Do LGBT characters in film and TV offer a fair reflection of gay life?

Gay life is not uniform and the depiction of a particular character may not be fully representative, writes Caomhan Keane
Do LGBT characters in film and TV offer a fair reflection of gay life?

Going to the flicks is an event that’s become fraught with moral conundrums for those of us who are politically correct. To sit through a film with a clear conscience one must put their prospective movie through a series of tests — such as the Bechdel, DuVernay and the Vito Russo tests, to ensure the movies we watch represent minorities, women and LGBT characters in a way that at least pays lip service to their real life.

Each test has three basic principles. There is minor differentness between them but the general gist is that two or more such characters need to exist in the story and exist beyond their race/gender/sexuality, and that they function beyond bringing colour to the narrative of a white, hetro cis-gendered lead.

However, were we to put our pennies where our principles are, and only go to flicks that passed, we’d be cinematically frigid.

In 2015 the number of LGBT characters in mainstream releases was 47. Racial diversity among those characters had decreased by 7%. Three quarters had less than 10 minutes’ screen time, while the single trans character “existed purely to give the audience something to laugh at when her identity is revealed.”

Penn and Boo in Orange is the New Black
Penn and Boo in Orange is the New Black

TV is doing better. GLAAD’s annual ‘Where We Are On TV’ report for 2015/16 found that there were huge increases in LGBT characters across network, cable and streaming devices. People of colour make up a third of all recurring characters and we’re close to gender parity (with female characters edging out male by 12% on streaming sites).

Since the turn of the century we’ve had shows that have excavated every shade of the rainbow from the murky (Oz) to the mundane (Cucumber), in the process changing the limited manner in which we’ve been presented. We’ve had gay rappers (Empire), spies (London Spy), museum directors (The L Word), prisoners (Orange is The New Black), even Republicans (Scandal) challenging the still predominant stereotype of the acid-tongued mess (Girls).

Perhaps the best sign of progress is the manner in which the sexuality of break-out characters are no longer used to define them, like Kalinda in The Good Wife, Omar in The Wire or David on Six Feet Under.

Omar in The Wire
Omar in The Wire

But 2016 still contained a viscous self-inflicted kick to the cajones with the cancellation of Looking, with many griping that the show wasn’t representative enough.

But, as a community, we’ve never been shy of cannibalising our own for not living up to our exacting standards.

Fifty years ago gays never made it onto the television screen, beyond kindly liberal TV documentaries that painted us as sad, lonely and isolated.

The riot at the Stonewall Inn changed this. By the early 1970s, gay characters were appearing as functioning members of the family in American Movies of the Week like A Certain Summer with Martin Sheen or acting as Trojan horses that mocked the misinformation that went before such as SOAP where Billy Crystal was the first gay character on prime time TV.

The British embraced and subverted stereotype via Mr Humphries on Are You Being Served, who — since it was never stated that he was gay — was welcomed into British living rooms with a wink and a nudge.

Mr Humphries on Are You Being Served
Mr Humphries on Are You Being Served

Public protests were held by gays over this supposed caricature, yet Mr Humphries softened audiences up for John Hurt’s performance as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, a man who possessed many of the same attributes, but who refused to hide his homosexuality.

Yet there was a serious lack of diversity in the type of gay lives shown. And the stories that came out of Aids were a continuation of the image of the ‘tragic’ homosexual — where we were victims in earnest and well-executed melodramas, like An Early Frost or Our Sons, dying due to our persuasion.

Yet AIDS energised the movement and made us visible in new ways. The news broadcast images into the homestead each evening — of activists, of caretakers, of a community rising up.

Talk shows like Oprah and Donahue afforded us the chance to discuss our own lives in a manner that educated the public, while Ricky Lake and Jerry Springer gave us autonomy, to play a part in domestic dramas that were less about what we were, and more about who.

But it was the contrasting fortunes of sitcoms like Ellen and Roseanne that showed how a foothold could best be developed with the public.

Roseanne’s gay kiss brought the show its best ratings and quickly developed a ‘so what’ approach to its LGBT characters, skewering straights for their limited perception of gay people.

Ellen — the first programme to feature a lead gay character — came wrapped in the cotton of a straight friendly narrative, divorcing her character from her community. It was cancelled within the year.

Will & Grace proved that a show that put gays front and centre could appeal to a wider audience, even though it thrived though archaic shorthand about what gay life looked like. But, like Modern Family after it, Will & Grace too often presented its gay leads as sexless eunuchs, with more interest in sewing than screwing.

The cast of Will & Grace
The cast of Will & Grace

Queer as Folk explored gay men as sexual beings, featuring explicit simulated acts between a 29-year-old who’d just become a father and the 15-year old schoolboy. It was greeted with protests on Manchester’s Canal Street by gays rejecting a premise creator Russell T Davies never put forth, that this is how all gays behaved.

Which appears to be the crux of the issue. We’ve seen the impression the wrong depiction can give our bosses, our parents and our friends. Gay life is not uniform and the depiction of one life won’t fit all.

Looking may have failed its imagined brief, but surely it’s time where gays shouldn’t need shows about our lives to act as a totem pole for the entire community?

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