Conflicting views on homosexuality are not surprising. Western liberal democratic nations appear to be more accepting by their decriminalisation and legal recognition and gay sex and marriage. The more conservative governments, however, shun and punish those who identify as gay. The underlying principle, in more accepting nations, is that society should have no say in who people should love and how they express it – consensually, of course. Indian culture, if one were to simplistically categorise it as singular, has yet to align itself to this mode of thinking. Notions of the “Indian virtuous values” and biblical concepts of acceptable sexual conduct inherited from the colonial era, clash with modern ideas of sexuality, liberty, and privacy. Same-sex relationships are considered an upper-class western phenomenon that goes against traditional values of this homogeneous Indian tradition (Parasar n.d., 13).
A common misconception is that homophobia exists in the pockets of society. Pockets which are not aware of how natural homosexuality is. Following the same argument, it is assumed that if one were to sprinkle the awareness of oppression and marginalisation, people would most definitely accept homosexuality. But, as Professor Parasar’s data points out, anti-gay sentiments aren’t exclusive to uninformed, less-privileged groups. Her survey sample consisted of students from the National Law University- Jodhpur (Parasar n.d., 15-17). The students, as a result of their circumstances, were well aware of both legal and social barriers that the gay community face. As a result, the problem of an uninformed survey class was eliminated to a large extent. The survey, then, aimed to see how comfortable students were with homosexuality. When asked whether they felt that governments had a right or duty to interfere with the gay community, the majority replied in the negative. An interesting observation, however, was that they didn’t feel as comfortable with someone close to them being gay. The percentage of students that said they felt comfortable with their family or close friends coming out as gay was far less than the percentage that initially disapproved of government intervention.
Why do people who acknowledge the struggles that gay people go through still exhibit homophobic tendencies? A possible explanation is “implicit bias” (Moriearty 2010). Implicit bias, as the name suggests, is a subconscious bias that manifests in the everyday conduct of an individual. These implicit biases are what makes it harder for straight individuals to embrace homosexuality within their private circles. Implicit bias doesn’t impact heterosexual individuals alone. These biases render the gay community “culturally imperialised,” developing a sense of “double consciousness” (Young 2004). They have to consciously act in such a way as to separate individual actions from the stereotypes forced onto them by the dominant heterosexual narrative. The question that then emerges is what brings about and reinforces these biases? This paper asserts that the Indian media reinforce harmful stereotypes and prejudices, through their depiction of the gay community on the big and small screen.
Media houses have continuously misinformed the straight majority. According to Larry Gross (1993), media companies- especially the entertainment sector continue to enforce highly exaggerated stereotypes associated with the gay community.
The media shapes the minds of people through the content it distributes. The press has stuck its hooks deep into the two processes of high importance-the Identification of one’s sexuality and the self-esteem of a gay person. The method of self-identification usually takes place during adolescence. Adolescents are one of the largest consumer groups of mass media, with consumption consisting upwards of 6 and a half hours of content a day (Arnett 2010). This statistic firmly establishes the quantitative control of the media over a vulnerable consumer group. Contextual factors have proved to play a role in the relationship between identification of one’s sexual identity and the media (Hammock 2005). These contextual factors can range from a well-publicised coming out to a social movement. As the media can and has controlled the narrative surrounding such contextual factors, its influence on self-identification becomes overly apparent. On the point of self-esteem, Oschman’s studies (1996) established the definite link between the self-esteem of an individual and amount of similarity between the individual and his role model (Ochman 1996). Relating the Oschman study to the issue at hand, the people the media publicises as representative of the gay community is incredibly important. An individual who identifies as gay is more likely to relate to a gay role model due to a higher number of common characteristics. Gay individuals, especially teenagers who are still struggling to understand their sexuality, often shape their identities to match those of their icons- as they view them as accurate representations. As a result, the people the media portray as gay icons as compared to straight figures must be done with greater deliberation, given that gay personages will be looked up to far more than heterosexual icons. (Basow and Howe 1980).
The questions that now remain are: How and Why. How does this influence prove detrimental to the interests of the gay community? Why is there a lack of change in the representation of the gay community?
The media propagates and further intrenches harmful societal norms and stereotypes. Essentialism is one of the toxic norms that the Indian media time and again shoves down the throats of the average straight consumer. Essentialism, as a concept, refers to how gender roles dictate how individuals are expected to carry themselves out (Jóhannsdóttir 1985). Within India, gender roles are structurally laid out and enforced. Individuals are expected to strictly abide by the set norms that govern their gender group- deviance being unacceptable. Gender roles and the image of the gay community in India are inextricably linked. When the Indian media depicts women as dependent, meek and in need of saving, while at the same time portraying men as hyper-masculine and dominant, it feeds into and reaffirms essentialist narrative within the minds of the public.
