Dan Phillips looks at the way gay men have been represented on our screens, and wonders how helpful representation has really been.
Gay characters on screen are not new; they have been around for years under many different guises. If we travel back to before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 you can see Dirk Bogarde’s Melville Farr in Basil Dearden’s Victim, which saw Bogarde play a gay man who was being blackmailed over his sexuality. This kind of role, which portrayed gay men as perverted, was driven by the censorship of the time, only allowing homosexuals to be depicted in a negative manner leading many filmmakers to add gay characters under the radar such as in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. This film incorporated a character, Geoffrey, who conformed to many gay stereotypes such as being effeminate and having a desire for fashion, but in fact never mention sexuality or even sex in general. This type of character lead to the rise of the asexual, effeminate man in fiction; characters such as John Inman’s Mr Humphries in Are You being Served who certainly suggested that they were gay but moved away from the sexualisation of men in order to reduce risk of being seen as predatory perverts. Despite being one of the first pieces to show a loving gay relationship, Charles Dyer’s Staircase saw two men symbolically castrated with no mention at all of physical attraction. The other route was to fight back by making gay characters hypersexual as shown in The Boys in the Band or by Joe Orton’s…well…anything; however, in order to get these through censorship, they had to once again see tragedy or ‘be punished’ for their nature. This kind of gay story became a lot more common during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which completely demonised the entire gay community. Since then, AIDS has become understood and taught and being gay is no longer illegal or under the watchful eye of Section 28 but gay characters on screen have showed very little growth through the 90s and even early 00s either playing for camp laughs or soaked in inevitable tragedy, with the odd film slipping through the net such as Jonathan Harvey’s coming of age masterpiece Beautiful Thing.
In the last ten years the number of gay characters making their way into mainstream programming and commercial cinema has grown exponentially but more importantly, the growth of well developed gay characters that don’t rely on the ‘gay as comedy’ or ‘gay as tragedy’ template has grown. In recent years there have been large-scale portrayals of gay characters whether through biopics such as Pride or fiction like Love is Strange which despite starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, failed to get the audience it deserved. It is clear to see that the rise of independent cinema and TV due to increasing technology coming at lower costs aided with the ease of internet distribution, is allowing many more voices to be heard. You can look only to Netflix to see that its biggest shows, Orange is the New Black, Grace and Frankie and Jessica Jones all contain well-developed, well-rounded gay characters without being ‘a gay program’.
It is clear to see that the rise of independent cinema and TV due to increasing technology coming at lower costs aided with the ease of internet distribution, is allowing many more voices to be heard.
Here comes the ‘but’. I never thought as a gay man and writer I would have a problem with an abundance of gay men and women on screen, but something seems wrong. As a society we have been built on the grounds of our religious upbringing and despite trying we have yet to shake off the shackles of the past, such as the hot topic of marriage. In recent years this topic of ‘gay marriage’ has been debated, criticised, hailed and finally passed in the UK allowing anyone who wants to get married to another person to do so. Is this heteronormalisation? Coined in the early nineties, simply put, it means imposing the lifestyles of tradition heterosexual living onto others. This can go back as far as films like Dyer’s aforementioned Staircase where both Harry and Charles are portrayed as a stereotypical husband and wife pairing, one being a stay at home, effeminate homemaker and the other the breadwinning patriarch of the household. This might be the ‘in’ or the way to persuade the run of the mill, common or garden heterosexual to engage with gay characters and may well be the reason why so many said characters now exist. However nothing much other than Queer as Folk or Cucumber/Banana/Tofu (all from the seemingly lone voice of Russell T Davies) has seemed to challenge the ‘norm’ when it comes to relationships and explored, for example, polygamy in society or open relationships, but instead have moved heavily towards the setting up of families as the given. I guess what I am after is my big gay cake that I can then proceed to eat. We need visibility to survive. But we need stories that incorporate all ways of living on an equal playing field. We need to stop pigeon holing gender and sexuality and create more work that has wider ranges of characters who aren’t defined by this western, heteronormative structure.
I guess what I am after is my big gay cake that I can then proceed to eat. We need visibility to survive. But we need stories that incorporate all ways of living on an equal playing field.
Cinema is on its way there, but it needs more people to go out and buy into the work that is doing this to prove it’s on the right track. Go and watch Grace and Frankie and Love is Strange and share Brooklyn Nine-Nine and anything else that represent the gay community as vast and different and let’s embrace that difference rather than trying to make everyone the same!
Follow Dan on Twitter (@DirectorDan86)