GLAAD releases index of LGBT representation on television

GLAAD has released their third annual Network Responsibility Index, a review of LGBT representation on television. I found this report particularly interesting as I’m a pop culture addict who constantly finds myself consuming deeply problematic media that seldom represents my community.
Some key findings:

• HBO led all networks with 58.5 (42%) of the network’s 140 total programming hours featuring LGBT representation. This is an increase of 16% over the previous season. Of HBO’s 14 original series, 10 included LGBT content and of the four that did not, three were sports news programming.
• For the third year in a row, ABC led the broadcast networks in LGBT-inclusive content. Of its 1,146.5 total hours of primetime programming, 269.5 hours (24%) included LGBT impressions and 9% were transgender-inclusive, making ABC the most fair, accurate and inclusive of the five broadcast networks.
• For the first time since GLAAD began this analysis, the network rankings changed and Fox rose to third place with 82.5 (11%) LGBT-inclusive hours, out of 782.5 total primetime programming hours. This is an increase from last year’s analysis, in which Fox’s LGBT content was tallied at 4% and received a “failing” grade. However, Fox also aired some problematic LGBT programming.
• CBS saw the greatest decline among the broadcast networks this year, dropping to last place with 60 hours (5%) of LGBT-inclusive content, out of 1,148 total hours of primetime programming.
• Of the 10 cable networks evaluated, Showtime was the only network to receive a Good rating, airing 20.5 (26%) LGBT-inclusive hours, out of 77.5 total hours of primetime programming.
• TNT had the biggest increase among all networks. In last year’s NRI, TNT received a Failing grade for airing a single hour (1%) of content. This year, TNT rose 18%, airing 13 LGBT inclusive hours (19%) out of its 69 total hours of original programming.
• TBS only offered a half hour (1%) and A&E aired two hours (1%) of LGBT-inclusive programming out of 39.5 and 166.5 total hours of original primetime programming, respectively. This resulted in the networks tying for the lowest ranking and score among the 10 cable networks evaluated.

Some of my thoughts, with a few minor spoilers from this past year of TV:


I was particularly happy to see a focus in the report on the racial diversity of LGBT characters, and sadly not surprised that a majority of queer characters are white. Notable exceptions are the CW, where queer people of color are prominently featured on America’s Next Top Model and Privileged (though the latter, which had a very thoughtful storyline about gay marriage, has been canceled), and HBO, which features Lafayette on True Blood and Lloyd on Entourage, though most of the network’s queer characters are male.
I am especially interested in trans representation on television. As the report mentions, Alexis Meade was featured prominently on Ugly Betty, which I thought did a fairly good job of dealing with her gender identity when the character was first introduced. However, the character was unceremoniously written off the show this season at around the same time a lesbian character, Dr. Hahn, was written off of Grey’s Anatomy. The CW got props for featuring Isis King, America’s Next Top Model’s first openly transgender contestant. However, I felt a number of transphobic comments from other contestants went unaddressed. Further, I think producers let Isis’ gender identity become an impediment to her success on the show (Isis was voted off the show after she was visibly nervous during a photo shoot in which she was wearing a swimsuit).
Finally, I was glad to see FOX called out for “problematic LGBT programming.” While blogging at Choice Words I wrote two pieces about the gender politics of the network’s reality show So You Think You Can Dance? (So You Think You Can Dance (Masculine)? and So You Think You Can Dance (Masculine)? Part 2). FOX and other networks absolutely need to be told that homophobic and transphobic programming is not acceptable.
Pop culture representation of diverse communities is important. Seeing oneself reflected in media can be empowering and help with feelings of isolation. As a young person without a trans community it would have been helpful to see that other people like me exist. It is also valuable for straight folks to see representations of queer and transgender folks that show some of the diversity of our communities and present us as complex multidimensional people, not just stereotypes. As a white person I see myself reflected in a vast amount of popular media along the axis of race. This reinforces white supremacy by mirroring it back to the world and further normalizing whiteness. But my sexuality and gender identity are seldom if ever positively represented in mainstream media, suggesting that people like me don’t exist or are not as valuable as cisgender heterosexuals.
Readers, what are your reactions to GLAAD’s report and your thoughts on LGBT representation on television? Do you see your communities represented in pop culture?

