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Volume 70, Issue 122, Tuesday, April 5, 2005


Gays seen through narrow lens on TV

James Davis
Opinion columnist

One day during the winter break, the morning disc jockeys on a radio station in my hometown discussed the representation of homosexuals in the media. Apparently, they were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of gay-related television programs.

"It's like I can't turn on the TV without seeing two dudes making out!" an incredulous DJ announced.

I don't know about him, but the only male-to-male kiss I've ever seen on television was between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Nevertheless, the DJs raised a good point: There is an increasing amount of homosexual subjects addressed on television. What worries me, though, is the questionable accuracy of these depictions. I don't watch much TV myself, but what I've seen has shown me a pretty one-sided view of homosexuality.

Will and Grace is hailed by many as a groundbreaking achievement in exposing homosexuality to the public. I've seen a few episodes, and it's definitely an entertaining show with great acting. Its humor, however, is very reliant on stereotypes. Jack, Will's raging flame of a best friend, is obsessed with show business, fashion, men and little else, and he's the driving force of the show's comedy. I'm not trying to say there aren't gay men out there with similar characteristics, but it's no coincidence that one of the first popular shows concerning homosexuality contains such a flagrant stereotype.

Stereotypes are pleasing. Stereotypes are comforting, and with a subject like homosexuality that raises so much discomfort, it's wise to include a familiar stereotype if you want to attract viewers. It's a time-proven principle. Look at early portrayals of blacks in entertainment. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black stereotypes were ludicrously exaggerated onstage. Blackface performers painted on grotesquely large lips, donned ratty wigs and spoke in a deliberately clumsy and uneducated manner. Surely this wasn't a just representation of the black population, but it was the safest way to expose an unfamiliar subject to white audiences. Today's depictions of homosexuality may not be as negative or mean-spirited as blackface was, but one can hardly argue that they're not reliant on stereotypes.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, another enormously popular gay-themed show, presents a very narrow perspective on homosexuality. It's a highly enjoyable program, and its hosts are undoubtedly good at what they do, but their areas of expertise -- interior design, fashion, grooming, wine, pop culture -- lead audiences to view gay men in a very particular light. They're stereotypes, even if they are positive. Not all gay men are necessarily preoccupied with glamour and appearances, just as not all black people sing well and not all Asians excel in math and science. Being well dressed and perfectly coiffed are not prerequisites to being homosexual, and viewers whose only exposure to gay people is through these shows may come out with a skewed, rigid conception of what a gay person is.

Let me reiterate that I'm not an expert on television. There are probably more holistic representations of homosexuality out there, but it's clear that the most popular and visible TV shows rely upon stereotypes. However, my intent is not to vilify those who make these programs; their aim is not to perpetuate stereotypes but to entertain. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of the viewer. Remember that a TV show is just a TV show. Not everything that is entertaining is necessarily accurate, and when the line between entertainment and reality begins to blur, the result is often harmful.

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