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Queering the airwaves for TV diversity



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.

Josh Thomas in Please Like MeIt 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 culture and commerce: even if those behind the scenes wish to push for more and better queer depictions, they may not necessarily be willing to take financial risks to do so."


The significance of positive representation cannot be overstated: media products are inherently normative, legitimising identities and lived realities through the mere fact of visibility. Media texts influence our attitudes to political issues — and, in the case of LGBTQI rights, this is ever more important, given the continuing debates surrounding marriage equality and the pervasiveness of homophobia (the recent suicide of 13-year-old Tyrone Unsworth, who was bullied at school for his sexuality, is an especially chilling example of the latter).

But media products are also born of society's existing values and ideologies; media and culture shape and reflect one another. In our case, the relative recency of LGBTQI rights becoming enshrined in state and federal law, the persistence of the 'gay panic' defence in court, and the fact that one in five Australians deem homosexuality 'immoral', impact both the production and consumption of artforms.

Television lies at the precarious intersection between culture and commerce: even if those behind the scenes wish to push for more and better queer depictions, they may not necessarily be willing or able to take financial risks to do so. The prevailing industry belief that 'gay doesn't rate' continues to hold sway; as the four interviewees in this article on LGBTQI underrepresentation reveal, television creatives are often censured for writing queer-themed storylines, or sometimes altogether precluded from doing so. When they are afforded that liberty, they are smacked with prohibitive 'unwritten rules' so as to not 'push it too far'.

Risk is certainly greater when marketing to a smaller population like Australia's; unlike the US, we don't have the viewership numbers to facilitate the 'niching' of audiences. But this shouldn't be a disincentive to seek ways forward. Focusing again on just numbers, we could at least start by aiming for parity in terms of the proportion of queer characters compared to those in the real-world population.

In terms of revenue, a 2015 UCLA report determined that Hollywood films with diverse casts generate more money at the global box office. While these findings relate to audience responses to race representation in cinema, it wouldn't be a stretch to extrapolate — bearing in mind that minorities account for a not-insubstantial segment of viewers — that the underlying motivation is a desire to see one's own experiences on screen.

The Screen Australia report acknowledges that there is 'an almost universal preference for authentic representations', and that 'diversity in the writer's room itself was a priority'. As the federal funding body has already taken steps to address the underrepresentation of women in the screen industries via its Gender Matters initiative, it's only reasonable to advocate that it extend this venture to facilitate more LGBTQI representation — on and off screen — as well.

Authenticity is possible only through lived experience, however. And so, as Shaad D'Souza has argued, it's vital that production companies and television networks take risks on queer and other minority creatives, and give them opportunities to write, produce and portray their own stories. If the immense success of Please Like Me is anything to go by, it's time the Australian small screen make the big leap and let viewers enjoy — and be enriched by — more queer TV depictions.


Adolfo AranjuezAdolfo Aranjuez is the editor of Metro, Australia's oldest film and media periodical. He is also the subeditor of Screen Education, a columnist for Right Now, and a freelance writer and speaker.

Topic tags: Adolfo Aranjuez, LGBTIQ, Please Like Me, Josh Thomas



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Existing comments

I don't know that 10 per cent of the population is non-heterosexual as you seem to claim. There are figures attributed to the ABS saying it's more like 3 per cent. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-06/abs-collects-data-on-sexual-orientation-for-first/6599506

Arnold Jago | 29 November 2016  

Hi Arnold, Not my claim—the 11 per cent figure is cited in the Screen Australia study itself, and was sourced from the Department of Health's 'National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Ageing and Aged Care Strategy': https://agedcare.health.gov.au/sites/g/files/net1426/f/documents/08_2014/national_ageing_and_aged_care_strategy_lgbti_print_version.pdf It might be worth noting that, whereas the ABS figure cited in the ABC article you linked to concerns only sexual orientation, the Department of Health accounts for 'diverse sexual orientation, sex or gender identity'. 'Queer', in this context, encompasses a larger subset of the population.