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25 Comments

  1. alixana
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Jos, did you see SyFy’s (who got an F this time around) press release about how they will be introducing LGBT characters in their upcoming new fall shows? Ming-Na will be one of the main characters on Stargate Universe, and her wife will be a recurring character, and it sounds like Caprica will feature more than one gay character. It sounds like they’re trying to stay away from the sensationalist dramatics, although only time will tell if they’re respectful about it.
    http://www.tvguide.com/News/Syfy-GLAAD-Caprica-1008493.aspx
    (PS – don’t read the comments, TVGuide is one of those playgrounds for anonymous homophobic internet bullies)
    The praise for ABC confuses me, because the treatment of Dr. Hahn and Alexis Meade were very troubling, while at the same time, they treat Kevin and Scotty on Brothers & Sisters and Marc on Ugly Betty (although I haven’t watched it in a year) pretty well. Maybe there’s something to that, that only the male gay characters are supported? Although as soon as they got rid of Dr. Hahn, they brought in Jessica Capshaw to be Callie’s new girlfriend – AND she was just promoted to series regular. Really not sure what is going on there.

  2. msmam
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I’d actually be interested in your take on True Blood, Jos (and anyone else who wants to chime in). I’m a fan of the show and the books it is based on, and Lafayette is an awesome character. But I sometimes find it problematic that Alan Ball has turned “vampire rights” into a thinly-veiled metaphor for LGBT rights. It works in some ways, but because, unlike people, vampires are ultimately dangerous – they literally feed off of others for survival and several in the show are exceptionally cruel and sadistic – the parallel can tap into the conservative paranoia that LGBT people who demand equal rights secretly possess dangerous and deadly impulses.
    I’ve blogged a little about the feminist implications of the show, but lately this angle has been intriguing me and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Thoughts, anyone?

  3. Mama Mia
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    msmam,
    I haven’t seen the True Blood show yet, but I have read all the books. The books very clearly turn vampires into a parallel for all minorities, with the most obvious being LGBT. So it isn’t Alan Ball doing it.

  4. teacherwoman
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I watched ONE episode of So You Think You Can Dance (the audition episode) and I basically saw a male pair of dancers be treated like shit. It really left me feeling terrible for the guys (one was gay, the other was not) and I told myself I am never watching that show again. One of the judges actually said something along the lines of.. “You will alienate our viewers.” That’s when I realized I didn’t fit into the demographic of their viewers.

  5. ginasf
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    While I give GLAAD props for putting out this survey, there are several aspects to it I find frustrating. Throwing GLBT into one big pot of representation makes the report less effective. There is no highly specific breakdown of the representation of lesbians, bi-people and especially trans people. Nor does discuss the type of representations and usage which are presented.
    I love Mark on Ugly Betty but he’s not that different a character than the fussy gay sales clerk one sees for a minute or two in 1930s films. Okay, yes, he has a name. Once in a while he’s given a little character expansion and those plotlines are summarily removed in a few weeks to make way for Lindsey Lohan’s lame guest appearance. As was mentioned, a trans character like Alexis was brought on for a time, used in a mostly exploitative way and minimized down to a dribble until Rebecca Romijn just wanted out. Isis was eliminated from Top Model fairly early after they had two swimsuit challenges in a row (never seen that before or since). Yes, that was quite a coincidence. Candis Cayne’s character (an unspoken sexworker) was minimized out of Dirty Sexy Money, then killed off (pretty much to make way for straight character plotlines). To my knowledge, the only trans character currently on TV is Kerri Washington on “Life is hot in Cracktown” playing a trans hooker. Ms. Washington is a wonderful actress but it’s hard to get excited seeing yet another transwoman portrayed as a crackwhore. An Intersex girl who was mis-assigned a boy at birth was portrayed on an episode of “House”. At the end of the episode, we’re supposed to feel optimistic ‘his’ parents will let ‘him’ take dance lessons instead of play basketball. Dr. Phil had a show on “Gender Confused Children” which prominently featured ‘a researcher’ from Dobson’s Focus on the Family who supported reparative therapy. Is mention made of such portrays in the GLAAD report?
    Unfortunately, the GLAAD report reminds me too much of the HRC Corporate Index, meaning it minimizes anything other than Gay/Lesbian issues and is firmly planted in 1995 mentalities. It’s too much about quantity and not nearly enough about the quality and complexity of portrayals.

