The Entertainment Media’s Role in Acceptance of LGBTQ People

The entertainment media’s representation of LGBTQ people has changed greatly over the years, which may be a reason why young adults are so much more supportive of LGBTQ rights than past generations.

When the baby-boomer generation was growing up, there were little to no positive representations of LGBTQ people in the entertainment media.  My father, who grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s said that there were almost no LGBTQ characters in the entertainment media that he could recall. And, support for same-sex marriage, according to a Gallup poll, is much lower among his age group to this day than among Generation X people, Millennial Generation people, and the newest generation of young people (McCarthy news.gallup.com).  That is likely because people who grew up in my father’s era only knew about what they heard about LGBTQ people from places outside the media-churches, etc.-which would have been largely negative representations.  So, one can see that the lack of positive representation of LGBTQ people in the media in the 1960s and early 1970s is probably a cause of less support for LGBTQ persons among baby-boomers.

Things started changing in the entertainment media’s representation of homosexuality in the late 1970s.  The landmark show, Soap, portrayed an openly gay character, named Jodie, on TV.  While Jodie did conform to lots of gay stereotypes-interest in fashion, effeminate nature, etc,-and was often simply a source of humor for the audience’s amusement-he still had depth.  There is one episode where Jodie comes out to his brother and insists that if his brother doesn’t still love him as an openly gay man, he never did.  Even with the stereotypes, Soap presented an openly gay character with depth that would challenge the minds of many viewers on their stereotypes about the shallowness of gay people and provide a relatively positive image of an openly gay person.  Still, one can see, since the character was a rare representation of an LGBTQ person at the time, Generation Xers that grew up with this image will be more supportive of LGBTQ persons than baby boomers (McCarthy news.gallup.com), but less supportive than Millennials and the newest generation of young people (McCarthy news.gallup.com).

In the 1990s and 2000s, when Millennials were growing up, the number of LGBTQ persons in the media increased and their representations were more positive.  Shows like Will and Grace, Queer Eye, and Ellen portrayed LGBTQ persons as amiable, successful, contributing in positive ways to society, and having depth in their relationships.  Indeed, a recent Pepperdine study identified this increase in positive representations of LGBTQ persons in the media is correlated with increased “support” for LGBTQ persons (Gonta, et al p. 22).  One might imagine that the depth of their relationships is especially key here as it fights the misconception that LGBTQ relationships are just about sex and LGBTQ persons don’t really love each other.  Additionally, exposure LGBTQ persons in the media has helped normalize images of LGBTQ persons holding hands, kissing, and hugging in public, amongst young adults.  One can see where with these “positive representations” of LGBTQ persons in the media, millennials would be more supportive of LGBTQ persons than previous generations (Gonta, et al p. 22).

However, for all of their positive attributes, many LGBTQ characters in the 1990s and 2000s still conformed to stereotypes.  Although popular and groundbreaking, Ellen, Queer Eye, and Will and Grace all portrayed stereotypes of LGBTQ persons on their shows.  Jack on Will and Grace was shallow and sexually promiscuous, and the men on Queer Eye were largely still very effeminate and conformed to stereotypes such as the gay male interest in fashion.  This conformation to stereotypes leads to misconceptions about the LGBTQ community at large: it makes people think that LGBTQ persons are more sexually promiscuous, shallow, and do not conform to gender norms.  One can see that the misconceptions these stereotypical representations create could easily be a reason why Millennials are not as supportive of LGBTQ persons as the newest generation (Gonta, et al p. 22).

Recent representations of LGBTQ persons in the entertainment media have been much more positive than their ancestors.  A documentary about transgender people, called Born to Be, was recently showed by the Human Rights Campaign.  The documentary compassionately showed the struggles of transgender people, identified the obstacles they face, and portrayed them not as radical fringe people, but as normal Americans.  This positive representation of the trans community helps clear up misconceptions about trans people and makes seeing them in public more normal.  The newest generation’s early exposure to positive representations in the media of LGBTQ persons could be why the youngest Americans are the most supportive of LGBTQ persons (Gonta et al, p. 22).

Representations of LGBTQ persons in entertainment media have evolved in a positive direction over the years, and this is probably a major reason why young people are so much more supportive of LGBTQ persons than past generations.

