Have Television Representations of Queer Sexuality Changed in the Last 40 Years?

This spring semester marks my last full semester of course work—FOREVER! Wow! That’s a great thing to say. But the last semester of course work can only mean one thing—in a year I will be defending my dissertation. That’s almost as frightening as no more course work is relieving.

In preparation for dissertation season, I’ve been reading as much previous research on mass media representations of gays and lesbians from as early as the 1950s. The differences between past coverage of the LGBTQ community as, in some instances, extraordinary, but in other ways we really haven’t come that far.

Last week I wrote about the media’s coverage of homophobia in sports and the potential for an out gay professional athlete in the US. The days of being called “perverts” and “faggots” by the mainstream media are behind us—what the folks on the fringes call us, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

But is not being called a “pervert” enough? Is the presence of gay (and a few lesbian) characters enough?

One thing I’ve noticed in my own media consuming is that very few lesbians or bisexuals are represented, and when a transgendered woman or man is represented he or she is usually the butt of a joke. Most gay men in the media are white. Most white gay men in the media are wealthy, and it seems that the current trend is that most wealthy, white gay men represented in the media are married or at least partnered with children or children on the way.

Oh yeah and they obey the gender binary—one is the “femme” and one is the “butch”.

Gay men on television have gone from “perverts” threatening national security to conservative family men, who are just like everyone else. They represent the heterosexual majority. They have the same desires, the same needs and the same family dynamic.

Isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for? Maybe not.

Since the pre-fall television season, I awaited the arrival of NBC’s The New Normal. Mostly because I sensed that it would give me plenty to talk about in my research, but also just to see how the show would play out in the media and how popular it might become. The show has been successful—or at least it’s still on the air.

I’m just not so sure it lives up to its name. It seems that the only normal the show is portraying is The Same Old Heteronormative. But what does that mean for the LGBTQ community? What does that mean for the non-LGBTQ community? I’m not sure I can answer that—at least not now.

I’ll leave you with a couple of clips. One is from the 1970s Soap, which featured a gay character, Jodie, played by Billy Crystal, and the other clip, is from recent episode of The New Normal. What do you think? How much have we changed?

Season 1 of Soap (1977)

Season 1 of The New Normal (2012)

Some great books to read for additional insights into queer representations in the media.
Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media by Edward Alwood
Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America by Larry Gross
From ‘Perverts’ to ‘Fab Five’: The Media’s Changing Depiction of Gay Men and Lesbians by Rodger Streitmatter

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