The media: it is a form of visual and audio presentation that surrounds every member of society, every single day. Its influence over human thought, reaction, emotion, appearance and sexuality suppresses the potential of human thought; the media truly thinks for us.
It is inevitable that the media influences educators and the educated. Students, more directly, youth are forever directing their attention to television, shopping and being absorbent to advertisements that engulf their everyday life physically and electronically. However steadfast the power of media is, it also has the power of endorsing stereotypes and distortions to students.
Among the many racial, gender and habitual dogmas that are reiterated over and over again in the blender of supposed culture, queer identities also join the delusional mixture. Social injustices have historically threatened the existence of these people, suppressing them to subcultures among the hetero-normative population.
Over time, ignorant ideologies of these groups have become normalized and expected, and the media is ever knowledgeable of this. Two television series’ that are successfully entering the minds of students are Modern Family and The L Word. One would see the mere presence of these shows as revolutionary and a grand triumph, however I invite the reader to speak to the elephant in the room.
Are these shows still ground-breaking for queer people if they are misrepresenting them?
The L Word
One series that influences students on queer identities is The L Word. Following the lives of a group of lesbian women, it attempts to promote a lesbian image on television by solely focusing on their relationships, careers and struggles. However, this supposed progression for queer women is lost among the vast distortion of lesbian culture.
Foremost, the appearance of the characters skews the reality of the lesbian image, allowing the student-viewer to immediately presume lesbians appear this way. Assuming the ignorance of the student, they are meant to believe that all lesbians are slender, at least the desirable ones, and are well groomed with perfect make-up.
Furthermore, they are badgered into accepting that lesbian women cannot have hair styles shorter then chin-length and must exude a sense of femininity in their fashion sense, wearing attractive tops and bottoms that shroud their identity to the heterosexual community.
It is also pertinent that the student believes through the characters’ skin colours that lesbian women cannot fully inhabit a race that is not close to white; the only racially diverse characters are either mixed race or slightly tanned enough to pass as white.
This series distracts the student from the reality that lesbian women come in every body shape, are not always attractive to the majority, may have shorter haircuts, may wear more masculine clothing and can reject the use of make-up.
Moreover, women students who may already identify as lesbian are misled by the lack of lesbian gender roles in this series; this student is indirectly pressured to conform to this lesbian ideal. This is seen with the lack of traditionally butch characters or ones who are not feminine in their appearance.
As Roey Thorpe wrote in a Huffington Post article titled Where Have All the Butches Gone, although butch lesbians have become less recognized in society due to more diverse gender identity options, they are still very much a part of the lesbian community and appear as such.
However, the media does not accommodate this and removes the butch from the public eye and from the lesbian female’s mind. Not only sexual roles, but the lesbian ideology of loving more diverse body types is evidently lost through the sole portrayal of slender women, as Daniel Farr and Nathalie Degroult write in Understand the Queer World of the L-esbian Body. Clearly, the student loses the reality of the lesbian image through the glamour of styling up lesbians for a heterosexual audience.
Although appearance is a large influence on students, so too is sexuality. The L Word depicts lesbian interactions as similar to heterosexual ones, all the while excluding the reality for these women. By using the male gaze to frame characters’ sexual desires, the media removes the lesbian view or lesbian perspective on love and lust, as Sarah Cefai writes in Feeling and Production of Lesbian Space in The L Word.
This is a critical educational moment for students that they are most likely not aware of as they view this series and other queer media: the capital influence in television. As this genre of series should be one that appeals to the queer audience, it is reshaped in its sexual and physical depiction of lesbian women to appeal to all audiences, mostly the heterosexual one.
As Cefai’s article relates, this reshaping of lesbian characters gains the most capital for the series. One clear example is through the de-masculinization of Shane, a punk lesbian who clearly should be more butch in appearance. Shane, instead, is stripped of all aggressive attire and sexuality that might threaten the heterosexual male viewer; capitalism is always in practice.
As well, most characters are meant to exude femininity as seen by society and thus appeal to what heterosexual men want (or think they want). Students could also learn from this the steadfast want by the media to portray what sells, not to portray what is real.
Clearly, femme sexuality and image sells and anything other than this is not suitable for gaining viewer popularity. This could also teach them the critical role the media has in preventing progression of the female image and instead, a want to keep stale ideologies of female beauty firmly in their place.
Among the many other misrepresentations that this series uses to gain a greater viewing audience, another critical one is through lesbian mannerisms. The student who watches will be misinformed by characters’ life structures being completely centred on other lesbians and their lives.
These women do not have heterosexual friends or interact with people who are not part of their community. This creates a delusion as many lesbian women do not live in pacts, but are a part of greater society, in many cases those around them will not know they are lesbian, as Michael Bronski writes in Queer Film and Media Pedagogy.
The series removes the inclusivity of lesbian women to the viewer by documenting their mannerisms as one-dimensional and exclusive to their own group. The behaviours in this series also reinforces to the student a disconnect of lesbian women to heterosexual women; there is them and us.
