Contrary to popular belief, the subject of homosexuality in film has been with us since the beginning of film in the 1920’s and its portrayal has come a long way since then. Homosexuality in American film throughout the decades has become a representation of the public’s changing opinion on homosexuality. However, while we have made immense progress in accepting homosexuality, we have replaced much of our prejudice with stereotypical traits we think the average gay should embody. These forced stereotypes are not only halting our progression to accepting all types of lifestyles but are also shadowing the real issues that homosexuals face in this country such as poverty, discrimination, and narrow molds gays are more and more being expected to conform to.
In the 1920’s, when film was just a budding media, homosexuality was surprisingly common in movies but only in a comic form. Homosexuality was an unspeakable matter in the 1920s, but its comedic portrayal by such famous actors as Charlie Chapman was accepted and even encouraged. In films such as Wanderer of the West (1927) and The Soilers (1923), audiences laughed at the juxtaposition of an effeminate male character to the classic, tough cowboys of the West (Epstein). Through the 1930’s to the 1950’s, homosexuality was no longer a laughing matter, but something to be feared. In the 1940’s, noir film, the crime oriented genre, gained popularity and provided an ideal outlet for filmmakers to express sentiment against homosexuality. Film director and producer Robert Epstein mentions an interview with Arthur Laurents, the screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, which was based on the true story of the speculated gay murderers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold: “[t]hey missed a lot of stuff, and if a director was subtle enough, and clever enough, they got around it. I don’t think the censors at that time realized that this was about gay people,” said Laurents (Epstein). During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the film industry had begun to attack lesbian, as well as homosexual relationships with films such as Caged (1950) and Young Man With a Horn (1950), in which the insinuated lesbian characters were either tough criminals or disorderly neurotics (Epstein).
The campaign against homosexuality in film would not reach a pause until 1961, when the film Victim was released. The film depicted a prominent business man who was blackmailed for being gay. This was the first film to portray a gay person in a non-demeaning way. However, it would be a pre-cursor to a new wave of homosexuality portrayal in film: the sympathetic character. The trend of the sympathetic gay character has drifted through film in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s and is still a prominent stereotype in film. One of the most notable examples of the 90’s is the 1993 film, Philadelphia. In this film, actor Tom Hanks plays a gay AIDS victim who was unjustly fired because of his homosexuality and diagnoses. Epstein quotes writer and producer Jan Oxenberg, who states that as successful as the movie was at the box office, it is nevertheless “…a story about a gay hero who dies, who’s a tragic figure. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood or the general public will embrace a film with a gay hero who lives” (Epstein). Here, Epstein makes a critical observation of the sympathetic character: that we are more likely to accept the gay character’s life if we know they will not survive because we are able to set aside the judgments we would make knowing they continued living their lifestyle.
Another recent film in which one of the main characters was gay and also met a tragic end was the box office hit Brokeback Mountain of 2005. The film tells of two cowboys in Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who develop a sexual and emotional relationship during an on and off 20 year affair. The film was hailed as a groundbreaking film; the first in-depth depiction of a homosexual relationship to achieve both high critical acclaim and commercial success. While this is true, it also conformed to the sympathetic gay character stereotype. At the end of the film Ennis tries to contact Jack once again to rekindle their affair only to find that Jack has been killed. Jack’s wife tells Ennis that Jack was killed when the tire he was changing exploded, however, while listening Ennis imagines Jack being beaten to death by a gang. The beating is reminiscent of a story Ennis tells Jack earlier in the film of a man in his hometown who was tortured and murdered for being presumed a homosexual.
The ending is left deliberately ambiguous to the viewer to decide whether they truly believe Jack was killed by the tire or not. Writer James Morris argues in “The Brokeback Book: From Story to Cultural Phenomenon” that “not just viewers in the straight audience, but many in the gay audience too, may perhaps want to believe Jack was killed, precisely to bolster the sympathies that make an appeal to universal rights all the more compelling” (Handley). Morris and others in this book argue the parallel of the ambiguity of Jack’s death and the ambiguity of LGTB rights and whether they are “special” or “universal” rights.
Morris makes an important point in exploring the paradox of having to resort to sympathy to make the rights of Jack and Ennis’ relationship more universal (Handley). Morris affirms that if the rights of relationships, including lesbian and gay relationships, are universal then there should be no need to appeal to the viewer’s sympathies to make gay rights more acceptable; they should instead be clear to the viewer as institutional rights (Handley). This is a paramount critique of the stereotype of the sympathetic gay character. The sympathetic stories of gay characters in film and TV may indeed help viewers empathize with the struggles gays and lesbians face because of their identity. However, it also prevents viewers from seeing gays, lesbians, and their relationships from any other view than a superior position in which the viewer pities the character and their unjust struggle.
