LGBTQ Representation in Media
The representation of LGBTQ people in mainstream media in recent years has been questioned for some time now. In a 2017 InStyle article Alim Kheraj unfolds the findings of GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index- GLAAD being a media monitoring organization with the mission of holding media outlets accountable for their representation of LGBTQ people. Kheraj points out that major productions studios, who reach massive audiences globally, fail to represent queer people, especially those who don’t identify as lesbian or gay as well as queer people of color.
An NBC News article by Sierra Jackson also highlights GLAAD’s findings on the visibility of queer individuals in media. Quoting Megan Townsend, Director of entertainment analysis at GLAAD- ?“When LGBTQ people are left off screen, it sends the message that we don’t matter or that we don’t exist… it’s also crucial for young LGBTQ people to see themselves reflected in the media.” ?This lack of representation is problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, LGBTQ youth’s need for role models in the media is considerably necessary due to the fact that they may not have support or acceptance from themselves or their families and other surrounding entities in their lives. In particular, queer youth being exposed to non-heteronormative sex and relationships could in some part help make up for the lack of queer safe sex education and advice from the family unit and other systems in place that don’t account for so much of our youth. Having positive role models in media and seeing that people like them exist not only benefits an individual, but also impacts the attitude of the viewers of such media who may have adverse beliefs about queer people due to their lack of exposure to them. Also, misrepresentation poses a threat as stereotypical portrayals, commonly using a queer person as the center of a joke or mockery, perpetuates unreasonable ideals of LGBTQ people as well as facilitates homophobic sentiment in a subtler way.
Imagine a teenager in a midwest town where being queer is unheard of, swept under the rug, or outright treated with hostility. With the uncertainty of support from peers or family, youth are likely to look elsewhere for guidance, and in our computer age kids turn to media and pop culture to find meaningful connections and advice. In general, the process of identity development and recognizing one’s true sexual desires is greatly affected by the socio-cultural environment surrounding ones life. This piecemeal process is in large part influenced by media, and research shows that it influences the psyche of developing youths.
According to a 2011 Gomillion and Giuliano study, “The Influence of Media Role Models on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity”, media particularly “influences individual’s self-perception”. It was found in an earlier study that exposure to same sex positive role models in children’s literature and media positively influenced their self-perception, therefore signifying the significance of the effect of role models whom children can relate to. Participants in a mentioned study showed a positive correlation in self-esteem when exposed to role models with whom they thought shared a great amount of similar character traits (Gomillion & Giuliano, 2011). Thus, queer individuals who have exposure to queer role models may have higher self esteem and positive self- perception than those who do not have access to such inspirations. The presence of queer characters in media influence viewers’ personalities, values, and actions through being able to compare themselves to the identification and tropes of role models.
With a possible lack of visible positive non-heteronormative, non-binary gendered role models in youth’s personal lives, media may help them understand their own identity in a world clouded by the expectations of heteronormativity. Growing up in a heteronormative society closes the mind to a narrowed ideal of sexuality and self expression. They inspire youth to be successful not only in identifying and accepting themselves, but also in overcoming adversity within their family, and peers, and community. Inclusive media experiences have an impact from childhood into young adulthood, and into their future as self-realized adults. Gomillion & Giuliano provide the example of a study on lesbians who found consolation in relating to female characters who deviated away from accepted feminine gender expectations for women, and responded positively to actors who were rumored to be lesbians. This calls into consideration not only the existence of queer characters but also the inclusion of queer actors in Hollywood and international mainstream media. The scarcity of gay, lesbian, and bisexual actors and characters limits the exposure and the beneficial functions that representation in the media can bring to viewers. This lack of exposure gives viewers the sense of being excluded from traditional society, and hinders the expression of minority identities.
Mainstream media holds the potential to normalize queer culture and expression for those struggling in visibility and otherwise, so it’s problematic that they don’t take accountability for the standard they are setting. That being said, where there are LGB individuals in media, there tends to be problematic undertones that overpower the existence of the representation in the first place. Participants in the Gomillion & Giuliano study noted the unrealistic portrayal of queer characters which not only negatively impacts self perception but societal views of LGBTQ people in general.
The problem goes beyond just the presence of LGBTQ characters, and into the realm of the harmful use of such characters as a means to create a mockery of queer folk, perpetuating unrealistic expectations and allowing the masses to deem this behavior normal and okay. Rather than humanizing LGBT people and providing realistic ideas of what they’re actually like- negative stereotypes such as “lacking stable relationships, being preoccupied with their sexuality, being laughable, one-dimensional figures”- are the main focus when queer people are given screen time (Gonta, Hansen, Fagin & Fong, 2017). A participant in the Gamillion study noted his wish to see gay representation in a more normalized manner- “normal people with normal jobs who just happen to be gay”- as opposed to characters only shown traits being their gayness or negative connotations surrounding their sexuality.
The use of gay and lesbian characters as the victim of homophobic jaunts that aim to illicit a humorous effect, and using using gay characters themselves to provide comedic relief is seriously problematic in terms of fairly representing a group as well as affecting society’s view of LGBTQ life. In a 2018 content analysis of LGBT representation in media, Cook found that references to lesbian and gay derogatory stereotypes were still common themes in 2016-2017 media, and that bisexual and transgender people were comparatively underrepresented.