This is highlighted by the repetitive use of the phrase “gaydar” throughout the series. This term, broadly referring to one’s ability to detect a gay person around them through their mannerisms and appearance, is one that this series not only endorses to viewers but directs towards lesbian women.
Furthermore, the context in which the term is used is centred on an episode where two lesbian characters are close with one another in public, however not in a sexually explicit manner. This scene not only reinforces this false sense of gaydar in society, but the fear of being suspected in public as gay.
As there is no way for heterosexual people to pick up on subtle lesbian identifiers through mannerism, the use of this word is redundant and boldly promotes stereotypes, as Pei-Wen Lee and Michaela Meyer wrote in We All Have Feelings for Our Girlfriends.
Secondly, a sense of anxiety is provoked in the viewer if they exude any of the mannerisms that lesbians on the series portray, thus, there is a reinforcement of physical distance between female-to-female relations in society and a continuation of fear in women of being labelled as anything but heterosexual.
What does this series say about society’s view of lesbianism? Clearly, it is still perceived as a negative identity to have and this series only works against its purpose of promoting queer-friendly television.
There is also a vivid sense of class control in this series. Students may not be aware of the historical social challenges for lesbian women in gaining equal social space in society, but this provides a learning opportunity. Throughout the series, the storyline revolves around lesbian characters always avoiding heterosexual society.
This sense of avoidance is a way for them to live out their identity in peace and harmony (or so it appears). However, what students are really seeing is a social class being excluded based on sexual orientation and these women finding it safer to stay among themselves than intermingle with non-lesbians. The promotion of the them and us mindset is ever clear.
Moreover, the class system within the lesbian community is also one that has existed historically and is regretfully shown in this series. This is seen with all main characters having middle class careers, such as being a professional tennis player, successful record studio owner and even a journalist. None of these characters show a working class perspective of lesbian life, thus forming an excellent opportunity for students to be enlightened about class distinctions for queer people.
As shown, The L Word is a series that exposes students to many misconceptions surrounding the lives of lesbian women. However, using media pedagogy, educators are able to compare and contrast this series to another media representation that attempts to expose the real lives of lesbian women.
The Real L Word is a reality television series that discards famous actresses and strives to depict real lesbian lives. Its title hints on the sense of dissatisfaction and repossession that the lesbian community had after the release of The L Word, though this series can rightfully be labelled similar in many aspects. This is what makes it an excellent tool for critically examining the media’s role in shaping perceptions of queer people.
Creating a thematic unit plan, an educator can ask students to identify misconceptions they have of lesbian women, follow this with The L Word as a way to expose how misconceptions are reinforced by the media, and then compare the aforesaid to The Real L Word by examining the media’s use of appearance, mannerisms, class structures, body images, sexuality, career choices, race representation and relationship dynamics, to name a few.
This will develop critical thinking skills for students while they are watching queer representation on television. Some prompting questions for students could be: How are lesbian women portrayed in both series? Who is the intended audience for the series? Who created the series? What does the series depict or not depict about lesbian culture?
This unit plan also provides an opportunity for guest speakers from the lesbian community to visit classes and further expose reality to students as well as hardships they may be facing due to ignorance and stereotypes. Providing different perspectives on lesbianism will aid in the development of critical thinking skills for students as well as a better connection to their community and diversity in greater society.
A culminating activity could be one based on quality research surrounding the lesbian community followed by a presentation of students’ findings compared to the media representation. This could be applied to a history class as well, especially when focussing on the history of lesbian communities to understand how stereotypes were formed and reinforced.
While examining different genres of series, it is certain that comedy can be the vessel for the story line. This reigns true for Modern Family and is a reason for its popularity. The series creates a satire out of modern families in society, including couples with substantial age gaps, same-sex couples and a modern representation of a nuclear family.
Ideally, it attempts to buttress the reality of families today and discard the Leave it to Beaver tradition. However, behind its efforts to modernize the television family, it endorses a false reality of queer people to viewers, more importantly, students.
Mitchell and Cameron, a gay couple, are portrayed in this series as being passive, fashionable and overall financially secure. Furthermore, both men speak with a stereotypical theatrical tone to their voice and communicate using trite female hand gestures.
However, this is not how the other male characters in the series behave. The use of comedy to exaggerate their image undoubtedly attempts to reinforce stereotypes of gay men in society; they are effeminate, weak, dramatic and fashionable. The series deliberately over-exaggerates stereotypes of appearances of gay men and uses as a comedic tool to attract mostly non-gay viewers.
Another downfall of this series in representing the gay community to students is its sole reliance on white, middle-class gay men who are financially successful, with their own adopted child. This is isolating to gay viewers and unattainable in many parts of North America due to discrimination and homophobia, as Brian Stelter wrote in his New York Times article, Gay on TV: It’s All in the Family.
However, this couple is never shown struggling with these realities in their daily life and this boldly reinforces to students that this social justice issue is solved; how very wrong. It is evident that the physical representation of gay men in this series is not realistic and hinders the gay community and queer media representation.
