The subject of this article is the field of study that examines the representation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people in the media. GLBT media studies employ theories and methods from the relatively new field of GLBT and queer studies that started to appear in academia at the beginning of the 1990s. It is concerned with how the sexual identity categories of “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” “queer,” and “straight” are constructed in the media; how minority sexualities are represented; and why they are so represented. “Queer media,” “queer representation,” “queer media representation,” and “queer cultural production” are terms frequently used in the field.
GLBT, LGBT, And Queer
The use of the initialism GLBT is still under much debate. One critical point of contention is that promoting the use of this term and its variants serves to reinforce a prevalent concept based on the binary opposition of “straight” as the norm against the rest as “the other,” ignoring their inherent differences and the different issues faced by each group. There are variations to the term, which is an adaptation of the abbreviation LGB (or “lesbigay”). While it is used more in the United States and Australia, LGBT is more widely accepted and adopted by cultural and social service units catering to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups in most English-speaking countries.
In existence since the 1970s, when the gay liberation movement started to appear on the agenda, GLBT studies examine how sexual minorities have been represented in history and culture, and how gender and sexual orientation have been constructed. Considered very important to GLBT studies are two essays by Gayle Rubin, “The traffic in women” (1975) and “Thinking sex” (1984/1993), which establish the theory that gender difference is different from sexual difference, though the two are related. Judith Butler further explores the interrelatedness of gender, sex, and desire in her ground-breaking text Gender trouble (1990), which has become very important in queer studies.
There is also much controversy regarding the term “queer,” which has been reappropriated since the late 1980s as an umbrella term for the marginalized sexual minorities, from an expression of homophobic abuse in the past. The first theorist to use the phrase “queer theory” in print was Teresa de Lauretis, whose essay of that title was published in 1991. Meanwhile, the text considered most influential in the development of queer studies is Michel Foucault’s History of sexuality (1978). Foucault argues that sexuality is constructed through religion, politics, and economics, so that no form of sexuality can be something natural or universal. Embracing fluidity, “queer” is an open entity. In its resistance to the normative codes of gender and sexuality, “queer” rejects binaries like heterosexual/homosexual. As such, there is no consensus as to who is included and who is not under the term. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) distinguishes “queer” as “universalizing” instead of “minoritizing.” As queer theory has developed in academic scholarship, “queer” has been interpreted not as a fixed category, but has instead been read all over culture. It is concerned with affirming otherness and differences that are characteristic of marginalized groups, rather than adhering to strict oppositional dichotomies.
The concern of GLBT studies and queer theory are somewhat different. First, the former has been occupied with the query of whether nature or nurture is the cause of homosexuality, while the latter is less interested in this. Queer theory looks at how the construction of the different categories of alternative sexualities functions in culture, while GLBT studies are more concerned with identity affirmation of the different sexual minority groups for the advancement of the GLBT political movement. From the focus of GLBT studies on the social construction of categories of normative and deviant sexualities, queer theory has emerged to challenge essentialist notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality, questioning cultural assumptions that are often immersed in heterosexist presumptions.
Theoretical Concepts And Approaches
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender media studies investigate the ideological functions of GLBT and queer media representations by employing critical and theoretical methods from gender, psychoanalytic, semiotic, and film theories to interpret meaning in these representations. It is interesting that GLBT media studies have also engaged queer theory in media analyses, and there is a tendency for the former to appropriate the latter in order to contribute to the liberation movement. With a premise quite different from earlier culture theories, like the Frankfurt School, which view popular culture as immutable and audiences as passive receivers, queer theory argues for the possibility of multiple readings because of the increasingly complex relationship between readers/audience/ viewers and cultural productions.
