One need not search far through television and film to find that stereotypical representations of gay men dominate their presence on screen. Images of limp-wristed, skinny, male shopping accomplices who also serve as the lead in the school musical, seem to be the archetype of gay male representation in many forms of media. Although representation of gay men in television has become more widespread and certainly more varied than this singular model, the idea that all gay men are flamboyant, musical theatre maniacs is not only untrue, but can also have detrimental effects on the development of sexual identity of gay teen viewers. Additionally, these portrayals have a profound effect on straight teens, their views on the “gay experience,” and their interactions with gay classmates. This essay will examine how different portrayals of gay characters in television shows aimed at teen audiences have both positive and negative effects on their audiences. Two contrasting television shows will be used to further this point. First, Glee will be presented as an example of a show, which despite heavy inclusion and focus on gay characters, has a negative effect on gay teens developing their identities. Then, Teen Wolf will be used to show how the seamless inclusion of gay characters into plotlines, without solely focusing on their sexuality, has positive benefits for gay teens and their straight peers.
In a study on sexuality and teen television by Michaela Meyer and Megan Wood, researchers found that, “cultures often point to television genre or narrative as a strong influence on sexual identity formation” (Meyer and Wood 436). This is especially true for LGBT youths, who, as reported by GLAAD’s annual Where We are On TV report, are less likely to see themselves portrayed on TV, even when compared to the ratio of LGBT individuals to the general population (Stokes, Townsend, and Kane). The teenage years to early 20’s are an important time in the formation of one’s self-identity, and teen-oriented television shows often feature characters searching to define themselves in a variety of ways as they near adulthood (Meyer and Wood 438). Television has an enormous impact on this journey of self-discovery, and teens often subconsciously accept social norms seen on television as part of their own self-definition, especially in regard to sexual identity (Meyer and Wood 438). In Over the Rainbow, David Crowe notes the importance of “positive” portrayals of gay characters in television (Crowe). In creating an educational program to be used in Australia’s public schools, Crowe defines positive portrayals as those free of stereotyping, victimization, villainization, and de/hypersexualization of gay characters (Crowe). Crowe also notes the importance of the inclusion of gay media topics in high school curricula, stating that through studying these positive portrayals, students become more open to dialogue on sexuality-related issues (Crowe). Thus, the inclusion of positive portrayals of gay characters yields positive effects on teen audiences, regardless of sexual orientation.
The important aspect of Crowe’s analysis to keep in mind, however, is that these portrayals must be positive for them to have a positive impact. Glee premiered in 2009, and was originally lauded for its inclusion of so many openly LGBT characters at a time when gay representation was lacking in teen-oriented television shows (Meyer and Wood 439). The series centered on the world of a show choir group; therefore, it only seemed natural that there would be at least one token flamboyant homosexual. Glee actually takes this representation a step further and provides the audience with multiple gay men interested in musical theatrics, while also providing a few more masculine (albeit typically closeted) gay men as the series progresses. The issue in this situation is twofold: not only are most of these representations based on stereotypes, but they also serve to further victimize the gay characters. As a show in a “real life” setting, it is imperative that gay characters need not be shown as helpless victims to homophobia, be it from a bully or an internalized struggle with one’s own sexuality. These portrayals of victimization are precisely what Crowe labels as “problematic” because they have detrimental effects on teen viewers (Crowe). LGBT viewers see gay characters struggling with many of the same issues that they too struggle with, and they identify with these hardships. This creates a sense of helplessness within LGBT viewers, who then accept these hardships as a negative part of gay life (Crowe). Being gay is an experience that varies widely from person to person, and to define it in terms of these negative experiences can harm gay teens developing their identities. Gay teens see their struggles as normalized, and thus accept this negativity as part of their gay identity. Additionally, straight teens see these portrayals and, while understanding the negative nature of these problems, are reaffirmed that this is the “natural” state of the high school environment. Thus, when confronted with real instances of these issues, according to Crowe, they are less bothered, and less inclined to change the high school environment for the betterment of their LGBT classmates (Crowe).
Glee’s use of stereotypical “musical” gays can be seen by many as progressive and promoting acceptance of flamboyant gays, but it might have a more harmful effect (Meyer and Wood 441). Many viewers of Glee characterize the behaviors of characters on the show as “anti-masculine, and thus, of no interest to male viewers,” with the study continuing to state that “some of the female participants went so far as to characterize male viewers as gay” (Meyer and Wood 443). This association of musical theatrics as “anti-masculine” is an issue for another essay, however the dissociation of masculinity with homosexuality as shown by the study is innately problematic. Gay men exist on an entire spectrum of masculinity, and labeling the entire community as effeminate would be inaccurate. While Glee does later on introduce characters with varying levels of masculinity, the central theme binding them (an association with show choir) and the premise of the show has an overall emasculated portrayal of the gay community. That is to say, because viewers associate the male characters and viewers of Glee with both femininity and homosexuality, audiences become inclined to perceive the entire gay community as potentially emasculated.
