Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Homosexuality & Media Culture

The following is a term paper I wrote for Psychology class last year, which is why it is a little bit more scholarly than most of my posts (and a little bit longer). I hope you enjoy it. Sentences in red were footnotes in the original paper.

Whatever one’s personal beliefs concerning homosexuality, it cannot be denied that the issue is a live one in the public forum today. Debates rage on whether or not homosexual couples ought to be allowed to adopt children, whether organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts should be forced to install homosexual leaders and whether or not same-sex partners ought to receive spousal benefits from employers. In the religious sphere, faithful on both sides of the issue debate whether homosexuality is due to genetic or environmental factors while the gray area between free religious expression and hate speech is challenged every day in a torrent of civil rights law suits from both sides. Meanwhile, society at large is in the process of adjusting to the open and permanent presence of gays and lesbians; one consequence of this is the national dialogue over the place of homosexual so-called marriage and whether or not it should be permitted. Everywhere, homosexuality is on the forefront of the nation’s domestic affairs.

The media has played an especially influential role in the shaping of the debate. After all, it is through the media that most Americans get their exposure to homosexuality at large. Whether it is from homosexual celebrities like Elton John and Rosie O’Donnel or from gay oriented television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the many other reality shows featuring gays and lesbians, most Americans shape their perception of what it means to be a homosexual by the image portrayed by the media, both in Hollywood and in the news networks. The media has always been a powerful force in the shaping of opinion; by what it covers (or refuses to cover), it has the ability to frame the context of the debate. Americans may take two different sides of the issue, but it is the media that decides in what terms the argument will be had.

This brings to the fore an important question: if our image of homosexuality is shaped by the media, exactly what image is it that the media is displaying? It has long been understood that mass media has a strong role in the shaping of society’s ideas of proper gender roles (Paludi, 2002). In what way does the influence of the media shape our attitudes towards homosexuality?

The question has so many dimensions that a thorough treatment of it here would be implausible; however, one very important facet of the problem is the question of how prevalent homosexuality is in society. By looking at how the media treats homosexuality in terms of demographics and comparing it to what studies and surveys have revealed, an idea can be reached about the media image of homosexuality and its impact on the public.

So just how many gay and lesbian people are there? This question has a long a divisive history. Gay activists have long sought to establish a larger demographic (somewhere between 10 and 15 percent) so as to be able to successfully argue that homosexuality is not a bizarre oddity but is in fact much more mainstream. Anti-gay activists, on the other hand, stress a much lower number, 1 to 4 percent, in order to demonstrate that the gay influence in society is (and should remain) negligible. One can explain 1 or 2% gay as a fringe group making radical choices; it would be harder to explain the actions of 10 to 15% as fringe behavior. One can see how the normally dull demographical question of population percentage in this case becomes a sensitive political issue.

For decades, homosexuals and the mainstream media have stated the demographic to be approximately 10%. Major magazines like Newsweek (1993, February 15) and the New York Times (1991, April 17) have all repeated the 10% figure. Some have even argued for 15%. “Ten percent of American men are homosexual and five percent of women are lesbian,” says the Washington Times (1991, November 19, p. A3). These numbers are all derived from the landmark Alfred Kinsey study of 1948. Kinsey, an entomologist who had gained a reputation for his studies of gull wasps, began collecting sexual “histories” in the late 30’s. He interviewed over 18,000 subjects and compiled his massive amount of data in two separate works, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Kinsey asserted that there were different “grades” of sexuality, ranging from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual with several gradations in between (Kinsey & Pomeroy, 1948). Kinsey’s study concluded that between men and women the total homosexual demographic is between 7 and 15% of the population, though “homosexual” had several varying levels. [He estimated 10% predominantly homosexual for at least 3 years of adulthood, 18% bisexual or homosexual for at least 3 years of adulthood, 4% exclusively gay throughout adulthood and 37% of men with some post-pubertal homosexual experience (Kinsey & Pomeroy, 1948)]. Prior to Kinsey, the homosexual population was speculated to be around 2%, but there was no hard evidence. Kinsey’s study represents the first attempt to come up with a concrete number. Due to the controversial nature of Kinsey’s study, he gained great notoriety and his figures eventually were held up as a gold standard in sex research.

