Heterosexism “refers to the belief and expectation that everyone is or should be heterosexual” and the term “heteronormativity” equates heterosexual experience with human experience, in effect “render[ing] all other forms of human sexual expression pathological, deviant, invisible, unintelligible, or written out of existence” (Yep 2002, 167). Heteronormativity provides a larger context for understanding how heterosexism influences cultural and social institutions, such as the media.
Historically, mediated portrayals of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters have been infrequent. When represented, they have tended to be portrayed negatively (e.g., as villains, as problems to be solved). Concurrent with the gay liberation movement, more positive portrayals emerged in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the frequency of media representation had increased dramatically. Yet, as critical media scholars point out, representation neither guarantees legitimacy, nor creates a panacea. Rather, visibility is complicated. Representations reflect the ideological frameworks and interests of agenda setters who generally appeal to an assumed heterosexist audience.
Critical media analyses have begun to unmask how representations of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters, particularly on television, but also on film, often end up renormalizing heteronormativity by reinforcing heterosexuality as “normal” and taken for granted, simultaneously constructing homosexuality as aberrant and as abnormal. One mediated stratagem that has been highlighted by research is referred to as the gay male/straight female pairing, portrayed on mainstream films and television sitcoms, of which the US series Will & Grace (1998–2005) has been the most studied. Battles & Hilton-Morrow (2002) argue that Will & Grace fortifies heteronormativity via the techniques of equating gayness with a lack of masculinity, relying on sexual tension and delayed consummation between the gay male/straight female, infantilizing characters who subvert heteronormative conventions, and emphasizing characters’ interpersonal relationships over their connections to the larger social world (e.g., gay politics). Shugart (2003) argues that the show’s subtexts renaturalize heteronormativity by presenting the gay character Will as heterosexual (e.g., dressing and acting conventionally masculine) and his relationship with the straight character Grace as romantic, and granting him control over female sexuality, similar to that which occurs in heterosexual male privilege. The sexual tension between Will and Grace appears to appeal to heterosexist audience members and sustains the show’s popularity (Quimby 2005).
A second stratagem can be seen in the US version of the reality/makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003–present), where gay males are more competent in constructing conventional masculinity than the straight males they make over. Morrish & O’Mara (2004) argue that the show subverts the expectation that the gay male cast, the “Fab Five,” will feminize their subjects. Rather, by the end of each episode, the heterosexual male is rendered more confident in his masculinity, his heterosexuality, and made more pleasing to the heterosexual woman of his desire. Queer Eye repositions “White, urban, heterosexual masculinity as normative and dominant” (Clarkson 2005, 252).
Whereas most critical media scholarship examines mediated narratives that reinforce heteronormativity, analyses have begun to emerge arguing that selected mediated narratives can be read as denaturalizing heteronormativity. Cooper (2002) argues that the film Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which depicts the life story and eventual brutal murder of the transgendered teen Brandon Teena, normalizes Brandon’s female masculinity and critiques conventional masculinity. In portraying Brandon Teena as a sympathetic individual, the film legitimates feminized masculinity, offering a challenge to heteronormativity’s attempts to order a society that only accepts highly masculinized performances of male gender roles. Cooper & Pease (2002) critique an episode of Ally McBeal (1997– 2002), “Boy to the World,” that juxtaposes a narrative about a transsexual with a narrative about intolerance toward short people. This narrative structure equates bigotry toward short people with bigotry toward transsexuals, making society’s intolerance for transsexuals seem as absurd as prejudice toward short people. In doing so, the episode challenges heteronormativity and validates non-normative (e.g., transsexual) sexual identities.
The US soap opera All My Children (1970–present) first introduced a storyline in 2000 about an out lesbian, Bianca Montgomery. The storyline disrupts the genre’s underlying celebration of heterosexual romance. Whereas daytime television has historically led prime-time in addressing controversial issues, Bianca is the sole gay or lesbian character on network daytime (Harrington 2003). This storyline marks progress in that the producers have placed the storyline centrally (Bianca is the daughter of Erica Kane, one of the longest-running characters in daytime history) as well as written the narrative to normalize Bianca (e.g., depicting her in a gay bar; Harrington 2003). In doing so, the storyline destabilizes heteronormativity. However, the question remains whether other daytime shows will follow this lead, or whether the constraints of industry, genre, and audience expectations will effectively block additional positive (and potentially normalizing) representations of gays and lesbians on daytime television.
Communication scholarship examining heteronormativity and the media is sparse and most of it has been limited to examinations of US television programs and films. Much more research is needed that moves beyond the US media context. For instance, television networks in the UK, Australia, Spain, Italy, France, and Finland have all created their own versions of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, with varying degrees of success. How might these versions of the same show, but for different audiences, vary in terms of how they fortify or call into question heteronormativity? Another area unexplored by communication scholars is heteronormativity in relationship to shows explicitly about gay and lesbian sexuality (e.g., the British or US versions of Queer as Folk [2000–present] and The L Word [2004–present]). Does the explicitly gay and lesbian-themed content of these shows offer alternatives to or replay heteronormativity?
- Battles, K., & Hilton-Morrow, W. (2002). Gay characters in conventional spaces: Will & Grace and the situation comedy genre. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 87 –105.
- Clarkson, J. (2005). Contesting masculinity’s makeover: Queer Eye, consumer masculinity, and “straight-acting” gays. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 29, 235 – 255.
- Cooper, B. (2002). Boys Don’t Cry and female masculinity: Reclaiming a life and dismantling the politics of normative heterosexuality. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 44 – 63.
- Cooper, B., & Pease, E. C. (2002). “Don’t want no short people ’round here”: Confronting heterosexism’s intolerance through comic and disruptive narratives in Ally McBeal. Western Journal of Communication, 66, 300 –318.
- Harrington, C. L. (2003). Homosexuality on All My Children: Transforming the daytime landscape. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 47, 216 – 235.
- Morrish, L., & O’Mara, K. (2004). Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: Confirming and confounding masculinity. Feminist Media Studies, 4, 350 – 352.
- Quimby, K. (2005). Will & Grace: Negotiating (gay) marriage on prime-time television. Journal of Popular Culture, 38, 713 –731.
- Reed, J. (2005). Ellen DeGeneres: Public lesbian number one. Feminist Media Studies, 5, 23 – 36.
- Shugart, H. A. (2003). Reinventing privilege: The new (gay) man in contemporary popular media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20, 67 – 91.
- Shugart, H. A. (2005). On misfits and margins: Narrative, resistance, and the poster child politics of Rosie O’Donnell. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 2, 52 –76.
- Yep, G. A. (2002). From homophobia and heterosexism to heteronormativity: Toward the model of queer interventions. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6, 163 –176.
- Yep, G., & Camacho, A. O. (2004). The normalization of heterogendered relations in The Bachelor. Feminist Media Studies, 4, 338 – 341.