Before the 1960s, there were very few representations of homosexuality in American films due to the Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) that had been in force since 1934. A set of industry guidelines, the Production Code gave details of what was and was not considered morally acceptable in the production of motion pictures for a public audience. The “Particular Applications” of the principles forbade references to alleged “sex perversion,” such as homosexuality. The early 1960s saw the release and screening of a few daring British films in America which offered commentary about homophobia. The American gay rights and civil rights movements then started a heated discussion about the Code’s restriction of the representation of themes that included sexuality. When enforcement had become impossible, the Code was abandoned entirely in 1967 in favor of the new Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system, which went into effect on 1 November 1968, but which contains no reference to homosexuality or queer.
When GLBT representation started to appear in the American cinema, media studies work in this area began to flourish, with books published on the topic: Screening the sexes (Tyler 1972), Gays and film (Dyer 1977), and The celluloid closet (Russo 1981). The oldest lesbian and gay film festival in the world, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, was first launched in 1977. By the early 1990s, there was a body of queer films that won critical acclaim in the Sundance Film Festivals. They were grouped under the term “New Queer Cinema,” coined by theorist B. Ruby Rich, which was soon to be used arbitrarily to denote independent films with gay and lesbian content. Then, in an interview in May 2004, Rich proclaimed that New Queer Cinema was over, as its characteristic of defiance had been replaced by commercial blandness catering to a niche market. While the field of GLBT and queer film studies has been more developed, the most observant media watch concerning television, radio, popular music, advertising, and other forms of mass media has been offered by the gay, lesbian, and queer press in their reviews and articles (Doty & Gove 1997). That said, there is also a very powerful media watch organization in the US called GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
Though Doty and Gove (1997) think that there has consistently been some kind of queer representation on television since the late 1940s, other media scholars have until very recently lamented the rarity of mainstream media depictions of GLBT people, especially on television (Gross 1995). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, gay and lesbian characters became common on US prime-time television. Also available are programs produced by and for gay and lesbian people on television and radio, and representations found in the popular music arena, advertising, magazines, and newspapers. There is now a profusion of mainstream, alternative, and “in-between” sources of GLBT and queer media representation, although journalism and comic strips remain in two completely separate media worlds of the heterosexual mainstream and the GLBT and queer alternative. Meanwhile, same-sex erotic passions are suggested or directly referenced in popular music for the effect of transgression. These preoccupations with and connotations about sex appeal to the GLBT community, who express an intense dedication to popular music (Doty & Gove 1997).
Regarding research methodologies typically employed by GLBT media scholars, Worth (1993) notes a tendency toward difference in research areas, with gay men often engaging in historiographic archival work, while lesbians appear to typically conduct textual analyses. For more than twenty years from the post-Stonewall period in the early 1970s, both media scholars and critics had been preoccupied with the question of “positive” and “negative” representation, which investigates how stereotypes are portrayed in the media, and the range of GLBT images on offer (Dyer 1993; Gross 1995). Related to this critical approach are the differences in how gay and lesbian images are read and interpreted by the different groups of straight and queer audiences (Doty & Gove 1997; Erhart 1999; Raymond 2003). Doty & Gove (1997) explain that the gay, lesbian, and queer images on television can either be presented overtly in the text through dialogues or sexual behavior of the characters, or the queerness of a character’s sexuality can be understood on the basis of other signs. Erhart (1999) details previous scholarly discussions of what constitutes a queer image or narrative. From these discussions, she provides an oppositional definition of “queer” as contrasted with “heterosexual,” and which stands for the imagery of alternative sexualities that are found outside of hegemonic representation. Both Erhart (1999) and Raymond (2003) comment on the growing involvement of lesbian, gay, or queer writers, authors, and directors in the production of GLBT media images. Such programs could also be performed by actors who are openly queer, or whose sexual orientation is enigmatic. With such ambiguity, viewers are open to multiple levels of reading performances, resorting to their fantasies and imagination, while simultaneously decoding elusive references, to capture the “queerness” that is on offer by the images.