A shining example of this emasculation is the star character of Glee, Kurt Hummel. A flamboyant gay man and member of the school’s glee club, Kurt is precisely what Crowe would label as a negative portrayal: a gay stereotype who, through the course of the show’s first seasons, is so heavily victimized that he must transfer schools. Although Kurt is eventually accepted by typically “masculine” men, such as the members of the football team (including his stepbrother Finn), this acceptance comes through the shedding of Kurt’s own masculinity. In the article “Challenging Stereotypes in Glee, or Not? Exploring Masculinity and Neoliberal Flexibility,” Katherine Wolfenden explores the idea of Kurt’s emasculation, stating that, “On Glee, masculinity is redefined to include acceptance and protection of homosexual characters – protecting (powerless, needy) gay characters is made a part of being a real man” (Wolfenden). This is exceptionally problematic, because it shows gay youth as being subjugated to their heterosexual counterparts, and at the mercy of their protection. Wolfenden continues to explore the problematic nature of this trope, stating that, “Masculinity is expanded to incorporate tolerance of gay men who have take on a female gender identity…Gay men are simply shifted to the opposite term of these [male/female] binaries, rather than blurring or contesting the divisions” (Wolfenden). Essentially, Kurt is only able to finally reach acceptance with his peers once he is recognized as one of the girls, which is something that he himself supports though his own language (e.g. referring to his conversation with a female friend as a “little lady chat”). Ultimately, Kurt serves to both emasculate society’s view of gay men, as well as show gay youth that they are still very much beneath the control of their straight classmates.
Crowe notes that these negative portrayals have an adverse effect on how gay youth see themselves. He states that through spreading the idea of flamboyance as the norm, gay youth who do not identify the same way feel ostracized from the gay community and may struggle with forming a positive view of their own homosexuality (Crowe). The dissociation of “other” gay youths (those who do not entirely identify with femininity) from this archetype makes gay teens less likely to accept themselves and embrace their identity due to fears of being pigeonholed into the same emasculated portrayal of gay men propagated by Glee.
While the musical nature of Glee is quite obviously different from fantasy and sci-fi shows such as Teen Wolf, such media still has a tremendous impact on the formation of identity in teenaged audiences. Premiering in 2011, an Advocate article by Jase Peeples states that Teen Wolf has, “moved beyond the realm of allegory and consistently set a new standard for LGBT representation on television” (“Hungry Like the Wolf”). Through including strong, gay characters, Teen Wolf is certainly paving the way in gay representation in teen-oriented television. In contrast with the approach taken by Glee, Teen Wolf chooses to seamlessly integrate gay characters into the plotline without emphasizing their sexuality (“Hungry Like the Wolf”). Additionally, all of the characters in Teen Wolf are what Crowe would describe as positive; they are free of stereotype and most importantly portrayed in the same light as their straight counterparts. Danny, a member of the lacrosse team, is a prime example of a positive portrayal. Introduced in the beginning of the first season, his sexuality is revealed to the audience only after he is shown to be a high-performing member of the lacrosse team. In fact, in another Advocate article, Peeples brings up the valid point in stating that, “instead of being taunted by the star jock of Beacon Hills High—Jackson—Danny is his best friend” (“The Trouble with Teen Wolf”). This idealized universe where gay characters and their romance is openly accepted is part of what helps form positive self-views and identity in gay youth (Crowe). It also has the added effect of showing non-LGBT youth in which the only difference between the two groups is their sexual preferences. Additionally, this idealized portrayal of gays in high school gives an example of what school should be like, and subliminally encourages youth to emulate what they see on television (Crowe). Thus, all members of the gay community, regardless of their interests and identities, can benefit from the positive environment that Teen Wolf propagates.
In showing gay characters as “average” members of the high school community, Teen Wolf avoids the victimization and stereotyping that permeates much of Glee’s premise.
Although Teen Wolf falls under what Crowe would classify as an example of positive representation, it, like Glee also has negative qualities. Unlike Glee, Teen Wolf does not make characters’ sexualities the focus of their persona, which many critics feel defeats the purpose of gay representation in the first place. Additionally, critics may argue that in not providing any visibly and easily identifiably gay characters, gay teens who do not easily blend in, e.g. more flamboyant men, are unable to find themselves represented in television. However, I propose that portraying an excessive amount of femininity, and showing this as the singular archetype of gay men, does more harm than good. While Glee may show some more real struggles that gay teens face in their adolescence (and beyond), Teen Wolf is not creating and issue where there need not be one. In other words, Teen Wolf’s portrayal of gay characters as typical characters allows them to be more relatable to both gay and straight teens, and helps gay youth feel accepted as members of the high school community.
Gay representation in teen-oriented television is a complex issue. The gay community is as diverse as the human population, coming in a variety of shapes, sizes, races, and gender identities. However, stereotypical representations in teen television shows harm gay viewers who are developing their identities by reinforcing negative experiences as normal, and subjugating them to straight classmates. These negative portrayals also teach straight viewers misconceptions about the gay community. Thus, it is time for teen television to rid itself of stereotypes and victimization, and show gay people for what they truly are: people.
Crewe, David. “Over The Rainbow.” Screen Education 76 (2014): 50-59. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Meyer, Michaela, and Megan Wood. “Sexuality And Teen Television: Emerging Adults Respond To Representations Of Queer Identity On Glee.”Sexuality & Culture 17.3 (2013): 434-448.
Peeples, Jase. “Hungry Like The Wolf.” Advocate 1070 (2013): 20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
—. “The Trouble With Teen Wolf.” Advocate. 17 Sept. 2014. Web.
Stokes, Zeke, Megan Townsend, and Matt Kane. Where We Are on TV. N.p.: GLAAD, n.d. PDF.
Wolfenden, Katherine J. “Challenging Stereotypes in Glee, or Not? Exploring Masculinity and Neoliberal Flexibility.” Inquiries Journal. N.p., 2013. Web.