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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Populäre Kulturen

Challenging Heterosexism from the Other Point of View

Representations of Homosexuality in Present-Day Television Series


Forschungskredit der Universität Zürich


11.2006 to 04.2010


Prof. Dr. Ingrid Tomkowiak


lic.phil Dana Frei


More than ever before, present-day television series include gay- and lesbian-themed material and discuss sex-related issues. Besides the numerous shows that have begun to feature homosexual characters in addition to a mainly heterosexual world of fiction, the past few years have brought about a number of television shows which concentrate predominantly on homosexual characters and depict their lifestyles particularly as homosexuals. One mainstream example of such a series is Will & Grace (1998-2006), a comedy series which deals with homosexuality in a very light-hearted way. Other shows, however, have been much more frank in their depiction of homosexual lifestyles and sex, and have dared to include very controversial storylines, such as same-sex marriage, coming out, drugs, gay adoption, artificial insemination, safe sex, HIV-positive status, discrimination in the work place based on sexual orientation, internet pornography, and the like. Series such as Queer as Folk (UK: 1999-2000; USA: 2000-2005) or The L Word (since 2004) feature explicit sex scenes and reflect upon previously taboo aspects of homosexuality in a very straightforward and explicit way. A first part of this dissertation will be to analyse the ways in which popular forms of entertainment (specifically television shows) have, in the past decade, changed in their forms of representing homosexual characters in general and what kinds of social changes this altered discourse sprung out of and what changes it has brought about respectively. In a next step, it will be the aim of this dissertation to discuss how specifically ‘queer’ shows fulfil a function of challenging institutionalised attitudes of society (such as dichotomous notions of gender, heterosexism or ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, homophobia etc.), and to raise the question whether they also serve to do the opposite unintentionally, if we consider the question of constructionism. Judith Butler’s notion of performativity does not only apply to gender but also to aspects of sexual orientation. On the one hand, for example, the parody and drag portrayed in the discussed shows exaggerate gender and thereby unmask it as performance and a social construct. On the other hand, a television series dealing explicitly with homosexuality and depicting the lives of a number of characters as homosexuals may also harden stereotypes and give a rather rigid image of the concept of homosexual identity (i.e. is camp a performance of gender or rather of sexual orientation?). Thus, in the same way the discussed television shows may challenge certain attitudes of society, they may also harden some others (such as stereotypes and issues of identity).

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