Kinsey’s numbers pleased the homosexual community very much because they challenged the conventional view of homosexuality as deviant. The argument is based on the sheer force of numbers: if a behavior is common or practiced frequently, then it cannot be abnormal. The numbers were rarely challenged until the late 80’s and early 90’s when more recent surveys began indicating much lower numbers (Palladino, 2007). Over thirty-five studies conducted from the early 80’s up to the early 90’s yielded a median percent of 4.1% of males and 2% of females (FRI, 1993), with individual demographics finding percentiles as low as 0.6%. Clearly, more advanced knowledge in behavioral science and better survey methods have whittled down Kinsey’s numbers significantly.

One study that gained particular notice was conducted by the liberal Alan Guttmacher Institute in 1991. The Guttmacher study interviewed over 3,300 men throughout the country and estimated the gay population at 1.1%. The findings provoked outrage from many gay groups who had previously considered the Guttmacher Institute friendly to their cause. Though the gay activists scoffed at the new findings, they could come up with little to counter the survey save appeals to emotion. Gregory King of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation’s largest homosexual rights group, said on the Guttmacher study: “If everyone examines their own conscience, they know that more than one in 100 people is gay...Common sense tells you that this survey is nonsense” (Washington Times, 1991, April 16, p. 3A). The gay publication Washington Blade said of the Guttmacher numbers: “Most of us believe in our heart of hearts that these [numbers] are gross underestimates” (Washington Blade, 1991, April 18, p. 3). Thus, the only thing the homosexual advocacy groups had to counter the unsatisfactory Guttmacher numbers with was “their own conscience”, “common sense,” and what they felt “in their heart of hearts.” Not exactly scientific method.

So, if one steps back and takes a reflective review of the studies concerning gay population over the past fifty years, one will see the first studies done by Kinsey yielding large numbers, 7 to 15% exclusively gay and 37% having some homosexual experience. [Some reasons why Kinsey’s numbers came under scrutiny: his first 10,000 histories included 1,500 convicted sex offenders; included 600 male and 600 female prostitutes in his database; regularly visited prisons and homosexual communities in his sampling efforts; no random or probability based design; used underworld contacts to get into gay and sexually deviant groups; showed disinterest in regular, “dull” sexual histories of most ordinary Americans, which do not show up as often in his sample as they should have (FRI,1993)]. Kinsey’s numbers begin to get criticized only in the early 80’s with most studies by the 90’s (even ones conducted by liberal think-tanks like the Alan Guttmacher Institute) positing only 0.6% to 4.1%. One would expect the mass media to reflect these changes in their broadcasting. After all, the media, both in the entertainment and news sectors, is supposed to be a pretty fair reflection of American life, like a cross section.

However, the media response to the gay population has been quite different than the reality suggested by the demographic studies. Though it has been demonstrated that homosexuals make up only a tiny slice of the population, mainstream and cable networks have increasingly focused on homosexual issues in the past decade. First, take the issue of gay television characters. David Wyatt of the Univeristy of Manitoba conducted a study (2001) on homosexual television characters from 1961 to 2001 and reported the following statistics: from 1961 to 1971, only 1 homosexual character appeared on television. [“Homosexual character” being defined as (1) a character who appeared in at least three episodes and (2) is explicitly gay, lesbian or transgendered. Effeminate (but not gay) male characters and “manish” (but not lesbian) females were not included]. From 1971 to 1980, 58 characters were documented. From 1981 to 1990, there were 89 characters documented and from 1991 to 2000, 317 characters. In 2001 alone Wyatt counted an addition of 107 new homosexual characters.

Granted, the increase in numbers could be explained somewhat by the multiplication of networks in addition to changing social norms that permit now would have been unthinkable in the 1960’s. However, it seems rash to attribute the entire increase to those two factors alone. Wyatt’s numbers reflect steady growth from the 60’s to the 80’s, then a sudden 356% spike into the 90’s, followed by (if current trends continued) a further 337% jump in the first decade of the new millennium. Gay characters seem to be proliferating at an exponential rate on television. Though the author was unable to locate a statistic as to what exact percent of television characters are gay, 317 characters in the 1990’s and 107 in 2001 alone seems to be much more than 1 to 4% of the TV population. What is left is the fact that networks create homosexual characters at a rate way out of proportion with the demographics that actually exist in society (Giltz, 1996). Why is this?

Batman & Robin: Under Homo-Suspicion?