While this creates issues for the public, this hurts the gay community at two levels. Firstly, it forces them to conform to gender stereotypes, and secondly, it attacks their identity. Examining the Indian media’s portrayal of gay men: effeminate, emotional and sexually promiscuous. Given the essentialist norm, when the public is made to believe all gay men are effeminate and sensitive, their deviance from traditional gender roles is met with disgust. By not abiding by the set norms that govern their gender group, they are now traitors. When gay men do not act per the standard, however, their gay identity is questioned. This leads to a dilemma – choose between the devil and the deep blue sea- abide by stereotypes forced on them by society and face backlash as a traitor to their gender group, or rebel against the imposition of stereotypes on their identities- and as a result, have their gay identity itself questioned. Besides, the portrayal of all gay individuals as incredibly lustful with a poor understanding of consent further offends the gay community given the conservative nature of the Indian public.
The media’s ignorance and continued enforcement of harmful stereotypes are most visible in 2008 Bollywood hit movie- Dostana. In brief, the film revolves around two male heterosexual individuals who claim to be gay to move into an apartment, and the comedic lengths they go to, to keep up the image of them being gay. Producer Karan Johar claimed that the movie helped the gay community by starting conversations about homosexuality in an otherwise unaware, and deliberately quiet, Indian household. The portrayal of Sam’s mother’s slow acceptance of her gay son was an attempt to normalise homosexuality in the eyes of Indian cinema-goers. While the good intent behind the movie can be appreciated, the tropes cinema employs do more damage than good to the gay community.
“Think man, act woman.”
These are words quoted verbatim from the movie. To pass off as gay, the main characters Sam and Kunal act comically effeminate. Other gay characters such as M (played by Ravi Shastri), are portrayed as overtly sexual. If the movie intended to start a conversation in unaware households, showcasing nothing but the most extreme stereotypes does nothing to better the situation. When gay men are viewed as effeminate, it plays into essentialist norms mentioned earlier, which further stigmatises the gay community.
Another factor that makes Dostana harmful to the gay community in India is that the local viewer is yet to reach a point where they can differentiate comic satire from the identity of a gay individual. Dostana, like any other mainstream Indian comedic movie, exaggerates the way its characters act. Comic exaggeration in any form of media is harmful when those who consume are unaware of this exaggeration. When a marginalised community that not many people know about is represented in any way, but accurately, it normalises a distorted image of what it means to be gay. While comedy makes content more accessible, it cannot claim to be spreading awareness. The information it is reporting is false and blatantly degrading.
Why doesn’t the Indian media improve its portrayal of this community?
Having hidden sheer ignorance under the pretence of ‘comedy and entertainment,’ media companies have enforced such stereotypes to the point where this skewed image of the gay community has become the dominant narrative. Given that these stereotypes aren’t readily noticeable but play to the implicit biases of a heterosexual majority, the public readily accepts such exaggerated stereotypes as accurate. Relatability increases viewership, and hence it becomes necessary to ensure that the typical heterosexual person can relate to the media he subscribes to. As an unfortunate result, attempts to divert from the norm lead to a loss in relatability and hence viewership; de-incentivising the press to deflect from the set norm and exposing the stereotype for what it is. In short, the media is caught in a perpetual cycle of its own making where the stereotypes it enforces are the very reason it cannot break them. Indian media companies are forced to choose between profits and an oppressed minority.
Censorship of the media houses who would dare attempt an accurate representation of these communities accurately – is yet another reason that there is no active change. The Aligarh controversy is a perfect way to discuss the Indian censor boards attitude towards homosexuality in general. The movie explored the life of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, Uttar Pradesh. He was fired after being caught while having sex in the confines of his home. The reasons that motivated his firing were purely homophobic. Manoj Bajpayee, who plays Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, stated that the movie was a narration of the life and experience of a homosexual man. The movie’s script was written by Apurva Asrani, a homosexual individual, lending an aura of authenticity to the representation. Even though the film had no overly sexual or violent scenes, it was given an Adult rated certificate by the Censorship Board of India – a rating reserved for sexually explicit and violent content. “Homosexuality is”, to quote Censor board chief, “not something suitable for children and teenagers”. This meant that a movie that was trying to combat stereotypes, while telling a compelling story could no longer be advertised to the public at large, on the scale it needs to be. The fact that a narrative with no sexually explicit content was placed in the same category as sex-comedies and gore-intensive action movies says volumes of the anti-gay bias that permeates within the Censor board.
“Is homosexuality even a topic for children and teenagers?”
This was the response by Censor board chief Pankaj Nihalani in defence of the A rating. The homophobia that permeates within the certification board is yet another hurdle for accurate representation in cinema. Even movies that aimed to break gender stereotypes in Indian cinema like Lipstick Under My Burkha, a film that sought to reclaim female sexuality, was treated the same way, with cuts being demanded in exchange for film certification.
The media, through forces of its own making, has established a rather unnervingly subtle means of spreading false representations with damaging consequences on an already oppressed minority. In pursuit of a higher viewership, it disregards its impacts on two fundamental processes that shape the lives of those who identify as gay. Through sheer ignorance or prioritisation of profits, the media’s blunders have stigmatised the queer community yet again. This compounded with additional bureaucratic hurdles that those who wish to represent the community face only furthers the problem accurately. There is an urgent need for change in the way the gay community is viewed in India. Given the medias role in perpetrating this stereotype, it has the moral obligation to consider its actions and better its depiction of the gay community.
Abhijay Srekanth is a Second Year Law Student at Jindal Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
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