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  Introduction   Focult  (1978)  believes  that  ‘sexuality  is  socially  constructed,  created  through  the   continuous  interplay  among  individuals,  society,  and  those  institutions  that   make  up  culture’.  The  media  is  one  such  institution  that  plays  a  vital  role  in  the   reinforcement  of  dominant  cultural  ideologies,  and  the  sexual  identities  of   individuals.  We  learn  from  the  hegemonic  discourses  present  in  society  and   adopt  certain  characteristics  that  belong  to  strict  gender  codes.  It  is  the   multifarious  interplay  between  ‘laws,  institutions,  mass  media,  and  social   policies  [that]  shape  and  regulate  our  sexuality’  (Seidman,  S.  2010  p.55).  Much  of   this  learning  is  done  through  socialisation,  but  also  a  great  deal  is  learnt  from  the   media.  This  essay  explores  the  discourse  used  by  lesbian-­‐identified  women  as   they  talk  about  homosexual  representations  on  television,  by  focusing  on  the   musical-­‐comedy  Glee.     Background   Gay  and  lesbian  people  have  historically  been  able  to  learn  more  about  their   culture  through  media  such  as  film  and  television.  Andrea  Weiss  (1992)  has   alleged  that  lesbians  traditionally  ‘looked  to  the  cinema  …  to  create  ways  of  being   lesbian,  to  form  and  affirm  their  identity  as  individuals  and  as  a  group’.  This   study  aims  to  investigate  the  portrayal  of  lesbians  in  the  media  and  the  impact   this  has  on  identity,  as  society  largely  fails  to  see  past  the  minority  grouping  of   ‘gay’  as  opposed  to  the  mass  grouping  of  ‘straight’.       Kobena  Mercer  (1991)  feels  that  ‘there  is  no  such  thing  as  a  homogenous  and   unitary  …  community,  but  only  communities,  in  the  plural,  made  of   interdependent,  and  sometimes  contradictory  identities’.  Failure  to  recognise  the   many  different  ‘types’  of  lesbians  is  a  result  of  the  assumption  of  ‘whiteness’  in   gay  culture.  ‘The  media  influence  not  only  how  non-­‐gay  society  views  gays,  but   also  how  lesbians  and  gay  men  see  themselves’  (Reichert  &  Lambaise  2003   p.230).  Stereotyping  makes  it  difficult  for  many  lesbians  to  ‘see  themselves’  in   the  characters  on  television  shows,  and  thus  makes  it  harder  for  them  to   establish  their  own  sexual  identity.     Methodology   A  focus  group  consisting  of  six  lesbian-­‐identified  women  was  assembled  to   investigate  the  relationship  between  identity  and  the  media.  The  women  were   aged  19  –  29,  came  from  a  wide  range  of  cultural,  political  and  socio-­‐economic   backgrounds  and  were  all  friends.  These  participants  were  chosen  because  of   their  varied  experiences  of  sexuality  as  well  as  their  interest  in  watching   television  shows  featuring  gay  and  lesbian  characters.  The  advantage  of  using   this  particular  group  was  that  they  were  close  friends  who  were  comfortable  

‘It’s  not  about  relationships;  it’s  just  all  about  sex’:  lesbian  identity  and   representation  in  the  media  

MACS222     Audience  Focus  Group  Essay      

 

