The Problem With LGBTelevision

There was a scene in the third season of Mad Men where Sal, Sterling-Cooper’s closeted art director, spurned the sexual advances of one of the company’s key clients. In the exchange that followed between him and the company’s Creative Director, Don Draper, it was clear that Sal was expected to have ‘entertained’ the client. Having known about Sal’s sexuality for quite a while, it was clear that it was of no personal concern to Don. When the issue entered the professional sphere, however, he was immediately dismissed with two cutting words: ‘you people’. His rebuffal of the client was a rejection of the masculine standard established by all other male characters in the show: they fuck for pleasure and pretend it never happened or they fuck for business and build from it, all with a tot of Old Standard in hand and a few dozen cigarettes lolling from their tight-lipped mouths. In failing to conform to Sterling-Cooper’s masculine stereotype, Sal sacrificed not only his career but also his claim to the ad-company’s perverse sense of professional integrity.

Considering he was fired for something which was strongly tied to his identity, the act of the dismissal itself was oddly impersonal. In Draper’s eyes, his sexuality was a commodity which could be used to bolster sales and possibly attract new customers. Even though he said, ‘you people’, he was not judging Sal’s sexual activity, rather his inability to use his sexuality in a profitable manner for the company.

Profitability is clearly something that is of concern in the television industry. It is an industry that is often dependent on sensation and exaggeration to ensure the fickle attention of the average slobbish television viewer. The stereotypes spawned in soap operas are perfect examples of this. Soap characters are tentatively supposed to represent the Great British Public, but unless the Great British Public is populated with hoards of ditzy blondes, weather-beaten housewives, drug-addled alcoholics and womanizing gangsters with more money than brain cells, it’s clear that soaps are holding a kaleidoscope up to ordinary life to make it abnormal for entertainment’s sake.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Why should they be concerned with realism anyway? We watch TV for titillation, not stultification. As proved time and time again on shoddy reality TV shows, showing people as they actually are is uninteresting. Big Brother’s digression from a show absolutely interested in realism to a glorified gameshow is symptomatic of the average television producer’s mantra; that shows need to get bigger, brasher and ultimately dumber to maintain the attention of its audience. Television programs are so disposable nowadays that they need to immediately capture the imagination of the channel hopping viewer. The use of long established, albeit crude, stereotypes in the formation of characters establishes an instant familiarity between the viewer and the program which, in turn, makes it more saleable. It makes commercial sense.

Which would be fine if television wasn’t as culturally and socially significant as it clearly is. In real life, people often try to emulate their favourite television personalities. Everyone’s got a fat friend who’s a little bit like James Corden. Everyone knows some sardonic twat who endlessly repeats jokes from Mock The Week like their own original material. When The Office first came on TV, I noticed a marked change in one of my best friends. He started morphing into a foetal version of Ricky Gervais. His vocal register changed almost overnight, his body language started aping Gervais’ and everything he said had some relation to some hilarious insight made by Ricky G. Television programs are almost parasitic in the way that they feed off real-life personality, make it extreme and distort our perception of what it means to be ‘normal’ in Britain today.

This invariably becomes dangerous when portraying people who form a minority on television. As your primary school teacher would have taught you, it’s wrong to treat someone differently just because of who they are. Television does just that with gay people. Stonewall recently conducted a study about how gay people are portrayed on television. In 126 hours of programming most popular with young viewers, gay people were on screen for five hours and 43 minutes in total. Of those five hours and 43 minutes, gay people were portrayed positively and realistically for only 46 minutes. This study indicates that television programmers fall too easily into lazy and damaging stereotypes. Although the gay stereotype itself isn’t one dimensional, (the TV gay comes in the form of a camp queen or butch bulldog straight from Soho’s dingier corners, a teen struggling with his or her sexual identity or a libertine-esque figure who would screw his mum given half a chance), its various manifestations are all grossly inaccurate of being queer in modern Britain.

Cut across to The X Factor a few weeks ago. Diva Fever paraded across the stage with all the glitz and glamour of a cabaret show abandoned in some suburban wasteland twenty years ago. The audience choked on all of the glitter that floated like fallout from the nuclear cloud of campness mushrooming across the television studio. As I cringed at home protected from the certain mutation facing the audience, I saw Danni Minogue clapping like an organ-grinder’s monkey possessed with the spirit of Lee Evans, shrieking ‘you were FABULOUS! Absolute DIVAS!’ and cackling with all of the glee of a witch who’d just disemboweled her first baby. If such a celebration of a crushingly exaggerated representation of homosexuality wasn’t so commonplace on television, I would have felt more than just a little bit disheartenend.

Being a gay man on TV is tantamount to being stripped of all character aside from being gay. A perfect example of this is Ste from Hollyoaks. When the actor who plays Ste came out about a month ago, Hollyoaks producers decided to incorporate the actor’s homosexuality into his character’s story arc. In addition to altering Ste’s character, he was also emasculated. Ste immediately transformed from a hapless and vaguely aggressive figure into a powerless sycophant trembling at his apparently insatiable passion for the slimy pornstar-mustached Brendan. The emergence of his homosexuality instantly objectified Ste. When Brendan snaps his fingers, Ste spreads his legs. His homosexuality suddenly owned him. He is now a character who is primarily defined by his sexual orientation before everything else.

