Homosexuality has been a huge topic of discussion in most social forums and political debates. Specifically, homosexuality is being discussed in all forms of media including television, magazines, books and the likes; however, homosexuals being a minority group in the society, many people view homosexuality in various ways. Through the years, many people in different societies have come to understand homosexuality but still, there are a few people who view the sexual orientation as weird and unnatural (Byer 386).
Through the divergent perceptions evident in almost all societies, homosexuals have been stereotyped along various social parameters, thereby wrongly shaping the perception of people to how gays should be viewed. Homosexuality has a huge role in the way society defines gender roles and this outlines the framework to this study because it defines the impact homosexuality and the media has on our understanding of gender. Homosexuality changes the way we analyze gender in terms of sexual orientation because it encompasses a person’s sexual, romantic, affectionate and emotional feelings towards people of the same gender, as opposed to people from different genders (Byer 386).
Many people believe that homosexuality is a choice or lifestyle people choose, but research studies point out the contrary by stating that homosexuality is brought about by psychological factors underlying a person’s personality (Byer 386). However, this study does not seek to dig deeper into that debate because it exposes the fact that homosexuality tries to change the way we understand gender because it redefines gender roles in relationships. In some aspects, homosexual couples play various male and female roles seen in conventional relationships, even though they hail from the same gender. In other words, homosexuality poses a threat to the conventional way we view male and female gender roles in the society.
The influence of the media in our understanding of gender comes at whatever age, thanks to the volumes of television programs we watch, both as children and as adults. These programs consequently shape how different sexes and gender roles are represented in the society. Research studies cited in (Shapiro 3) affirm this fact by stating that: “the majority of television programming presents the sexes in traditionally stereotyped roles. This covers a broad area including programming aimed at adults, children and including television commercials”. Moreover, it is plausible that the imitation children do from watching certain television programs shape the way they perceive gender or understand gender role development and it goes without saying that the way media perceives homosexuality plays a big role in the way the society understands gender in this context.
Since the media greatly defines how the society views homosexuals, it is important to analyse how the media plays a role in shaping our perception of gender and homosexuality. In this regard, this study will focus on the most basic forms of media which shape homosexuality in the society and how they are able to project a given image about homosexuality to influence our understanding of gender altogether. Through this analysis we will analyze the media’s portrayal of homosexuality viz a viz politics, television and movies.
In the 21st century the issue of homosexuality has been a hot topic of discussion, especially in the policy formulation process of various governments. For instance, In the 2004 American elections, former president Bush and rival John Kerry had to state their stand on homosexuality but in other zones of the world, leaders have also been grappling with the same issue; with notable places like Uganda, in Africa, where homosexuals have been banned by the government and civilians maim homosexuals because of the stigmatisation associated with it (Shapiro 3). With all these political undertones associated with homosexuality, the media has been at the centre stage in the whole drama. For example, many presidential hopefuls have in the past been faced with the dilemma of either legalising same sex marriages, or not, and their decisions have been beamed throughout local and international media.
The American set up especially provides a good platform for the analysis of this issue, in the Bush vs. Kerry presidential contest where voters who were against same sex unions sided with Bush while those who were sympathetic to homosexuality sided with Kerry. Unlike most elections around the world and indeed in the history of the US, homosexuality has been brought to close focus and it can actually seal the fate of presidential hopefuls, depending on the society they hail from. The role the media plays in this matter is actually bringing to fore the issue of homosexuality as one of a high moral and ethical concern, since it instigates debates at the highest form of government.
