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Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of images of LGBT people in popular culture. Discuss this growth in visibility with reference to queer theory.
In recent years we have witnessed a proliferation of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people (LGBT) in popular culture. An indication of why this has occurred can be found in the historical context from which modern homo-viability arose. Furthermore I will look at how this increased homo-visibility has challenged heteronormativity thus producing social changes through collective social action and innovation, furthermore I will look at examples of LGBT images in television and film and gay representation. After mapping changes I consider the positive and negative implications associated with the increase in images of LGBT people in popular culture and the effects of modern homo-visual representations with reference to Queer Theory.
After mapping changes I consider whether Queer Theory offers an adequate account of changes or whether [other theories] give a more comprehensive analysis of why these developments occurred and whether they explain the positive and negative implications of the increase of visibility.
Societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships vary over time and place; according to constructionists the meanings of sexual acts are historically, culturally and contextually specific. This is demonstrated when observing historical social changes in sexual orientation. Constructionists hold that sexual orientation is fluid and dynamic, and that sexuality is constructed by social factors and influenced by social changes. In some ancient societies sexual orientation was not subjected to the binary constraints that are used to define categorize and segregate those of difference in more recent times, therefore sexuality was ambiguous. Historically we have witnessed the regulation of sexual orientation through formal societal controls enforced through law and judicial mechanisms, demonstrated historically by the sodomy laws prohibited homosexuality and made a capital offence in Britain in 1810. Even today homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death in some countries. This essay will look primarily at western societies and the historical context in which recognition of LGBT has become apparent.
In modern western cultures, gay and lesbian people have been subjected to frequent prejudice and discrimination. This oppression often caused LGBT people to repress their true identities and sexual preference. 1973 was an important year for the LGBT community as the American Psychiatric Association removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders their definition of homosexuality. As a result homosexuality was no longer classed as a clinical mental disorder – as something abnormal that needed medical treatment.
Homosexual acts were decriminalized in the Western world by the 1970s but it was not until the mid-1970s that the LGBT community became visible because of active protest to gain social recognition, which was vital for the minority to fight for their civil rights.
The Stonewall Riots in 1969 contributed to the increase in LGBT visibility. The Stonewall Riots were a series of violent conflicts between the LGBT community and New York City police officers. These riots lasted several days and were centered at the Stonewall Inn New York. These riots were widely recognized at the catalyst for the modern-day movement towards LGBT rights never before have the LGBT community acted collectively to forcibly resist police harassment.
The activist movements of the 1960’s and 70’s inspired events such as pride parades and dyke marches, it also caused large numbers of gay men and lesbians to protest against repression, police entrapment, and other forms of discrimination. Howvever this was transformed by the AIDS epidemic that struck the gay community so devastatingly in the 1980s. The AIDS epidemic affected both heterosexuals and homosexuals; however it was largely portrayed in media representations and pubic spheres as a homosexual disease and attempts were made by homophobes to restrict media representations of homosexuality, the only representations of the LGBT community were negative and reinforced this negative stigma.
Due to the homophobic past LGBT individuals were particularly vulnerable to the AIDS virus. Due to inadequate education LGBT individuals were not as aware of the precautions needed for safe sex in same-sex relations, and due to homo-invisibility only heterosexual safe-sex advice and education was available in schools. However, this horrific epidemic did provide the LGBT community with a public voice, increasing public visibility. Through collective action they struggled against this discrimination and organized campaigns to promote efforts in AIDS education, prevention, research, patient support, and community outreach. One important influential figure in AIDS activism through art is American pioneer Gran Fury. He formed a gay activist group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) This group aimed to inform a broad public and provoke direct action to end the AIDS crisis. His works include, the street-spanning banner announcing that “All people with AIDS are innocent,”
The collective’s image of three interracial homosexual and heterosexual couples kissing above the caption “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do”
In addition to the work of Gran Fury, caused several other significant public projects to arise in response to the AIDS crisis including
SILENCE=DEATH Project and the Red Ribbon Project.
This collective effort transformed the AIDS epidemic from a syndrome that many were reluctant to speak about to a subject that could be raised sympathetically in popular news magazines and on television programs. Old stereotypes were seen to be inappropriate and, while much coverage of the epidemic was homophobic, some ignorance was dispelled and as a result, AIDS awareness has now spread into the mainstream, creating its own sphere of community-based organizations, charitable institutions, and even magazines for those who are HIV-positive.
