But what makes up a positive portrayal of homosexuality in the media? Ellen and Will are both examples from prime-time television, the kind described by Calzo as "laughable, one dimensional figures." Are such one dimensional representations of homosexuals capable of altering a public's perception of homosexuality in a positive way? If so, what is to be said of the erotically-charged representations shown by cable and premium networks, such as Showtime, which airs the L Word?
Sara Netzley (2010) conducted content analysis of 98 episodes of prime time television from 2005-2006. Her quantitative study found that "gay characters on television were more likely to be shown in sexual situations than straight characters, and women were more likely to be shown in same-sex sexual situations than men." The point is clear and has been understood and acknowledged by Hollywood since 1998's Wild Things and 1999's Cruel Intentions: sex sells, and same-sex sells even better. Netzley confirms that "gay characters were more likely to be depicted as sexually active on cable television." Such was not the case, however, in the 1970s, when sitcoms such as All in the Family provided laughs by bringing on a homosexual character and having Archie Bunker react with extreme discomfort -- but ultimately accepting the homosexual by the episode's conclusion. Episodes such as these served to represent homosexuals positively, but television series did not have homosexuals as recurring characters, for fear of alienating viewers whose attitudes were potentially less accepting of homosexuality than Bunker's. Traditional beliefs regarding homosexuality, whether religious or social, were still very much a part of the social fabric.
Structuring the Social Fabric: A Statistical Perspective
The rise of gender studies helped remodel attitudes among families and peers as well as in religious institutions (Calzo 2009). Television media now sees a greater market for homosexual representations, as quantitative studies show (Bonds-Raacke, 2007). And as Pei-Wen Lee and Michaela Meyer note, Showtime quadrupled its ratings in 2004 thanks to the L Word. But do such representations as appear on the L Word promote homosexual awareness and acceptance -- or do they pander to a heterosexual thrill-seeking audience?
Tina Krauss (2007) similarly asks, "In presumably attempting to break stereotypes and be as inclusive as possible, is the L Word actually conforming to, or reinforcing, the male gaze?" The erotically-charged thriller Wild Things featured Neve Campbell and Denise Richards in lesbian scenes that spawned to date three straight-to-DVD sequels and a whole new genre of mainstream lesbian erotica. Each sequel has seen a rise in the number of women engaged in same-sex sexual situations -- which is touted as the film series' appeal. But do erotically-charged portrayals reflect positively on homosexuals? Essentially, the question has been posed before with pornography: how does it affect the perception of women -- and in this particular case lesbian women? As shows such as the L Word feature several attractive women in sexual relationships with one another, Krauss begs the question: Is this positive representation? Do such programs inspire social awareness and acceptance of homosexuality or simply serve to profit producers?
Perhaps the answer is both. According to Krauss, "While the L Word is a positive step for queer visibility, the characterizations on the show exclude many queer identities…in the interest of creating a new consumption based 'lesbian' identity." Instead of stereotypes and laughs, the L Word's sole focus is on "fashion and sex." Kraus cites John Leonard (2005) of New York when she states the L Word lacks intellectualism, and refers to the book Profits and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (2000) by Rosemary Hennessy when she argues that homosexual characters on television only serve to reinforce a "heterogender system." Here her frame of reference is the stereotypical prime time comedy Will & Grace, wherein the characters are homosexual, but the plots are actually inclined to please a heterosexual audience (Kraus, 2007). What the American audience would prefer (and wants to see), according to Kraus, is homosexual Will have a child with heterosexual Grace -- thus restoring the homosexual dimension of the series to a heterosexual norm.
Netzley confirms the argument when she points out that Ellen actually declined in ratings and was soon cancelled after Ellen DeGeneres, along with her on-television character, came out of the closet in 1997. It seems the general populace was not ready for a prime time show whose title character was a lesbian both on and off screen. However, if Ellen soon went under, it opened the door for a slew of homosexual characters on other programs -- though none, like Ellen, were title characters.
Likewise, although the L Word has found a mainstream audience with premium cable and Internet viewers, the show fails to legitimize homosexuality in the eyes of Pei-Wen Lee and Michaela Meyer (2010). Their thesis states that "despite the gains in visibility and even in intimacy, the L Word articulates an ideology of avoidance whereby the underlying problems of heterosexism and homophobia are left unchallenged." Similarly, Brett Beemyn's (1997) review of Bisexual Characters in Film states that homosexuality is reflected negatively in films from around the world. Citing the Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love as evidence of the demeaning portrayal of homosexuality, Beemyn claims that media representations would have audiences believe that "bisexuality doesn't exist or is limited to deranged murderers and hypersexed perverts."
However, the 2010 Academy Award-nominated film the Kids are All Right may discredit Beemyn's claim to a certain extent. The film features a lesbian couple (Nic and Jules) whose marriage is threatened by the arrival of Paul, the sperm-donor father of their two children. Jules, feeling unappreciated by Nic, has a brief affair with Paul, but returns to Nic by the end of the film. The film's title refers to the revolutionary-era song by the Who, and the film's subject matter is implicitly revolutionary in so far as it suggests that two mothers are just as good as one mother and one father (Toumarkine, 2010). The suggestion is backed by the perceived normality of the children of the lesbian couple. But according to Arlene Istar Lev (2010), the problem with analyzing the impact of homosexual marriages is that the effects researchers expect to find are biased towards heteronormativity.
Evaluating Gender according to Heteronormativity
Lev's 2010 study "challenges family therapists to recognize the enormous societal pressure on LGBTQ parents to produce heterosexual, gender-normative children, and the expectations on their children, especially those questioning their own sex or gender identities." Lev relies on clinical theory to interpret the psychology of children under same-sex parents who seek family therapy and counseling.
Unlike Calzo, Lev maintains that gender identities are learned not primarily through the media, but through the family. At least, Lev states, families have the "lion's share" of the responsibility for forming cultural and social attitudes. However, because of the vast changes to family structures over the past decades, social attitudes towards new family structures, such as same-sex parent family structures, have been forced to undergo a transformation process as well. Still, heteronormativity maintains its place as the standard in gender models. To prove as much, Lev points to research that indicates "that children of lesbian parents express traditional gender roles and behaviors, and are almost always heterosexual."
Lev presents a study that examines same-sex parent family structures, while removing heterosexuality from its throne of normality; which in effect deconstructs ideas of traditional gender identities. Lev's purpose is to remove the bias of heteronormativity from gender research. The question Lev essentially proposes is: Why should LGBTQ couples be judged by whether or not they can raise heterosexual children? Is not such a judgment hypocritical by implying that heterosexuality is a norm superior to homosexuality?
The contention is one that may serve to alter the general public's attitude toward homosexuality. C. Lee Harrington (2003) explains that the daytime soap opera All My Children began addressing the same issue prior to 2000, when the first homosexual character was introduced to daytime television. The soap, which had hitherto based its romances on heterosexual love, attracted great attention when it challenged the heteronormativity of daytime soaps. Harrington's qualitative research, which included the analysis of eight months of All My Children episodes, phone interviews with thirteen "industry insiders," and the monitoring of various soap opera digests, found that the public was indeed receptive to the introduction of the homosexual character -- but that further inclusions of homosexual characters should be limited to a slow pace to keep from alienating viewers.
What Harrington's research shows is that Lev's theory of heteronormativity as a bias in media and research may be accurate, and it may take some time for such a bias to be removed from the public sphere.
But if Calzo's theory of cultivation is any measure, a slow and steady pace may be the best method for doing so.
Influencing Gender Norms in Adolescence
Ronald Werner-Wilson interviewed parents and children in urban and rural Michigan when conducting…