Beginning around 1997 with the coming out of Ellen on the Ellen Degeneres show, television seems to have an increasingly steady focus on gay characters. What is the cause of this? The answer seems to be economic. The gay community has proven to be a very lucrative market for the networks, and so instances of homosexuality on television have risen astronomically. Julia Duin of the Washington Times put it very succinctly in her 2003 article. “A month after the Supreme Court decision legalizing sodomy and Canada’s recognition of same-sex “marriage”, analysts say an almost casual acceptance of homosexuality pervades the media.” (2003). The homosexual clique has proven to be very loyal to programs and stations that adopt pro-gay attitudes, and such shows often attract heterosexual viewers who want “TV with an edge.” In the same article, David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign points out the financial element: “If there’s not a market for these programs, they’d not be on the air.” Networks are discovering that homosexual themes mean big ratings and big bucks. Julia Duin reports “according to the Nexis database, 350 stories about homosexuality appeared in major papers from May 26 to June 25 [2003]. That rose to 537 stories from June 26 to July 25 (Washington Times, 2003, July 29). Conservative critics argue that the media is intentionally increasing its coverage due to a latent agenda. In the same Washington Times article, Tim Graham of the Media Research Center said of the media: “There’s this assumption that we’re going in this 100 percent pro-gay direction and no one’s going to stop it...The media is trying to establish a sense of inevitability, which causes anxiety in people.”

In the business of media, homosexuals are seen as another niche demographic that must be courted, much like African Americans are for BET and UPN. Witness the creation of the Logo network, launched in June 2005 as the first mainstream basic cable gay channel. In its first month alone it was broadcast into 13 million homes. Why a basic cable channel for a group who only accounts for 0.6 to 1.1% of the population? It may not be proportional, but if that 1.1% proves to be a gold mine to the networks and the advertisers, then one can understand the media’s interest. Journal of Homosexuality featured an article back in 1996 written by Dr. M. Wayne DeLozier, Professor of Marketing at Nichols State University in Louisiana, that advised future advertisers and marketers to “devote greater attention” to the gay-market, which DeLozier describes as “well-educated, [having] high discretionary income, informed socially and politically” and advises that it is a “potentially lucrative market segment.” It seems that in the years since 1996, DeLozier’s students took his advice to heart.
So what is the image that the media is attempting to portray about homosexuality? The research and the statistics seem to indicate that the media is attempting to mainstream it as much as possible, by reporting on it and showing programs featuring gay characters way out of proportion with the actual homosexual demographic. Some accuse the media of doing this out of an ideologically liberal pro-gay sympathy, but others (including some gay activists themselves) say the reason is profit. Regardless of which side one falls on, the important thing to notice is this: both sides admit that homosexuals are over represented in the media. According to the most recent statistics, there are about as many homosexuals in America as there are Native Americans. Yet one would be hard pressed to find 317 Native American television characters during the 1990’s, or 107 new ones in 2001 alone. There is a double standard that applies to homosexual programming that does not equally apply to other minorities because the others have not proved as lucrative to the television industry as the homosexuals have.

Finally, what effect does all of this have on the public perception of homosexuals? The most obvious answer is that people will be lead to believe that there are more homosexuals out there than there actually are. After all, if anywhere from 10 to 30% of television programming features homosexuals, then one would naturally assume that homosexuals constituted a proportional percentage of the population. This goes back to the original politically-charged question about numbers: if people believe that 10 to 30% of the populace is gay, then it would be harder to argue that homosexuality is caused by environment and thus the argument that homosexuality is a healthy, normal (albeit different) lifestyle would gain much credibility with the public. The granting of such a status to homosexuality would revolutionize our very society, and that is why there is such a battle over the demographics.

In the end, the reality will be shaped by our perception. People will be conditioned by whatever they see and respond to enough times. As long as there is money in the homosexual market, it seems that TV will continue to be inundated with gay-themed shows. There is always the danger of a backlash, however. Tim Graham of Media Research Center warns, “The media might have overestimated the public’s interest in homosexual issues. They might have mistaken the tolerance of homosexuality with an interest in their issues” (Washington Times, 2003, July 29). Is homosexual programming a permanent addition to the media, much like black programming has become? Or will it prove to be a brief but lucrative bubble, destined to burst once the public has had its fill of gay men on its TV screens? Only time will tell.

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