Works Cited

Gonta, et al. “Changing Media and Changing Minds: Media Exposure and Viewer Attitudes                     Toward Homosexuality.” Pepperdine Journal of Communication Research. Vol. 5, P. 21     -34.

McCarthy, Justin. “US Support for Gay Marriage Stable, at 63%.” Gallup. News.gallup.com 2019.

Battle in Media of Liberty and Freedom

In the past, liberals had control over the terms “liberty” and “freedom.”  Now, there is a war going on between liberals and conservatives in the media over the uses of the terms “liberty” and “freedom.”  The group that is better able to control the usage of those important American ideas will have an easier time getting legislation passed and electing candidates.

In past decades, the terms “liberty” and “freedom” have been used in the media to justify liberal causes.  George Lakoff, author of Whose Freedom?, and numerous other books on political discourse, writes that, in past decades, freedom meant “expanding civil rights, voting rights, tolerance” and numerous other things (Lakoff p. 73).  Using terms such as “freedom to vote” was a useful way for liberals to invoke the term freedom to justify legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act, because it helps associate such legislation with what Lakoff calls “our most important idea” (Lakoff p. 1).  Freedom, in those days, primarily helped liberal candidates and causes in this way.

One example of how conservatives are redefining freedom in the media to their advantage is in the use of the terms religious liberty and religious freedom to rally support for their candidates.  In a radio appearance last year, Karen and Charlotte Pence, wife and daughter of Vice President Mike Pence, respectively, used the terms “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” five times in less than three minutes to justify her husband’s anti-LGBTQ views (“Karen Pence…” video.foxnews.com).  She also invoked America’s history of people coming to this country for religious liberty and freedom to defend her husband against the attacks of openly-gay Mayor Pete Buttigeig (“Karen Pence…” video.foxnews.com).  This use of language may rally sympathy amongst social moderates for Pence because it casts him as someone who is having his freedoms oppressed by Mayor Pete Buttigeig, our current court system, and liberal legislation.  In this sense, it makes Pence seem like the victim of discrimination, not Buttigeig.  It also helps rally support for the Trump/Pence ticket by invoking our nation’s history, founding fathers, and shared values.  In this way, Karen and Charlotte Pence helped their husband’s re-election cause by redefining freedom.

The terms religious liberty and religious freedom are also being used to push socially conservative legislation.  In 2016, Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN), and the conservative Tennessee state legislature, used the term “religious freedom” in discussions with the media to justify legislation that would allow counselors and therapists to deny care to anyone who disagreed with their “sincerely held beliefs” (Margolin www.msnbc.com).  The legislation passed and was signed into law, despite the fact that the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Tennessee Counseling Association, American Counseling Association, and American Association for Suicide Prevention all opposed it on the grounds that it would allow therapists to discriminate against LGBTQ persons, especially in rural areas where there are few counseling/therapy options available (Margolin www.msnbc.com).  If this legislation had been framed as a way to discriminate against LGBTQ people by its creators, it would have been much less popular, and likely would not have passed.  However, by using the term “religious freedom,” the governor and state legislature made it sound as though anti-LGBTQ counselors were the victims of discrimination and oppression, not LGBTQ people.  This created sympathy.  Thus, by using the term “religious freedom,” Tennessee got a strongly anti-LGBTQ bill piece of legislation passed.

Liberals have also used the terms “liberty” and “freedom” with some success in the battle over same-sex marriage.  LGBTQ rights groups have been using the term “freedom to marry” for quite some time to establish support for same-sex marriage (“Winning the Freedom to Marry Nationwide” www.freedomtomarry.org).  The idea behind this term is that everyone should have the right to marry who they love, regardless of their gender. This creates sympathy for LGBTQ persons by casting them as the ones who are having their freedom taken away by gay-marriage bans, not conservatives.  Using this term in press releases and other forms of communication through the media helped liberal groups establish more support for same-sex marriage by associating America’s most important idea with their cause. 

Liberals and conservatives are battling over the usage of the terms “liberty” and “freedom” in the media.  The group that is able to better harness the power of these important ideas will be able to get their candidates elected and rally support for their legislative policies.

Works Cited

“Karen Pence…” Fox News. Video.foxnews.com. 2019.

Lakoff, George.  Whose Freedom?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2006.