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discussing  their  opinions  in  front  of  one  another,  and  weren’t  afraid  to  disagree   with  other  members.     The  disadvantages  were  that  members  such  as  ‘Speaker  3’  were  very  vocal  and  at   times  overbearing,  leading  to  limited  contributions  from  ‘Speaker  4’  and   ‘Speaker  6’.  This  also  made  it  more  difficult  to  keep  the  discussion  on  topic  and  to   focus  the  group’s  attention  on  Glee,  rather  than  on  Xena  or  Buffy.  ‘Speaker  5’  was   quite  aggressive  in  the  way  in  which  she  chose  to  answer  questions.  This   prompted  other  speakers  to  think  less  critically  and  more  emotionally  about   their  own  responses.     Audience  needs   The  focus  group  recognised  that  audiences  have  certain  desires  that  need  to  be   fulfilled  by  television  programs,  as  ‘the  media  appears  to  stand  in  for  something   essential  about  our  lives  together  as  social  beings’  (Nick  Couldry  2003).  As  Gross   (1994)  suggests,  the  mass  media  provide  a  ‘common  ground’  from  which   members  of  a  diverse  culture  can  ‘derive  shared  meanings  and  basic   understandings  of  how  the  world  works’.  For  example,    
Interviewer:  Why  do  they  show  the  gay  guys  kissing  and  not  the  gay  girls?   Speaker  5:  Because  they’re  fucking  cunts!   Speaker  2:  I  honestly  don’t  think  that  lesbians  are  represented  at  all.  I  think  it’s   mostly  men.   Speaker  5:  You  know  what  I  think  it  is?  I  think  it’s  more  controversial  for  guys  to   kiss  and  it’ll  get  more  ratings.  That’s  what  I  reckon.   Speaker  2:  Or  it’s  not  about  relationships,  it’s  just  all  about  sex.   Speaker  1:  I  think  the  political  agenda  behind  it  as  well.  We  live  in  a  male   dominated  society,  so  they’re  going  to  put  forward  a  male  viewpoint,  even  if  it’s   more  controversial  than  the  lesbians.  

  Here  the  group  discusses  how  the  presence  of  sexuality  in  Glee  could  potentially   be  less  of  an  act  of  morality  and  more  of  a  ploy  to  ‘get  more  ratings’.  Speaker  1   supports  this  idea  by  mentioning  the  possible  ‘political  agenda’  of  a  ‘male   dominated  society’  in  which  gay  men  are  still  ‘more  controversial  than  the   lesbians’.  ‘The  notion  of  women  portrayed  sexually  with  other  women  is  not  as   threatening  to  a  male-­‐centered  culture  in  which  male  homosexuality  is  often   viewed  as  an  affront  to  male  privilege’  (Reichert,  T  &  Lambaise,  J  2003  p.244).   This  in  mind,  it  could  be  said  that  generally,  lesbians  are  periphery  characters  in   the  media  landscape;  they  exist  only  as  fantasy  images  and  insinuations.  Their   purpose  is  to  sell  products,  not  to  break  boundaries  or  challenge  stereotypes.       The  participants  were  showing  agency  by  use  of  the  terms  ‘I  think’  and  ‘I  reckon’,   to  highlight  that  their  statements  were  more  opinionated  than  they  were  factual.   Omitting  these  precursors  would  make  these  assumptions  seem  like  they  were   concrete  facts,  instead  of  being  value  judgments  made  by  the  individuals.  It  is   important  to  note  that  ‘much  of  what  constitutes  gay  identity  today  has  been   created,  or  at  least  modified  by  corporate  and  media  organizations  –  institutions   that  are  generally  conservative  and  mostly  white,  male,  middle-­‐aged  and   heterosexual’  (Reichert,  T  &  Lambaise,  J  2003  p.230).  Attempting  to  forge  an   identity  based  on  the  narrow  perspective  of  these  kinds  of  institutions  can  be  

 

