COMMENT: Dear Mediacorp, here's a crash course in (un)equal minority media representation

Homosexual couple holding hands outdoors in the city
Photo: Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Mediacorp is the biggest media business in Singapore. It runs the only free-to-air TV network here with six channels that produce news and entertainment programmes in Singapore’s four official languages. It owns the news outlets CNA and Today. And it operates 11 radio stations.

It is, therefore, quite strange that the company doesn’t understand the concept of equal, or unequal, media representation.

On Tuesday (14 July), Mediacorp apologised to the LGBTQ community for homophobic tropes in Channel 8 drama My Guardian Angels. Yahoo Lifestyle SEA first reported about netizens’ criticism of Channel 8 and Mediacorp regarding the Chinese-language drama on 3 July. The show features homophobic characters and a male paedophilic character with a sexually transmitted disease who sexually abuses boys. You can read details of our coverage here and here.

At first, Mediacorp posted a shorter apology on social media on Monday in comment threads slamming the company, probably hoping that the backlash would die down without further publicity. However, as online anger mounted and the heat rose, Mediacorp issued a longer apology in an official press statement the next day. CNA and Today were the first to duly report their parent company’s defence of its TV drama.

Mediacorp said it was "sorry to have caused offence and distress" and had "no intention” to disrespect or discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

So far, not bad, as apologies go. But the company couldn’t resist explaining its supposed pure intentions in the production of the drama. And that’s where Mediacorp revealed its tone-deafness.

Homophobic censorship

Addressing the storyline involving a paedophile basketball coach who sexually abused male students, Mediacorp said that in the past, it had “depicted paedophiles preying on young girls in other dramas”.

The company also said that the storyline featuring actors Kym Ng and Brandon Wong making homophobic comments was meant “to depict the real-life struggles some parents face in communicating with their children on topics such as relationships and sexual orientation."

Mediacorp said that in both storylines, “there was no intention to depict the LGBTQ community in a negative light”. But this shows how ignorant the broadcaster is of the impact of the existing unequal representation of LGBTQ people in media in Singapore.

The philosophy behind the above statements appears to be that Mediacorp was merely reflecting realities within society;that just because Mediacorp had depicted heterosexual paedophile characters, it was, therefore, OK to also depict homosexual paedophile characters. In any media context, this would be a problematic premise. But in Singapore’s media context, it is a deeply flawed justification.

That’s because media in Singapore necessarily exclude the realities experienced by LGBTQ people, due to the government’s unequal ban on positive portrayals of this group in broadcast media. (How’s that for government-sanctioned homophobia?)

Media can never be a perfect reflection of the totality of realities in society; it would be naive of Mediacorp to think that that’s what they’re doing. But the unequal representation of the realities of marginalised groups have a profound impact on societal perceptions of them. By the same token, any disproportionate representation given to the negative prejudices of the majority towards marginalised groups serves to entrench such stigma.

Of course, in reality, there are gay people who are bad people, just as there are also cisgender, heterosexual people who are bad people. But while there are ample positive cishet images in our media to balance the bad cishet images, there are virtually no positive queer images to balance negative queer images.

For every heterosexual paedophile character that Mediacorp creates, there are a hundred other heterosexual characters that are neither perverted nor evil. But for gay characters that portray negative stereotypes, the audience has no opposing positive reference points for them to build a more objective image of LGBTQ people. Certainly, this latest instance wasn’t the first time that Mediacorp had portrayed homophobic stereotypes.

Therefore, in the context of Singapore, the issue with negative portrayals of gay people is not that media should never portray gay people with negative qualities. The problem, rather, is that there are few positive portrayals of gay people to balance out the negative portrayals. And viewers go on to form or maintain inaccurate negative perceptions of gay people based on even a single negative portrayal. Voila, that’s how you entrench prejudice and bigotry. It is for this reason that LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD monitors the number of queer characters that appear in films and TV annually.

GLEE: Naya Rivera guest-stars as Santana in all-new episodes of GLEE premiering at a special time Tuesday, April 13 (9:28-10:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)
Naya Rivera became an LGBTQ icon for her role as queer Latino woman Santana Lopez in Glee. (Photo: Getty Images)

Fair LGBTQ representation needed

The effects of unequal media representation apply to minority groups other than LGBTQ people as well, such as women and ethnic minorities. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen says, “Studies show that audiences substitute stereotypes they see on screen for reality when they have not had any direct interactions with particular racial groups. For instance, Latino stereotypes in the media can lead audiences negatively to associate immigration with increased unemployment and crime.”

In Disclosure, a Netflix documentary in which transgender artists reflect on trans representation in film and TV, actress Jen Richards says, “There is a one-word solution to almost all the problems in trans media. We just need more, and that way, the occasional clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much, because it wouldn’t be all that there is.”

Entertainment isn’t merely entertainment. It incorporates the values, beliefs, and ideas of the people producing said entertainment. And it shapes and affects the values and beliefs of people consuming the entertainment.

Actress Naya Rivera, who was reported this week to have tragically died in a boating accident, was a beloved LGBTQ icon for her role as Santana Lopez on Glee, a show filled with LGBTQ icons. A heterosexual herself, Rivera played a queer Latino woman at a time when there weren’t really any such characters on TV. Santana was not a conventionally pleasant character. She regularly insulted and put down other characters in the show. But despite her flaws, she was a human character, warts and all, not reduced to a villain or stereotype. Queer media representation doesn’t need to present the community as perfect; it just needs to reflect their humanity.

A plea against stigmatisation

Of course, in today’s diverse media landscape, and dominant as Mediacorp is, it’s not the only content creator in Singapore. There are all sorts of media content consumed by people on a multitude of media platforms. Netflix, for example, is far more inclusive than Mediacorp. But Mediacorp still reaches millions of people in Singapore every day with its content. It has a responsibility not to propagate social injustice through its platform.

There are some who say that viewers and the LGBTQ community are making a mountain out of a molehill by harping on a few problematic lines and scenes in a TV drama. But put yourself in the shoes of a group who faces bigotry and systematic discrimination within society on a daily basis. Wouldn’t you be pissed if the country’s main broadcaster behaves in a way that further entrenches such prejudice?

I’m not naive; I know that Mediacorp operates in a political context in which the government, taking the lead of the conservative majority, chooses to criminalise homosexuality, with all the attendant trickle-down discrimination of 377A.

Granted, Mediacorp is constrained by censorship regulations which forbid content that “promotes” or “justifies” “alternative lifestyles” (a term that is ludicrous). If broadcasts are not allowed to depict positive portrayals of gay people, you can either choose to not have any LGBTQ representation, or you can portray them, but only in a negative light. Which is better: erasure or demonisation? Obviously, both are terrible scenarios. But that is the reality that media and society face under such discriminatory rules.

But I ask of you, Mediacorp, as well as your producers, scriptwriters, directors and actors – while you operate within a framework of discriminatory media regulations, do not add to the stigma that minorities like LGBTQ people already experience. That at least is within your power, and also your responsibility.

P.S. An addendum for actors: consider before accepting roles that require you to utter lines or behave in ways that are homophobic or transphobic, or otherwise discriminatory towards any marginalised group. To play along with the prejudices of scriptwriters and directors is to be complicit in the structures that perpetuate inequality. Whether you’re a veteran or newbie actor, regardless of the professional pressure you face to accept a role, you cannot deny the social impact of the industry you have chosen to work in. It is your choice whether you participate in a process that reinforces injustice. And you cannot blame the public and the community for judging you by that choice.

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