  6. jellyleelips
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    It’s a shame they only reviewed 10 cable networks, since Bravo and Logo are pretty damn gay. Actually, wouldn’t Logo be 100% gay? Bravo is probably up there, maybe 70%.

  7. Caro13
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I am a “So You Think You Can Dance” fan, and I totally agree… that whole thing with Nigel and the male dance partners made me really upset. I think it’s strange in general how SYTYCD fails to represent LGBT people, considering that I would guess that many of the dancers they have had on the show over the years have been gay. I’m sure they would claim that the dancers’ sexuality just doesn’t come up, or that it’s a family show, or some such crap — however, they do occasionally talk about a dancer’s personal life or partner (e.g. repeated mentions of Randi’s husband in the current season), and the show’s format is overarchingly heteronormative (male-female partners, usually doing sexual and/or romantically-themed dances). Basically, the complete centering of heterosexuality is pretty glaring.

  8. Eresbel
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about that, too. And so far, the only vampire Sookie has actually met that’s not violent and isn’t opposed to the Vampire-Rights movement (being that it is too “nice”) is Bill. All the others she’s met are violent, which makes me wonder how many vampires actually want to be integrated into human mainstream culture. She “sees” nice vampires on TV, but none show up in the actual show. Which makes me think of the “liberal media” that conservatives dislike on account of their adherence to the “gay agenda”, because they believe LGBT folk are different from those the media displays.

  9. Icy Bear
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I actually really, really love that angle to True Blood. I was a bit iffy about it at first – as in, wait, are they saying that gay people are really all evil and dangerous? – but then I started to see it as a somewhat radical statement about diversity and tolerance.
    In the show, Sookie deals with all sorts of crazy elements of vampire cultures, things that go completely against her moral values, but she still remains a staunch advocate of vampire rights (and the show suggests that this is the right thing to do). Her advocacy for their rights is portrayed as a kind of moral imperative separate from the way the vampires behave and the often terrible things they do.
    I think far too often, the LGBT movement likes to portray itself as ‘safe’, that all these queer people are really ‘just like you’ (i.e., the HRC). In my mind, this does nothing for true diversity, which I think requires us to learn to accept difference, even when it’s not ‘just like us’. Not, of course, that I think we should be welcoming serial killers with open arms, but that equal rights should be fought for regardless of how mainstream or cooperative members in the group are. True Blood seems to be suggesting that equal rights are equal rights, regardless of whether or not you agree with the behavior of all individuals in that group – and that’s pretty powerful to me.
    That said, I can also see why this would be viewed differently, particularly by a conservative person, and how it could be dangerous because of that.

  10. Jos
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    What a fascinating topic msmam.
    I think allegory works best when it does not try to represent an entire issue or reality through another lens (The Chronicles of Narnia being one of the most well known examples of taking allegory too far, in my opinion). True Blood is certainly not without its problematic elements, but I think the show does a good job of letting aspects of the vampire storyline function as an allegory for gay rights in the U.S. without forcing everything about vampires to match up exactly with queer issues.
    I actually think the writers have deliberately shown that “vampire” does not completely equal “gay” a few times, as with the gay vampire character last season or the hilarious speech from one of the Christian fundamentalist characters in the last episode about how the worst sin is when a man, “does it to a vampire, or to a dude, or to a vampire-dude, that’s the cream de la cream of sin!”

