Monday, March 1, 2010

When Is Gay Love Not Problematic On Television?


“Spartacus Blood and Sand” is a historical fiction based on a Roman gladiator that started a slave uprising.  It has the right amount of blood, gore, sex and beautiful bodies to be somewhat compelling.  Ancient Rome allows an uncomplicated view of human sexuality.   It is not uncommon to see women objectify men and in a world in which femininity is often more object than subject, this is definitely a gender reversal. 

image In the early episodes we are introduced to a gay relationship between Barka the beast of Carthage and his lover Petrus.  We are first introduced to the pair in a brief camera glimpse as they engage in sex.  Slowly, it is revealed that more exists between the two – love.  In moments both sweet and tender we see affection shared between Barka and Petrus, as they begin to dream of a life together free of slavery and violence.  There is no moral dilemma regarding the relationship , unlike many media representations of gay romance, that are not specifically targeted at a GLBT audience.   Their love is not sanitized and is depicted as graphically as the heterosexual relationships on the show.   Their relationship is even more unique because it displays love between men of colour.  Often the face of the LGBT community in the media is white and affluent.  Though it is problematic that people of colour are once again reduced to the status of slaves, when we consider the time period in which the show is set, this is a fair characterization.

Just as I had begun to ponder why it is, that it seems that only in period pieces, that love between people of the same gender is depicted without artifice or problematic elements, Barka the Beast of Carthage was summarily killed, leaving his lover alone and despondent.  It seems old habits die hard for Hollywood. Unlike cable, HBO does not have the same limitations and yet on two of its hit shows, gay men have been killed off.

image On the show “Big Love,” which is about Mormon polygamists, for the first time after years of anonymous sex, Alby Grant found love with another Mormon man.  Though their relationship was complicated by homophobia within the Mormon faith and Dale’s marriage, the love between them was obvious.  Like all gay love on television it was doomed to end in tragedy.  In an apartment rented so that the two could have a space away from prying eyes, Dale hung himself leaving Alby to find his dead body.

Each time there is a new GLBT relationship on television, gay activist celebrate the representation because there is no doubt that the media continues to overwhelmingly focus on heterosexual love and romance.  These representations are not  cause for celebration and in fact represent a pyrrhic victory. These relationships tell the viewer that unlike heterosexual love, romance between people of the same gender is destined for failure or death and this in and of itself continues to maintain heterosexual privilege.  It speaks of something unnatural because these relationships when featured in a mainstream show are never destined to blossom and grow the way that heterosexual ones are.

Blacks are continually portrayed as thieves, rapists, drug dealers, prostitutes and gang bangers in the media.  In an evening of watching television one is most likely to see a Black face; however, the roles that they are given to play often upholds White hegemony.  What celebration can be found in this stereotypical, self-serving representation?  Should Blacks do a dance when they are once again cast as the dregs of humanity?  Just as the media maintains racism through its portrayal of Blacks in a position that is decidedly “othering” so to are BLGT people and their relationships stigmatized.  It is not enough to celebrate a TLBG representation without critically examining the portrayal.

image To get the rainbow stamp of approval, the media is continually increasing its representation of the LGBT community; however, in so doing a dangerous trend is occurring because of the repeated death of characters or of stereotypical portrayals.  On the highly popular “True Blood,” where the character of Lafayette is a genuine fan favourite, he is a drug dealing prostitute, even as he delivers what are arguably some of the best lines on the show. We can perhaps commend the writers of the show for taking the character further than Charlene Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series; however, change certainly did not apply to refusing to cast a Black same gender loving man in a role that ultimately reifies many of the negative stereotypes attached to Black gay men.  While it is exciting to see a Black gay male on television, his role as a prostitute and a drug dealer only helps to reify the image of gay men as predators

As long as these characters continue to be written by straight people who are determined to hold on to their heterosexual privilege, these stunted portrayals of the LGBT community will continue.  It is time to stop squealing with joy every time we see a new character who identifies as GLBT and demand that these characters be normalized.  It is time that gay love not only be represented but be portrayed in the same explicit fashion as heterosexual love, without the characters dying or being portrayed as problematic.  As long as we are willing to settle for any face, as long as it is a TLBG face, the media will continue to uphold heterosexual privilege.  Don’t young BLGT teens deserve to see themselves accurately represented?  Don’t they deserve more than to believe that every mendacious characterization that they have heard is true?  Just as the Black community has made a point of being critical of media portrayals of Blacks, so to must the TLGB community.  The media is an agent of socialization and therefore the message that it sends cannot be ignored.