Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Representing Gay Men on American Television

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Representing Gay Men on American Television

Article excerpt

At the start of the 1998-99 television season, NBC made television history with the premiere of Will & Grace, its new situation comedy featuring prime-time television's first gay male lead character. The show pairs Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a successful gay Manhattan lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), an interior designer, as soulmates who support each other through happy times and sadder ones, such as the process of nursing broken hearts. Nielsen ratings reveal that audience members have responded favorably to this pairing as well as to Will's gay friend, Jack, played by Sean Hayes ("Culture," 1999). What is perhaps most noteworthy about the portrayal of these two gay male characters to date, however, is the striking contrast between the two: Will remains so low-key about his sexual orientation that it has become almost inconsequential to the show, while Jack is consistently presented as the stereotypical flamboyant queen. In other words, Will and Jack are extreme opposites on the spectrum of possible media representations of gay men. Is it true, as many critics claim, that Jack is too gay and Will is not gay enough ("Culture," 1999)? Is it more accurate to argue, as others have, that these two characters simply represent the diversity of personality types that exist within the gay community?

In the present essay, I attempt to answer the following question: What sorts of criteria can be used to assess the representation of gay men on American television programs, whether in Will & Grace or elsewhere? To do so, I first define briefly the process of media representation and the potential social ramifications of this process. Next, I provide an overview of the various ways gay men have been represented on American television over the past several decades. Finally, to explore the process of representing gay men in specific television shows more fully, I end with a more detailed discussion of the representation of gay men in Fox prime time during the decade of the 1990s and a series of conclusions that should be drawn from the information presented. Throughout this essay, the phrase "American television" refers to the collective body of television programming produced in the United States and made available to viewers nationwide, which depicts U.S. American culture, stars primarily U.S. actors, and is presented in the English language.

WHAT IS MEDIA REPRESENTATION?

The phrase "media representation" refers to the ways that members of various social groups are differentially presented in mass media offerings, which in turn influence the ways audience members of those media offerings perceive and respond to members of the groups represented. Because mainstream media offerings are typically presented to audience members as "transparent mediators of reality" in the social world, they regularly contribute to the social "knowledge" media users cultivate about the "real world" and the wide range of individuals who live there (Gross, 1994, p. 144).

As Gross (1994) has noted, representation in the mediated "reality" of American popular culture is in itself an exercise of power, because nonrepresentation maintains the powerless, marginalized status of groups that lack significant material or political power bases. He elaborates:

   Those who are at the bottom of the various power hierarchies will be kept
   in their place in part through their relative invisibility; this is a form
   of symbolic annihilation. When groups or perspectives do attain visibility,
   the manner of that representation will reflect the biases and interests of
   those elites who define the public agenda. And these elites are mostly
   white, mostly middle-aged, mostly male, mostly middle- and upper-middle
   class, and (at least in public) entirely heterosexual. (p. 143)

The phenomenon of symbolic annihilation, therefore, pertains to the historical nonrepresentation or underrepresentation of specific groups by the media -- and/or to the trivialization of those groups when and if they infrequently appear -- as a result of decisions by the powers-that-be at media outlets regarding what sorts of groups will and will not be represented in American media offerings and how they will be represented. …

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