  11. Geneva
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    While I think some of the contemporary, jazz, hip hop, etc pieces could easily be changed to showcase two men, or two women, romantically or not, I think that it’s a great deal more difficult to do this with ballroom pieces. The nature of ballroom dance is fairly gendered and the gender roles are there for a reason. Of course they can be overemphasized and taken too far at times, but the structure of ballroom dances is such that they usually require a guy and a girl to dance together in order for the look and feel of the dance to line up with the way that style is supposed to look. While I think there are a lot of problems with the show, and my mom comments nearly every other dance about how teensy the female costumes are, I think that some of the problems with gender roles on the show arise from the nature of the dances themselves and not from the judges or the choreographers or the dancers.

  12. simonismycat
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I would love to see more analysis of True Blood/the Sookie Stackhouse novels. I read about half of the first in the series, and I really didn’t think it was that great. My partner read the whole thing and concurred. But, since we both love supernatural storylines, we figured we’d check out True Blood anyway, in the hopes that it was better than the book. It seems like everyone we know has been talking about how awesome the show is, and I felt encouraged by the fact that Alan Ball was helming it. We Netflixed the first 2 eps, and well…we both thought it sucked.
    I think Harris’s premise is a great one–I like the concept of using fantasy/horror to explore issues of prejudice. I just don’t think it’s executed well. In the book, when the group of “bad” vamps comes into the bar, Sookie casually says something to the effect that “we didn’t get a lot of blacks in Merlotte’s, but [Evil Black Vamp Lady] certainly didn’t have anything to worry about” [because she is supernaturally powerful]. I don’t want Southern race relations to be sugar-coated (and my partner, who is Black and Southern, feels that Harris’s depictions of such are not off the mark), but I have a really hard time sympathizing with Sookie. The character of Tara doesn’t even in exist in the book (at least, in the first one), and if she is a main presence on True Blood, I could see warming up to it (but they could stand to ease up a little on the ABW stereotype, too). I am also really interested in Lafayette, but his character seemed pretty peripheral to me, and not a little stereotypic. I’d actually love it if this series were told from the perspective of a POC and/or a gay person (Lafayette, eg.)–I feel like the parallels between the vampires’s issues and race/sexuality issues could be more complex and interesting that way.
    Anyway, I’m just boggled that so many (progressive) people are raving about this show, and I would love to hear more discussion of it. Maybe I am way off in my perceptions of the show, so I’d like it if there were more thoughtful, critical analysis of it.
    /long, slightly OT ramble

  13. Former Jose
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Do you think queer people never take it into our heads to go ballroom dancing?
    Dances can be ADAPTED. All art forms change and adapt over the years. There’s no reason a choreographer of any reasonable talent could not choreograph a ballroom dance for two men or two women except for homophobia.

  14. Mina
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    “…I was particularly happy to see a focus in the report on the racial diversity of LGBT characters, and sadly not surprised that a majority of queer characters are white…
    “…Readers, what are your reactions to GLAAD’s report and your thoughts on LGBT representation on television? Do you see your communities represented in pop culture?”
    I don’t watch TV enough to comment well on the rest of the report, but I do have a small nitpicky question: by “a majority of queer characters are white,” did you just mean “more than half of queer characters are white” or did you mean “an even higher percentage of queer characters than of queer people in the potential audience are white, therefore underrepresenting queer people who aren’t white”?

  15. Mina
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    “…But I sometimes find it problematic that Alan Ball has turned ‘vampire rights’ into a thinly-veiled metaphor for LGBT rights. It works in some ways, but because, unlike people, vampires are ultimately dangerous – they literally feed off of others for survival and several in the show are exceptionally cruel and sadistic – the parallel can tap into the conservative paranoia that LGBT people who demand equal rights secretly possess dangerous and deadly impulses…”
    Good points!