Adolfo Aranjuez | 29 November 2016  

Anrnold, the ABS is unaware of my sexual orientation, so I'm not sure if official statistics are accurate, let alone relevant. Does it really matter? Even if for statistical purposes someone might be considered non-heterosexual, given the stigma and discrimination surrounding such a sensitive issue, it may take a long time for a person to feel comfortable disclosing such information.

Aurelio | 01 December 2016  

Obviously I am from another era - almost another planet - as far as the theme of this article goes. I wonder why we in Australia need to see more confected supposedly gay characters on TV? Surely respectable, normal, real life gays of distinction like David Marr or Mr Justice Kirby are enough? Most Australians are not stupid or regressive.

Edward Fido | 01 December 2016  

I find the constant reference to members of the LBGTI community as 'queer' quite offensive in this article.

Anne | 01 December 2016  

What Adolfo talks about is an issue. But is it a big issue. I am much more concerned about steelworkers in Whyalla losing their jobs,

Peter Burger | 01 December 2016  

I have no strong opinion on the quantity of LGBTQI on TV but I find the use of characters such as Mr Humphries in Are you being served? to get cheap laughs out of his reports of his ambiguous relationships unedifying, unhelpful, and in the end, after so much repetition, unfunny. Quality depictions are required more than camp quantity.

Uncle Pat | 01 December 2016  

The numbers game here is very important. The 10% figure comes from a study quite a time go which asked about any "homosexual event"mainly in adolescents. I had one of those, albeit not asked for or welcome welcome. There are many surveys of stable homosexual orientation in adult life and the answer is always 2-3%, anywhere in the world. Bisexuals are less common at less than 0.5%, usually in persons regarding themselves as heterosexual, and mainly in places where sexes don`t mix, essentially prison experience.Transgender etc is very exceptional i.e. 1 in many thousands. Numbers don`t erase the need for individual respect, but are grossly manipulated in the current politicisation of matters "queer". this article is a classic example. Gay marriage would be about 1% of the demand for such formal ties; is that worth all the excitment and energy from either side? One can see why manipulating the real numbers becomes so important.

Eugene | 01 December 2016  

I welcome this opportunity as a member of the same sex attracted community to say how much I detest "Please Like Me". The Josh Thomas character makes me cringe. I don't get the point or the purpose of the show? It's another case being set up for ridicule.

Iggy | 01 December 2016  

Adolfo, a little fact checking might give your opinion piece some credibility. The major study by Latrobe, “Sex in Australia: Sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual experience among a representative sample of adults”, was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in 2003. It found that 97.5% of Australians identify as heterosexual. The number who identify as homosexual is 1.2% (being 1.6% men, 0.8% women). Bisexuality adds another 1.2%, giving a total same-or-both-sex identification of 2.4% among Australian adults. Overseas, the official figure for the US is 1.6% and for the UK is 1.1%. The US National Health Interview Survey for 2013 reports, “96.6% of adults identified as straight, 1.6% identified as gay or lesbian, and 0.7% identified as bisexual.” The UK Office for National Statistics found a slightly lower number in 2014, with 1.1% of adults identifying as gay or lesbian; bisexual adults took the total figure to 1.6%. A claim of 10% can only be concocted through the sort of false figures for intersex used by Safe Schools (a 100-times exaggeration) and no doubt counting 'transgender' rates for young people prior to puberty (when 70-90% of these young people leave their transgender identity behind).

David van Gend | 01 December 2016  

Thank you Anne --"I find the constant reference to members of the LBGTI community as 'queer' quite offensive in this article. " As a proud gay man I am deeply offended by the description "queer" (definition -- strange or odd). I am certainly neither as would attest my work associates or clients.

Pat G | 01 December 2016  

A very sound article Adolfo. I am left wondering why some correspondents are concerned about percentages. What if the number was 20% LGBTQI or God forbid 50%? It seems that as long as the number is small we can all be happy that things are going well in our society. Shame really.

Tom K | 01 December 2016  

We note that the Spectrum Centre at the University of Michigan provides a glossary of terms relevant to the LGBTIQ community. It can be viewed here.