The second gay stereotype common in film and television today can be characterized as the “flamboyant gay”. We’ve all seen it: the fashionable consumerist who has a somewhat “bitchy” attitude, gestures with their hands endlessly, has shallow interests and is usually white, clean cut, and has an upper-middle class income and lives in a non-judgmental community. Aside from reality shows like those on the Bravo TV network that shamelessly reap the benefits of exaggerating the shallow, flamboyant gay character, there are also a significant number of primetime shows that have knowingly or unknowing portrayed this character with negative consequences.
One new primetime show that embodies not only the flamboyant stereotype but the stereotype of the contrasting the reserved gay and flamboyant gay couple is NBC’s new sitcom The New Normal. In this show, characters Brian and David are a gay couple living in an upscale part of Los Angeles. Both have successful careers, Brian as a TV producer and David as a gynecologist. The two are also clean-cut and white. David plays the role as the reserved gay: he’s high strung, doesn’t wear as fashionable clothing as his partner, and has a more traditionally masculine voice. Brian takes on the role as the flamboyant gay: he’s emotional, has more shallow interests, and has a bit higher pitched voice. In this clip, Brian and David are meeting with their doctor and the surrogate mother they have chosen to have their baby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQa66Af-dx4&feature=relmfu. The doctor informs them that they will be doing a test on the baby to look for possible complications like birth defects. While David asks the doctor informed questions about the baby’s progress, Brian is more concerned about what the child’s hair color will be and whether it will be able to fit into designer Marc Jacobs’ onesies. Before I analyze this clip, I would like to take a look at another show similar to The New Normal.
ABC’s Modern Family, a show that debuted in 2009, is currently one of the most popular shows on television and also has one of the most adored couples currently on primetime, Cam and Mitchell. Mitchell is a high-powered attorney who, like David’s character, is reserved in every way including his dress, mannerisms, speech and overall personality. On the other hand Cam, Mitchell’s partner, fills the flamboyant role perhaps even more so than Brian in The New Normal. Cam is known in his family for wearing two-patterned bright paisley dress shirts, using dramatic mannerisms, and for sometimes being a down-right drama queen. The next clip perfectly exemplifies this contrast of stereotypes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aSzTVrP5FQ
First, I would like to point out the special circumstances for these two couples. Adoption can cost from $5,000 to $40,000 with a private agency and surrogacy can cost as much as $100,000 or higher. Merely the fact that these two couples have the opportunity to afford these services separates them from many gay viewers, or any viewer for that matter, who cannot afford these options. In both of the clips, the “reserved gay” tries to manage their “flamboyant” partner. In The New Normal, David either ignores Brian’s shallow comments or sarcastically replies to them while trying to seriously focus on the baby’s test procedure. Likewise in Modern Family, Mitchell originally tries to defend Cam by telling his father that Cam is not a “drama queen.” At that moment, Cam puts on the soundtrack of the Lion King and waltzes out wearing a satin kimono while holding up their baby like Mufasa. Mitchell eventually tells Cam to “turn it off” and while Mitchell is referring to the music, Cam believes he is talking about his personality and replies, “I can’t it’s who I am!”
Cam brings up an interesting point of whether his extremely colorful personality is really who he is naturally or if it has been molded from cultural stereotypes of what it means to be “gay”, which is often portrayed on television, film, and other forms of media. In the article “Who gets to be gay on network TV?”, journalist Eric Deggans calls this trend of representing gays as entertaining but extreme characters a “straitjacket” for leading gay roles in television. He states that “they are expected to be well-off, male and white, like the men who have created them” (Deggans). In other words, these rigid portrayals of the idyllic gay identity and relationship leave no room for alternative portrayals that would ultimately be more realistic. This includes interracial relationships, relationships where the couple makes less than $200,000 a year, and relationships that are based in cities less friendly to the LGBT community than West Hollywood or New York City. More importantly, these stereotypes are not so far off from the portrayal we saw almost 90 years ago when film was just starting out. Although perhaps more extreme, the flamboyant gay on TV today is still encouraging the same response that people had to Charlie Chapman’s flamboyant stunts: that homosexuality is something to be laughed at and not taken seriously.
Although less seen on television, there are also prominent stereotypes about lesbian relationships on television and in film. There are two main stereotypes that are common among lesbians in American media. First, is the “butch” character: an angry woman that dresses in a masculine fashion, does “manly” activities, and has no time for nonsense. A good example of this also comes from Modern Family, from a clip called “Cam and Mitchell vs. the Lesbians”: http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/modern-family/video/PL5520996/_m_VD55238364. In the clip, the two women emulate “masculine fashion” by wearing button down shirts and no jewelry or make-up. Pam also calls Mitchell “Sally” while her partner admits that they are currently working on building a canoe in their living room. In this example, Pam more so exemplifies the “butch” character in the relationship by being aggressive and assertive, while her partner embodies the other stereotype of lesbians: the “lipstick” lesbian.
