A few months ago, I had the opportunity to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Stratford, England, with some friends. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we entered the theater full of anticipation. About ten minutes into the play, however, the reveal came: the male characters, almost without exception, were portrayed as being actively gay. More than that, they were portrayed as villains (drug dealers and gold-diggers, in fact). Also, the directors decided to stay true to Shakespeare’s portrayal of these characters as sixteenth-century Christians. We were now faced with “protagonists” who were actively gay, orthodox Christians, and villains. Talk about confusion and mixed messages!
This experience led me to reflect on a strange phenomenon which I have noticed in the entertainment industry, particularly in movies (and apparently plays, too). And no, it’s not just the flagrant misinterpretation of Shakespeare (though I could say a lot about that, too).
There is a theme which I have noticed in the film industry today, and which has haunted me due to its seeming strangeness: the phenomenon of the insignificant or negative gay character.
There are several particular instances of this, all belonging to very mainstream franchises which I want to highlight as key examples of this phenomenon.
Based on the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock is BBC’s most successful series. As might be expected of a contemporary portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, the creators of the series toy with the concept of Sherlock’s and John’s sexuality, and in the second episode of Season 2, “The Hounds of Baskerville”, they visit a pub in which the owner and the bartender are revealed to be gay partners. These two men are very minor characters and have little impact on the plot. Their homosexuality matters nothing to the story. It’s just there.
In the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, Bond combats Raoul Silva, an M16-agent-turned-terrorist. In the movie, although never explicitly identified as gay, Silva exhibits behavior highly suggestive of it, and has been categorized as such (and celebrated as an indication of “progress” in popular media) by many. This portrayal of a character as both actively gay and villainous seems contradictory to the intentions one might expect of a non-conservative filmmaker today.
Another example can be found in Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey. Thomas Barrow, a butler of the aristocratic Crawley family, is revealed to be gay and to have had an affair with another man. From the very beginning of the series, Thomas is portrayed as malicious, cruel, and ruthless; although he does have some redeeming moments, his behavior is usually despicable. As the series progresses, it seems that some of Thomas’ bitterness is caused by the hostility towards gay people which was the dominant attitude of the time. This explanation, however, cannot account for all of the malice he exhibits. What is the intention of Downton Abbey’s creators here?
I’m not going to make a case against the gay lifestyle in this post. I am writing, however, with the belief that the actively gay lifestyle is disordered and damaging, both to the person who engages in it and the society to which that person belongs, because it is not the way in which the human heart and body are designed to love. When instances of this lifestyle begin to appear in insignificant or even negative contexts in popular film and television franchises, one explanation particularly stands out to me.
The phenomenon of the insignificant or negative gay character appears to be an attempt at the desensitization of modern culture with regards to the gay lifestyle.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word “desensitize” as “to cause (someone or something) to react less to or be less affected by something: to cause (someone or something) to be less sensitive.” This callousness or numbness is usually the result of repeated exposure to or contact with something, ultimately leading to a diminishing of the proper reaction to it. Numerous studies have shown the effects of other repeated exposures to harmful things (such as violence in video games and film), and the callousness and lack of reaction which are produced by them.
Why are we seeing this trend of including either neutral and insignificant, or negative and highly-prominent, gay characters in movies and TV series? What end will this achieve for the LGBT cause? Ultimately, I think, the answer is simply desensitization. Of individuals. Of consciences. Of modern culture as a whole.
By exposing film and television audiences to repeated portrayals of the actively gay lifestyle, regardless of the insignificant or negative context, it seems that filmmakers are bringing about a cultural desensitization with regards to the destructiveness of the gay lifestyle.
It doesn’t matter if the gay character is the hero, the villain, or the guy behind the counter at the gas station. What matters is the fact that he (or she) is active in the gay lifestyle, and the effect which this, along with countless other instances, produces over time in the audience.
I have to admit that I don’t have the final answer to this issue, or to the question of what role gay characters ought to have in popular media. Gay people today are generally accepted and supported much more than they have been in the past. This does not, however, make the actively gay lifestyle any less disordered and destructive for both the individual and society. There is a tension between the need to support and love those who struggle with same-sex attraction, and the reality that the actively gay lifestyle cannot be promoted or normalized. What then is the proper way homosexuality should be portrayed in the media? Should it be portrayed at all? If so, how can this be done in a way that is respectful and supportive of gay people, but does not condone disordered behavior? It’s a tough question, and one to which I don’t have a satisfactory answer.