Note the definition listed for the term 'queer': '1) An umbrella term sometimes used by LGBTQA people to refer to the entire LGBT community. 2) An alternative that some people use to "queer" the idea of the labels and categories such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. Similar to the concept of genderqueer. It is important to note that the word queer is an in-group term, and a word that can be considered offensive to some people, depending on their generation, geographic location, and relationship with the word.'

We can assure readers that no offence or insult is intended by the editors or author by the use of the word here. The term in this context has a specific meaning and intention.

Tim Kroenert, Editor | 01 December 2016  

Some of the stereotypes mentioned in the above comments were precisely why I disagreed Nov 30 with playing with the medium to produce political ends as that is propaganda rather than respecting the art form. But I have used that word again which is probably deemed insulting. Also, there needs to be stories which explore life journeys to new self-awareness as in desire of the everlasting hills https://vimeo.com/101135437 if there is to be balanced representation. And thanks David Van Gend for clarifying the figures as we wouldn't want to be promoting 'fake news'.

Gordana Martinovich | 01 December 2016  

A huge thank you to everyone for the lively contributions to this topic; it really is crucial that we continue discussing this issue. Before anything else, I'd like to remind everyone that, in an earlier comment (second from the top), I've noted the source of the 11 per cent figure and suggested an explanation as to why this figure is larger than the smaller number (~3 per cent) more often cited. While the debunking of the 1970s Voeller/Kinsey 10 per cent figure is certainly valid, it also rests on more rigid labels such as 'exclusively homosexual', etc. On that note, much like editor Tim Kroenert, I'd like to clarify that my use of the term 'queer' is not intended to be offensive. While I (as a gay/queer individual myself) acknowledge the deeply discriminatory origins of the word, definitions—as with all language—do change over time, and 'queer' has been reclaimed by large sectors of the LGBTQI (and even 'A', for 'asexual') community. In its current formulation (on top of Tim's citation, I direct you to GLAAD's own one here: http://www.glaad.org/reference/lgbtq), 'queer' turns the idea of 'oddness' on its head, foregrounding the performative realities of all non-cisgender and non-heterosexual individuals. It's arguably a more inclusive term, particularly for those who are still finding their feet in terms of sexuality and gender expression. Discrete sex/gender labels—and the concomitant identity-politicking tied to such labels—can be just as damaging as throwaway homophobic insults, as the stifling pressure to 'come out' with a fully formed sex/gender identification can counterintuitively imprison individuals in the closet. 'Queer' is an attempt to sidestep that issue. But it's not a one-size-fits-all term. The catholic nature of 'queer' means that you need not identify with it if you don't choose to. I am using it in a specific way, in a specific point in sociocultural time, to advocate for an issue that affects all people who are 'queer', whether they identify with the term or not. My use of it here is politically pragmatic rather than impositional, and hopefully does more good than harm.

Adolfo Aranjuez | 01 December 2016  

I am somewhat loath to contradict Uncle Pat who I consider one of the most insightful commentators on this site. It needs to be said that neither Mr Humphreys, nor the late John Inman who played him, was a victim in any sense. High camp humour was always part of the British scene as was cross dressing in pantomime and female impersonators such as Danny La Rue. They provided a useful psychological safety valve. With our contemporary social standards we may condemn them but I think this misses the point. When John Inman died he and his creation Mr Humphreys were universally missed. Like the pompous Captain Peacock the flamboyantly gay Mr Humphreys was a classic British archetype. A very loved one at that.

Edward Fido | 02 December 2016  

Edward Fido's comment on my post has just come to my attention. I welcome his defence of the role played by gay archetypes in British comedy. I am pleased when commentators take the time to contradict some of my opinions. The point I was trying to make (if not explicitly enough) regarding the debate over what would be a reasonable percentage of LGBTI portrayals on TV did not interest me but the quality of the portrayals did. The repetition of the same old stereotypes saying the same old double entendres was lazy unimaginative play writing.

Uncle Pat | 06 December 2016