Unlike the butch lesbian, the “lipstick” lesbian has all the opposite traits. Typically, this means the character wears heavy make-up, typically “feminine” clothing which may be tight, colorful or have embellishments, and has a softer, more sensitive demeanor. In The L Word, an innovative show on Showtime that revolves solely around lesbians and their relationships, there is a prominent contrast between lipstick lesbians and their more butch counterparts. In this clip from the episode, “Lights, Camera, Action”, character Adele transforms before our eyes from a frumpy “butch” character, to a glamazon “lipstick” lesbian: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaR1AxZypyo. In the clip Jenny, an already perfected “lipstick” lesbian, takes Adele on a shopping spree. Adele is given a wardrobe of heels and dresses and at the end has her make-up done. When Jenny comes over to Adele to ask her how she likes her makeover she emotionally thanks her and tells her that she absolutely loves it, as though she is now a more attractive lesbian than she was before.
In writer Tricia Jenkins paper, ‘‘Potential Lesbians at Two O’Clock’: The Heterosexualization of Lesbianism in the Recent Teen Film,” she argues that film makers and television producers intentionally portray lesbians in this glamorous “lipstick” fashion because the femininity of this character makes it easier for viewers to associate them with traditionally feminine heterosexual women that are often seen onscreen: “one way that mainstream producers dilute their lesbian portrayals is by heterosexualizing these scenes in order to promote the conventional straight male’s lesbian fantasy” (Jenkins). By transforming these characters into “lipstick” lesbians, heterosexual viewers, especially male viewers, are able to get pleasure out of seeing these women, even if they are strictly in same-sex relationships. I also argue that lesbian relationships are being heterosexualized by pairing the butch lesbian character with a “lipstick” lesbian. In these relationships, even though both characters in the relationship are women, by one embodying the “masculine” role and one embodying the “feminine” role, the relationship is still able to maintain a heterosexual dynamic. This rigid lesbian mold of either “butch” or “lipstick”, much like the constraints of the “flamboyant” and “reserved” gay characters, prevents viewers from being exposed to any other possible identity of lesbians that may be more realistic. Perhaps even more so than homosexual relationships, lesbian couples on TV and in film are being constrained to fill the roles of a typically heterosexual relationship. Only time will tell if television and film will one day refrain from making viewers question which person is the “man” in the relationship.
Even with the stereotypes that are common among gay and lesbian characters in American television and film today, our approval has come a long way. Homosexuality is no longer something to be ignored or persecuted with propaganda. Filmmakers and television producers are finally able to explore homosexual relationships on screen while at the same time relating them to words like “modern” and “normal”. Yet the limited types of characters that “get to be gay” on screen is stunting our acceptance of homosexuality by shadowing the minorities within this minority and the real issues they face. In the 2010 Hate Crimes Report, the FBI stated that of the 8,208 hate crimes reported for that year, almost 20% were because of the offenders “bias against a particular sexual orientation” (fbi.gov). This number, we must remember, does not include all of the hate crimes that go unreported.
Although the gays on screen are often embraced by their community, these crimes show that there are still plenty of areas in this country in which gays are not only scrutinized for their orientation, but are being physically harmed and sometimes killed for who they are. Along with the accepting communities they live in, the typical TV and film gay also lives an upper class, comfortable lifestyle. Yet, in a recent study by thinkprogress.org and the Williams Institute, nearly 40% of homeless youth in this country identify themselves as LGBT and family rejection was one of the leading causes for their conditions (Ford). While it may not be as funny a topic as the dynamic between Cam and Mitchell, if these issues were addressed more in the media, there could be more exposure and initiative to fix these issues. Ultimately, television and film were made to entertain but they also undeniably have an effect on our culture and the way we view certain races, genders, and lifestyles. While the public might currently be most entertained by upper class, white, stereotyped LGBT characters, our progress through history gives hope that we will one day be able to accept and enjoy seeing all types of LGBT characters no matter what their race or socioeconomic status is.
First Draft of this essay: ENG 220- First Draft Paper 2
“The Brokeback Book: From Story to Cultural Phenomenon.” Ed. William R. Handley. Nebraska Press, Spring 2011. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.
Deggans, Eric. “Premiere of NBC’s The New Normal This Week Raises Question: Who Gets to Be Gay on Network TV?” Tampa Bay Times. N.p., 11 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.
Epstein, Robert. “Homosexuality in Film.” The Celluloid Closet. Sony Pictures. Web. 04 Mar. 2011.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Victims of Hate Crimes 2010.” FBI.gov. U.S. Government, 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2012. <http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/narratives/hate-crime-2010-victims>.
Ford, Zack. “40 Percent Of Homeless Youth Are LGBT, Family Rejection Is Leading Cause.” ThinkProgress.org. N.p., 12 July 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.
Jenkins, Tricia. “‘‘Potential Lesbians at Two O’Clock’’: The Heterosexualization of Lesbianism in the Recent Teen Film.” Http://education.gsu.edu. N.p., 2005. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.