A new study by the BBC reveals the under representation of the gay community in the media. The two year-long report found that lesbians, gays and bisexuals are comfortable with how they are represented online, on radio and on TV, praising in particular Dr Who, Eastenders and Casualty, but feel all UK broadcasters could do more to accurately represent the LGB community.
Although this study is BBC specific, it does ring true for many channels, and also the world of film. Yes, there are shows like Glee, Will and Grace, Ugly Betty and several soaps too, but when looking at the media as a whole, it quickly becomes clear how few gay characters there are. There has been a million and one films and TV programmes about straight couples or straight friends – but very few have a gay character as part of the plot, and even fewer have a central gay character. The fact that such a fuss is made every time a show announces a gay story line proves just this, and shows which do have central gay themes, often very low budget, are often deemed ‘gay shows’ or ‘gay films.’ The BBC has been told to be “more creative and bolder” in its representations, as there were a large number disappointed with the stereotypical portrayals. These common stereotypes can be damaging to their image in society, overshadowing any positive representations.
“Gay men: very visible, but also frequently stereotyped as camp, effeminate and the butt of jokes. Lesbians: almost invisible, regularly mocked. Bi men: almost invisible. I can only think of the character Ianto from Torchwood. Bi Women: generally portrayed in ways that titillate straight male viewers – e.g. 90% straight woman (both of whom are dressed and acted to look like magazine covers) before returning to boyfriends/husbands. Trans people: largely invisible or treated derogatorily.”(Female, 25-34, bisexual)
The BBC could learn a lot from the realistic and unstereotypical representation of gay characters in TV show ‘Happy Endings’. It has the balance of covering gay issues (such as coming out and homophobia) but also characters that are just incidentally gay.
Still facing stereotyping and remaining relatively invisible to mainstream television are lesbian women, who feel they are under represented according to the BBC report. This is probably the main reason behind such excitement surrounding the BBC 3 drama ‘Lip Service.’ Receiving mixed responses, many lesbians were happy to see themselves represented and are now campaigning for a third series, but it faced criticism for lack of believability, its direction by men and the predominantly heterosexual cast being damaging to its quality. Not that there is anything wrong with heterosexual actors playing LGB characters – the cases of Eric McCormack (Will from Will and Grace) and Katherine Moening (Shane from the L Word) prove this. But ‘Lip Service’ was received as too heterosexual, disappointing for a show centred around gay women.
Then we come to the B, of LGB. The BBC found there was next to no portrayal of bisexual characters. Torchwood’s Captain Jack was cited as a good example, his sexuality present but never an issue, but overall bisexuality was under represented. There was only a small note on representation of transgender characters, after many respondents questioned their exclusion. Those characters I did recognise again faced the same problems of poor representation and stereotypes. For example, the most high profile trans character in movies has probably been Dr Frank-N-Furter (Rocky Horror Picture Show), who is far from a realistic portrayal and his transexuality exists only for us to laugh at and add to the strangeness. Ugly Betty’s Alexa is at least slightly more accurate, but it’s a topic that is only touched on for a few episodes, and fails to cover all corners of the diverse transgender community.
At least the UK can revel in the fact that it has better quality representations than over the pond. US soaps have only just begun to represent gay characters and storylines on TV screens, something we’ve been doing for a while over here – albeit riddled with stereotypes. Gay media organization GLAAD recently looked into representation by different channels in the USA, and found no channels were rated ‘excellent’ for their representation of LGBT people, and lacked diversity as the majority of characters were white. Both the study by the BBC and GLAAD found improvements, so maybe there is hope for the LGBT community yet, but it seems that audiences believe inclusiveness should be coming a little faster.