Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Bad at blogging.


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LGBTQ and the media: why Hollyoaks is the best show on television

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 lesbiansalwaysALWAYSdie? [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.

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Sport completely baffles me: 7 reasons why I love the Olympics

Now, I’m not about to say that the Olympics have been without fault. I mean, there was the virtual ignoring of the critical mass arrests, any kind of nationalism will always make me a little uncomfortable, and all the problems people had with corporate interference don’t go away just because athletes started winning medals.

But, considering my inherent lack of interest in any kind of sport (PE was basically an excuse to talk about last night’s TV while “in defence”), I have always loved the Olympics. And since I’ve also always loved London, this year just brings those things together into one big party. It’s sort of like that time I found out Starkid’s Darren Criss would play Kurt’s love interest in Glee, before it got crap. Two totally unrelated but awesome things suddenly fused into one.

Here are seven reasons why, even though sport confuses and frightens me, I am still constantly glued to the Olympics.

1. It is full, in the words of Aidan Burley, of “leftie multicultural crap”. Countries coming together under one flag, (almost) everyone being sporting, that fantastic opening ceremony which was like a socialist wet dream. Free healthcare! Free internet! Free Kenneth Brannagh in a hat!

“Mitt Romney, this is for you.”

2. Not knowing a thing about sport means that everything seems amazing. People diving in perfect synchronicity? Doing somersaults on the uneven bars? Understanding the rules of judo? I don’t know how any of them do any of it.

I would give a medal purely for not falling and dying.

3. It is not the traditional, but the weird obscure sports that everyone gets excited about. No one could care less about the football, but canoeing? That got up to 4.5m viewers yesterday, with cycling up to 8.1m. That is some nail-biting stuff.

Look at them go! There are waves everywhere!

4. Social media goes crazy. Everyone is in a good mood, and there are so many opportunities for hilarity if not much is happening with all the sport. Anything which can lead to this cannot be a bad thing.

There’s just no reason not to bring it up again.

5. The opportunity to play a once-in-a-lifetime drinking game, during which you drink every time someone says “once-in-a-lifetime”. Played during the opening ceremony with some success.

Apparently this actually did happen and wasn’t just in my mind.

6. You can make a tonne of Hunger Games references. I mean, come on, it’s happening in the capital and “the Games” are all anybody talks about. All they need is for Katniss to say something inappropriate, a camouflage event for Peeta, a few children murdering each other, and it will be perfect.

I just knew this would exist somewhere.

7. It’s all about storytelling. The Olympics coverage from the BBC is really good at presenting the athletes as individuals, and they all have families, sacrifices, rivalries, dreams – and you actually care whether they achieve them or not. I have never had any interest in judo before, but when Gemma Gibbons won her semi-final I actually teared up a bit. At SPORT. This coming from someone who didn’t even cry at Toy Story 3, and has been branded “soulless” ever since. And if that doesn’t prove something, I don’t know what does.

I dunno. It just got to me.


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Not quite the same thing: HBO’s Newsroom and my week at work experience

Stay classy.

This week, two significant things have happened to me so far:

1) I finally started work experience at my local paper.

2) I finally started watching HBO’s The Newsroom.

Now, I should point out that by “started watching”, what I mean is I watched all five episodes available so far in just two nights. For some reason, I can’t stand that much TV in a row when I’ve got nothing to do with my time, but going out and having a purpose makes me feel perfectly justified in coming home and doing nothing.

Plus, I need to entertain myself while I finish knitting the tea cosy I promised my aunt and uncle six months ago.

ALMOST THERE.

Anyway, it was only logical that while I am doing journalism again for a week, I should also start watching TV about journalists. You know, as inspiration in case the residents of my town suddenly decide to overthrow their local council and govern themselves in a quaint ex-manufacturing town revolution. Power to the people! If you don’t mow out our publicly-owned grass right, we will mow YOU right! (Note: I am pretty sure this hasn’t happened yet, and that if it did they would have better slogans.)

Despite my optimism, my newsroom and HBO’s portrayal of an American broadcasting newsroom are a little different. While Will informs America on primetime TV that BP has caused the biggest environmental disaster in many years, I inform the local area that a questionnaire is being sent out to pensioners and disabled people asking what they think of their free bus pass. I don’t write about the results, mind you. Just that it’s being sent out and here is how you can have your say.

There are some other key differences: Will gets paid millions; I do this for free (in fact, I am beginning to have nightmares where endless faceless figures chant “It will look great on your CV!” as they dangle a career on a stick in front of me, and I am left eating raw potatoes for all of my adult life). Their team tries to come up with the most accurate and moral way of informing a nation about complex international events; I try to think of puns about woodchipping. The staff in America are caught in a series of complex love triangles and rivalries; we throw grapes at each other across the desks.

