HBO’s original series Sex and the City (1998 – 2004) has become synonymous with sexual liberation and women’s autonomy. The series gained so much popularity that it even led to two Hollywood films. Set in glamorous New York in the late nineties and early 2000’s, it followed four smart, independent and single women, talking about socially relevant issues such as women’s careers, relationships and (revolutionary at the time) sexual experiences. Many of the scenes have since become the stuff of televisual and cinematic history. There is a stereotype that regards the show as a cult hit among gay men. Stereotype or not, it does certainly have a sizeable gay following.
Sex and the City is not without its faults. Critiques of it range from incredulous storylines to the heteronormative and even anti-feminist ideas it perpetuates. The show is also notoriously bad at depicting racial and sexual minorities. Gay men in the series exist to serve the needs of heterosexual women, from arranging a wedding to just providing moral support. These men are tireless in how they serve their women friends with absolute awe. It is hard to shake off the feeling that there is something terribly wrong with this supposedly liberated show.
Representation is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to portraying minorities. It is easy to stereotype and feed into the popular image of minorities. Gay men as fashion designers or hairstylists desperate to be friends with straight women are a rather common trope. It makes gay men visible but on heterosexual terms. It takes away any individuality from the gay man; he merely survives to seek affirmation from the straight people in his life.
How then does one gauge whether a representation does the character justice? The now rather famous Bechdel Test is used to measure whether a film does the female characters any justice. This test was introduced in 1985 in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a strip titled The Rule. An unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
- It has to have at least two women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
Bechdel did not make this strip as a means of measuring the role of feminism portrayed in a film; it was intended as satire. The test is in no way an indicator of feminist content even when a film meets the required criteria. However, research has shown that films that pass the Bechdel Test do better at the box office. Very few Hollywood films pass this test.
A spinoff of this test is the Vito Russo Test, which looks at how LGBTQIA characters are treated on screen. The test was developed by Vito Russo, an American LGBT activist, film historian and author. The criteria of this test are as follows:
- The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
- That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another).
- The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect, meaning they are not there simply to provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character must matter.
Similar to the Bechdel Test, the Vito Russo Test does not indicate that LGBTQIA characters are treated fairly on screen; it merely states certain minimum criteria to see whether a character is given enough space on screen to be an individual. And just like with the Bechdel Test, many films fail it. The issue, then, is not of the character’s visibility alone, but of quality and depth.
Take, for instance the Hindi feature film Dear Zindagi (2016) in which there is a gay character but only in a blink-and-you-miss-him role. The gay man has a few lines that do not tell us anything about him except that he is gay and visits a therapist to come to terms with his homosexuality. In another scene the protagonist’s aunt and uncle ask if she is “Lebanese” (instead of “lesbian”). To which she replies, “Will you stop pressuring me to marry if I am?” Instead of any deeper discussion of the social consequences of minority sexual orientations, the conversation then merely turns to the banal and cringe-inducing idea that the media industry is full of homosexuals.
Representation matters, especially when it comes to minority characters. In a world where prejudice informs us about minorities, representation becomes vital. To be able to strip away artifice and prejudice from a character and sympathise with them on screen helps break down prejudices. If the only information society has of LGBTQIA people is tainted with prejudice it does not do the community any justice. When all the LGBTQIA characters do on screen is satisfy the pre-existing assumptions of those with little or no experience of real LGBTQIA people, it creates a condition whereby society tells itself that it has nothing more to learn. A gay fashion designer who shows up in a couple of scenes is not a liberatory or progressive image. Minority characters may get time on screen but they do nothing to change the status quo. They are merely tokenism.
By contrast, Memories of March (2010) by Rituparno Ghosh is a movie that springs to mind when we speak of good representation. The story is told about a dead gay man, but it gives him dignity in death. He isn’t just another gay man, he is defined through his relationships, habits and hobbies.
Contrast this with commercial Bollywood films such as Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) where a misunderstanding causes a character to think the two leading men are in a gay relationship. The film uses homosexuality as a joke, the audience learns that homosexuality is funny, unacceptable and causes people to react badly. The film also problematises intimacy between men by implying that any emotional connection men have can only be sexual.
Similarly, Dostana (2008), which was praised by some for depicting a gay relationship, only has a pretend gay relationship that the characters use in order to be able to rent a house. While the mother of one of the men accepts her son’s (pretended) homosexuality there is little else one learns about homosexuality or homosexual people. We never see the struggles, abuse, fears or even joys faced every day by real gay people.
Our lack of imagination in creating and expecting to see homosexuality on screen has given us one-dimensional characters. If we allow the popularity of Sex and the City to result in reinforcing legitimisations of shallow depictions of LGBTQIA characters in film and television, then ultimately the show and our acceptance of it has failed sexual minorities. We need, instead, to seek out and demand better representation of minorities, to necessitate three-dimensional characters and reject lazy writing. We can only hope that this results in the future production of more meaningful drama, of film that challenges sexual and gender prejudices, of television that can have a real lasting impact and transformative effect on society.
References and further reading
Bechdel, A. (1986) Dykes To Watch Out For. US: Firebrand Books
Cover image: Still from Memories of March