Why Can't People "Just So Happen" to Be Gay in Movies?

In March, Amy Pascal, head Sony Entertainment Pictures, spoke at a beneficiary gala for the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles, Calif., where she discussed the importance of changing the way media and film portray lesbians and gays." In her speech, she cites movies that are great examples of multifaceted gay characters and others that further the stereotype of the "witty best friend of the pretty girl."

Pascal told the audience, "We need to create an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up, so we get this right."

The Sony co-chair makes many great points in her speech. She touched on movies like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, both of which she appreciates, but also acknowledges they carry a somber theme of suicide and murder. The point she wants to drive home is that "what we see in the media today affects everybody ... What we see teaches us about how to feel about ourselves and how to feel about each other."

I couldn't agree more.

I believe strongly in the power of media, be it through film or print, in shaping and controlling what American society sees and believes. We live in a very large country, with a lot of diversity in some areas and very little in others. The power of television and film blankets from coast to coast; one massive connection between the various parts of the country.

In most senses we think of diversity as only a racial or cultural thing. But the LGBT intersection of people's lives, which is woven into their racial or cultural "thing," is unique in its invisibility to others. For this reason, lesbian and gay portrayal in media has a distinct effect.

By only providing certain negatively stereotypical examples of what being gay looks like (similar to race or gender stereotypes), both LGBT-identified and hetero-identified young people have an expectation of what it means to be LGBT. Pascal says, "I’m talking about kids who are gay and I’m talking about kids who aren’t gay. One group needs affirmation and the other group needs education."

Of course, let's be clear, fitting very comfortably into the representation that Hollywood provides is not a bad thing, nor something to be ashamed of. It is very fortunate to have your niche represented through mass media. But because media portrayals create arbitrary, or at least stereotypical, lines that define being gay to everyone, young LGBT people may or may not identify with the supposed representations of themselves.

And that's exactly why media should represent more niches.

Because being lesbian or gay can be "hidden" or, colloquially, closeted, having hyperbolic representations of this community is especially damaging because it can encourage someone to hide this unseen part of themselves, rather than embrace it.

Of course, this is just another one of the countless reasons the LGBT folk stay in the closet. Compared to shame, exile and violence, media portrayal may not seem like such a priority. However, it is a very powerful tool to shift our cultural acceptance of those abusive behaviors. 

We should acknowledge lack of media portrayal as a form of oppression. Stereotypes that marginalize communities are detrimental whether they be of sex, race, gender, or sexual orientation. 

In her speech, Pascal asks, "Can’t we depict men and women who just so happen to be gay — perhaps a lawyer or soldier or business executive or scientist or engineer…."

This point really hits the nail on the head. In terms of non-gay youth, part of their education can come in the form of exposure to people "who just so happen to be gay," instead of a gay character doing gay things. By setting a character aside and highlighting their sexuality above all else, we're teaching non-gay people that those characters are not woven into the "normal" sphere. Gay people talk about shoes and fashion and are over there. 

Of course, our understanding has evolved and is evolving. That there is any gay representation is an accomplishment due to the incredible resilience and bravery that LGBT community has shown against extreme persecution. Having LGBT representation at all is a good foot in the door, but that doesn't mean we've reached an ideal or that we should stop moving forward.

Until we have more realistic and positive portrayals of the people who just so happen to be gay in media and film, we should take what we see with a grain of salt. We should realize that the characters depicted can and do exist, but a community as large and varied as the lesbian and gay community does not start nor end there.