There have, of course, been some positive examples of ‘gay TV’. Queer as Folk was lauded for being a quasi-accurate portrayal of gay men when it first came to air in 1999, and gay relationships aren’t implicitly abnormal on TV any more. Hopefully gone are the days on Wife Swap when the camera zoomed in on the horrified face of a deeply religious mother as she realises she’s just switched families with a card carrying homosexual. Just the other day, I watched an episode of The World’s Strictest Parents that showed a family with two gay dads as a model of the perfect family. After being criticized by the Stonewall survey for only showing 29 seconds of footage involving lesbians or lesbian characters, the BBC has produced Lip Service, a drama series about the lives and loves of a group of lesbians and bisexuals. Putting aside the fact that it’s not really normalizing lesbian relationships by showing them to be something so different that they merit their own television show, and the fact that it stinks worse than a month-old colostomy bag, it is a welcome addition to the small pool of lesbian related television programming; a pool which is more fascinated with flirtations between straight women and predatory lesbian figures than it is with portraying more realistic lesbian relationships. Again, the issue is profitability. Seeing Jennifer Aniston make out with Winona Rider on Friends is clearly going to draw in more viewers than a show following lesbians doing crazy lesbian things like making cups of tea and sitting down to watch Midsomer Murders before reading in bed for an hour and a half. Those crazy, crazy lesbians! So, for creating a romantic drama- a genre almost exclusively reserved for the examination of heterosexual relationships- albeit one more laden with stereotypical ‘lipstick lesbians’ than women who are just women, the BBC should be applauded. I think.

It is fair to say, however, that TV is still obsessed with representing gay men as flouncing, feminine, offensively brash creatures obsessed with constantly having a cock up their collective arse. The ghost of John Inman’s eminently imitable Mr. Humphries clearly still haunts the commissioning meetings of most TV comedies. His archetypal camp-as-Christmas character type has been replicated numerous times, from Will and Grace’s Jack to The Powerpuff Girls’ Him, Ugly Betty’s Marc and Justin, Glee’s Kurt, Coronation Street’s Sean amongst many, many others. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with having camp characters on TV, but the fact that they are so dominant creates the impression, whether intentional or not, that a formative part of being homosexual involves mincing, lisping and acting dumb. Which is absolute bullshit.

Someone needs to sit down television writers and tell them that gay men are, shockingly, still men, that gay women are still women and that it is not only unrepresentative to put so many screaming stereotypes on television but is also actually damaging the freedoms of gay people. A 2009 YouGov poll of secondary school teachers showed that 71% believed that unrealistic portrayals of gay people in broadcasts actively encouraged homophobic bullying in their schools. If there was ever a clear sign that titillating television about ‘fabulous divas’ had influence beyond the silicone of your television screen, surely this is it.

How hard would it be to have an openly gay man on television that wasn’t a clone of Gok Wan? To have a lesbian who wasn’t a raging feminist with an extensive collection of Dr. Martens? To have role models for young homosexuals to show that they are, in fact, normal and not some freak condemned to a life of sluttery, whoredom and stupidity? There are only three people who I can think of who could possibly be said role models, and of those three I’m not quite sure how trendy Clare Balding and Dr. Christian from Embarrassing Bodies are. I’m guessing not very. So the onus is on you, Stephen Fry!

And what role models are there for transsexuals? There was a transsexual on America’s Next Top Model a few years ago, but that was more because Tyra Banks had adopted her as her cause for the year than for her credentials as a potential model. At the moment there’s a character in Hollyoaks who wants to have a sex change but, lo and behold, she’s being sexually blackmailed by one of those evil lesbians. There is not a single transsexual television presenter nor a single television program that treats transsexuals as anything but freaks of nature.

Television’s perspective on homosexuality needs to change in order to match modern conceptions of what it means to be gay. It sure as heck doesn’t mean degrading yourself on a TV show just to make Danni Minogue cackle. Diva Fever said after their exit that they were not really given the opportunity to sing the songs that they wanted to sing and were instead forced to clamber around on stage like Dale Winton and Julian Clary in the dark room of a sleazy gay club. Indeed, they only got through in the first place because they camped up their performance after Simon told them that their plainer rendition of a ballad was not what he was hoping for from them. I wish that they’d told Simon Cowell to go fuck himself with his galactic ego because it’s all sorts of reprehensible to expect someone to alter their personality just to fit with his peverse conception of what two gay men should sound like. Sadly if they did this they would have faced an immediate and brutal dismissal not dissimilar to that of our dear friend Sal from Mad Men.

Television needs to stop treating homosexuals as something that is ‘other’. Homosexuality isn’t anything new. It’s not interesting in its own right. It’s not seedy. It’s not the all-encompassing trait of any homosexual I know. People in real life are defined by who they are before they’re defined by who they fuck, and I really can’t comprehend why this can’t be the case for gay characters on television.

It’s doubly confusing when you consider the reluctance of television producers to include scenes of intimacy between two homosexuals on their shows. American comedy Modern Family has a gay couple on it who are supposed to be in love, yet it took producers twenty-eight episodes and pressure from lobbyists before they showed them kissing. The kiss itself was a half-a-second affair hidden in the background of a shot. It was a throwaway. It was nothing.

Producers and writers need to become aware that a hell of a lot of people identify themselves within the queer spectrum but not with any gay characters on TV. Far from drawing in an audience, sensational depictions of gay people are denying the broadcasting companies a potentially avid viewership. They need to start becoming more aware of their social role and at the very least make a drama with gay themes that isn’t going to be a tediously wanky tale about how difficult coming out is or a scandal involving twelve sluttish gay boys contracting various venereal diseases.

The old stereotypes are worn down and irrelevant in twenty-first century Britain. Is it really so difficult to create interesting and relevant gay characters? Apparently so. You people…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.