However, in the past, homosexuality was portrayed by the media (and in other social forms) as just an issue that plagued the society because it was never regarded as important as other issues in politics, such as a politician’s stand on economy, racism and the likes. However, in as much as the media plays a role in bringing the issue, not only to national focus but international focus, it still remains dehumanising to the gay community the way the media reports on homosexuality, without sensitivity (Shapiro 4). Upon close analysis, it can be said that the issue of homosexuality is now being used by candidates to garner votes by declaring a popular stand in the issue (against their opponents) instead of debating about the issue per se and how it affects the society or the public for that matter. The media has heightened anxiety over the issue further by covering the activities of gay rights movements and similar organizations, as well as politicians’ take on the matter, thereby exemplifying the issue above other moral issues of similar magnitude. Recent articles on homosexuality published in magazines such as The Advocate have essentially changed the way homosexuality should be perceived because they publish biased views on the topic and indeed about sex union marriages. This development has a direct effect in the way society views homosexuality because their perception is influenced to think on the more liberal view of homosexuality (Shapiro 5). In this regard, the perception of the public is inclined towards the view that gender roles can be switched and indeed, gender should be analyzed from a more liberal point of view.
Probably, for many people, this influence implies that there is a lot to gender equality than probably meets the eye. However, more conservative media publications and religious organisations tend to sway the perception of the public to think on a more morally conscious way. By representing the issue of homosexuality as a matter of public interest, the media is succeeding in dividing the general populace into two: one side advocates for homosexuality while the other is against the concept. This fact even exceeds the political divisions to the matter because it has dragged people who were apathetic to the matter to take a stand on homosexuality, even though they do not really care about the issue in the first place (Shapiro 5). The media on the other hand has been unrelenting in keeping the public busy on the matter through various forms of media including the internet, television and newspapers by asking the public for their views on the matter. It therefore becomes almost impossible to ignore homosexuality even if you wanted to, because the media has a strong power of persuasion and controversy which has been unrivaled over the decades.
In recent times, its power in politics through an exemplification of the matter has been highly critical in all forms of media. For example, even before a politician opens debate on homosexuality, the media would often demand for the politicians’ stand on the matter. Nonetheless, a significant part of the controversy comes about because the issue comes with a high moral and ethical significance in almost all societies. With regards to how the public should perceive the matter, Miller (6) reports that: “In the media homosexuality was shown as impersonal, and it divided the viewers based on their opinions over what should be done about it” he further affirms that “….the opinions still stand. Through the media, politics has brought the issue of homosexuality to an inescapable new level” (6).
The 21st century has brought with it many different perceptions in the way we view contemporary issues in the society, but with the change, new issues have also arisen. As evidenced in this study, homosexuality is such an issue.
Television has changed the way homosexuality is perceived because it has transformed the issues from a taboo topic to make people openly talk about it, and in the same way, provided a forum where homosexuals can talk about it (Tipton 2). In close relation, many television producers have come up with more television programs which have gay personalities but the coverage is still evolving as the years go by. Perhaps the first television show to give an insight into the life of a homosexual was MTV’s “The Real World” which first aired in 1992. This program first hit viewers as a shocker with many people wondering why the producers would air such a show in the first place; however, as the viewers got to know the television personalities at a personal level, they came to a conclusion that homosexuals were just like everybody else (Tipton 2). Because of increased coverage, homosexual relationships have become more common and many people are not shy to talk about it as compared to the past. The MTV reality show, “The Real World”, still remains a pioneer in changing the perception of people to how they view homosexuality, because it revolved around the lives of 7 people (who were the main characters), and every season came with the promise of airing at least one homosexual individual out of the 7 individuals (Shapiro 9). However, “The real world” was not the only program that forecasted the life of homosexuals, the sitcom “Will and Grace” was also another common program which highlighted the life of two homosexuals but who didn’t share a sexual relationship with each other (even though they were very close friends). The sitcom showed the character Grace, cohabiting with Will, even though she was heterosexual and Will was a homosexual.
The way they cohabited together and her acceptance of Will’s sexual orientation showed the changing perception of the society on homosexuality, while the household set up where the two characters (Will and Grace) cohabited gave an insight into the gender roles both play, with regards to their sexual orientations. Conversely, viewers pick their roles as synonymous to their sexual orientations but more importantly, these roles shape the way the society views gender roles similar people with the similar characteristics are supposed to have. Another common reality television program that brings homosexuality to fore is “Survivor”, especially when the once famous character Richard Hatch won the coveted winner’s price. Richard exemplified homosexuality to international limelight by making an assertion that his win was brought about because of his life as a homosexual (Shapiro 9). This assertion goes into the minds of the viewers as a plus for homosexuality because it was depicted as giving some positive attributes, despite the ethical and moral concerns that surrounded it. However, amid all the intrigues on homosexuality in television programs, it can be evidently seen that the media is trying to come out strongly as a neutral entity that does not discriminate on homosexual individuals.
