Girl on TV: How gender representation shapes identity
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The first time I saw a girl kiss another girl in mainstream media was when Olivia Wilde’s Alex Kelly kissed Mischa Barton’s Marissa Cooper in “The O.C.” I was in second year high school, and although I had occasional crushes on girls, I blamed it all on my all-girl school environment and didn’t think any more of it.
Alex Kelly was the kind of girl all the other girls had a crush on. She had a gorgeous girl friend, wore a wifebeater, drove a Jeep, had an ironic butterfly tattoo, and ran a bar where Modest Mouse performed. Alex was cool but she was the farthest thing from who I was. The possibility of growing up to become Alex was a concept that was so alien to me, it almost felt like hearing a kid today say she is going to grow up to become Beyonce. It was an impossibility, and it was out of reach.
I eventually realized I was a lesbian at the age of 23. I met a girl and I fell in love. I had no instruction manual, no guide book, no #lifepegs to refer to. I didn’t know what I was doing so I kept it a secret, I kept her a secret. She was my “friend” and to this day I can’t quite convince myself that she ever existed: no evidence, no signs of life, no witnesses.
I only started becoming comfortable with my sexual identity when I moved to another country. This was partly because of the societal freedoms afforded to me there, but it was mostly because I started hanging out with girls who were just like me. We had shared experiences, a shared language, a shared narrative. Seeing bits of myself in other people made me realize that it was acceptable to be who I was. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan says that it is our need to see and be seen that differentiates us from the animal world. For the first time in my life, I felt like my existence was validated, that I actually existed, that I actually “found myself.”
Growing up in the Philippines, I never saw a representation of myself (or the self I wanted to be) in local media … This lack reinforced my belief that I wasn’t actually gay, that I was just going through a phase, because if I didn’t align with the lesbians I saw onscreen, then how could I possibly be one?
Growing up in the Philippines, I never saw a representation of myself (or the self I wanted to be) in local media. Anyone who has ever said they would choose invisibility as their superpower of choice need not look any further than being an atypical gay individual living in the Philippines. There were some lesbians, yes, but they weren’t images I could relate to. This lack reinforced my belief that I wasn’t actually gay, that I was just going through a phase, because if I didn’t align with the lesbians I saw onscreen, then how could I possibly be one?
This relatability is so crucial especially when living in a society that is so heavily reliant on visual “pegs”: a concept so unique to Filipinos that when I used the term while I was working abroad, I was met with blank stares and confused looks. We pattern our lives so close to these “pegs,” that we look to our media to see what is socially acceptable. Aristotle said that it is through representation that man learns about the world around him.
In a world where mass media has the power to shape mass consciousness, the imagery that people see onscreen can influence their perception of what is real, of what is acceptable. The fact that the LGBTQ community lacks representation or is misrepresented in local media nullifies our existence — the effects of which bleed out into real life. If people think we don’t exist, then we are unable to fight for our rights effectively (see: the Anti-Discrimination Bill). If people think our lives aren’t morally acceptable to be portrayed onscreen, then we must be living in sin.
If people think we don’t exist, then we are unable to fight for our rights effectively. If people think our lives aren’t morally acceptable to be portrayed onscreen, then we must be living in sin.
Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, said that humans find security in being able to see things for themselves. Visual imagery takes precedence over any other form, because as the critic and novelist John Berger puts it, “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.” LGBTQ representation through visual images mediates between the represented and its audience. The theorist Jean Baudrillard describes this as the decoding of an image that the audience translates into a neo-reality. Media becomes a bridge, a way of connecting a concept to an existence.
Our television shows and movies utilize stereotypes and tropes that have been around for a long time in our national film history: the strong male hero, the dalagang Pilipina, the mabuting ina, the abused worker, the tyrannical villain, and the parloristang bakla. Those who fall outside the pre-approved tropes are excluded from the national narrative. Their existence is dismissed.
Representations stand for something or someone else that exists. Representation presupposes existence. Or as literary philosopher Roland Barthes puts it, “I can never deny that the thing has been there.” This validation of existence is crucial — not just for societal reforms but as an archive of what once was. History is laden with images as signifiers of existence, from fossils, to cave paintings, to hieroglyphics, to religious paintings and statues that all confirm the presence of something that once was. Without proper and sufficient LGBT representation in mass media — no evidence, no signs of life, no witnesses — who’s to say we ever existed?
Originally Published in CNN Philippines Life http://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/2016/10/25/gender-in-mass-media.html