Beyond the Bubble: PRIDE and prejudice

by Andrea Nease | 5/4/15 6:15pm

Considering the College is in the process of wrapping up PRIDE week festivities, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the presence and representation of queer individuals in popular media in 2015 compared to decades past. PRIDE week serves as a time of recognition, commemoration and celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. This focus on non-heterosexual orientations also helps to educate the public on what I think has been appropriately termed “the new normal.”

A few months ago, I began to look at gender inclusivity in films — and more specifically at the number of films that pass the Bechdel Test. The results were disappointing, but fortunately, the number of women appearing in movies has been on the rise in recent years. Upon researching media inclusion of the LGBTQ community, however, I found more disappointing numbers and an even slower rate of improvement.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Studio Responsibility Index found that of 114 film released by major studios in 2014, only 20 of them — or 17.5 percent — portrayed characters who identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. This number represents a slight improvement from the 16.7 percent of films from the same studios that featured LGBT characters in 2013.

In comparison, nearly a decade ago, GLAAD’s 2005 to 2006 television series survey estimated that less than two percent of characters on broadcast networks were identified as LGBT. Although increased media inclusion is not necessarily indicative of improvement, I believe that Hollywood and cable TV alike have notably increased efforts to depict minority and disenfranchised groups.

The unfortunate reality of the typical way in which media represents queer communities is its potential to skew public perception and create or reinforce stereotypical images of particular groups. Many gay male characters, for example, are often represented as effeminate. While a popular image, this is not characteristic of all gay men — actually it is far from it.

Regardless of the potential to skew public belief, shows like “Glee” (2009) and “Modern Family” (2009) and others have, in my opinion, done wonders to increase awareness and acceptance. Several conservative groups saw the sitcom “Will and Grace” (1998) as controversial after its premiere because they believed the show would make homosexuality desirable to audiences.

Fast forward to 2012 when Vice President Joe Biden said the following about the program — “[‘Will and Grace’] probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”

We’re seeing less controversy and more media inclusion around the lives of queer people and hopefully we will continue to see decreased prejudice as a result.

I think we can only go up from here — social equality does not happen overnight. It can take decades, and it will likely be decades before the media’s representation of disenfranchised groups is where we want it to be. Something that Chaz Bono, contestant on “Dancing with the Stars” (2005) and transgender rights advocate, said after his elimination from the competition serves as a strong reminder of the need to adjust current media coverage to show more than heteronormativity or queerness shown through an essentializing lens. Bono said he competed on the show because if there had been “somebody like me on TV when I was growing up, my whole life would have been different.”

The impact that LGBTQ media presence can have is immeasurable. An organization called The Critical Media Project has made it its mission to educate youth in media literacy and the intersection of identity politics and media in particular. Tackling big issues such as the presence and diversity of queer, racial and ethnic representations and the overall role of media in our contemporary society is important. Organizations like the Critical Media Project, in addition to, broadcasting networks that are increasing LGBTQ inclusion are taking a step in the right direction.

The numbers could have been better, but at least we are heading somewhere. A few questions from The Critical Media Project to ask yourself that I find worth noting are: Who created this message; what creative techniques are used to attract my attention; how might different people understand this message differently from how I do; what lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message; and why was this message sent?

Think about the impact of what you’re watching, engage in activities such as PRIDE week programming and do not pretend to have all the information on a group just because you have watched a handful of sitcoms that have a minority character or two.

Lastly, a shoutout to Chris Gallerani’s ’15 show “#werq,” which he performed at the Hopkins Center this past weekend. The show was a solo piece based on his experiences as a queer person and how those have shaped his life — a great piece to heighten awareness and further engage with the purpose of PRIDE week.