexual desire still largely influence how LGBTQ characters are portrayed. The more they conform to male heterosexual desire (two women having sex), the more air time spent on a character’s love life. The converse is also true: the further a character is from “acceptable” male heterosexual fantasy (gay men), the less likely the audience is to see the character’s sexual lives.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on the media’s portrayal of LGBTQ characters? Do you think the progress is as strong as Hicklin makes it out to be?

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