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particularly  difficult,  especially  considering  that  lesbian  representations  on   television  are  largely  based  on  heterosexual  male  stereotypes  of  them.       Media  and  self-­identification   By  recognising  the  complexities  of  gay  identities  and  culture  it  can  be  seen  that   the  gay  community  can’t  be  labeled  as  one  holistic  minority  group.  The  media   limiting  the  ‘types’  of  gays  that  it  portrays,  makes  it  somewhat  problematic  for   people  that  have  little  or  no  media  representation.  A  1984  study  concluded  that   ‘self-­‐identification  by  gays  is  not  even  possible  until  an  identity  is  acknowledged   by  the  media’  (O’Neil,  S.  1984).    
Speaker  2:  Well  I’m  trying  to  figure  out  a  black  lesbian  and  there  isn’t  one.   Interviewer:  So  you  personally  don’t  have  anyone  [to  relate  to]?   Speaker  6:  Isn’t  Queen  Latifah  gay?   Speaker  3:  Well  I’m  sorry,  but  Santana  is  Hispanic.   Speaker  2:  She  never  came  out;  she  never  flaunted  the  fact  that  she  was  gay.   Speaker  1:  But  how  many  people  do?  Like  do  you  go  around  saying  to  everyone…   Speaker  6:  Hi  my  name  is  Speaker  2,  I’m  a  lesbian.   Speaker  2:  No,  but  it’s  not  out  there.  There’s  none.  Santana  is  ethnic,  she’s  got   some  black  in  her  somewhere.  

  Too  often  in  the  media  ‘all  the  gays  are  men,  all  the  men  are  white  and  all  the   whites  are  rich’  (Walters,  2001  p.313).  This  leaves  little  room  for  lesbians,  and   even  less  for  the  ‘black  lesbian’  representation  that  Speaker  2  requires  for  her   own  self-­‐identification.  The  term  ‘black  lesbian’  is  an  interesting  choice  of   vocabulary  insinuating  a  ‘double  minority’  status,  which  is  reinforced  by  the  use   of  ‘it’s  not  out  there’.  The  ‘it’s’  Speaker  2  is  referring  to  is  the  representation  of   people  that  would  not  be  able  to  identify  themselves  with  the  normative   narrative  of  white  lesbians.       Positive  representations   ‘The  frequent  lack  of  positive  gay  images  within  other  institutions  of  society  –   family,  church,  school  –  make  media  an  even  more  important  source  of   information  about  gay  issues  and  identities’  (Reichert  &  Lambaise  2003  p.230).   Glee  is  an  emerging  platform  for  gay  issues  such  as  coming  out,  same-­‐sex   relationships  and  bullying.  Members  of  the  focus  group  noticed  that  the  show  is   more  concerned  with  the  story  arcs  of  its  gay  characters  Kurt,  Dave  and  Blaine,   than  of  its  lone  lesbian  character  Santana.  Speaker  3  was  particularly  vocal  about   her  ability  to  empathise  with  Santana,  whilst  being  unable  to  relate  to  some  of   the  issues  in  her  story  arc.    For  example,    
Interviewer:  Do  you  think  that  Santana  represents  you.  Does  she  make  you  feel   proud  to  be  gay?   Speaker  3:  I  feel  sorry  for  her  more  than  anything,  because  I  know  how  it  feels.   Interviewer:  So  you  can  relate?   Speaker  3:  Yeah,  but  the  problem  is,  again  it  sucks  because  we  want  to  have   someone  we  can  relate  to.  [Ryan  Murphy  is]  more  interested  obviously  in  putting   a…  Because  I  mean,  there’s  not  many  gay  boys  on  TV  that  gay  boys  can  relate  to  at   the  moment  is  there?  Whereas  there’s  kind  of  lesbians  flying  around  everywhere.  I   just  think  it  sucks  in  the  sense  that  they’ve  given  us  someone  to  kind  of  relate  to,  

 

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because  when  I  was  younger  I  would  have  loved  to  have  someone  like  this  on  TV.   There  was  no  one  and  there  still  is  no  one.  The  problem  is  they  won’t  push  it  much   further  because  then  they’ll  just  be  selling  sex  to  get  ratings  and  that’s  what  they’ll   get,  they’ll  cop  that.  

