Munching on popcorn, Karen is watching a premiere of a film with her friends in the dim light of the theater. From a cursory glance, she is like any other teen living in Indiana, one who enjoys hanging out with friends and going to the local cinema on Friday nights.
However, Karen was born male, and she is watching the premiere of "Milk," a 2008 Academy-Award winning film based on the life of Harvey Milk, a politician and gay activist who was assassinated in 1978.
Milk is just one of a string of recent movies featuring gay characters and themes. Television, too, is striving to be inclusive. Gay characters on prime-time shows are generally becoming the norm rather than the exception, whether as regular characters (Will & Grace, The L Word) or occasional ones (House, Friends).
As the world is becoming more interconnected, people — teens especially — are increasingly influenced by popular culture. And as society has changed through the decades, so has the media’s portrayals of gay men and women. But do these depictions truly reflect lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer reality? And what effects have these portrayals had on LGBTQ youth?
The media’s characterization of homosexuals has changed from effeminate males and butch lesbians to self-loathing men and women to admirable and complicated individuals. The shift was influenced not only by a change in time period but also by the AIDS epidemic, according to Genne Scott, a student and filmmaker in San Francisco whose most recent film is "Black Widow."
Scott says the AIDS epidemic shifted people from seeing gays as persons belonging to a separate populace to one in which they are just “one of us.” It also propelled gays into action. “Gay people said, ‘Well, these are our stories and these are our lives, and we’re not just going to waste away and not allow our story to be told,’” she said.
Kali Snowden of Oakland, Calif., also addressed gay issues in her film, "Coming Out Straight." She says another reason for the proliferation of gay characters in mass-marketed films is that producers are now trying to reach straight as well as gay audiences.
She believes producers of such shows as Queer as Folk or The L Word have successfully created shows that inform and entertain both populations, but she’s heard plenty of criticism, too. “There’s a lot of controversy about that. Like The L Word, for example, the women are kind of portrayed as what a straight man might think is hot, right?” she said.
In addition, Snowden says some filmmakers were reacting to the conservative policies of former President George W. Bush. And while there have been some vocal demonstrations against such proposals as gay marriage, Scott and Snowden said that people in general have been open to other issues, such as the treatment of gays in the military, legal
As Snowden said, “I think only good can come from talking about queer issues and seeing it in the media. I think it’s important for questions to be asked and for people to be aware that we’re out there, we’re strong and we have a good identity.”
However, youth interviewed at Indiana Youth Group, a gay-lesbian support group in Indianapolis, say the increase in gay characters and themes has sometimes been detrimental to them. For one, some of their peers have begun to emulate the gay characters they see in the media.
Gay teens, like most youth, want to be seen as cutting edge or chic, and they take their cues from many in the media, according to Kirsten, 17, who, like all IYG youth, asked to be identified by first name only. “I think Hollywood shapes a lot of people’s images of what’s hot and what’s not.”
The increase in gays in the media has made being gay “hot” in itself, causing some youth to pretend to be gay or to find gay friends, said other IYG members.
It’s the new fashion trend, said Ashley, 16. “I hear a lot of people saying we’re cool.”
Tyler, 16, said her younger sister recently approached her in search of gay friends. “She was like, ‘Tyler, I know you’re gay and all your friends are over it, but do you think you could meet some younger gay friends because on TV, all the cool people have gay friends and I really want gay friends.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ She’s 11.”
The bottom line, according to Lauren, 20, is that people who rely on Hollywood for their understanding of gay people and issues are getting a skewed view. “People fear what they don’t understand, and people will take any kind of information for something that they don’t understand. So with Hollywood, if they put it out there and they’re like, ‘Gay people are like this,’ then straight people are going to latch onto that.
“Even kids, you know, or people who are just figuring out their orientation are like, ‘Oh well, I need to be like this’ or ‘It needs to happen this way.’”
That could be disheartening because, too often, current portrayals rely on stereotypes, with gay men as effeminate and promiscuous and gay women as “lipstick lesbians” and butch.
“I don’t watch "Family Guy," my little brother does, and like two weeks in a row I’ve heard the one where Peter gets on the gay team, and he’s dancing along and singing and baking muffins and doing all these really stereotypical things,” said Lauren. “I think it crosses the line.”
Jen, 19, said younger people might be more susceptible than others to the influence of media characterizations. “When you’re older and you’re coming out, you’re gay, I think the personality that you’ve already created has more effect than like movies and stuff, because you’re mature enough to know that that’s not you,” she said.
But the youth give high praise to some TV shows and movies that present gays as individuals. For example, several youth praised Bones for its unbiased portrayals of lesbians. “They show them not with short hair, boy pants and all this stuff. Plus, they show that people can accept it, like no problem,” said Jen.
Scott, Snowden, and many of the youth at IYG are optimistic about the continued acceptance of the gay community.
"I think the world is changing, and I think it has bestowed more rights to gay and lesbian people,” Scott said.
While she added that the United States has not been at the forefront of that rights revolution, she believes it is making progress as well.
“I think America particularly has a huge background of discrimination and hatred,”’ she continued. “And I think we’ll get past that. I think we’ve already been working past it."
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Michelle Hu, 17; Sarah Zabel, 16.
Copyright 2009 Y-Press
By Sarah Zabel, 16, and Michael Wang, 17
Brett Abrams, author of “Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream,” said mass media is constantly adapting to reflect audience preferences and the times. In his book, he argues that the films of the 1920s and ’30s portrayed gay men as effeminate, and gay women as masculine, to give audiences a glimpse of a secret world.
“The industry was using these images, which titillate, to sell itself as a unique environment within the United States through that period of time,” he said from his home in Washington, D.C. “It appealed to the dream life of human beings to put themselves in the place of being one of these people.”
Also reinforcing these portrayals was the popular notion of gender inversion, where homosexuality was viewed as a physical condition in which a woman’s brain was inside a man’s body, and vice versa, he said.
Just as the images of gays in the ’20s and ’30s reflected celebrated ideas of their times, so has the depictions since then. Abrams discussed some of the trends:
1940s and ’50s: Film noir was popular, with its focus on bleak scenes and troubled people. Gays were seen as victims or despised figures (Gilda, The Children’s Hour).
1960s: Adherence to traditional values early in the decade led to depictions of gays as unhappy, self-loathing individuals. However, they were viewed with more humanity than previously (Boys in the Band, Betrayed).
1970s: Sexual revolution of the late ’60s gives way to a lighter touch, with gays seen more sympathetically (The Ritz, Personal Best).
1980s: The independent film industry is launched, with much examination of alternative lifestyles (Parting Glances, My Beautiful Laundrette). AIDS outbreak leads to even more sympathetic characterizations (Philadelphia, Longtime Companion).
1990s: Rise of the LGBTQ community and Queer Nation increase popular sensitivity, with sexuality no longer seen as strictly male or female but more fluid (Chasing Amy)
Since 2000, gays have often been seen as admirable — even heroic — individuals. However, popularity of cause is not translating at the box office. “Milk is a distinctly unique film for mainstream audiences, and it hasn’t made the money that one might’ve expected,” he said.
ASSISTANT EDITOR: Michelle Hu, 17
Copyright 2009 Y-Press