Margolin, Emma. “Tennessee Enacts ‘Religious Freedom’ Measure.” MSNBC. www.msnbc.org

“Winning the Freedom to Marry Nationwide.” Freedom to Marry. 2015.   www.freedomtomarry.org.

Media Distorts the Differences Between Biden and Sanders

The media has exaggerated the positional differences between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and over-emphasized the few issues where they slightly disagree, which may make it difficult for Biden to get Sanders’ supporters out to vote.

One example of media coverage emphasizing the differences between Biden and Sanders is by exaggerating the difference between the two on issues like health care.  Sanders, famously, supports Medicare for All, while Biden supports a public option (“Bernie Sanders” www.ontheissues.org and “Joe Biden” www.ontheissues.org).  And, in debate after debate, we have seen the media moderators question Biden and Sanders about their difference in health care (“Issues: Medicare for All” www.factcheck.org).  Additionally, it’s common knowledge that there have been many articles in political publications about the difference.  Yet, what these articles seem to ignore is that Biden and Sanders’ difference on this issue is small.  They both want to make sure everyone has health coverage and they both favor additional government intervention into healthcare to achieve that goal.  The difference-that Sanders wants to eliminate private health insurance and Biden doesn’t-is not nearly as large as the difference between Sanders and Donald Trump or even Biden and Trump-who favors less government intervention into health care than even Obamacare allows.  This exaggeration of Biden and Sanders’ disagreement makes them seem like exact opposites on the issue, when in fact they are much closer to each other than they are to Trump.

Another way in which the media has emphasized the differences between Biden and Sanders is by over-focusing on the issues where they disagree or have a different past record.  For example, many people on the left have criticized Biden for saying-more than a decade ago-that he would not taking cutting social security off the table in order to negotiate with Republicans in Congress (Farley www.factcheck.org).  This includes New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, who wrote on Twitter that she would never be Biden’s running mate “because I personally feel that offering to slash social security to get Republicans to agree to whatever grand bargain is a bad idea, and I do not wish to advance that sort of politics” (Yglesias www.vox.com). Columnists like Bruenig continually emphasize this difference between Biden and Sanders, along with their small health care disagreement, yet they seem to ignore the social issues, where Biden and Sanders largely agree.  Biden and Sanders are both pro-gun control, support LGBTQ rights, and have voted for liberal judges for the Supreme Court (“Joe Biden” www.ontheissues.org and “Bernie Sanders” www.ontheissues.org), yet we almost never hear the media emphasize that.  This focus on the few issues where Biden and Sanders disagree creates the inaccurate perception that they are on the opposite side of every issue.

This media coverage is creating a situation in which many Sanders’ supporters think Biden is further to the right of Sanders than he actually is.  I ran into a Sanders supporter on primary day in Missouri who said that Biden “has the opposite position of Bernie Sanders on every issue.”  This is obviously an exaggeration and misconception. However, this woman was convinced that because Biden didn’t support Medicare for All-something that has been emphasized by many media outlets-he was “as bad as any Republican.” My concern is that this woman’s misconceptions may make her not get out to vote for Biden in the general election, and America will be stuck with four more years of Trump.

Some of Sanders’ supporters are also under the impression that Biden’s current platform is more conservative than it actually is. The same woman that I met on primary day said that she thought that Biden wanted to “cut social security” as part of his current platform.  Again, this statement is false.  Biden’s current platform does not include anything about cutting social security, nor has he suggested it would be a good idea in the debates (Farley www.factcheck.org).  In fact, Biden’s current plan is to expand the program (Farley www.factcheck.org).  However, because the media has emphasized Biden’s past suggestion that cutting social security was on the table to negotiate with Republicans in Congress, this woman was convinced that he currently wanted to do that.  One could see where this would create a problem with convincing her to support Biden in the general election over the Green Party candidate, or over not voting, and again, we may be stuck with four more years of Trump, something that is unacceptable.

Progressive media coverage needs to start emphasizing Joe Biden’s full record and platform, and not just the issues on which he is different than Bernie Sanders, in order to paint a more accurate picture of him.  They also need to show that Biden is much closer to Sanders than to Trump on the issues in which they disagree than they have suggested in the past.  We all must get out and vote to defeat Trump.  We must get a competent person into the White House.  The time to unite is now.

Works Cited

“Bernie Sanders.” 2020. www.ontheissues.org.