For instance, in the latest season of the “Real World”, two homosexuals have been put on cast (which is a deviation from the usual one person) (Shapiro 12). However, one of the homosexuals cast was more flamboyant and therefore fit the stereotype attributed to homosexuals, but the other was very conservative, which also came as a shocker to the other participants because they never thought homosexuals would be that reserved (Shapiro 12). This assertion also reflects the perception the society has on homosexuals, because to a significant degree, the perception held by the other participants in the program, reflected what the society thought of homosexuality and the stereotypes associated with it, since they were socially tuned to think in that manner. However, the media’s role in this analysis tends to be more liberal because it shows a different side of homosexuality, through a lack of flamboyance of the other character in the program.
Nonetheless, televisions shows which highlight the life of at least one homosexual are many because the media has broken the once existent impulse of the way society understood homosexuality and its concerns. Comprehensively, television has redefined the way the society thinks of homosexuals and the gender roles they play in the same context. This is true because homosexual characters have been observed to live together in conventional set ups, while their roles in the society is the same, even when they are interacting with people of different sexual orientation as is seen by the viewers. This was never thought of homosexuals before because there was a widely held perception that homosexuals were weird people who never led normal lives.
It comes not as a surprise that today; many movies with homosexual themes are being churned by the week (considering increased media coverage of homosexuality and its antecedents). From these movies, many gay themed movies have busted into the spotlight and are now receiving a lot of media coverage than ever before.
Nonetheless, the messages contained in these movies represent the views of Hollywood, and unfortunate or otherwise, they are very different from each other (Ribeiro 3). This exposes the liberal nature the media tries to attribute homosexuality. When analyzed closely, movies which have the theme of homosexuality tend to portray the true picture of homosexuality but mainstream movies tend to be biased. Also in the same light, some movies portray a very negative picture of homosexuality while others paint homosexuality in a positive light and beckon the society to be more accommodative of the concept (Ribeiro 3).
This great divide however represents how the media has transitioned in its depiction of homosexuality over the years with the latter representation depicting the current status of media perception while the former represents the past representation of homosexuality by the media. Previous movies tended to cast minor characters to represent homosexuals, and the biased opinions about homosexuality tended to abound in that context because the movies emphasised more on the stereotypes which had already been generated by the society (Ribeiro 3). Some of the movies which had strongly come out to perpetrate wrong stereotypes on homosexuality were the likes of “Mean Girls”, “As Good as It Gets” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding”. However, this has changed. To portray the transition the media has held of homosexuals, we can see that in the movie “Mean Girls”, Damien, who is played by Daniel Franzes, represents the flamboyant attitude people thought homosexuals had because he was very colorful and seemed to be more interesting in what the girls were doing, or not doing, despite the fact that he is male (IMDa 2).
When analyzed in relative terms, the movie tried to portray the fact that homosexuality for gay men meant identifying more with the feminine side. This was further manifested in the way he acted, talked, and gesticulated like a woman, but the film even made this stereotype worse by portraying that his favorite attire was a pink polo shirt, which was easily associated with feminism (IMDa 2). This represented the previous perception the media tried to hold of homosexuals. More examples could be seen from the movie series, “As good as it gets”, where Simon who is a male persona but a homosexual, was also depicted as having a lot of feminine attributes.