During the 1980s and 1990s the LGBT community gained some legal protection and public recognition thorough collective action and protest. Laws decriminalizing homosexual behavior and prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and services were introduced. These were all positive achievements essential for the LGBT battle for equality and social acceptance; however, due to the increase in public visibility the LGBT community were affected by increased homophobia; LGBT individuals were victims of servere discrimination and hate crimes. Coming out still involved courage, indicating that negative implications of increased visibility persisted.
Historically LGBT have had to face many struggles in order to become visible but due to collective action of the LGBT community, however their struggles have had both positive and negative consequences, today the gay community are visible in public, political domains, this increased visibility has allowed the gay community to express their gay culture through gay prides, rainbow flags, LGBT events and gaining increased visibility in many areas of visual popular culture including, magazines film, music and television
The prevalence of LGBT representations in cinematic art and media representations prevailing in western culture has had positive contributions in challenging the dominance of heteronormativity through the increasing awareness of LGBT community. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have been have been slowly gaining recognition by through collective action they have challenged and helped reconfigure notions of what had been compulsive normative homosexual representations. This challenge has changed people’s perception of categories of difference (masculinity and femininity) and (homosexuality and heterosexuality).
However not all gay representations are a positive, some media representation of LGBT individuals are distorted stereotypes. Typical media representation’s portrayals of gay men are sometimes negative, gay men are portrayed as ill from aids as demonstrated by the media representations of Freddy Mercury
These forms of stereotypes can cause negative implications for young gay men because they could see these representations as an ideal type. Lesbians are often portrayed in the media as butch man haters, or over feminized “lip-stick lesbians” these representations similarly to gay men are stereotypes and does typically not apply to all lesbians. Controversially lesbian visual representations are usually a fictional account distorted through a heteronormative lens of heterosexual males and capitalists self interest this is demonstrated in the picture below The power and dominance of heteronormative ideals has caused many past gay and lesbian film actors to feel the need to conceal their true sexual identity. Some feel they need to conform to heteronormative ideals in order to fulfil the fantasies of the heterosexual mainstream audience. Many gay actors wish to remain closeted, for example Rock Hudson Hudson said he would rather die before fans discovered he was gay he even misled magazines by posing with glamorous female stars. In 1985 that Hudson had AIDS, and a brief lover publicly outed him to the media. For most film stars open homosexuality, or even rumours of homosexuality, could end their careers. Therefore, it is not surprising that some gay and lesbian actors disguise their sexuality. However contemporary modern western societies we are slowly seeing changes in societal altitude, due to the fragmented nature of modern societal structure people no longer share common norms and values, this is due to the break down of social solidarity, this has caused people to fight the restrictive nature of heteronormativity.
The British actor Rupert Everett came out publicly in 1989. Rather than ruining his career his openness of his sexual identity seems only to have made him more interesting to audiences. After his success in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), in which, however, he played a gay character, he landed a very big role as the voice of the heterosexual character prince charming in the famous film series of Shrek.
Challenging this normative heterosexuality by broadening the range of identities and desires represented through the visual media has been a central concern in works created by independent lesbian/gay/ bisexual/transgender television and film makers, these films aim to centre and normalize homosexual identity. Many people see the success of Queer as Folk as evidence that TV shows can still be enormously popular and profitable due to the growing demand in the market for an un-distorted true representation of LGBT individual’s lives.
I have mapped out the historical context which has explained some of the social changes that have occurred that could have contributed to the proliferation of images of (LGBT) people in popular culture. I will now look at the views of Queer Theorists and their position and influence on the increase of LGBT images in popular culture.
Queer theory was developed a response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, which promoted a renewal of radical activism. This theory contested against the increased homophobia brought about by public responses to AIDS. Queer theory became occupied in part with what effects – put into circulation around the AIDS epidemic – necessitated and nurtured new forms of political organization, education and theorizing in “queer”.
Queer theory developed out of unexamined constraints in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. Queer identity, unlike the other categories labeled lesbian or gay, has no interest in consolidating or stabilizing itself. It maintains its critique of identity-focus by understanding the formation of its own coalition; this may result in exclusionary effects in excess of those intended.