Farley, Robert. “Biden Vs. Sanders on Social Security and Medicare.” Fact Check. 2020.   www.factcheck.org.

“Joe Biden.” 2020. www.ontheissues.org.

“Issues: Medicare for All.” Fact Check. 2020. www.factcheck.org

Yglesias, Matthew. “Joe Biden Will Have a Very Hard Time Winning Over the Berniesphere.”     Vox. 2020. www.vox.com

The Evolving Media Coverage of Conversion Therapy

So many times, when we cover the nature of the media, we are stuck pointing out how investigative media coverage has gone downhill and become more conservative over time.  Whether it’s Faux News, or even more of the mainstream media resisting true investigative journalism, the coverage is disappointing.

            There is one place where media coverage has improved over time: coverage of conversion therapy.  Coverage has gone from a rather inaccurate representation of conversion therapy to a much more accurate picture.

            In the 1980s and 1990s, media coverage of conversion therapy was very skewed towards conversion therapists.  Despite the fact that he had been booted from the American Psychology Association in 1983 for intentionally distorting his statistics, Paul Cameron, a pro-conversion therapist continued to make regular appearances on media talk shows and was quoted in newspapers as an expert on the matter (Besen p. 111).  For example, he was added as an expert on the subject and made five public appearances on Geraldo during this time (p 114).  Granted, Geraldo did sometimes give LGBT individuals equal time on his show (p. 114), but the fact that he put an unlicensed therapist on the television and did not include the majority of experts, who thought that homosexuality was unlikely to change, made it sound like the issue pitted LGBTQ rights activists against the experts.  This is a false representation, as the American Psychology Association had not considered homosexuality to be a disorder since the early 1970s and shows skewed coverage in favor of conversion therapy at that time.

            In the early 2000s, media coverage of conversion therapy improved, but it was still represented somewhat inaccurately.  At that time, CNN had Richard Cohen, a major leader in the conversion therapy movement, on their TV show about the issue (“Ex-Gay Therapist on CNN” www.youtube.com), despite the fact that Cohen was not psychologist or psychiatrist and, in fact, was not even a licensed counselor (Besen p. 164).  They did not even note this on their show, so the unsuspecting viewer might be thinking that he was an actual expert and that many authorities still believed homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured.  Granted, CNN did give a leader in the American Psychological Association, with a PhD, some time on the show, but he fact that the show treated them as equals makes it sound like the academic community is divided 50-50 on whether or not conversion therapy works.  In fact, The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association had all opposed conversion therapy for quite some time, so this coverage was misleading at best.

            Now, news articles about conversion therapy seem to present a more accurate picture.  A recent article from NBC News about Virginia’s ban on Conversion Therapy discusses that it is a “harmful” practice that can lead to “depression” and “suicide” (Sopelsa www.nbcnews.com).  The article also interviews a survivor of conversion therapy that describes the specific damage that happened to them psychologically and notes that the major mental health organizations are all against the practices (Sopelsa www.nbcnews.com).  The interview with the survivor personalizes the experience for the reader, and the fact that the article notes that conversion therapy is discredited by major mental health organizations makes people that are uneducated realize that it is largely ineffective and has negative effects.  These are all things that the media should have been saying about conversion therapy for a long time, but the fact that they are finally doing it is good for the public’s education about the issue and will help prevent thousands of people, including many minors, from being forced into this form of discredited therapy by their families and religious leaders.

            Coverage of conversion therapy for LGBTQ people has improved greatly over the years in accuracy and has become more personal now that it is featuring the true experts on the subject and interviewing those that have survived the ex-gay movement.  Perhaps this is one area where investigative journalism has actually improved over the years.

Works Cited

Besen, Wayne.  Anything But Straight. Harrington Park Press: New York, 2003.

“Ex-Gay Therapist on CNN.” CNN. 2006. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJXWFZz0Qjo&t=11s

Sopelsa, Brooke. “Virginia Becomes 20th State to Ban Conversion Therapy for Minors.” NBC News. 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/virginia-becomes-20th-state-ban-conversion-therapy-minors-n1148421.

Selling Progressive Values in the Media

News media outlets, political candidates, and both the Democratic and Republican Parties are using conservative language metaphors in the media, and it is hurting the ability of progressives to pass their legislation and win political races.

