LGBT Representation in Television

Television hasn’t always moved in critical circles. There have been a number of shows which have examined – and occasionally awakened in the viewer – social malpractices that exist. Nonetheless, the injustices that occur throughout the western world are currently being forced into the spotlight, highlighting not just television’s previous inability to cope with numerous progressive programs, but also that of American society and the world thereafter.

When it comes to gay marriage, America is still very much divided. Despite rising dramatically in the last 20 years, public opinion for same-sex marriage remains divided. The number of states allowing such a proceeding nears worryingly close to the ‘probably not’ mark. This is just a generalized sample of the trials and tribulations of the homosexual communities existing within the United States. Not to mention the transgender community, which still remains horrendously disregarded.

The development of television into this formidable bastion of creative and liberal thinking in recent years has had an inexplicably dramatic impact on society at large. Despite the somewhat close-mindedness of many states and their unwillingness to budge from a position of impossible predetermined ideology, television presents them with problems. For many, what you see on the screen has enabled an opening of the eyes. Without visual mediums, we wouldn’t physically see and be exposed to characters who dispel myths put in place by crusty old men, with a penchant for spewing conservative opinions.

Yet, there are definitely problems with the representation of characters in television. It’s fantastic that there are gay men and women on our screens, but they’re not necessarily dispelling the stereotypes that both dominate and scare certain demographics. Will and Grace perfectly demonstrates how a show can positively and negatively affect an audience. It brings about awareness that there are gay men living next to each other, flirtatious, but not openly wanting to have sex with one another. Shock! Horror!

The show advocates a genuinely pleasant and amicable gay lifestyle, yet because it has two characters that it massively distinguishes between as opposite ends of the spectrum, we incidentally assume these are how all gay people act. Jack, is so incredibly nauseating at times that you could potentially understand his decidedly mixed public opinion. Will, on the other hand, displays such purposeful heterosexuality at times, that, unfortunately, the message it purports is that if you’re not Jack, then you’re still deep in the closet.

Modern Family, occasionally defers to this common sentiment at times, yet there is always an overriding sense of importance placed upon family rather than sexuality. The civil partnership of Cameron and Mitchell, whilst not the first (Days of Our Lives, All of My Children) furthers the stature of acceptance on television, and, ergo, across the world.  But it’s their honest and admirable raising of Lily, their adopted daughter, which is the quite admirable quality of the show.

There lies the question of whether all representation is better than none. Ultimately, you can’t argue with the correlation between television picking up lots of programs with gay characters and the very gradual acceptance of gay people in society, but we could do with some wholly different characters. Ones put to paper with loftier and more cutting ideals, to extinguish the preconceived idea of the ‘standard gay’ man or woman that lingers still.

Fortunately, there are a veritable few who have been designed specifically to break the mould that often dominates LGBT representation on television. Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox – Orange is the New Black), Joyce Ramsay (Zosia Mamet – Mad Men) and Shane McCutcheon (Katherine Moennig – The L Word) spring to mind not just as LGBT characters, but LGBT characters defined by their actions rather than their sexuality.

Of course, they also exist as vessels to challenge society’s obsession with superficial roles. Laverne Cox’s stunning transformation scene as Sophia Burset in the episode Lesbian Request Denied from man to woman (as played by her twin brother, M. Lamar) is naturally brought about in order to test the murky waters that surround being transgender and the prejudices towards it. Joyce Ramsey, befriends Peggy, hitting on her half-jokingly and permitting her to come out of her shell, yet never allows her sexuality to get in the way when they get down to the nitty-gritty of the advertisement business at the heart of the show. Finally there’s Shane McCutcheon, who personifies society’s inhibitions with watching gay people have sex despite the naturalness at its core; we don’t, for some reason, want to see it despite the numerous depictions of hetero-sex plastered frequently on the screen.

So, there are characters that stand out amidst a host of characters that don’t. It’s unfortunate at this point that the average LGBT character is still slightly represented through caricature, although there does seem to be a concerted effort by a few directors to represent all types of men and women. It seems that, much of the time, directors are male and straight, and whilst this isn’t a problem in and of itself (depending on the meticulous focus on characterisation), it does mean that there is often misunderstanding towards the people on camera and how they relate to the LGBT community as a whole.

The rainbow colour palette of our television characters these days though is undoubtedly a highlight. Despite ambiguity as to the sincerity of some characters, and whether they serve to dispel some of the untruths of the community or not, representation in any form, manages to highlight some of the unethical discrimination that people face.

As this month ends and the publicity surrounding LGBT inevitably increases, it’s vital to remember that there is a distinction between many of TV’s LGBT characters and the reality of our society. It’s important to recognise how television has highlighted and enabled an awareness through men like Mitchell and Cameron, but it’s the smart man or woman who actively looks to develop their own understanding of the LGBT community through a myriad of alternative depictions.

Quite frankly it’s a great opportunity to discover some amazing television at the same time.

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