Changing Attitudes: LGBT
Over the past few decades’ popular culture has been a massive influence in changing attitudes towards the LGBT community; Britain has produced many role models and soap operas that were before their time. America has also had a huge influence as the home of the biggest blockbusters and international superstars. In light of this we stop and ponder: how often do we see LGBT people in TV, fashion and music, are they well represented? Are these representations of LGBT positive or negative? Do these representations show LGBT in realistic ways? Is this much different to how things were 40/30 years ago?
Brookside was the first British soap opera to break the hetero-mould, after featuring the first gay character in 1985 and broadcasting the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British television in 1994. Not long after Queer as folk – shown in 1999 – chronicled the lives of three gay men living in Manchester’s gay village. During this time waves were also being made across the waters in America. Ground-breaking sitcom Ellen (1994-1998) was the first network television show to feature a main character that ‘came out’ as a lesbian; known famously as ‘The Puppy Episode’. But despite the enormous amount of attention paid to that episode, the show survived only one more season. Some claimed the show lost momentum after ‘The Puppy Episode’, and others said that the show’s considerable attention to gay issues undermined it. Despite the cancellation, the impact of DeGeneres’s real-life and fictional coming out prompted other producers to include a growing number of gay and lesbian characters in their shows. Between 1997 and 2001 the number of recurring gay characters in television shows was consistently in double digits. ‘Such characters were no longer buffoons or suicidal psychopaths depicted in earlier decades; they were, like Ellen in her show’s last season, increasingly nuanced and complex characters, confronting discrimination and working on relationships.’1 For example Will & Grace started shortly afterwards, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the UK version Fairy Godfathers.
But still there are barriers and limits to this success. Many gay men in mainstream TV seem to fit a particular archetype of a gay man from Gok Wan in ‘How to Look Good Naked’ where he helps women grow to love their bingo wings, Matt Lucas in Little Britain where he proudly boosts he’s ‘the only gay in the Village’, to fashionista Kurt from Glee, Rylan from X factor, Will Young from Pop Idol, Stanley Tucci’s character in Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty, hosts Graham Norton and Alan Carr. These people are proof of progress but can also be seen as reinforcing stereotypes, as one blogger puts it: ‘We’re not all white, not all flamboyant, not all catty, not all fashionable and not all “fabulous”.’
They have provided LGBT people with characters they can relate and identity with, showed the larger LGBT culture and familiarised society to LGBT people. But a report by the BBC proclaimed that although there had been a gradual degree of improvement across all media in the last ten years, representation of gay people is still so unusual that it ‘stands out’ when included.
The social movements of the 1970’s provided, for the first time, a force for many women to openly incorporate their sexual identities in their work. Young women who ‘came out through feminism’ attempted to transform lesbianism from a medical condition or sexual preference into a collective identity. And out of this period came ‘Woman’s Music’. Beginning in the 1970’s with self-conscious feminist music and the lyrics of Alix Dobkin, Maxine Feldman, Linda Tillery and others, Women’s Music crossed into the mainstream with k.d. lang, Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman. Famous gay songwriters such as Michael Callen also emerged, writing about ‘the need to revise normative conceptions of love, family, and community to create a space in which queer people could find respect’.2
In the last decade Madonna has made headlines for her luxury shopping trips in Africa where she can be found choosing children, but for those old enough to remember, during the 1980’s Madonna was famous for redefined gender and sexuality through her music. To many lesbians and gay men Madonna has come closer than any other celebrity to being a gay icon. Unique in the way she openly enticed her gay fans, references and borrows from gay culture (‘Express Yourself’; ‘Vogue’; ‘Justify My Love’; the Blonde Ambitions Tour; and In Bed with Madonna’). In working with gay people as dancers, choreographers, and in speaking publicly against homophobia, she signifies an affirmation of lesbian and gay lifestyles.3 This torch has now arguably been passed to Lady Gaga, (she is an artist with a large gay following but has also received some backlash from the gay community) who has released singles like ‘Born this Way’, turned at the MTV VMA’s as male alter ego Jo Calderone, uses almost exclusively gay dancers and speaks on issues of gay marriage and homophobia.
A number of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual music artists have enriched the music industry and served as role models. Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, and Michael Stipe of R.E.M are among the most successful. But not all ‘out’ artists address gay issues in their music, and at times, gay artists – such as George Michael – are outed against their will. David Bowie declared himself gay in an interview with Michael Watts in the January 1972 issue of Melody Maker. In a 2002 interview he said ‘I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people.’ Furthermore, straight gay icons such as Madonna have been accused, by some, of using homo and bi- eroticism to be ‘edgy’. Heterosexuality still overwhelming dominates popular music, but it does not go unchallenged, with artists like Frank Ocean and Nicki Minaj who have managed to become gay icons in the hip-hop genre, which notoriously uses some homophobic terms in songs.
So, what have we learned? We still have far to go, but we’ve definitely come a long way over the past 40 years or so. In the world of TV: lesbians, bisexuals and gay men are still underrepresented, but accurate representations are increasing and with it attitudes towards this group. As for the music industry, heterosexuals still dominate but since the 1970’s each decade has brought with it a gay icon for the LGBT community as an advocate and role model.
By Natasha Holder
1 Deborah T., Gibson, Michelle. Alexander, Jonathan., 2010, Book: Finding Out: An introduction to LGBT studies, Meem, Los Angeles, Sage
2 Deborah T., Gibson, Michelle. Alexander, Jonathan., 2010, Book: Finding Out: An introduction to LGBT studies, Meem, Los Angeles, Sage
3 Hamer, Diane, Budge, Belinda, 1994, The good, the bad and the gorgeous : popular culture’s romance with lesbianism, London, Pandora