There is an episode of Will and Grace that I always seem to remember. In this episode Jack gets excited because his favourite TV show is going to show a ‘man on man’ kiss for the first time on prime time television. When the episode goes on air however, the kiss is not actually shown, but just implied. Jack is rightfully upset and spends the rest of the episode fighting with the network over the treatment of queer people on television. The episode ends with Will and Jack kissing on Regis Live, therefore becoming the two men who have the first ‘man on man’ kiss on prime time television.
This episode sticks out for me because it manages to hit the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of homophobia in the entertainment industry, whilst doing so through a very homophobic prism.
This episode has a great narrative around the treatment of queer people in the entertainment industry. Queer people are still regularly left out of prime time film and TV, and queer sex is extremely rare and never graphic in its description (i.e. it is only ever implied, never shown). For example, after a successful run at film festivals around the world, a new film called I Love You, Phillip Morris, has recently found it extremely difficult to break through in cinemas. Whilst the film managed to get some distribution Europe, it was not until many of the gay sex scenes were deleted that it found a distributer in the US. Even after this though, the film has been delayed a number of times and when released is unlikely to be widely distributed.
I Love You, Phillip Morris, just like the characters in Jack’s show, is the victim of overt homophobia from the entertainment industry. Being a film with some raunchy ‘man on man’ sex scenes the film was clearly considered either not appropriate for mainstream consumption or at least unable to make any money for any of the mainstream distributors.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Many DVD stores now have decent queer film sections. But these films are still part of a niche genre – a niche that is normally only targeted at queer audiences and normally receive very little success. As Scott Stiffle says:
“Lesbian gay bisexual and transvestite cinema is still seen as an underground, specific genre. When it comes to Hollywood mainstream, they (film distributors) want the widest audience possible for the amount of money they spend.”
This is true, even for mainstream queer films. Brokeback Mountain for example, only grossed $83 million dollars in the US, whilst I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry [about two heterosexual men who enter into a civil partnership as part of a pension scam] was able to bring in $120 million.
Yet, this sort of homophobia, which is the most obvious, is not actually the most prevalent. The most prevalent, and the most silent, is that of the Will and Grace type. It is the homophobia that puts queer characters in a special box where their queerness is quite evident (through pushing stereotypes) and laughed at. Queer characters are rarely serious and if they are, they are pushed into the niche genre. As Scott Stiffle, author of ‘Why Hollywood Avoids Gay Movies’ states:
“Mostly straight, multiplex-going audiences don’t want to see a romantic comedy in which two dudes get it on; unless it is meant as a joke.”
Will and Grace is full of this type of homophobia. Will, one of the main characters, starts off relatively ‘straight acting’. The other gay character in the show, Jack, offsets this by being overtly camp. This creates the comedy for the show; something that would have been missing if both characters were straight acting. As the show goes on, Will get more camp – quite clearly a reaction to the popularity of Jack as a character.
Jack and Will are also never seen having any form sex, or even getting close to it. Whilst they talk about sex, they are generally only spoken about after the fact and even kissing is not shown. This is despite the fact that Grace is shown kissing and occasionally having sex (although not graphically).
This broad treatment of the gay characters in Will and Grace can be seen across the film and television industry (I say gay characters, because it is extremely rare to see Lesbians, Bisexuals, Intersex or Trans* people on mainstream TV – more about this soon).
In fact, when looking at any mainstream TV shows or movies that involve gay characters you can see that they are always put into particular boxes. Either they are a ‘mainstream’ character or they are a joke character. Mainstream characters are those who play the lead in a show – i.e. Will. These characters’ generally have very little character depth, apart from their sexuality, which is displayed in a very sexual way even though they are never shown having sex on screen (for example, Will is always shown walking around in tank tops, but never has sex). Joke characters, such as Jack, fill the comic void, through making a joke out of their sexuality. They do so through acting overtly camp and making a joke over their homosexuality. Normally these characters are the same person – they are a sexy person who you can laugh at.
These roles are generally only true for gay men. That is because other queer people are simply not shown on mainstream TV or film. Why?
Because it is considered hard to make stereotypical non-gay queer characters either sexy or funny (which is the aim of the queer characters in other genres)? For example, the stereotypical angry, butch lesbian is someone who you apparently can’t make sexy or funny. The facts that not all lesbians are butch and angry, that just because someone is butch and angry that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny and sexy or that even if they aren’t funny and angry they can still be a good and serious character, are simply ignored. There are certain roles queer characters are there to play, and according to general stereotypes, it is only gay men can do this.
This silent homophobia of the entertainment industry is present and extremely strong. Queer people are left out of mainstream television and film and when they are let in are placed into a stereotypical box that creates a character role that is focused solely on the funniness of their sexuality.
It doesn’t have to stay like this. Some queer film is now moving away from being a niche category. Films such as Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man and I Love You, Phillip Morris are starting to bring queer entertainment into the mainstream. Yet, even though these films are good, they are still narrow in their focus (i.e. they are still solely based on gay men). We should support these films, but do so in a way that encourages the broadening of the genre itself to fully reflect the diversity of queer people.
However, it is not the queer film industry that is solely going to solve the problem. We are not going to see any major change in the entertainment industry until we start to break down the queer stereotypes that still dominate our society. This is a tough challenge, but one we must rise to.