Friday, 23 July 2010

How very dare they?

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in TV land this week, as gay rights group Stonewall has conducted a study into the depiction of the LGBT (fries on the side) community. According to Stonewall's less-than-scientific-sounding investigation, 36% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people were portrayed in what the group considered to be a negative light.

Ben Summerskill, Stonewall's chief executive, claimed "It's hardly surprising that there's still almost endemic homophobic bullying... when, even if gay people do appear on TV shows... they're depicted in a derogatory or demeaning way."

But what constitutes a 'derogatory or demeaning' depiction? Writing in the Mail, Andrew Pierce blames the show which portray gays as "promiscuous, predatory or figures of fun" and laments the lost innocence of a time when homosexuality was still illegal.

Considering he claims to be a proud gay man, Pierce doesn't seem entirely comfortable with matters of gayness. In the space of a few paragraphs, this tediously self-loathing prig bullies his way through Graham Norton (too mincey), Gok Wan (too campy), Julian Clary (too fisty), Paul O'Grady (too draggy), Alan Carr (too lispy) and Louis Spence (too Louis).

Andrew prefers gays who follow the football and "worry... about the state of the economy". Confirming every ill-informed stereotype he claims to abhor, he proudly states "None of my gay friends is effeminate, speaks in high-pitched voices, frets endlessly about what to wear, listens only to songs from musical shows, and has dogs which you can fit into handbags."

Ironically enough, Andrew represents one of the biggest, and most irritating gay stereotypes of all - the 'straight-acting gay'. They seem to think that their 'faux macho' drag act differentiates them from the limp-wristed masses. What none of them seem to realise is that their self-definition is a contradiction in terms. If you like cock - you're not acting very straight at all.

But it's not just the Daily Mail that has its manly, shapeless boxers in a twist over this report. The BBC also weighed in on the debate, asking Radio Times TV critic Gareth McLean to share his thoughts about gay characters in soaps.

McLean assesses the situation by lamenting the fact that most representations of gay people occur in soap operas, since their characters tend to be "perpetually suffering or miserable". But don't the same rules apply for everyone in soaps? I haven't seen anyone crack a smile in Albert Square since Anita Dobson was hovering under the optics.

His argument is further weakened by the fact that the gay characters currently appearing in UK soaps suggest a diverse, realistic and compelling representation of gay life. There's the conflicted Muslim, the beefy gym bunny, the camp factory worker, the self-loathing closet-case and the stroppy lesbian. Interestingly, at least two of these five characters here are played by out gay actors, adding an extra layer of authenticity.

There's no denying that Stonewall's Unseen on Screen report is a well-intentioned piece of research. But the demand for 'positive' portrayals of LGBT characters is disingenuous at best. Hollywood may like its gays pithy and sexless, but the world is more complicated than that. Gays can be cruel, judgemental, slutty, irresponsible, angry, shallow, bitter, fun-loving, kind-hearted and even badly dressed.

We should be less concerned with positive portrayals of the gay community, and more interested in authenticity. And that's going to involve x-ray specs, not rose-tinted glasses.

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