Russell T Davies is never one to shy away from depicting gay life on screen. His radical 1999 drama Queer as Folk smashed through preconceptions about gay men and how far we can go in presenting them on television. His 2001 show Bob and Rose showed that sexuality can be fluid, and when he was tasked with rebooting the much-loved sci-fi show Doctor Who, he introduced LGBTQ+ characters into a world that had previously neglected their very existence – an unfortunate rarity in family shows. RTD, as he is referred to by fans, has been a vanguard for change in depicting gay people on TV, so why is it that he continues to perpetuate so many negative stereotypes about the community?
In the 1990s, many people had begun to open up to the idea of depicting gay life on television. Shows like Ellen, Will and Grace, and the ever-popular Friendsfinally embraced gay characters and storylines, but change did not come quick enough for some people. Gay characters were featured, but were often muted. They rarely interacted with romantic partners and the Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer peoples of the community were never featured at all. That is why RTD’s seminal Queer as Folk was a breath of fresh air – it didn’t pertain to the barriers set by TV standards, it smashed right through them. While other parts of the community remained underrepresented still, gay men were not depicted as stereotypes. RTD overcompensated for the lack of boyfriend characters in preceding shows by making his characters overly promiscuous. And therein lies the problem.
While such a depiction may have been necessary in the land of 1990s TV, where writers tip-toed around gay people like they were made of broken glass, it is certainly most unwelcome today. RTD’s recent trilogy of shows – 2015’s Cucumber, Banana, and Tofu – show that the writer-producer has learned a lot since his Queer as Folk days; lesbian, trans, and bisexual characters are depicted with sensitivity and kindness, while gay men are still depicted as overly sexual. For example, the show’s protagonist, middle-aged Henry Best, leaves his long-term boyfriend in search of further sexual conquests.
There would not have been much of a problem with this depiction if it did not bleed into every other area of film and television. In arguably the best episode of the IT Crowd, titled ‘The Work Outing,’ the characters go to see a production of a musical called ‘Gay,’ which features parody songs that conform to the stereotype of the promiscuous gay man. In the sitcom Extras, there is a character called Bunny, and one of his character traits is that he is a gay man who enjoys having sex. This is not the say the writers of these sitcoms are homophobic (Graham Linehan’s support of the Yes Equality campaign in May would indicate otherwise), but rather that they consciously (or unconsciously) perpetuate negative stereotypes about the gay community.
And who are we to criticise them if we continue to push these portrayals ourselves? Russell T Davies is, as has been said, a vanguard of change, but he still has some work to do in changing perceptions of gay men on TV.