What metaphors am I speaking of?  George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant and numerous other books on political discourse, likes to use the example of “tax relief” (Lakoff p. 3).  The word relief implies that working families are “afflicted” by taxes and anyone who cuts taxes is a “hero,” (even if those cuts are mostly going to wealthy people), while anyone who raises them is a “villain,” placing a burden on working families.  So, if one thinks about the metaphor “tax relief,” one can see why it favors fiscally-conservative policies.

So, of course, right-wing media outlets love to use phrases like tax relief.  Fox News’ most recent article on President Trump’s response to the coronavirus touts part of it as a “tax relief” plan (O’Reilly www.foxnews.com).  And, in doing so, they are helping reinforce the idea that taxes are bad.

Now, no one would be surprised by President Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News using phrases like tax relief.  The problem is that progressive candidates, the Democratic Party, and progressive news media outlets are using these phrases too.  Earlier this month, the New York Times used the phrase “tax relief” in the headline of an article about coronavirus (“On Virus Response…” www.nytimes.com).  Additionally, when I worked in New Hampshire in 2006, the Democratic Party was bragging about how New Hampshire had the lowest tax burden in the nation, and trying to take credit for that.  In using this phrase, these media outlets and the Democratic Party are ruining their chances to send money to education and health care because they are making taxes-something that is vital to invest in these programs-sound awful.

All of this underscores the important point: progressives must start using language and metaphors more to their advantage because it will help them win elections and get their agenda passed by selling their values to the American people in a way that makes linguistic sense.

The question is how?  Conservatives have been drilling phrases like tax relief, small government, family values, and free markets into our heads for decades, and we all instantly know what they mean.  Additionally, they are hard to argue against.  Arguing against family values makes it sound like you are arguing against the family unit, or saying that families are bad. Does anyone in their right mind want to say families are bad?  Of course not.  That’s why conservative candidates and media outlets love to use that metaphor.  Googling the phrase “Fox News” + “family values” returns over 5 million results.  Additionally, key Republican congress people, such as freshman Senator Joni Ernst (IA), who is up for re-election, use it frequently in dialogue with the press (Hall caffeinatedthoughts.com).

So, how can progressive candidates, media outlets and the Democratic Party use language to their advantage?

I can think of one example of a candidate who started doing that: Barack Obama.  As far back as his first term of as a President, Obama would say he wanted to use tax dollars to “invest” in education, and progressive education groups followed suit by using the same language (McCabe www.nea.org).  Investments, in our society, are a good thing because you get a return on them.  Thus, Obama, was making spending on education a good thing.

In this case, the investment Obama was selling to the American people was going to deliver a return in the form of a pro-active way to avoid future poverty, and, of course, having an educated work force.  In fact, he called it “the best anti-poverty program around” (McCabe www.nea.org).  By using this language, Barack Obama helped convince the American people that tax dollars can be a good thing, if properly used.

More recently, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have tried to use the phrase “medicare for all” to win over support for their health care policies (Scott www.vox.com). Medicare is a popular program, so emphasizing it over say “socialized medicine” does make sense. Additionally, Pete Buttigeig has made effective use of language by saying he supports “Medicare for all that want it” (Scott www.vox.com). This way of talking about health care implies more choices, and choices are a good thing in our society. My hope is that Joe Biden will follow suit and use the language the Buttigeig is using.

I’m curious to see what kind of responses people have to Lakoff’s ideas about language.  What are some ways we could use language to sell progressive values to the American people?

Works Cited

Hall, Jacob. “Iowa Senate Candidate Profile: Q & A with Joni Ernst.” Caffeinated Thoughts (2020). https://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2014/05/iowa-u-s-senate-candidate-profile-qa-joni-ernst/

Lakoff, George.  Don’t Think of an Elephant. Chelsea Green (2004).

McCabe, Cynthia. “Obama Calls for $4 Billion in New Education Spending.” National Education Association (2019). http://www.nea.org/home/37894.htm

“On Virus Respnose…” The New York Times (2020). https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/03/10/us/politics/ap-us-virus-outbreakwashington.html

Scott, Dylan. “Pete Buttigeig’s Medicare for All Who Want It Plan Explained.” Vox (2019). https://www.vox.com/2019/9/19/20872881/pete-buttigieg-2020-medicare-for-all.