Straying from the stereotype: Portrayal of same-sex couples on TV
With every new show that comes out, there is a constant shift and change occurring with how individuals are depicted. A lot of sitcoms follow the narrative of using crazy or overly dramatic stereotypes as an edge when creating the characters in a show. The idea of cultivation theory discusses how media, over time, has the power to change our perception of society. It’s a hard phenomenon to avoid, as most of the television and movies that we are consuming aim to reflect aspects of society, however, without even trying to, they will often actually influence society. The depiction of homosexual individuals on television has shifted from rare and dramatic, to frequent and neutral. This shift over time has caused writers to change their way of thinking when creating gay characters in their shows. Society will often be influenced by the different depictions of gay individuals on television as we cultivate them as reality.
From the beginning of the era of diverse characters on TV, the media has not always been favorable towards gay couples. Even though current media is more accepting, older shows have shown otherwise. Negative stereotypes were, unfortunately, a huge part of the early depictions of gay characters on TV and in movies. In the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, many of the different stereotypes of gay characters were observed, one of which looked at the idea of the “sissy”. (RJ, 2015)
This was when gay male characters were shown as weak, feminine, and doing things women would do. This was problematic as people were seeing these depictions since they were everywhere, and a lot of times regarding these personality traits as true for all gay people. In context, the quote “entertainment has often been the vanguard of familiarizing America with gay people, much as it was in spreading homophobia before that” (Rich, 2003) suggests that depictions of gay couples, or lack thereof, has caused a negative impact on society’s opinion. Many researchers have looked at how homosexual couple’s representation is completely different from those of heterosexual couples. One of the problems that were identified is that unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples are rarely shown in sexual situations on TV. (Calzo & Ward, 2009) Aside from the general idea of censorship, by not equally depicting both, it gives the audience a blissful ignorance about different kinds of relationships. Another study found that “recent research suggests that heterosexual characters are not only discussing sexual orientation but are engaging in talk about gay sexualities more than gay characters.” (Bond, 2014) This causes a general problem for audiences because by following the cultivation theory of thinking and seeing, people become desensitized about same-sex issues.
The age old problem was that people were not getting the proper education or knowledge about the issue with the help of these shows not doing anything to advocate for it. As times changed though, this has differed. In a poll given by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, they found that 34% and 29% of people agreed that seeing gay people in TV as well as movies made them appear more favorable. (Douglas & Clark, 2015) This means that the importance of screen time for these individuals is what matters in normalizing and helping move the fight for gay rights advocacy forward.
This quote by Ellen Degeneres shows
the hypocrisy of critics of gay couples on TV.
Logo is a network that airs shows that include gay individuals.
This fact is important in terms of showing TV's affect.
Although negative stereotypes have been often ingrained into our culture, a newly developed concept, The Modern Family Effect, brings light to the new era of television with a positive depiction of gay couples. The show follows several California families and how they interact with their society in the modern day. One of the families is Cam and Mitch, a gay couple that live with their adopted daughter. The show has made its mark by addressing issues regarding gay marriage that are relevant in current society, for instance, not having Cam and Mitch legally married, reflected the reality for gay couples until California overturned and legalized gay marriage. (Kornhaber, 2015) The two characters are often depicted as what is considered the “norm” of how a heterosexual couple would act, and minus the gay stereotypesIn news media, Modern Family has been one of the biggest shows talked about in regards to its relation to the issue of gay marriage. Since the airing of the show, there has been a shift in how people view gay couples. In fact, “A 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll found that 27 percent of likely voters said that depictions of gay characters on TV made them more pro-gay marriage, and there are news accounts of people crediting their newfound sympathy toward gay people to Modern Family. (Kornhaber, 2015) This is where the cultivation theory comes into place.
Around this time too, it was important for individuals to bear witness to this as 2012 was an election year, and a few states had already legalized gay marriage or were in the process. This shows the impact that these characters were able to have on society, as well as possibly swaying the results of the election. Although society has formulated stereotypes, by breaking them and depicting these characters in a different light, it makes people change their perspectives. Another example of this was Joe Biden changing his views on gay marriage when he was running as Obama's vice president. He had discussed that the show Will & Grace had helped in influencing his perceptions of gay couples as well as “Biden noted that the show’s focus on the everyday lives of gay men likely did more to educate people about gay individuals than anything else in society.” (Bond & Compton, 2015) The importance of education on different kinds of people makes for a more accepting and diverse society.
This graph is taken from GLAAD. It shows how there has been an increase in LGBT characters in TV shows.
As television evolves, there leads the opportunity for society to evolve with it. By observing the different ways television depicts homosexual characters, there is a reflection of society’s beliefs. Cultivation theory and the critical cultural approach go hand in hand in most ways as an ongoing cycle. As society influences TV shows, TV shows are influencing society. From the evidence provided, it’s hard to tell which has a bigger hold over the other, but it also depends on a person’s independent viewing habits. The biggest effects that television has had over society, has changed from bad to good for the most part. Of course there are still many criticisms on how these shows have a negative impact if there is poking fun at gay characters or showing them in a negative light. However, aside from their depiction, by normalizing same sex couples on TV, more people see it as okay. It will be interesting to see how these depictions may look years from now, and if the same level of acceptance and tolerance will remain.
Bond, B. J., & Compton, B. L. (2015). Gay On-Screen: The relationship between exposure to gay
characters on television and heterosexual audiences' endorsement of gay equality.
Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(4), 717-732.
Calzo, J. P., & Ward, L. M. (2009, June). Media exposure and viewers’ attitudes toward
homosexuality: evidence for mainstreaming or resonance?
Douglas, W., & Clark, L. (2015, January 02). Pop culture helps change minds on gay rights.
Retrieved April 11, 2017, from
Freymiller, L. (2009). We're paying customers too: Gay viewers call for the conspicuous
representation of gay characters. Conference Papers -- National Communication
Kornhaber, S. (2015, June 26). The Modern Family effect: Pop culture’s role in the gay-marriage
RJ, D. (n.d.). Has the normalization of gays and lesbians within pop culture shaped attitudes in
American society? Retrieved April 11, 2017, from