Why are LGBTI characters on TV shows so badly done? And why haven’t things improved in the last 20 years? These are two questions that have been haunting me, and which came to focus last night. As we don’t have a television, I watch an inordinate amount of TV box sets. Last night, we first watched Remington Steele, season 2, which was full of positive gay innuendo (a film director character says:“a couple means a man and a woman, but only on TV”) including an positively portraying a gay couple. That show was aired in 1983. I then watched Wire in the Blood: Mermaid Singing in which a killer who tortures men to death is a post-op male to female transsexual. Here transsexuals are depicted as an extreme form of gay male sadomasochism in which the body is transformed as an act of self torture and who by nature torture and kill others. That show was written by the lesbian writer Val McDermid and aired in 2002.
I believe that the writers and producers combination of apathy, ignorance and the desire to find a minority to demonize that few will complain over creates a particular spectrum of “evil” of badly treated LGBTI characters. Thus, the less a writer knows about LGBTI people, the more they rely on cultural and ironically, previous media stereotypes which they end up reinforcing. For example, gay males, typically comical figures, as gay murderers typically kill gays, falling into the “heat of passion” category but more often than not show up as sexual predators and pedophiles.
Bisexuals, from Wild Things to Basic Instinct to New Best Friend are portrayed as shifty tricksters who will lie, deceive and kill, as that is their nature. Here, their sexuality is seen as a natural byproduct of their amoral character. The message: trust them at your peril
Lesbian killers ala Heavenly Creatures, particularly lesbian man-killers are so much of a cliché that it finally hit mainstream in Monster and won an Oscar. Of course, the only thing more common than a lesbian killer, is killing a lesbian (though the first season of 24 manages to do both, while Hex manages to kill their lesbian, and main character in minutes, Death comes for lesbian lovers from ER, NYPD Blue and Wire in the Blood while The Wire & Firefly just shoot them). From Underground to Matrix, lesbians are understood to be depraved, but since almost all the writers are male, no one really knows exactly HOW they are depraved, so they tend to just slink around in black looking degenerate in the background of evil male characters. Though this can be changed up with a nice normal character backstabbing and acting evil, (like Smallville Season Two when Tina, who is called “monster” when she falls in love with Lana) which puzzles the viewers until we see her kissing a woman (or she could just be universally disliked like Dr. Weaver on ER, whose personality is then explained – “ohhh, she’s a lesbian”).
Transgendered individuals and transsexuals tend to fit any form of villainy needed for the situations (as well as highlighting homophobic humour needs). Every US legal show, from Law and Order to CSI, will highlight at least one psychotic transgendered killer. And if you haven’t seen a split personality/kills while in drag killer, then you aren’t watching enough movies (though some like Killer Drag Queens on Dope, almost make it to kitch). When not killers, transsexual/transgendered characters are often seen in police/legal drama’s as prostitutes, which even includes Canada’s supposedly “enlightened” legal drama This is Wonderland. In Wire the Blood, the main detective/phychologist makes leaping “insights” into the murderer “Of course, a transsexual, had the operation, and how can someone pay for that? Prostitution. She was a rent boy!”
Intersex characters, due to medical dramas, have been making appearances, almost universally with a kind of brutal “She’s a boy!” surprise and subsequent vomiting we associate with The Crying Game. In ER’s 5th season, Barbie, a cute 9 year old girl was found to be intersex, showing a father who could “no longer love” his child as he went around muttering “She’s a boy?”. House and Grey’s Anatomy have followed up on these themes with even less sensitivity. For doctor’s, who face intersex and ambigious genitalia in 1 in 2000 babies to be portrayed this way shows bad and insensitive writing and industry ignorance in general.
There are notable exceptions, like the first season of the female medical show Strong Medicine which covered not only lesbian AI fertility treatment (In the generally anti-Queer TV show House, the only patient to die on Dr. House for the first season was the baby of a lesbian couple, who died to find the right treatment for a straight couple’s baby), as well as treating a transgendered woman for menopause and helped a dying priest who was biologically a woman, treated with dignity and respect of her decision previously unseen on TV. The only positive portrayal of an intersex individual I have found is in the 18th episode of the quickly cancelled cult series, Freaks and Geeks. This is typical as almost all series with positive portrayals of LGBTI characters get cancelled (Book of Daniel, Dark Angel, Wonderfalls, Dead like Me, Joan of Arcadia for example). Meanwhile, new shows like the Job, Scrubs and Rescue Me bring an openly homophobic worldview (I nominate Rescue Me as the most toxic LGBTI show to date) where “lad culture” means a woman joining a firefighter is openly assumed to be a lesbian and plotted to be driven out.
In the UK, most crime drama’s include a gay/lesbian likeable characters (including Frost, Prime Suspect, Between the Lines, State of Play), but many of these series are not brought over to the US because of the accurate (and thus unappealing to middle class viewers) depiction of institutionalized homophobia where though the investigation reveals the gay/lesbian police officer was unfairly treated, but in the end nothing is done as the “boy’club” at the top rules.
The Police forces of the UK, particularly London, have had extensive gay/lesbian recruitment campaigns to overcome this particular image. Meanwhile, in the US, lesbian and transsexual firefighters are demonstrating that the fire department isn’t working particularly hard to change (my favorite was the 2003 Video “Being who you are” which won an Award and was made for the Tuscon Fire Department to comply with 2001 diversity training requirements – the video still hasn’t been shown). The reality is that as an LGBTI person you are more likely to suffer hate crimes, murdered, raped, assaulted, have vandalism done to you than the average person. Integrity Virginia lists the 25 gay men killed in hate crimes in the US in 2004 and refers to the 37 transsexuals killed in hate crimes that year. I have waited for Law & Order: Special Victims or Without a Trace to cover what is a month or weekly event: reading about the brutal murder of another LGBT individual (last year was the first recorded in the US where someone committed a hate murder on a bisexual simply for being bisexual). LGBT individuals are statistically far more likely to end up assaulted or murdered than be murderers. It’s time TV shows stopped fishing about for societies despised LGBTI in order to find a guilt free villain. And far past time they started hiring more LGBTI consultants to help them stop spreading the view that Hollywood and the Networks are at best homophobic and at worst stupid and lazy.
18 hours ago