Queer theory challenges heteronormativity by providing recognition to a wide array of non-normative sexualities and sexual practices therefore not only applying to lesbian and gay men, but transsexual, bisexual, intersexual individuals. Queer theorists aim to challenge the cultural notions of “straight” ideology by the deconstruction the constraints of gender and sexual categorization, through challenging heteronormative ideals they wish to de-stigmatize those affected by segregation and repression.
Queer theorists hold that sexuality is fluid and therefore should not be restrained by categorization. The fragmentation characteristic of modern societies that has occurred has caused a decline in social solidarity therefore people do not share the same cultural norms, beliefs, or sexual orientation many people in modern societies have multiple identities therefore cannot be homogenized for the purpose of categorization. They focus on the individual subjective nature of gender and sexual identity and respect the meanings of these identities are only valid in that particular space and time. This perspective contrasts the essentialist’s theory, essentialists hold that gender and sexuality is an essential part of an individual’s biology which is determined at birth this notion is rejected by queer theorists.
Hollywood film productions pursues the “straight” theme as being the dominant theme to outline what masculine is. This is particularly noticeable in gangster films, action films and westerns, which never have “weak” (read: homosexual) men playing the heroes, with the recent exception of the film Brokeback Mountain. Queer theory looks at destabilizing and shifting the boundaries of these cultural constructions.
“Queer theory” was originally associated with radical gay politics of ACT UP, Outrage! and other groups which embraced “queer” as an identity label that pointed to a separatist, non-assimilationist politics. Queer theory developed out of unexamined constraints in the traditional identity politics of recognition and self-identity. Queer identity, unlike the other categories labeled lesbian or gay, has no interest in consolidating or stabilizing itself. It maintains its critique of identity-focus by understanding the formation of its own coalition; this may result in exclusionary effects in excess of those intended.
Foucault theories contributed to the formulation of queer theory in his publication The History of Sexuality, he follows the social fluidity of gender and sexual orientation and the categorization of those of difference. He demonstrates how labels are created through different discourses and power relations therefore meanings reflect the social attitudes of that particular context E.g. Sodomy and homosexuality. According to Foucault he term homosexual was created through the discourses of medicine and especially psychiatry. But the consequences of this discourse transformed a previously socially accepted form of sexual expression to a sinful, mental condition. Foucault holds that prior to the invention of these labels of difference people were just people.
Queer culture in general is intertwining with the common “normative” culture, with people being exposed to the ideas of gay pride and becoming more educated about queer studies in schools and society.
Queer theorists focus on problems in classifying every individual as either male or female, even on a strictly biological basis. For example, the sex chromosomes (X and Y) may exist in atypical combinations (as in Klinefelter’s syndrome [XXY]). This complicates the use of genotype as a means to define exactly two distinct genders. Intersexed individuals may for many different biological reasons have ambiguous sexual characteristics
By the middle of the second decade of the twentieth century, the conception of homosexuality as a distinct identity category, with implications of mental and physical illness, homosexuality was no longer defined as a mental disorder
Although homosexuality would not be categorized as a distinct type of “deviant” personality until the beginning of the twentieth century, heterosexual values were effectively imposed throughout western society during the nineteenth century
In the new millennium, gay activism has increasingly become less galvanized by the specter of AIDS and has seemingly splintered into dozens of micro-movements–focusing on issues ranging from gays in the military to parenting, same-sex marriage, workplace fairness.
Yet others raise questions about the stigmatization of the gay body in those media that treat AIDS as a sign of the perversion of gay sexual practices and reinforce prejudices and stereotypes that contribute to homophobia.
Some represent the gay body in terms of its erotic and sensual power, while others, in the hope of raising awareness, inscribe it within the structure of their art as a positive model of affirmation and sexual liberation.
In contemporary visual representations, the gay body manifests itself through the presentation of iconographic codes and semantic referents constituted in the objectification of sociosexual and cultural actions of the gay community. Whether active or passive participants in this community, gay artists express themselves by proposing their sexuality as a locus for learning and communicating real experience, all the while critiquing media-promulgated stereotypes which they dispute, reject or adopt.
For more than two decades, precipitated by the feminist movement, the gay/lesbian liberation movement, and the AIDS crisis, discourses of gender, sexuality, and sexual identity have been central to visual representation.
As closet doors protecting “compulsory heterosexuality”(6) are opened – and the sight lines of those constrained within are expanded – our system of difference/s is seen at every level to bear traces of coerced subordination.
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