Edinburgh Festival: Gay activists attack TV over 'poofs in primetime'

Portrayal of homosexuals is 'stuck in 1950s', executives told
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has been the TV phenomenon of the year: gay shows have become prime-time viewing. Series such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will & Grace are hot properties on terrestrial television and "pink programming" has boosted the digital channel Living TV, bringing both viewers and advertisers.

Graham Norton, a gay comedian notorious for his risqué humour, has shifted from his late-night Channel 4 slot and will soon be launched as a major BBC name after signing a major deal with the corporation.

The rise of gay TV will be one of the major discussion points for broadcasting executives at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the industry's biggest annual talking shop, later this month.

But now there is disquiet about the "camp" portrayal of homosexuals, with campaigners worried they are seen simply as objects of ridicule in the shows. It is even claimed that in years to come people will look back at the current crop of shows with revulsion, in the same way The Black and White Minstrel Show is now viewed.

The lobby groups Stonewall and Outrage! feel the shows give a distorted, one-dimensional view of the experiences of homosexuals.

Ben Summerskill, Stonewall chief executive, said: "Some gay people are camp but that is one strand of many. The reason I think people get frustrated is that that is the only strand that is represented. Of course there are gay men who are style gurus, but there are also gay men who dress like Alan Bennett."

Peter Tatchell of the gay campaign group Outrage! said: "Most gay comedy is stuck in the 1950s with the camp cliché of effeminate, limp-wristed queens and saucy innuendo. I love Graham Norton, he's very funny, but his trademark camp really is a bit dated. A lot of gay characters conform to camp stereotypes. The makeover shows like Queer Eye play to a simplistic, one-dimensional stereotype of gay life."

In a TV festival session called Poofs in Primetime, journalist John Lyttle will accuse executives of perpetuating stereotypes by filling screens with camp characters, skewing the public's view.

In Queer Eye, which has been screened by Living and Channel 4, five gay men use their style insight to make-over a heterosexual man. Channel 4 used a similar idea for Fairy Godfathers, which was broadcast earlier this year. The US sitcom Will & Grace features a relatively straight-acting lead character, and a highly camp gay supporting character, Jack.

Mr Lyttle said: "In a few years' time we will look back on these programmes in the same way we look back on Uncle Tom's Cabin. People will cringe. There's this idea that it's OK to do gay on TV if you can quote Oscar Wilde, know which brand of champagne to drink and know about skin-care products."

"The thing about camping it up, it's gone from being very subversive - without it we wouldn't have had gay liberation - to being the norm on TV. Gay culture is not all about that stereotype. It's like gay men are only acceptable if they play the court jester."

Richard Woolfe, the programme director of Living TV - who will answer the charges during the Edinburgh discussion - said his channel showed "a wide range of guys and girls who are gay".

"I don't think we focus on a particular type of gay character or presenter. In our Queer Eye 'fab five', lots of people would question whether Tristan, our grooming expert, was even gay. If what critics are saying were true, Queer Eye would be made up of five John Inman characters, but what we've actually got is five eclectic gay guys with very different characteristics."

Mr Woolfe's next gay programming venture is a lesbian drama called The L Word, which begins next month and features Jackie Brown actress Pam Grier and Flashdance star Jennifer Beals. He said it "moved on" the way gay characters are portrayed.

"The most important thing about the pink programmes we have on Living are that they are great entertainment and they will bring viewers to the channel," Mr Woolfe said.