By, Kristen DeMatos on Sept. 28, 2015
Twenty years ago, Friends was one of the hottest new television shows on the air. Throughout the series, one of the main characters, Chandler, discusses his parents and their divorce. He explains the divorce was caused by infidelity and his father being gay. In later seasons, we finally meet Chandler’s father and discover that he is a crossdresser performing in Vegas and eventually transitions to live life as a woman. At the time, Chandler’s transgender father was the butt of many jokes and provided comic relief in some of the episodes.
Two years ago, Netflix debuted an original series called Orange Is The New Black. The show is based on a book of the same name, written by Piper Kerman, and is inspired by her time in a women’s prison. One of the main characters is an incarcerated woman named Sophia, who happens to be transgender. The difference 20 years later is that Sophia is not there for comic relief. She is there to represent a marginalized group of women.
In the third episode of the first season, Sophia’s hormone pills are lowered in dosage, and eventually get taken away due to financial cutbacks. She fights for what she needs and eventually (and luckily) was able to get her normal dosage back.
Her issues as a transgender woman, both in and out of prison, are not just a central storyline in that episode but in the series itself. Representation for the LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) community has risen immensely in the last few years, especially in television.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) works hard at promoting equality for the LGBT community.
In their 2014 “Where We Are On TV” report, it was found that 3.9% of regular characters in primetime broadcast television were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Although this is an increase from the 3.3% of 2013, it is lower than the record high of 4.4% in 2012. Of all the main broadcast networks, Fox currently holds the highest amount of LGB representation at 7%. ABC is a close second at 5%.
One of ABC’s most talked-about shows, How To Get Away With Murder, features a gay student as one of the main characters. Even though the show is about law students and (you guessed it!) murder, there were many romantic scenes that quickly got hot, heavy, and suggestive. Closeups of an alluring touch or a passionate kiss were staples in nearly every episode, for both heterosexual and homosexual couples. The creator of the show, Peter Norwalk told E! News in an interview that gay sex scenes are featured in the show because they are simply “a part of life.”
“To me, writing gay sex into a network show is to right the wrong of all the straight sex that you see on TV,” he says. “I feel like the more people get used to two men kissing, the less weird it will be for people,” Norwalk explains.
Sabrina Rosario, a Rutgers freshman who identifies as a lesbian says, “I love seeing gay characters on TV. I feel like shows don’t always have gay or trans people because it’s viewed as controversial or something; but in reality it’s becoming more normal and more accepted.” Glee is another show that has propelled LGBT normativity to the forefront of network television. The show has featured countless gay characters, a number of which were main characters, such as Blaine Anderson and Kurt Hummel. Their relationships play out on the show just like the straight characters. However, as Frederik Dhaenens points out in a study done in 2012, that many of the gay characters’ storylines are coupled with some kind of suffering due to their sexual orientation and identity.
“Being gay is represented as a condition that will likely coincide with unhappiness, loneliness, and the feeling of being under a constant threat of verbal or physical violence,” Dhaenens says.
Is that because of homonormativity and how society views being gay? Or is that how it really is for LGBT youth? That’s kind of a gray area, according to Kyle Abel, a student at Middlesex County College in NJ.
“I feel like everyone’s experience as a gay or lesbian person is different,” says Abel, who identifies as a gay man. “I mean, not everyone has a good support system around them so it’s more difficult for some people to come out,” he says. “People go through different things. Yeah, I was teased and stuff at points in my life, and sometimes still am, but I’ve always been the kind of person to just brush things off and not care,” says Abel.
Writer Kelly Kessler explains that often times when there is an LGBT character featured on a television show, that episode is often “special” or “featured”, making it stand out, and in turn not the norm.
“GLBs have surely flourished on premium cable, but have managed to avoid isolation in specialty venues targeting only GLBTs with culturally edgy fare,” she says.
One show that succeeded in doing this, is Grey’s Anatomy, as Kessler points out in her article “They Should Suffer Like the Rest of Us: Queer Equality in Narrative Mediocrity”. Two female characters enter into a relationship, with just as many ups and downs as the other straight couples on the show. Eventually the pair broke up after only a few episodes, but in the short span of the relationship, writers were able to give them a good story without reducing it to the fact that they were just lesbians.
Although it is on Netflix, a streaming website and not a broadcast network, Orange Is the New Black, and it’s breakout star Laverne Cox, are doing a lot for trans representation. Cox plays Sophia, the transgender inmate and is transgender in real life. In an interview with the New York Times, she says her role as a “trans actress” as opposed to just an “actress” is significant.
“I think it’s important to empower being trans. Most of the narrative around trans identity has been about transitioning. You blend in, and that is the goal, but blending in was never an option for me. Some people are going to know that we’re trans. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Cox.
Selenis Leyva, who plays hispanic inmate Gloria on the show and has a trans sister in real life, told the Huffington Post she was excited when she first met Cox. “I knew that this was going to be groundbreaking. I knew that she was going to give a voice to the voiceless,” Leyva says.
Straight actress Natasha Lyonne who plays series favorite and lesbian inmate Nicky Nichols told the Huffington Post that she doesn’t like when the show is referred to as a “gay show”.
“It does break my heart a bit that that many years later it’s still about, ‘Oh this is a gay show, or this is a gay relationship, or you play a gay character.’ At what point does it just become, like, I’m playing a person?”
Although mainstream media is far from representing the LGBT community equally, great strides have been made in the last few years. Change is here and increasing every day.
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