  Kellner  (1994)  believes  that  the  ‘power  of  the  mass  media  cannot  be   underestimated  when  it  comes  to  helping  us  define  where  we  as  individuals  fit   within  the  grand  scheme  of  things’.  Not  having  strong,  visible  representations  in   the  media  can  make  lesbians  feel  that  they  are  not  important  members  of  society.   When  Speaker  3  says  ‘we  want  to  have  someone  we  can  relate  to’,  the  pronoun   ‘we’  is  referring  to  the  lesbian  community  as  a  whole  and  indicates  that  the   character  is  not  easy  for  older  lesbians  to  relate  to.  She  uses  the  hedge  ‘kind  of’  in   relation  to  her  personal  ability  to  relate  with  Santana,  suggesting  that  she  would   have  ‘loved  to  have  someone  like  this  on  TV’  when  she  was  younger.  When  asked   if  this  kind  of  character  broke  the  lesbian  stereotype,  respondents  had  mixed   answers.    
Interviewer:  Why  doesn’t  she  break  a  stereotype?   Speaker  3:  Because  there’s  plenty  of  gay  chicks  out  there  that  are  like  that.   Interviewer:  But  in  the  media  are  there  plenty  of  gay  chicks  that  are  like  that?   Speaker  5:  No,  not  at  all.   Speaker  3:  Fair  enough,  she  breaks  it  because  she’s  ridiculously  good  looking.   Speaker  5:  What,  because  we’re  all  ugly  are  we?   Speaker  3:  No,  but  she  doesn’t  look  gay.  

  Speaker  3  said  that  there  are  ‘lesbians  flying  around  everywhere’  and  that  in  her   opinion  Santana  doesn’t  break  a  stereotype  because,  ‘there’s plenty of gay

chicks out there like that’. The physical appearance of Santana was mentioned several times throughout the duration of the focus group. Speaker 3 says ‘she’s ridiculously good looking’ in a tone that indicates this is not a characteristic of realistic lesbians. Speaker 5 takes offence to these comments saying, ‘we’re all ugly are we?’, using ‘we’ to symbolise the social group that the members of the study belong to. Speaker 3 reasons that Santana ‘doesn’t look gay’ and that this is why she breaks the stereotype.
Gamson  (2000)  feels  that  the  ‘recent  pop  cultural  visibility  of  gays  and  lesbians’   has  ‘taken  the  form  of  emphasizing  gay  people’s  similarity  to  their  heterosexual   counterparts’.  He  believes  that  this  recent  trend  contradicts  historical   stereotyping  of  gays  ‘as  scary,  deviant  ‘others’  and  makes  them  into  ‘increasingly   ‘normal’  cultural  figures’  (Gamson,  2000  p.349). Whilst this may alter dominant

cultural ideologies about lesbians, it does little to help self-identification.

  Conclusion   Glee  presents  an  array  of  gay  issues  that  are  pertinent  to  some  members  of  the   GLBT  society.  The  show  is  difficult  for  older  lesbians  to  identify  with  as  it  focuses   more  on  the  experiences  of  gay  teenagers,  rather  than  gay  adults.  Race  is  another   important  identity  issue  as  there  is  little  deviation  from  the  portrayal  of  the   stereotypical  ‘white  lesbian’  character  on  TV.  The  focus  group  also  explored  the   use  of  attractive  women  in  the  portrayal  of  homosexuality.  They  discussed  the  

 

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ways  in  which  this  representation  panders  to  the  desires  of  white  male   heterosexuals,  and  is  focused  on  ratings  rather  than  altering  dominant  cultural   ideologies.       While  the  respondents  enjoyed  watching  Glee,  they  felt  that  it  failed  to  challenge   lesbian  stereotypes  and  that  they  were  largely  unable  to  identify  with  the   character  of  Santana,  and  more  broadly  most  of  the  other  lesbian  characters  on   TV  at  the  moment.  This  being  said,  there  is  such  a  wide  array  of  lesbian  identities   that  it  would  be  impossible  to  accurately  represent  all  of  them  in  a  cultural  space   such  as  television.  In  the  case  of  lesbians  it  seems  that  most  of  their  processes  of   identification  are  of  a  more  social  nature  and  are  less  likely  to  be  created  through   media  engagement.                                                                            

 

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