Representations of sexuality in the media

Media representations of sexuality have historically been mostly heterosexual, with LGBT representations being largely invisible.

Batchelor et al (2009) found that when gay representations did appear in the mainstream media, they weren’t generally ‘integrated’ into plot lines, but rather gayness was part of the plot, seen as a source of anxiety, or as a target of teasing or bullying.

Dyer (2002) observed that ‘the person’s person’ alone does not show that a person is gay, and that the media have constructed stereotypical signs of ‘gayness’ which include certain facial expressions, vocal tones, stances or clothing.

Craig (1992) identified three media signifiers of gayness

  1. Camp – the ‘flamboyant figure of fun’ – a ‘non threatening’ representation of gayness, lying somewhere between male and female and one of the most widely found representations
  2. Macho – An openly sexual look which exaggerates aspects of traditional masculinity, as exemplified by the village people.
  3. Deviant – where gay people are portrayed as evil or devious, possibly as sexual predators or who feel guilty about their sexuality. Such representations seem to construct homosexuality as morally wrong.

Research conducted by Stonewall (2011) concluded that the LGBT community were being subjected to symbolic annihilation. They found that LGBTs were disproportionately consigned to the status of comedic relief – their characters presented as something to laugh at or deride. This was especially found to be the case with representations of lesbianism, frequently presented as over-sexualised and exotic, for male’s viewing pleasure.

Out of a total of 126 hours of television programmes analysed:

  • 5 hours and 43 minutes focused on LGBT related issues or characters
  • 46 minutes portrayed them realistically or positively.

Stoenewall noted that the majority of the coverage represented gays in particular as:

  • Unhappy and distressed about their sexual orientation
  • As people who had been bullied and rejected by their families

There was very little reference to lesbians or transsexuals.

Changing representations of LGBTs in the Media 

There are several examples of contemporary shows which have LGBT characters , and in which sexuality is largely incidental to the plots in the show, and only part of the character’s identity, rather than them being subsumed by it, as was so often the case in early representations.

Probably the most obvious example of this on British Television is Doctor Who – which has featured several gay characters in recent series.

In the USA (not UK unfortunately) GLAAD conducts an annual content analysis of the representation of LGBT characters.

Their 2019 report summarizes  content analysis of 111 primetime shows with 857 series regular characters broadcast on the main USA networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, and NBC).

They found that 8.8 percent of ‘series regular characters’ were LGBT,

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This was an increase of 2.4 percentage points from the previous year’s 6.4 percent. This is the highest percentage GLAAD has found since it first gathered data in the 2005-06 season.

Of the 8.8% of LGBT characters

  • 42% were gay men (a total of 47 characters)
  • 25% were lesbian
  • 29% were Bi+ characters make up 29 percent
  • 4% were transgender characters

The report also noted that last year, out bisexual actor Alan Cumming was the first gay lead in a U.S. scripted broadcast drama on CBS’ new series ‘Instinct’.

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However, closer analysis may reveal that although representation of LGBT characters is more common than ever, these representations may not be that positive compared to straight characters. Stefania Sarrubba argues that all of the LGBT characters in Game of Thrones are killed off before the end of the series, except for Yara Greyjoy, who does something powerful at the end of season eight (takes back the Iron Islands), but we don’t actually see this: the show ends focusing on all the straight characters. 

The LGBT community and new media

The representations of LGBTs on new media are generally more positive than in mainstream media, possibly because the content is user-generated.

Social media sites have been used to generate support for same sex marriages and companies such as Facebook and Twitter seem to be broadly supportive of the LGBT community.

Facebook highligeted its support for the LGBT community with its Celebrate Pride Rainbow Filter in 2015 and there were 3.6 million tweents in 2015 that used the #lovewins relating to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalise same sex marriage.

However, research by the University of Alberta tracked all public tweets in the period 2012-15 that used four negative terms about the LGBT community and recorded 56.5 million homophobic comments.

In 2018 Stonewall recently launched its BAME LGBT Voices documentary series to give more a voice/ presence to the diverse range of ethnicities and sexualities which are often under-represented in mainstream media, one such example:

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