A couple of weeks ago, same-sex marriage became legal in the UK. You may have heard about it. Of course, the law is not without it’s faults – let’s not forget that trans people are being significantly discriminated against, that heterosexual couples still can’t enter into civil unions, and that there is a quadruple lock on opposed religious groups performing such marriages, so that LGBTQ members of the Church of England couldn’t be married in their faith, even if they wanted to.
I am not forgetting those things. However, it has to be acknowledged that the change in law is still a huge step forward for human rights in this country, and emblematic of positively shifting attitudes.
However, just as in the law surrounding it, society’s attitude towards LGBTQ people still has its issues. They are still bullied, mocked and degraded for being themselves, and as long as this site still exists, you’re never a google search away from a nice little reminder of how far left society has to come.
Today, however, I am going to talk about one specific problem, because it’s one that’s been bugging me lately – and that is the way in which we understand LGBTQ characters on TV. It was a topic often discussed in my Queer Theory class at UEA last year, and one which continually comes up in the TV I watch now.
The thing is, the growing number of LGBTQ characters is something of a red herring. Of course more representation is a good thing, and the fact that openly gay characters are appearing is a step forward in itself. But why are they so often presented as minor side characters, there to throw out a good one liner, but never actually take on any strong storylines themselves? Why do they still play up to stereotypes which don’t actually help anyone? And why do the lesbians … always … ALWAYS … die? [warning: violence, illness, spoilers]
It’s a commonly recurring theme that tvtropes.org refers to as “bury your gays link”.
Of course there are always exceptions. But no matter how great it is to have LGBTQ characters on TV, there are still only two messages being sent about queer relationships. Either they must fit perfectly into the roles society has dictated for them in order to be legitimate (one flamboyantly camp man and his long-suffering partner/two hot babes), or they must ultimately end up doomed and their partners left grieving forever.
A Case Study
Let’s compare Channel 4’s Dates. It was well-promoted, billed as an edgy contemporary drama/comedy, and the link with Skins creator Bryan Elsley was continually pushed.
Overall, the series was pretty good; the “straight” episodes portrayed interesting, layered characters who were struggling with various emotional issues as they attempted to navigate the awkward seas of dating in a complex contemporary world.
But then we got to the “lesbian” episode – and presumably even having lesbians was presumed to be edgy enough without actually bothering to push any more boundaries. Instead, when one admits to having previously been with men, we get the line “I’m so sick of women who go this way and that on a whim; it’s not complicated, it’s annoying and not honest … Maybe you’re just straight and bored?” In response: “you seem like an angry lesbian with a dick complex.”
Neither of these stereotypes is anything the viewers haven’t heard before, and repeating them isn’t edgy; it’s lazy. To top it all off, the two women later do sexy dancing and sleep together anyway, despite the fact that neither seems to particularly like the other, making it a lesbians-on-TV hattrick.
Gay stories can’t just rely on their own gayness to keep them interesting. They need as many twists, turns and surprises as straight stories. How else will they ever seem like legitimate stories to tell?
And that is just the gay, bisexual and lesbian characters who are, finally, beginning to exist on our screens; for those who are trans, genderqueer, pansexual, asexual, or one of the many other non-heteronormative identities, there is still the battle to get their stories represented on television at all.
The only reference I found to trans issues in Dates was this passing comment from a man in a later episode, on the number of dates he has had in his life: “two including this one, and the other ‘so-called’ girl turned out to be … never mind”. A face is pulled, the subject changed, and the subject never mentioned again. To make matters worse, this is from a man who claimed to have an academic interest in sexuality, and who even went so far as to explain a rough version of the Kinsey scale. Admittedly, the character is portrayed as racist and sexist throughout. But even in the one area in which their character appears to be somewhat enlightened, trans jokes are still too easy a shot for the writers to take.
So what can we do? What possible direction is left to take?
That’s where Hollyoaks comes in
Moving to a new town is hard. You don’t know where things are; you don’t have any friends yet; there are millions of roundabouts everywhere for no discernible reason (although maybe that’s just in Colchester).
Luckily, I am privileged enough to be housesharing with an extremely friendly and generous couple (and their puppy).
Unluckily, their favourite TV show is Hollyoaks.
Now, I’m not judging those who enjoy trashy soaps – not at all. But Hollyoaks though? That’s the worst one!
So what do you do? Do you watch bad TV with wooden acting, farcical storylines, and awkward sets? Or do you hide in your bedroom, carry on learning to knit, and not bond with the people you’re sharing your living spaces with for the foreseeable future?
Honestly, it was a tough call to make. But I’m pretty bad at being on my own, so in the end, against all the odds, Hollyoaks won.
At first, I was just vaguely fascinated by how terrible the plots were, and how hilariously bad the acting was.
Then, I started to notice something odd.
First, two men in a relationship kissed without any particular fuss – the same everyday peck that we see between straight couples on TV all the time. Oh, I thought. How nice! I didn’t even realise they were together until the end of the scene, because they were talking about something completely different!
Then, I began to realise that there was also a love triangle between a third man. Brilliant! These two aren’t just together because they’re the only gay men on the show – the drama of the relationship doesn’t come from their sexuality alone, it comes from jealousy and affairs – just like all the other couples! Best of all, from my limited viewpoint, it didn’t seem like any of the LGBTQ characters were being portrayed with the usual stereotypes.
Later in the week, the same thing happened again – but this time with two teenage girls! As we have established by now: usually if female LGBTQ characters exist at all, they are almost always presented through the lens of a wider male fantasy, and are highly unrealistic as a result. But here they were, at 6.30pm on weeknight, right in front of my eyes! And once again, their storyline included mental health issues, fears for a relationship that is moving too fast, and parents catching them in compromising positions. All slightly hammy versions of the sort of issues teenagers face every day; but the girls’ sexuality itself wasn’t commented upon once!
It may seems like a relatively small complaint in a world where LGBTQ people people face physical threats and violence on a daily basis. But it’s all part of the same problem. The way certain identities are presented in the media is always going to significantly affect how we think about those identities. If we are only ever shown two or three varieties of gay relationships and characters, they will never be truly accepted by everyone. And the same goes for all oppressed minorities – the more variety we are able to see, the less they will be considered minorities at all.
For years I have been complaining that we need LGBTQ characters on our TVs whose sexuality is not their primary characteristic; and for years I’ve been continually disappointed. We are often drawn to anything that is new in the hope that, this time, it will have all the answers. But perhaps we are looking in all the wrong places – and something like Hollyoaks, which is so often dismissed for its low-budget, quotidian nature, has been giving us those answers for years.