The diversity of the contestants, judges and participants on The Great British Bake Off television game show, and new US programmes such as Sense8, suggest popular media has reached a milestone in its portrayal of individuals with gender associations and sexual preferences that were taboo a generation ago. Once relegated to niche cinema, many parts of the LGBT community see themselves reflected in mainstream media.
Matt Kane, director of programmes and entertainment media at Glaad, the US campaign group, says LGBT people “live and exist in all walks of life and it’s important stories being told about the world represent that”.
Glaad tracks the number of LGBT depictions on US television and in cinema. “For a number of years we’ve seen that number go up along the same curve that we’ve also seen public opinion shift,” says Mr Kane. But he adds it is time to see representations “of the full diversity of our community”. He believes the media has some way to go in jettisoning stereotypes and prejudices and rooting LGBT characters firmly in reality.
Brian Robinson, programmer for BFI Flare, the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, agrees. He says it is “a very, very narrow range of LGBT life that’s reflected in mainstream culture”, adding: “There’s very little about the real fluidity and diversity of sexual identity.”
The portrayal of trans people is the latest frontier to be crossed in television and on the web.
In Britain, BBC2’s Boy Meets Girl depicts “the first real transgender character in a primetime comedy”, says BFI Flare’s Mr Robinson. Even EastEnders now has a transgender character. Similarly in the US, Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013) broke new ground by casting Laverne Cox, a trans woman, to play a trans woman.
Glaad’s Mr Kane says online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are “trying to distinguish themselves as groundbreaking storytellers by choosing to tell stories that haven’t really been told before”. He cites Nomi in Sense8 (Netflix, 2015) as a character who “never ignores the fact she’s trans but tells a story that deals with all different aspects of her life”.
US comedy Transparent (Amazon Studios, 2015) “is as much about a change in television as it is about personal change”, notes one critic on the Rotten Tomatoes website.
But Christopher Pullen, senior lecturer in media theory at Bournemouth University, notes the media offers a constructed version that matches what dominant audiences want to buy. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hollywood, which is seen as 10 years behind television in the way it depicts LGBT lives.
BFI Flare’s Mr Robinson takes particular issue with this year’s film Stonewall, saying it “seemed to be everything we wanted”, but concluded that “the history of the Stonewall riots had been literally whitewashed”. In this instance he feels history was misrepresented for commercial effect to appeal to a straight, white audience.
Glaad’s Mr Kane agrees, lamenting the missed opportunity to portray LGBT rights to a global audience, especially in countries where LGBT people are still not recognised as full citizens. Mr Pullen believes Hollywood is still far from creating a central hero who, unremarkably, happens to be gay, lesbian or transgender.
“No LGBT person should be defined primarily by the fact that they are LGBT,” notes Mr Kane.
This is something The Great British Bake Off gets right — its presenters and contestants are not defined by their age, race, gender, class or sexual orientation. They just happen to be part of a surprisingly popular televised British baking competition.