The increasing number of gay and lesbian characters in the different English-language contemporary media, especially those of the US, has prompted the question of whether their visibility represents a certain kind of political victory. In an active challenge of the prevailing tenets of visibility politics, queer cultural production is seen to offer new possibilities for queer “world-making” (to use the term of Henry Jenkins , meaning the creation process of multiculture to sustain consumer franchising). Yet, it is doubtful whether the significantly white, middle-class, and gender-conforming gay and lesbian images offered by the mainstream media in the west, e.g., The L Word (Showtime 2004 –), result in the normalization of queerness to serve the economy-driven neo-liberal political agenda.
Raymond (2003) thinks television programming that includes homosexual content has to appeal to mainstream liberal viewers, who, though mostly heterosexual, must know one or two homosexual colleagues, friends, or relatives. Commonly found up until the 1990s, the stereotypical or negative representation of GLBT people “as victim or villain” (Raymond 2003, 101) has been replaced by this normative interpretation of sexual difference. In addition, as Kellner (1995) puts it, difference sells. As a sign of opposition, difference helps create desire and sell commodities. This points to the trend to promote gayness as a lifestyle, and gay personalities as fashionable, stylish, and having cultured tastes, as portrayed in the very popular US Emmy award-winning television reality program Queer Eye (for the Straight Guy) (Bravo TV 2003 –2007) and the sitcom Will and Grace (NBC 1998 –2006). Raymond (2003) argues that the subversive potential that media critics tended to consider for resistant interpretations found in the images once created by independent directors are now undermined and weakened by the mainstreaming of these images offered in the mass media.
As much as the media are part of culture, debates in GLBT media studies also arise from the intertwining differences in culture, gender, and sex. Despite the recent development of lesbigay and queer studies into established fields of studies in the western world, such progress elsewhere is still very much in the initial stages. If media representation is about power and identity, nonwestern viewpoints are very much different from the western ones. Media studies in these areas reflect public awareness and acceptance of the issues. Islamic countries, India and Greater China, for example, all have different cultural values in gender relations and family structures, as opposed to the Freudian– Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition of the west that centers on the nuclear family. Quite a few examples of films that have been produced in recent years by filmmakers from Israel, Iran, and India still depict the suffering of women as a result of the unfair treatment and reactionary misogynist attitude of the people because of the local cultures and religions. Meanwhile, Confucian teachings have effectuated a very closely knitted parent–child relationship on Chinese families. Chinese children have to fulfill the expectations of their parents to carry on the family name and lineage through heterosexual marriage and reproduction, so that the act of coming out by a Chinese gay man or lesbian with the parents is more difficult than coming out with friends. Moreover, the gender relations in Chinese societies still pertain to a male-privileged hierarchy.
With the debased social status of women, who are treated as the peripheral to men – the core – which is still very much the case in a large part of the world, lesbianism is doubly marginalized. For that matter, bisexual and transgender people are both more than doubly marginalized, and their identities even more submerged. Raymond (2003) comments on the absence of bisexuals even in prime-time US television programs, which are full of gay and lesbian characters, while Doty and Gove (1997) also assert that bisexual desires cannot be fully recognized in the gay and lesbian images offered by mainstream media. Considering power as the site of oppression, the power disparity is significant here. As such, gay and lesbian representations in the nonwestern mass media have to deal with quite different issues, putting aside the cultural productions by the local GLBT circles, for the reasons of low circulation in the public arena and too much self-awareness.
Because of globalization and the rise of regionalism, the one-way traffic of media flow from the US and European core to the periphery has been replaced by the increasing flow back of nonwestern media productions from the peripheral to the core. For example, Mexican film productions are exhibited in Spain, while Chinese films have started to penetrate western markets; with very strong and nationwide distribution, Korean and Indian films have started to wear down the overseas markets of Hollywood. As Arjun Appadurai (1990) puts it, the current mediascape is much more diversified than the cultural homogeneity found in traditional media theory. With the multifaceted media flow that is replacing the old dichotomy between Hollywood and the rest of the world, media studies have to accommodate different perspectives from nonwestern countries in relation to gay and lesbian representations.
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