Moreover, he had a tiny dog (a character which is usually associated with feminism) and because he was a painter but liked to garden, the movie portrayed him as an outright homosexual. Also, in the movie “My Best Friend’s wedding”, George, a male homosexual, who was played by Ruppert Everet was extensively depicted as having a lot of touch with his feminine side (IMDb 2). He had a flamboyant laugh, which was typically feminine, and his liking for the Song “I say a Little Prayer for you” manifested his feminine side even more (IMDb 4). These were the roles the media tried to portray of homosexuals in the past, basically by reversing gender roles. In that sense, the media tried to portray homosexual males as women trapped in male bodies and lesbians as men trapped in female bodies. In real sense, these depictions were nothing but stereotypes and they probably reflected nothing of what the gay community is in the world today. From an analysis of current movie productions, the media seems to have realised just that.
However, some of the inspiration to show homosexuals as a reversal of gender roles may have stemmed from a commercial base because homosexual personalities in movies tended to capture the audience a lot and therefore, movies which had such characters were bound to sell more and probably the producers were just enforcing what the personalities thought of homosexuality. Research also affirms that only less than 16% of homosexual men befitted these stereotypical depictions in movies while less than 6% of women fall in the same category as well (Shapiro 18). The stereotypical way of portraying homosexuals as flamboyant personalities with a lot of feminine connotations to their character was a reversal of gender roles but this has changed with current movie productions. Currently, gay movies depict the true picture of homosexuals and tend to portray the true gender roles homosexuals have in their community. More so, this is depicted in homosexual-themed movies.
Shapiro (18) affirms this fact by stating that: “Unlike mainstream movies, homosexually themed movies often portray gays in more human aspects. They look deeper into the lives of homosexuals and open a door into their thoughts and feelings, not simply focusing on what they wear or look like”. Some of the most common gay movies that fit into the category of homosexually themed movies are like “Angels in America”, “Beautiful thing” and “Big Eden”. “Angels in America” tends to highlight the 1980s era when Aids ravaged through the gay community, but basically, it gave an insight into the spectrum that exists in the gay community today.
The depiction of male personalities in the movie was not like previous movies because it showed homosexuals as masculine people (for gay males), and feminine, for female gay characters. In real sense, the movie showed the true diversity which exists in the gay community today and even portrayed the same in the professions that the characters were engaged in; for instance, in the movie, there were lawyers, nurses, doctors and other professionals; just like it exists in the real world. The movie therefore showed homosexuals as normal people with normal dreams, fears and ambitions, just like everyone else. This shows the real and emotional side of homosexuals despite the erosion of this perception by previous movies (Miller 2). “Beautiful thing” and “Big Eden” also represent homosexuals in the same way and even though they focused more on the homosexual relationships of the characters, the characters were represented as normal people, except for the fact that they choose to have relationships with people of the same gender. Once again, we are shown the real picture of homosexuals, in that, they have the same types of fears and feelings, just like normal people do, only that they share these emotions with partners of the same gender.
With all the conflicting stereotypes about homosexuality in the society and the media, it is important for people to step back and look at the big picture with regards to gender roles in homosexuality and not merely follow what mainstream media depicts as the real representations of gender in homosexuality.
Homosexuality here plays a vital role in understanding gender in the 21st century because it seems to change the conventional paradigm associated with heterosexual relationships by advancing the idea that romantic, passionate and emotional feelings can be shared with people of the same gender. The media portrays the same, though it used to do so, in a biased way, by reversing the roles associated with different genders in homosexual relationships. Too often, people were led to think that homosexuals acted in a certain way, dressed in a given manner, or thought in a peculiar way, but now the media seems to change the same perception by depicting gays as just normal people; only that they choose to have sexual relationships with people of the same gender. Homosexuality though depicted as a reversal of gender roles is therefore not different from any other kind of relationship. In our understanding of gender in this study, we can therefore come up with an assumption that homosexuality gives a more liberal sense of gender because it breaks away from the perception that certain genders can only do certain roles associated with their gender.
In other words two males can carry out the same roles a man and a woman can and two women can carry out the same roles as people in a heterosexual relationship would. Nonetheless, homosexuality and the media shape our understanding of gender, in that, gender is much more liberal than people think.
Byer, Shainberg. Dimensions of Human Sexuality. London: Brown & Benchmark, 1994. Print.
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