It’s Not ‘Just Television’

This article was written by an LGBT Fans Deserve Better contributor. For referencing information or attribution please contact us.

In the United States, as well as in many other countries, television has become the primary source of information, with the average American adult now watching about five hours of television a day [1].

This means, that when it comes to scenarios or people about which the television-consumer does not have first-hand knowledge or experiences, the depictions seen on television are a major influence in the forming of beliefs and opinions on the subject. Even when people have not themselves been in a courtroom or an emergency room, they have at least some information and images in mind about what to expect from these places, by viewing shows that are set there. In that way, television is allegedly educating the public on how institutions like hospitals or law firms, and even the people within these institutions, work. Notably, when viewers lack other personal sources of information, they are inclined to accept the information presented on television, even if they are harmful portrayals of particular groups. This can happen with stereotypical representation of the LGBTQ+ community as well [2].

A study by Bradley J. Bond and Benjamin L. Compton (2015) [3] examined how television influences people’s perception of gay men and lesbians. They assessed whether people had watched television shows with gay or lesbian characters and then questioned the participants on their views regarding gay rights. This study found a positive correlation between the exposure to gay characters on screen and the endorsement of gay rights by its viewers; the effect was the strongest when the participants had no or very little contact with openly gay or lesbian people in their personal life [3]. This also supports the thesis that most people who lack other sources of information heavily rely on the things they see on television or other forms of media to form their opinion.

A different study [4] analyzed the effect of visual media on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. It showed that exposure to anti-gay videos caused a significantly more negative attitude towards gays and lesbians by its viewers as opposed to those who were exposed to pro-gay videos, and it can be concluded that not only the visibility of non-heterosexual characters on screen itself is key to changing perceptions, but how they are depicted on screen is just as important. Both a lack of representation and negative representation can be harmful to people’s opinions about non-heterosexual people, as no representation reaffirms a non-inclusive status-quo in what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ and bad representation can do measurable damage to the individual’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community.

Television has the opportunity to either reinforce or to refute stereotypes and therefore, it has the power to influence the opinions and attitudes of its viewers; it is a medium through which real social change is possible.

Though media content is mainly written by, about and targeted at the majority of people, and the majority of characters on television to this day still are white, heterosexual and male [2][5], television also has real influence on the minority communities it depicts.

A lot of people find role models in the never ending supply of fictional heroes, but  the majority of those heroes possess attributes that minorities do not. How then, do those that differ constantly from the heroic protagonist they witness in mass media come to a sense of identity and self-worth?

In order to form a better understanding of who they are or can be, some underrepresented minorities would then look for role models in their immediate surroundings and witness the diversity and qualities in the people around them. However, non-heterosexual people are rarely born into surroundings that share or possibly even recognize their sexual orientation, and most do not know many people that could inform them about how diverse LGBTQ+ lives can be.

Thus, even LGBTQ+ people themselves often have no other source of information about their sexuality than media, which also means that they are forced to accept the same stereotypes and messages about their sexuality or identity as their heterosexual counterparts. When the media shows LGBTQ+ people only as weak, silly, abnormal or evil, and never in a positive light or even just as ordinary individuals, it can increase the struggle non-heterosexual people have with their sense of identity and self-worth in the heteronormative world they live in[2].

Though much progress has been made in the past decades with regards to LGBTQ+ visibility, and diverse characters are more often depicted in roles that no longer solely center on their sexuality or identity as their only defining characteristic or as an anomaly, even today we can see a marked difference in the depiction of non-heterosexual and heterosexual characters. Showing physical intimacy between same-sex couples is still considered controversial, at times even avoided completely, and the death-rate of lesbian or bisexual female characters in relation to their overall low rate of representation is especially worrying[5].

This artificially high death-rate could be due to the fact that non-heterosexual characters are often originally conceived as smaller or supporting parts that are not driving the story or lead characters, and are therefore considered easy to kill off. If shows are only trying to fill a quota by including a LGBTQ+ character, but are not really interested in that character’s development or storyline, the high rate of deaths are likely to keep happening. The message that it continues to send is that non-heterosexuals, particularly lesbian and bisexual female characters, are always secondary to the story and less important than heterosexual characters. When considering that television also influences the forming of identity and self-worth for the minority it depicts, especially for LGBTQ+ individuals who often lack other role models in their immediate surroundings, that is very worrying.

If we understand television as the powerful, educational and influential medium that it is, it would be irresponsible to not criticize lacking – in quantity and quality – minority representation and the message it conveys. No show exists in a vacuum and once it is consumed, it is interpreted by its audience. Fictional characters and their stories have influence on real people, and therefore it is the responsibility of those who create and write these characters, to treat them and their storylines with care, especially when they depict a minority such as the LGBTQ+ community. The power that comes with the position of shaping opinions within media holds within it an ethical responsibility which should not be forgotten nor neglected.

References

  • [1] Koblin, John (2016): “How Much Do We Love TV? Let Us Count the Ways”. The New York Times Company, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/business/media/nielsen-survey-media-viewing.html (06.12.2016)

  • [2] Gross, Larry (2001): Lesbians, Gay Men, And The Media In America. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • [3] Bond, Bradley J. & Compton, Benjamin, L. (2015): Gay On-Screen: The Relationship Between Exposure to Gay Characters on Television and Heterosexual Audiences’ Endorsement of Gay Equality. In: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59 (4), 717-732. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2015.1093485

  • [4] Levina, Marina, Waldo, Craig R. & Fitzgerald, Louise F. (2000). We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re on TV: The Effects of Visual Media on Heterosexuals’ Attitudes Toward Gay Men and Lesbians. In: Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30 (4), 738-758

  • [5] GLAAD (2015): „Where We Are on TV Report – 2015”. GLAAD, http://www.glaad.org/whereweareontv15 (06.12.2016)

2017-05-22T23:54:21+00:00 February 6th, 2017|