Portrayals & Influence

The BBC reports that gay and lesbian characters are not portayed well on television, and that it has cultural consequences:

Young people rarely see positive portrayals of lesbian and gay people on television, according to Stonewall.

A survey for the gay equality charity monitored more than 120 hours of programmes watched by the young. It said gay people were mainly portrayed as promiscuous, predatory, or figures of fun. Stonewall said homophobic bullying in schools was unsurprising when gay people were so often depicted on TV in a derogatory or demeaning way. The report, called Unseen on Screen, says ordinary gay people are almost invisible on the 20 programmes most watched by the young…

I’ve mentioned it on panels and previously on the blog, but I’m not sure I’ve been as explicit about the thought. I don’t want to harp on about it, or even sound sanctimonious, so this is probably the last time I’ll raise the subject.

So for those of you writing novels now – and I know there are plenty of you out there – do you contemplate about how you represent your minority characters and the effects that might have? Because I think writers do have some kind of collective responsibility not necessarily to write radically, but certainly not to help enforce bad stereotypes.

As seen above, people who create television programmes influence our culture. People who create any form of entertainment can do so. At a general or subconscious level, people will be influenced by what is written in a novel. The more we writers portray minorities (sexuality/race/gender) in a bad way, or even just a blind way, then the more we will slow down rates of tolerance and equality.

Is it as simple as I’m making out?

Edit: For further reading Paul C. Smith points to this great chat between Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville where, about a third of the way down, the “Terror of anal penetration” is discussed.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

5 replies on “Portrayals & Influence”

If you think it’s bad there, you should see how it is in “the colonies.” When it comes to cable programming,(The Wire, Six Feet Under) it’s not bad, because they at least have gay characters. I can’t help but think how powerful a gay character on Lost could have been. Two shows bucking the trend come to mind. Modern Family is not only a marvelous, incredibly funny show on its own; it also has a gay couple that is, surprise, just as neurotic and screwed up as everyone else on the show, but who also deeply care about each other and adopt a baby girl. Glee also had a wonderful, surprisingly nuanced storyline about Kurt and his father’s attempts to rediscover their relationship in light of Kurt’s coming out.

To your question, I haven’t begun work on a novel yet, but gender and sexual concerns are certainly one of the main conceptual issues I’m struggling with.

A further question…How much do historical or cultural concerns inform this, especially in speculative fiction set in time periods and cultures which are largely intolerent?

Hi Christopher, yeah, I guess there’s something to be said for being ahead of other countries, certainly. Good points raised there.

As for historical or cultural concerns? Well, historically, of course, we could be all over the place with regards to attitudes. The Greeks, for example, had a rather interesting cultural attitude to homosexuality that often makes people raise an eyebrow or two. And as today, even in deeply repressed and conservative cultures, minorities still manage to cope in secrecy.

Even though fantasy fiction tends lean heavily on historical settings for influence, there’s absolutely no reason why cultural attitudes must reflect that history, too.

After all, we’re in the business of making this stuff up. The author has complete control, and can make a society as liberal or repressed as they like. So long as it’s coherent internally, there’s no problem, I would say.

Also, cultural attitudes could be quite different in other eras/regions.

The old Syrian/Eastern Christianity mind/body split, emphasis on asceticism and sex/body hatred, is just one way the church could have gone in Europe, for instance. And many societies as far as we can tell didn’t care that much about (male) sexual behavior; I don’t think there’s any evidence, for instance, that the Iron Age Celts (who can’t really be lumped together, but whatever) cared about sexual acts among men as long as said men were getting married and procreating if they’d been born into lineages that needed alliances and heirs.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that, forex, the writings of clerics reflect all of the attitude of a time or local place, when all it is does reflect the attitudes of those particular clerics, who had their own axes to grind.

That would be like thinking the current Catholic Church’s tolerance of pedophilia in some of its priests and intolerance toward women in priestly roles as a worse win reflects the larger culture’s tolerance/intolerance toward both.

I suppose it’s a fallacy to assume that you have to portray a society that’s tolerant of sexual diversity to have sympathetic or compelling GLBT characters. The Steel Remains, for instance, deals very frankly with the main protagonist’s homosexuality (as well as having another main character who is a lesbian) all in a deeply bigoted, fundamentalist society.

I can only agree with the BBC’s findings, though in my own experience – at least among my own generation – things aren’t exactly clear-cut. At my university individual LGBTs aren’t treated much differently at all by the majority of other students. However LGBTs as a whole remain the butt of a large number of the jokes. You can see a similar thing in House M.D.: Thirteen isn’t necessarily looked down upon for her bisexuality, but on the other hand her sexuality is frequently a source of humour.

“” So for those of you writing novels now – and I know there are plenty of you out there – do you contemplate about how you represent your minority characters and the effects that might have? Because I think writers do have some kind of collective responsibility not necessarily to write radically, but certainly not to help enforce bad stereotypes “”

I have to take the issue of alternate sexuality into consideration simply because my writing involves various criminal brotherhoods; who are not exactly known for their progressive views. It’s a useful plot device, if nothing else,

On the other hand I try to avoid letting my views affect my writerly ‘voice’. I’m a big believer in the idea that if you present a character whom the reader likes or sympathises with then they’ll forgive them almost anything. I like to call it Takeshi Kovacs syndrome 😉

Once the reader has finished the book, I like to think that perhaps they’ll be more open-minded into the bargain. That’s certainly how books affect me.

In my view the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of LBGTs is the perception that it’s a lifestyle choice, rather than something that’s simply part of your makeup. I’ve been lucky in the sense that my own experience has taught me otherwise. Not everyone has had that opportunity. I think one of the strongest things you can do is present LGBT characters as you would most other characters. Because IT IS ‘normal’.

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