  16. Mina
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    “…Not, of course, that I think we should be welcoming serial killers with open arms, but that equal rights should be fought for regardless of how mainstream or cooperative members in the group are. True Blood seems to be suggesting that equal rights are equal rights, regardless of whether or not you agree with the behavior of all individuals in that group – and that’s pretty powerful to me…”
    Wait a minute, according to msmam’s comment the vampires in the story “literally feed off of others for survival.” Is that accurate? If msmam’s comment is accurate, then I can understand how the “vampire rights” theme waters down the idea of “equal rights should be fought for regardless of how mainstream or cooperative members in the group are.”
    See, IRL there actually is a group that needs to feed off of others for their survival, and the members of this group are very un-mainstream and un-cooperative: the species of bacteria, fungii, hookworms, protists, virii if you count those as alive, etc. that live at least part of their life cycles as parasites in human beings.
    If equal rights for LGBT people gets symbolized by equal rights for a people-eating group, then that would be damning LGBT people and their rights with very faint praise and praising homophobia with very faint damnation. For example, it would be putting gay-bashing by cops and vigilantes on the same level as protecting children from hookworms eating their intestines.

  17. Devonian
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Not to mention that vampires validate most homophobic propaganda (they prey on “normal” people, they can “recruit” said victims to their ranks against their will, etc) on top of literally being monsters…

  18. Icy Bear
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, the premise of the series is that the vampires no longer have to feed off of others, because this new synthetic blood energy-drink-type-thing has been invented that means they can live without harming anyone else. Which plenty of the vampires do (or supplement the fake blood with blood of people who give it willingly, like the main character does when she lets her vampire boyfriend bite her during sex), making them not like parasites. The evil-and-dangerous part is the vampires who refuse to drink fake blood and would rather kill people instead.
    I have far too often heard people try to discredit social justice movements because of unpleasant (or often, just unfamiliar) elements within the oppressed group. I think it’s rather uncommon for people with privilege to face things they hate within an oppressed group and not let that waver their commitment to the group, and that’s what the main character in the series does. As I said, I could see how this could be viewed as very problematic, but in my interpretation, it’s a big step forward for a show to be encouraging people to support equal rights even when it’s incredibly difficult, dangerous, and emotionally taxing.

  19. Mina
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    “Well, the premise of the series is that the vampires no longer have to feed off of others, because this new synthetic blood energy-drink-type-thing has been invented that means they can live without harming anyone else. Which plenty of the vampires do (or supplement the fake blood with blood of people who give it willingly, like the main character does when she lets her vampire boyfriend bite her during sex), making them not like parasites. The evil-and-dangerous part is the vampires who refuse to drink fake blood and would rather kill people instead…”
    Thanks for clarifying that! :)

  20. Logrus
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    of the four that did not, three were sports news programming.
    So those three probably had some coverage of homosexual people, but the sexuality wasn’t the focus. Let’s be real, if you show one football game and each team has 53 players (not to go into coaching staff, etc) at least a couple of those dudes are friends of Dorothy.

  21. msmam
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Wow, thanks so much for the reply, Jos. The show is fascinating to me on so many levels and I’d love to see it addressed more on Feministing. I agree that they’ve used LGBT characters like Lafayette and Eddie to effectively complicate the vampire rights-LGBT rights parallel so it’s not a cut-and-dry deal. I’m interested to see where the Fellowship of the Sun plot line goes, because the church and the pastor are set up as homophobic and hypocritical, in addition to being anti-vampire. (The “cream de la cream” comment in the last episode was hilarious.)
    Icy Bear, I totally see your point. What bothers me is that if the allegory posits vampires as a literal threat and LGBT people as a metaphorical threat to conservative/mainstream society, as you point out, it only works if the audience already knows that LGBT people are not only diverse in many ways, but that the people considered “outside the mainstream” are nonetheless not going to “recruit” their kid or destroy their hetero marriage (or whatever other homophobic garbage is out there). I guess I would prefer it if the show could more explicitly challenge homophobia.
    Then again, most of those people who think LGBT folks are executing a top-secret conspiracy agenda to end straight marriage probably aren’t watching a show where a woman lets her boyfriend bite her during sex. :-)

