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Queering the airwaves for TV diversity

  • 29 November 2016


The 2016 Where We Are on TV report by American media advocacy group GLAAD, released earlier this month, found that LGBTQI representation on US television is at its highest in 21 years. This is significant for audiences worldwide, in light of the US's cultural imperialism, for good or for bad, when it comes to the small screen.

It also draws attention by contrast to the state of queer representation on Australian television. In August, Screen Australia published Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama, a landmark study of diversity in local TV series.

Surveying the 199 Australian dramas aired from 2011 to 2015, it determined (among other things) that only 5 per cent of characters could be identified as LGBTQI; this figure is less than half of the proportion of real-world queer individuals (11 per cent) in the Australian population.

Indeed, local television is moving at a very slow pace in this arena. Despite the 1970s Australian series Number 96 being one of the first shows in the world to include a gay recurring character, it was only in 2010 that Neighbours introduced a gay series regular.

While titles such as Outland and Carlotta have queerness as a thematic focal point, the majority of fiction series — Janet King, House Husbands, Winners & Losers — only incidentally portray non-heterosexuality. Moreover, while The Block's 2004 debut marked the first Australian reality series to feature a same-sex couple, it's just this year that it included a lesbian couple in its roster. And it was only in March that a local dating show, First Dates, paired two gay men.

The most prominent LGBTQI-aligned Australian television series of late is, of course, Please Like Me. Notwithstanding its controversial demotion from ABC1 to the more 'niche' ABC2 when it premiered in 2013 — allegedly for being 'too gay' — it has enjoyed global critical acclaim, including a 2014 Emmy nomination, and is currently in its fourth season.

The queer depictions in Please Like Me may, as Tim McGuire has identified, be couched among 'universal touch-points' such as mental health and family dynamics — an approach that makes them more 'palatable', and calls to mind Laurence Barber's razor-sharp criticisms against characters that insidiously '"just so happen" to be gay'.

But the show's foregrounding of an openly queer, effete protagonist (Josh Thomas, pictured) is nevertheless noteworthy — particularly as it challenges the sometimes-problematic Australian ideals of blokey mateship and masculinity.


"Television lies at the intersection between