Fair and balanced

Another cartoon by William Haefeli on gay male life, this time in the May 31 New Yorker:

(Note that the cartoon guys seem to be getting the Haefeli Channel on their tv. Or maybe that’s just the way everyone looks in HaefeliWorld.)

Several things here, some linguistic, some not.

First, there’s the dogged searching out of “our kind” of people in the media — something members of marginalized groups very often do. Think of Henry Louis Gates’s poignant recollections of his childhood (in his 1994 Colored People: A Memoir), with his family and their friends seizing on representations of black people on radio and television, even when these were produced by white people and even when they were unflattering; what mattered was that they were.

These things do matter, both to the marginalized group and to the groups surrounding them. So there are fusses about the first female, the first black, the first gay, the first Hispanic, the first Jewish, the first transgender, the first Southern, the first non-native-born, etc. this or that, including the firsts in the media as well as in real life. Those inside the marginalized group look for what they see as signs of progress, those outside it fret about what they see as signs of encroachment.

Then there’s the numbers game. Again, people inside a marginalized group and people outside it care about the relative numbers (10:2,174 in the cartoon). In particular, are media representations fair and balanced? Do, for instance, gay characters appear on television in numbers approximating their numbers in the society? (Indeed: in the real world, are the ratios acceptable, especially to those outside the group? Are there “too many” or “too few” or “just about the right number of” gay people in the society? Such judgments are a matter of opinion, though for some groups they are sometimes a matter of public policy.)

How to gauge what would be fair media representation of gay people? Different sources give different percentages for the incidence of homosexuality in America — see below — but we could start with the crude 10% figure that’s often used in gay circles to name organizations, commercial establishments, and the like.

That would give us an estimate of 218 “expected” gay characters (after rounding) in a population of 2,184 characters (yes, I know, Haefeli just pulled the numbers 2,174 and 10 out of a hat). So the “observed” incidence of 10 is way lower than the mark.

But 10% is surely too high a figure to use in assessing characters on television, where someone will count as gay only if they’re identifiable as gay (in particular, by identifying themselves as gay). Suppose we guess that only half of the people in the U.S. who might be classified as gay on some reasonable criterion are identifiable as such in public (in a somewhat elastic sense of “public”). That would bring us down to 5%, or roughly 109 out of 2,184. An incidence of 10 is still way lower than the mark.

Continuing down, suppose we try for 2% (roughly the incidence of Jews in this population) rather than 5%. Then we’d expect roughly 44 gay characters out of 2,184; 10 is still way low.

Even if we move down to 1%, we’d expect roughly 22 gay characters out of 2,148, rather than the “observed” 10, which still is significantly low (just at the .05 level in a chi-square).

So Haefeli’s cartoon guy has reason to complain (as I take him to be implicitly doing).

Finally, there is the vexed question of who counts as gay. Actually, five collections of questions:

who belongs to a category of people that I’ll call QPEOPLE (as opposed to other categories, SPEOPLE at least);

what is the basis for these categorizations;

what labels are used for these categories;

whether the categories and the labels are matters of folk conceptualization and terminology (as used by ordinary people, not necessarily with conscious reflection) or of technical (including scientific) conceptualization and terminology;

and who is the source of these conceptualizations and terminology.

This degree of complexity is not preculiar to the domain of sexuality; all domains with ties to the social and cultural — which means pretty much all cognitive domains — show such complexity. But in the sphere of sexuality, everything is floridly elaborated.

So when someone asks if a particular person is gay, we are likely to be plunged into a thicket of auxiliary questions, involving the sex of the person in question, the basis for the categorization (sexual behavior, attraction and desire, self-identification), the purpose of the categorization (socializing, therapy, epidemiology, administration of laws, bureaucratic survey, whatever), the labels (gay, homosexual, queer, lesbian, dyke, and many more), the source of the categorization or the label (gay people themselves — and if so, which gay people? — or others), and so on. Puzzles abound: what to do, for instance, about a man whose sexual attractions and activities involve only other men but who rejects all the common labels for QPEOPLE, describing himself as merely “a man who likes men” or “a man who has sex with men”?

For various technical purposes, sexuality has been operationalized in a number of ways, different ways in different contexts at different times by different people, and ordinary-language usages have differed along the same dimensions. Aside from these differences, the problems of collecting reliable data in this sphere of sexuality are daunting. All of this makes the assignment of a figure like 10%, or 5%, or 2%, or 1% terminally problematic.

But we don’t really need to have a precise handle on these things to be able to start making an argument that gay people are under-represented in certain public spheres (and over-represented in others).

Well, it’s hard to imagine the guy on the left in the cartoon putting out the effort to keep track of over two thousand characters on tv and classifying them all as gay or straight (how? you wonder). But then I have a file of 2,622 names of gay pornstars (that is, male actors in porn flicks for gay men), so who am I to mock gay geekery? Even the fictional, fanciful geekery of HaefeliWorld.

2 Responses to “Fair and balanced”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    ‘half of the people in the U.S. who might be classified as gay on some reasonable criterion are identifiable as such in public (in a somewhat elastic sense of “public”)’

    Whatever about “public”, there is also a question over “identifiable”, in the context of TV shows. It’s fairly easy to assign most people who appear on screen to a broad racial or gender group; not so with sexuality (or, for that matter, religion, or narrow ethnicity). Most characters are bit-parts where these details are never established; so a more realistic set of numbers might be, say, 10 gay, 500 straight, 2000 not-identifiable/irrelevant.

    Then again, saying that sexuality can ever be irrelevant is itself controversial. And no doubt many heteronormativity-bound people will assume the 2000 are all straight.

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    In feminist and queer feminist circles, the Bechdel Test (aka the Bechdel-Wallace Test, or Mo Movie Measure) is often discussed in these contexts, as a starting point for discussions not only for the lack of women (or other demographic group) in movies/TV/books/public life/mass media, but also the kinds of roles they are attributed. The Bechdel Test is named for Alison Bechdel, of “Dykes To Watch Out For” fame, and test appears in one of the DTWOF strips.

    To past the test, a move (book, TV show, etc…) must have:
    1) at least two female characters
    2) who talk to each other
    3) about something other than a man.

    There have been a number of “strengthened” versions that have been floated by activist writers (two female *protagonists*, must talk about something other than stereotypically feminine concerns, etc…).

    Closer to the topic of your post, there have been a number of attempts to re-formulate the test for other demographic/political groups, including some racial groups and queer people. Part of the difficulty, of course, is deciding what is most problematic about the representations of, say, queer people, where such representations exist, to decide what the test criteria should be (which makes for some interesting discussions).

    …Perhaps most depressingly, but also most strikingly, some versions of the test for queer folk have criterion (3) as “who do not die because they are queer” (so “Angels in America” passes, but “Brokeback Mountain” does not).

    (There’s potential for linguistic study here. As soon as we’re talking about roles in mass media, and social construction thereof, we’re more or less talking about something that could yield data for a discourse-analytic project. […Someone should do something about that…])


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