04/27/2012 11:00 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Part That Movies Play

What television shows do you watch when you sit home to relax in the evening? Do you watch sports? Do you have a favorite prime-time drama that draws your attention? Is it because of the plot or the characters? Are you more prone to see an action movie or a chick flick? We all find shows that we can identify with, or programs that give us something to strive for in life. They provide us with a way to escape our lives and be swept into the lives of others, whether it is for an hour or a few hours. If we're lucky enough we can find a few characters and shows that draw our attention.

Why do we get so drawn into movies? Why do people love watching the same soap operas for decades? It is mostly because we love the escape from our own lives, but it's also because we get to know certain characters so well over the years that we all feel like we know them. It's why reality shows about celebrities and the celebrity newspapers that give further insight into their daily lives are so popular to millions of people. Whether we agree or disagree with the constant focus on celebrities, it happens because fans are watching and somewhat obsessed with their lives.

Television has changed over the years, from shows in black and white on stations that ended after the nightly news to a 24/7 industry raking in billions of dollars. Most stations keep running shows all night long, and if we can't find our favorites on television, we can certainly get connected to them on the Internet through YouTube and other sites.

Adults and children are exposed to so much more than they ever have been before, which can be both positive and negative. The positive aspect is that children are more exposed to a diverse world if they choose to search for it. However, the negative side is that if the characters they see in movies, newspapers, and television shows only play to stereotypes, the viewers are being sent the wrong message. They are being exposed to situations that may not be true.

Media Stereotypes

In her study "Straight Allies: Supportive Attitudes Toward Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals in a College Sample," Rebecca L. Stotzer, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Hawai'i, wrote, "Along with personal encounters in their social lives, [college students] also utilized exposure from mass culture in forming their attitudes [about gay men and women]..."

How often have you seen a gay character save the planet in a serious action movie? I would venture to guess that "never" is the answer. More movies and television shows are offering gay characters, like Glee and Modern Family. However, this increase in the number of gay main and supporting characters is a fairly new phenomenon. As Larry Gross writes in Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America, "Prior to Ellen Morgan's (along with her real-life counterpart, Ellen DeGeneres) much publicized coming out in 1997, and the following year's Will Truman of NBC's Will and Grace, no major network television program had a lesbian or gay lead character." Since Will & Grace, many gay characters have appeared in television and movies. Some of the characters have had serious portrayals, and others have been used in the comedic sense. They provide exposure to people who may not know anyone who is gay.

Hopefully, most of those gay characters provide a positive role model to the viewers, because if they do not, the mere exposure is not enough. Negative stereotypes can be harmful for the LGBT community, because they can perpetuate the ideas that heterosexual viewers may already have of gay people. Therefore, we need more brave characters, like Kurt Hummel from Glee, who stand up against bullies. In addition, there needs to be characters who epitomize the gay community, which means offering characters who are professional, contributing members of society and not just characters who play in a comedic role.

In the End

Television and movies provide us with people we want to emulate. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of others, whether it's reality television, a drama, or a comedy. As kids grow up they see characters they strive to be in the future. Media can have a large impact on the growth and development of adolescents.

When our LGBT youth watch television and movies, we want them to see characters they would be proud of, not tragic figures who are surrounded by negative circumstances. They deserve to see normal, everyday characters who happen to be gay. Exposure to these characters can bring an understanding and self-awareness, which will help them as they grow.

If our youth are only exposed to negative stereotypes of LGBT people, there is a hidden curriculum that takes place. "Hidden curriculum" encompasses everything that is learned that may never be said. If a child only sees negative stereotypes of LGBT people, the hidden curriculum is that all LGBT people lead tragic lives. If youth are exposed to positive stereotypes of LGBT people, the hidden curriculum is that many LGBT people can live healthy and normal lives.