(Side note: what is it with America and cute floppy-haired Jims tortured by unrequited love? I keep expecting Steve Carrell to show up and do an inappropriate impression of Gadaffi on national TV.)

Pam, is that you?

Basically, there are highs and lows each way. The point I’m trying to make is that I really enjoy them both so far. I love being at a proper local paper, and I’m actually learning a lot about what makes good news articles. And The Newsroom is also pretty fantastic. Did I mention it has Dev Patel being an adorable nerd? Because it does.

Plus it is well-written and intelligent and saying some cool things about journalism, even though a lot of journalists apparently hated it. But if my life does not end up like Mackenzie MacHale’s, I will just be really sad.

Maybe now that I’ve been spending so much time reading about local council decisions, I will also get around to catching up on Parks and Rec.


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“Kill them all!”: a first-ever post about endings

Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings recently – partly because another academic year is over (with only one left before “the real world” happens, whatever that includes – I am hoping for more wine and pizza), partly because all the TV finales just happened. Or, they happened a couple of weeks ago, but it’s a new blog. Please forgive my lateness.

As the idea of graduation next year is far too scary, I am just going to ignore it and complain about Glee.

Spoiler alert.

To set the scene, Glee used to be my absolute favourite thing on earth. (Songs! Jokes! Gays!) However, as even its most die-hard fans acknowledge, quite soon it began to slowly self-destruct until it reached the point at which racism and domestic abuse became episode themes, just in the same way that Lady Gaga and Madonna had tribute episodes in the good old days. But, while Gaga songs continued to be covered long after we first saw Kurt in a “likes boys” t-shirt, these sensitive issues were rarely revisited, and everything was handled about as well as Rachel Berry handles rejection.

Rachel grieves for the good old days.

So when season 3 finally ended, I was actually relieved. I’d been threatening to quit for months, but Glee was like a drug which, no matter how depressed it made you, was somehow too addictive to ignore. There were still characters I cared about, the songs were still catchy, and when it occasionally gets things right, it can be pretty great. Besides, my bedroom is covered in Glee merch people bought me when the madness was at its peak; I had to see this through.

The thing is, overall, the finale wasn’t that bad. I mean, sure, it was bad, but not in comparison to all the awkward storytelling and outright offensive decisions that had been made beforehand (remember when that episode about not stereotyping Latin America also introduced a character who was most commonly referred to as “black Sue”?)

And okay, there were a few dubious decisions. Spoiler warning: Rachel choked her audition to NYADA, apparently the only theatre school in the US, but still got in; meanwhile Kurt, who I assume is the only reason there are any viewers left at all, did a perfect audition and was rejected with no explanation. Also, Mercedes randomly got a recording contract without even trying, and apparently every minor character was actually a year younger than everybody else the entire time, because CONTINUITY.

This is an accurate Glee-watching face.

All in all, however, it was not as bad as it could have been. Yes, I refuse to watch it ever again because I just can’t take the skin-crawling agony any longer. But if a balance of emotions is what you’re after, there was enough bitterness in the finale to offset the sweetness – although I still threw up in my mouth a couple of times. It may not have made any logical sense, but if nothing else, it wasn’t just a long series of happy endings and people getting exactly what they want.

Unlike, for example, the train wreck that was the Desperate Housewives finale. (Spoilers.)

When the penultimate episode wrapped up an excellent season with mostly happy endings for all, I was convinced that the final episode would bring it all crashing down. After all, the show has never shied away from killing secondary characters, and now that it’s definitely not coming back, surely they would bump off at least one housewife in a freak accident? Right? The show’s popularity has come from its willingness to make those kinds of decisions.

Wrong. Everybody lived happily ever after, and went their separate ways. Who wants to watch that? What was the point of all the trauma that came before if everything ends up totally fine?

The thing is, dear readers, I’ve had a bit of a thing about killing off characters recently. Personally I blame Joss Whedon, and a conversation I had after watching Cabin in the Woods about how Toy Story 3 would have had a better ending if they’d all gone into that giant fire pit and then the credits had rolled.

(Just sit and think about that for a minute. What is the inevitable outcry that would have occurred in comparison to how absolutely fantastic an ending that would be?)

So. Damn. Fantastic.

Thanks to Whedon and all the years I spent watching Buffy and Firefly, nothing is emotional any more unless your favourite character is senselessly murdered, just to remind you that happiness can only ever be temporary, and the world is a place of totally random needless violence.

After all, if you’re not being reminded of your own mortality in your downtime, what is even the point?

And that is why, people of the internet, I am going to start watching Game of Thrones instead.

Wish me luck.