The overused archetypes of gay men who are feminine and into fashion and the masculine “dyke” woman fails to recognize the existence of the actually diverse span of expressions and identities. The inclusion of characters that diversify media through varying ethnic backgrounds, incomes, professions, and ages give a wider span of what normal is- wealthy, white, gay males are the most represented queer population- but this ignores the rest of a hugely diverse and intersectional set of people. The lack of representation for these groups alienate those who deviate from these norms and molds a social model where accepting these stereotypes as a reality. Mainstream media has an important function in providing information to the public and forming a social model, therefore visibility on screen has the capability of shifting society’s attitude (Gonta, et al., 2017).
As homosexuality increases in commonality- due to wider societal progress acceptance- media representation becomes increasingly significant. Gonta’s study found that increasing media exposure lead to increasingly more acceptance and willingness to learn. This was the case particularly in young adults, whose exposure to positive homosexual representations lead them to be more open and accepting in their attitudes towards gayness. This is significant because in this age of growing visibility our youth are the catalyst responsible for the future of accepting all minority groups.
Media theories such as cultivation illuminate the effect of mainstream media on society, as repeated exposure to positive (or negative) examples of non heteronormative individuals and groups influences the beliefs of viewers over time (Gonta, et al., 2017). This study provided the example of television personality, Ellen DeGeneres, whose talk show exposes viewers to a ‘normal’ homosexual person whom they can relate to in a pure human way despite her sexuality. Media in the last decade has slowly moved into a sphere where LGB portrayals are less damaging and stereotyped, and role models like as Ellen lead prejudice away from negative archetypes and towards positive depictions that improve attitudes and lessens discrimination. Back to the effects LGB representation has on the individual- media has the ability to provide youth with same-sex relationship and sex models. However in a 2014 study by Bond, it was found that the most frequent talk of relationships and sexual desires in media viewed by LGB young adults was in a heterosexual context.
Feeling excluded from conventional norms, including what our youth consume through entertainment, can have adverse effects on one’s feelings about their sexuality or other aspect of one’s identity. While the social issues about sexuality may be addressed in media, homosexual relationships and sex were far less frequently communicated (Bond, 2014). This is significant because all though homosexual themes are somewhat present in media, details inherent to sexual identity were excluded. In this way, mainstream media “sanitizes” homosexual relationships while it hypersexualizes heteronormative ones. The prevalence of queer characters not expressing sexual behaviors make it difficult for youth to investigate their sexual identities. In response to the lack of representation from mainstream media, niches of gay- and lesbian-oriented media have become progressively available.
Bond released a study a year later in 2015 on this niche of media: “Portrayals of Sex and Sexuality in Gay- and Lesbian Oriented Media (GLO): A Quantitative Content Analysis”. His study analyzes sexual instances of GLO video media. Bond (2015) found that unlike in mainstream media, LGB relationships, sexual desires, and behaviors are diversely and realistically presented more often and in more positive contexts. Sexual identity is not breezed over in its conventional fashion, but discussed through its intersection with LGB sex and relationships. Also, in contrast to “sanitized” mainstream media, GLO media portrays life-like sexual behaviors including physical flirting and kissing, that allows views to delve deeper into the diverse components of sexual identity and expression. It’s significant to note that transgender and non-binary individuals are underrepresented in these findings, mainly due to their lack of representation in media as a whole. However, the growing production of and accessibility to sexual minority media is making strides in providing unconventional representation to queer individuals. Queer oriented media allow youth who are questioning their sexuality and identity to explore beyond mainstream media that continues to be prevailingly heterosexual.
Representation truly matters. It means the most to minorities who have systematically been oppressed and stigmatized for generations, and with the rise of social media, it’s much more commonly accepted to be visible. However, social niches on the internet are a much safer space for expression than mass marketed media. In the sphere of our current social and cultural context, LGBTQ individuals may still feel invisible, stigmatized by their communities and perhaps by oneself. In this New Media Age, mainstream media holds the power of constructing the social model in which masses of society interprets as authoritative. Exposing the masses to LGBTQ individuals humanizes their experience, and cultivates heteronormative conservatives’ acceptance and willingness to learn.
Creating diverse positive role models is crucial for those who are questioning their own identity and attractions, and those who may not have support and advice from people within their microsystems. From the seven major U.S. production studios- 23 of 125 films represented queer characters (Jackson, 2017). Though gay and lesbian oriented media exists, the accessibility of queer media via popular platforms in the likes of these major mass media production studios is the next step towards total visibility and acceptance.
- Bond, B. J. (2014). Sex and sexuality in entertainment media popular with lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents. ?Mass Communication and Society?, ?17?(1), 98-120. Bond, B. J. (2015).
- Portrayals of sex and sexuality in gay-and lesbian-oriented media: A quantitative content analysis. ?Sexuality & Culture?, ?19?(1), 37-56. Cook, C. (2018). A content analysis of LGBT representation on broadcast and streaming television. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Gomillion, S. C., & Giuliano, T. A. (2011).
- The influence of media role models on gay, lesbian, and bisexual identity. ?Journal of homosexuality?, ?58?(3), 330-354. Gonta, G., Hansen, S., Fagin, C., & Fong, J. (2017).
- Changing Media and Changing Minds: Media Exposure and Viewer Attitudes Toward Homosexuality. ?Pepperdine Journal of Communication Research?, ?5?(1), 5. Jackson, S.C (2017).
- LGBTQ People ‘Nearly Invisible’ at Box Office, Report Finds. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/lgbtq-people-nearly-invisible-box-office-repor t-finds-n801771
- LGBTQ REPRESENTATION IN MEDIA 10
- Kheraj, A. (2017). LGBTQ people are still severely underrepresented in Hollywood movies. Retrieved from https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/lgbtq-people-still-severely-underrepresented-h ollywood-movies/”