Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Network Studios: Hire me, here's why

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.


The Watcher said...

Yar, P.L., this be why th' Cap'n expects t'see ye on th'best sellers list in th'future. Yer hand wields a mean quill; that an' I'd like t'see a fierce epee-wieldin' lesbian take on some o'those sea-urchins in th'misbegotten shows ye've mentioned!

GayProf said...

I want to star in the all-gay remake of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I am just putting that out there.

Elizabeth McClung said...

It's okay, I want to star in the lesbian remake of CHiP's and Charlies' Angels. Linda's response to this: Gee, you really DO watch a lot of TV...I mean you sure do remember a lot. Errr....yeah.

The Watcher said...

Gayprof, gayprof! Can I be Rhoda? We both be rough around th'edges, so t'speak.

kathz said...

Like you, I find The Mermaids Singing disturbing (though having read the book I didn't find I could cope with the TV programme). The book does, as I recall , make the suggestion that the killer's madness is a result of homophobia but for me it doesn't come off. However, I knew Val McDermid at university where she was president of the junior common room (like a small students' union) and have encountered her on a couple of occasions since; I believe in her intergrity. Why don't you try contacting her through her website (if you haven't already)? It's .

elizabeth said...

They should hire you.... (you didn't mention TransAmerica.... have you watched it?)

Elizabeth McClung said...

Kathz: I will try contacting her, through, the second in the Wire the Blood series did nothing more to convince me of her awareness since it portrayed the female leads as another cliche: The lying decietful lesbian who is (again) killed. And while there is the back story of "the jealous abusive man" the way it plays on screen is: It is becuase my wife is a lying adulterous lesbian that I have become a serial killer.

Elizabeth - I haven't seen that one yet (Is it on DVD?), though after reading an very good article from an alaskian butch lesbian who uses TransAmerica to explain her identity ( I think I will need to watch it.

elizabeth said...

Just came out on DVD - watched it on Tuesday. I really liked it.

kathz said...

I only read one other of The Wire in the Blood series as I didn't like the way the violence was done (I'm going to find Zed a hard read, aren't I?) I don't know what input Val has into the TV series but she has said she approves so you're right to discuss it with her, I think - and I reckon she'll at least take your comments seriously. I enjoyed her earlier Lindsay Gordon series most - she described them as cosies with a lesbian detective and I found them good for holiday reading.

piecesofeight said...

I hear ya on this one. On a vaguely related note, the new series of Sugar Rush is on soon in the UK! *does mini dance* So unusually for a program centered around a lesbian protagonist, this has come back for a second series.
However, the problem seems to be that 'straight' programming doesn't have any clue how to include normal everyday gay people.. I suspect this is mostly politics, and partly ignorance.

piecesofeight said...

Actually, interestingly enough, there is still a major problem with proportional representation in television/movies in general. According to surveys the most overrepressented 'group' are straight white men (surprise!) I think it was about 70% of characters in children's tv shows etc were in that group. When you're a child you don't notice these things (at least I didn't), but I think subconciously it can have a big effect on how you view the world.

booker said...

the great thing about Val Mcdermids books is that the violent bits are in italics so you can leave out these bits and still follow the plot! which does beg the question why did she add them in?
I also agree that Val does not put gays and transvestites in a positive light which is a shame because she has been given a fantastic opportunity todo otherwise.

Unknown said...

Some good comments and this may be very old. The very way we raise girls to be pictures, pretty but useless, and boys to be doers but not given to thought, or finer disciplines (both loose generalizations, I'm an American, my bias). And the fact we can be excited to see ER, The L Word, The Shield, only thing changes is the timing of a story. These stories aren't new. The cast, the setting may be, but we know these tales of long and many other shows. Much of the world still prefers women to be passive. Men to be aggressive, the hunter, she the homemaker. Do we honestly desire new tales, new stories, new heroes? How can we say so? Girls are still raised waiting on their Princes Charming. Even in America, though, the closest in many ways, still does not even grant that certain people aren't actually protected by the constitution. Blacks, Japanese, Native Americans, Women, Gay all go through or have/still are going through their 'trial of acceptance'. Hollywood remakes movies more than creates them it feels like, I know it's not true...but 'Straw Dogs'? Lame.

All people are created equal. If they're socially accepted, en vogue perhaps. I've tried a time or two to speak to people, straight, about gay people and the pride parades, and their constant media storm or highlights. This one young man really could not grasp that there are these events and parades BECAUSE they are not granted the same rights to lifestyle that normal people are. He merely hunkered down behind an argument of 'they should just calm down, don't draw so much attention. And I resent those who throw it in my face or hit on me.' PDA is disturbing to many straight or gay, for both. And take the compliment dude, you're no Gregory Peck.

And some days it seems a growing trend to associate gay with bad. 'So gay. Oh that's gay. You homo!' Then the author says oh but I have a great gay friend, or me and my gay friends say that all the time. They neither get that making gay, queer, homo, fag epithets is part of why parades and protests are carried out. Perhaps it is white blindness, if I can term it so. Call me a cracker, redneck, honkey, I just shrug. No meaning or bearing to me. I was sub-30 before living with my gay uncle, and he made it rather clear that my lifetime overuse of gay as a pejorative was hurtful to people, to him at least. And that one man was reason enough to stop using it so. it was how I was raised, I said it like gesundheit, no intent to offend. Just gay always has been bad, my whole life. And if I were gay, I'd be celibate, for the whole hell angle. Meh I'm single and ugly, and still straight on already celibate, but no gay shawl over my shoulders. Yet back to an earlier point, if gay people themselves have 'taken it back'..fuck's sake. Gay people themselves further muddy the water with their 'affectionate' use of the terms. (Don't even get me going on this absolutely asinine trend I notice of gay/homo/fag applying to men only, while women are simply lesbian/gay. And gay when applied to women, much less stigmatized by white, straight idiot males, than their male brethren) A DC minor functionary in 1999 or 2000 was fired for using the word niggardly which etymologically is unrelated to nigger...oh god, a whitey said it. Wait, I can't take the word back too? Free it from its chains?

Us people are stupid, venal, hateful creatures out for #1 first and foremost. We won't budge, lift a finger or see from another's perspective without there being an 'end' in it for us. We are miserable niggardly niggers, and I wish I could alienate myself from the rest. Even though I am very much alienated in most ways already.

No @ one commenter, not all gay roles will/can or should be positive. You guys have shitty people too. Admittedly you deserve far more nicer roles, but there are bad people of every type.