Queer Representation in the Media

“The big lie about lesbians and gay men is that we do not exist.”
-Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet (1981)

“The love that dare not speak its name became the love that would not shut up.”
-Suzanna Danuta Walters, All the Rage (2001)

How things have changed in thirty years: more than ever before, queer people have a media presence. No longer relegated to the realms of innuendo and secrecy, we now see lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people represented on television and in mainstream film. Queer people see their reflections on screen in a largely positive light: stable, employed, charming, attractive, well-liked, and successful. And yet, there remain many challenges. The following sections will examine how media produces and legitimizes or delegitimizes queer sexualities, as well as how queer media differs from its heterosexual counterpart. To begin, though, it is worthwhile to examine the trajectory of queer media criticism over the past thirty years.

The first form of queer media criticism was articulated under a minority model of identity politics. This type of criticism has its roots in the gay liberationist movements from the 1960s through the 1980s and is heavily influenced by the types of issues gays and lesbians were concerned with at the time. Under this model gays and lesbians were seen as being subordinate to the heterosexual majority, with equality and acceptance hinging on their ability to show that they were “just like everyone else”. As such, minority model criticism was particularly preoccupied not just with visibility in media, but with having the ‘right’ kind of visibility. This criticism was particularly concerned with negative portrayals of gays and lesbians as sissies, drag queens, butch lesbians, and other groups that didn’t fit into mainstream gender categories. This model also assumed a certain amount of uniformity within the gay and lesbian community: that members shared similar characteristics relating to experiences, points of view, behaviour, desires, etc.

Over time, many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) and other sexual minorities people found earlier models of gay activism too narrow in focus. A major concern was voiced first by lesbians and then by gays and lesbians of colour, people with HIV/AIDS, and people of other sexual minorities. Their complaints were that the movement had, for the past twenty years focused exclusively on the concerns of gays who were primarily male, decidedly white, and overwhelmingly middle class. Another concern was with the focus of the early gay liberation movement on assimilation, which sought kinship with the heterosexual mainstream on the basis of similarities. While a gay man who appeared heterosexual could pass as straight and had the luxury of not being too “visible”, this was not true of many other gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and those who for any number of reasons didn’t fit the mold of the more socially acceptable gays. (After all, what good is acceptance within a group if that acceptance is predicated on one’s ability to hide one’s difference?) The movement had effectively silenced differing identities to the point where gay white men were able to complain about and take action against inadequate representations of themselves in the mainstream media, but other groups couldn’t even hope to see themselves represented on television or in film. These critics adopted the term “queer” to describe themselves to reinforce the notion that they were all different even though they were joined in a collective bid for civil rights.

Under queer culture, notions of identity underwent a radical shift, from being seen as fixed and stable to more fragmented and layered. Thus queer people were not merely “queer” – they could be queer males or females or English or Italian or White or Asian or Black, factory workers, business people or bus drivers, and so on. Rather than looking at how homosexuality was marginalized, the criticism that came out of this – social constructivism – focused on how various social and cultural institutions (including the media) shape the realm of sexual possibilities. Instead of arguing that homosexuality is the binary opposite of heterosexuality, this model proposes that all sexualities are merely points on a continuum of possibilities.

These two models of criticism – sometimes complimentary and other times at odds with one another – have greatly informed how we look at today’s media. In the sections that follow, it should become apparent that when dealing with LGBTQ media issues, we are not dealing with a single monolithic entity, but rather with diverse and varied identities and experiences that respond to media representations in different ways: what one group may consider fair, others may find oppressive. We will, in subsequent sections, explore how these two models of criticism interact together in order to tease out the hidden meanings in much of the media that describes queer people, their relationships with both queer and mainstream media, and their experiences in the world.

In addition to these models of criticism, key concepts for media literacy can also be used to analyze queer representation in media. These include the principles that:

  1. Audiences negotiate meaning.
  2. All media is constructed to re-present people, places and events.
  3. Media contain ideological and value messages.
  4. Media have commercial implications.
  5. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form.

As we know, all media construct the realities that they present to their audiences. The images we see are representations that are often simplified for ease of consumption or tied to commercial interests. As audiences, we negotiate the meaning of these images and it is up us to interpret them for what they are. To help negotiate the meaning and ideological messages behind media representations of queer people, there are a number of questions we can ask.

  1. Who created this media text? What is its purpose?
    If all media transmit ideological messages, an important part of critical engagement is to identify the ideological position from which a given media text is being produced. A good place to start is to determine who created it. For instance, an ad produced by a company with a decidedly anti-queer agenda may have a much different intent than one from a company that is supportive of equal rights and queer empowerment.
  2. Whose voices and interests are being represented? Whose are absent?
    This is a very important part of critically engaging with media because it asks the question of who has control over meaning and identity. Is queerness being represented from its own perspective or is it being represented as it appears to an outsider? In either case, making clear the position from which they operate can go a long way to facilitating the interpretation of a given cultural text.
  3. What do the images and narratives being deployed say about queer people?
    Are the images and narratives you consume describing an entire subgroup of people or are they describing a single individual? Is the individual posited as an exceptional member of their subgroup and if they are, what is being implied about the group of which they are a part?
  4. If the representations in question utilize humour, are queer people in on the joke or are they the joke?
    This is an important distinction to grasp and can sometimes be quite tricky depending on the media product under scrutiny. Ridiculous and humorous representations serve a wide variety of purposes and humour can often broach topics that would otherwise be too sensitive or difficult to deal with. That said, there is a difference between a humour that “Others” people and one that is inclusive.

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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