  22. Jos
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    According to GLAAD’s index the majority of LGBT characters on television are white, as are the majority of straight characters.
    Regarding the second part of your question, I think having the demographics of TV characters line up exactly with the real world is much less important than having characters a diverse audience can identify with in a variety of ways. The lead characters on almost every show I can think of are white and straight, with queer and POC characters appearing almost exclusively in supporting roles.

  23. Kate6
    Posted July 30, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    As a transwoman, I have to disagree on Alexis Meade being a positive representation of what we’re about. She’s portrayed as someone who was functional and successful enough to be “the favorite son” before transition, whereas most of us struggle with extremely serious anxiety and depression before we finally come to term with the fact that we need to live our lives as women in order to have any chance of having sane lives.
    Also, transpeople are required to spend a year living in the gender role of their target sex and demonstrating that we can function in that role by holding down a full time job or being a full time student before we’re approved for genital surgery. This requirement to “prove ourselves” before we’re allowed full autonomy over our own bodies is highly controversial, and personally I find it hard not to see it as highly related to the freedom of choice on abortion debate. Ugly Betty completely ignores it, though – Alexis Meade drops out of public life as Alex, the son that everyone thought had died, and then reappears suddenly as Alexis.
    And the absolute worst part? In real life, no transwoman wants to be pegged as a transwoman. None of us want to be thought of as a curiosity. None of us want the prejudice or the special status of being transgender. We all just want to lead normal lives and not be treated any differently than as if we were genetically female. But not Alexis Meade. Alexis Meade follows one of the worst and most outmoded stereotypes of transwomen in existence – the idea that we spend ridiculous amounts of money, time and energy in order to shock people.
    When Alexis’ character is first introduced on the show, she sneaks her way into becoming one of the models in a huge fashion show that the magazine Betty works for is holding. They make a big point of saying that this fashion show is a huge media event. Then, right on stage, Alexis grabs for the mike and lets everyone know that she’s really Alex.
    No transwoman will ever do anything along these lines. If anything, we go to great lengths in the exact opposite direction. We try to hide any evidence of our former names. We try to leave as little evidence as possible of our being transgendered. We’re painfully aware that if such evidence pops up, it can in some situations lead to our children being taken from us. To our marriages being declared null. To employers firing us suddenly (support a trans inclusive ENDA!). Even worse, in some communities it can lead to our being murdered just for being ourselves. Alexis Meade doesn’t seem concerned with any of this.
    The most realistic portrayal of a transwoman I’ve seen on television in recent times was Carmelita, played by Candis Cayne, an actual transwoman, on “Dirty Sexy Money” (which ABC has canceled.) I liked her portrayal for two reasons: (1) she’s dating a character who’s running for public office, and she’s extremely aware that, as a transwoman, it’s probably better for her to stay out of the limelight. In fact most of the storylines involving her revolve around the conflict there… and (2) the mix of responses and attitudes that other characters on the show have towards her are fairly representative of the mix of attitudes and responses that transwomen encounter in real life.

  24. Posted July 30, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d recommend giving it more of a chance than two eps. Tara and Lafayette’s more stereotypical behaviors become shown as coping mechanisms as we learn more about them; both characters have gotten a lot more complex since the beginning of the series.

  25. Hershele Ostropoler
    Posted August 2, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Bram Stoker treated vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality. So it wasn’t Charlaine Harris’s idea either.
    Beyond that, it’s a bit reductive to say “vampires, unlike LGBT humans, are inherently evil.” It largely depends on the work; there are Black Ribboners all over — including, I understand, True Blood.

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