This sense of concealing a diverse reality of gay men is also evident in the depiction of sexuality in the series. Both Mitchell and Cameron do not exude a hyper-sexuality, if any at all. Ideally both are portrayed as sexless and solely emotionally intimate. This is seen in the interviews through each episode where characters speak to the camera about an incident in the same episode.
Mitchell and Cameron speak about their emotional health with one another to the viewer, but nothing else, even excluding sexual innuendos. This is clearly where the magic of comedy is used to dumb down these two characters’ homosexuality to something that is tame, understandable and harmless to the viewers.
To juxtapose this, the student could examine the media representation of Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian actress and host of the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Identically, she is publicized as being sexless, funny and harmless to viewers and, coincidentally, solely emotional in her marriage.
This could be the reason for her world renowned admiration by viewers; would they still love Ellen if she spoke about the pleasures of lesbian intimacy and sported a “my way or the highway” masculine attitude? Clearly not and this would threaten the masculinity of heterosexual male viewers.
Likewise, as most viewers of Modern Family are from a hetero-normative affiliation, producers are pressured to keep these audiences, thus capital is made off of the hilarity and blatant humiliation of the gay culture through comedy.
More directly, the heterosexual male viewer is never made to feel threatened by the gay male actor through sexuality; heterosexism is in the lead. This is ever prominent with the complete lack of public affection between Mitchell and Cameron, however the other heterosexual couples on the show are not denied these actions. The student who watches is secretly being told that gay couples should never touch one another in public and, if they do, it will be a visual discomfort to those around them.
The mannerisms of both these characters also encumber the student on the everyday life of gay men. How these characters function internally as a family and externally with the rest of society is reminiscent of an unrealistic lifestyle that gay men lead. Students are made to believe that gay men are introverted and secretive about their identity.
Evidently, both Mitchell and Cameron do not interact positively with the majority of non-gay characters. For the interactions that do take place, there is an element of comedy injected to boldly highlight to the student-viewer that gay and heterosexual interactions are not fluid or normal; something about the gay male’s sexual orientation must interlude the conversation and be humorous.
One example of this is when Cameron interacts with a mother from his adopted daughter’s school and is forced to reveal that his daughter’s other parent is a man. Instantly the student-viewer will find the awkward reaction of the mother to Cameron to be funny and thus relate gay male interactions with others as being awkward. This promotes the idea of avoidance, as was discussed prior in this essay.
The two gay male characters, even though they are shown interacting with heterosexual characters, are always alone in their lifestyle, a lifestyle that is never shown as easy to the student-viewer. Thus, these men avoid situations that make them seem weird or out of place with the majority of society. Does this series really promote integration of queer people?
For students to learn about and engage with media and gay culture, they need to be exposed to further examples of media representation. Queer as Folk is another such series that dramatizes the lives of gay men without the use of comedy and is one that further exemplifies how the media distorts reality for these people.
Modelling off the aforementioned teaching tasks for The L Word, students could compare and contrast both Modern Family and Queer as Folk to develop a better understanding of what is stereotyped and why it is stereotyped.
For example, students could examine how comedy changes the way a series presents gay men’s lives, including their appearance, mannerisms, sexuality and emotions. They could display their findings in a presentation of their choosing and create their own Netflixs series that demonstrates a more realistic portrayal of gay men in society. This creative project could entail students designing multiple episodes for the series and filming a trailer to accompany it.
The media is a highly influential tool to the public and especially students. As demonstrated, it can mould the way people view queer culture and individuals by reinforcing stereotypes and distorting realities.
As seen, the media alters characters’ appearances to be conducive to the majority of heterosexual viewers and thus dumbing down, as in the case of Shane, or jazzing up, seen with Cameron and Mitchell, how queer people present themselves. For example, butch lesbian characters do not fully embrace a butch identity and, more importantly, lose any sense of masculinity that they could possess.
Furthermore, gay men are seen to be feminine and fashionable, arguably a vivid stereotype of this group. The falsifications continue with characters’ sexualities harbouring the needs of the viewer. This is the case with intimate scenes in The L Word mirroring those of heterosexual couples and not adhering to lesbian practices.
Oppositely, Modern Family rejects all intimate scenes entirely for the sake of comedy and humility of the characters. However, sexuality in both series is compromised for the overarching need of heterosexuality to be favoured. It is evident that making a buck, or capital, off of gaining more heterosexual viewers is more important than being true to the queer reality.
Lastly, media controls characters’ mannerisms and plays up expectations for gay men to gain a laugh or isolates lesbian women to strengthen the them and us idea. All of the aforesaid alterations affect the student-viewer, but can be used as a foundation in which to educate them. Through learning about the real lives of queer people, they become broadened not only in their understanding of them, but of the power of the media whether for the good or the bad.
Virginia Soave is a newly qualified teacher living in Durham region, Ont. She graduated from Trent University with a BA (Hons) in history and from Queen’s University with a BEd in intermediate/senior, teaching history and English. She focuses much of her time and research into improving education for GLBT students and finds innovative ways to help improve their community. She is currently undertaking a role as a teacher in Scotland in both of her teachable subjects and looks forward to spearheading an All Genders and Sexual Affiliations group within her school.