Thoughts on Thoughts: Getting Sensitive Issues Right in Media Culture

Entertainment Weekly unleashed a LGBT theme on the magazine’s current issue, number 1368. Although print issues aren’t sexy any more, it is always a good idea to pick up print versions of publications you’d like to see survive into the future. This issue had more than a few notable articles of interest, but I’d like to focus on just one: “The Transition Will Be Televised” by Mark Harris. The article is available online, also, and you can read it here.

Now, the subheading to the article writes, “In an era of increasing inclusiveness, TV proves once again to be media’s most effective agent of social change, this time by sharing rich stories about the transgender community.” While the media’s focus on anything that may have been dubbed ‘sensitive’ just five years ago is cause for celebration to some, others are frustrated with the constant media attention shining on various minority groups, transgender individuals included.

People need look no further than the comments section of any article published online. Opinions are flying everywhere on the internet, from the most ignorant arguments to the well-written ones. Solid spelling, grammar, and style aren’t a must when making a solid point, but it sure helps. Media is omnipresent, and for better or worse, it is an equal-opportunity, interaction-supporting sort of medium.

Taking a look at the digital version of Harris’ article specifically, the comments section introduces us to several viewpoints. This is impressive given only six people have responded so far, and according to PC Magazine, the internet is home to more than “1.1 billion internet users worldwide,” which is a fairly outdated statistic as it is.

One commenter, under the username Well, writes that “[It’s] amazing how a minority that accounts for less than 0.5% of the population gets so much media attention. Assuming of course that [the] 700,000 estimate is accurate.”

ZRob, another commenter on the feed, doesn’t actually address the issue at all, instead making a positive remark on Harris himself.

A third commenter, Jeff, makes the following comment in what we must assume is a tone of sarcasm: “I identify as a giraffe. Why isn’t EW standing up for my rights and writing articles about me?”

In fact, the most well-developed argument in the entire comments section isn’t seen until four commenters down. Matthew T. Mason writes:

“I have enjoyed reading [Entertainment Weekly] over the years…But I received the latest issue today…And there it was on page 41: ‘Could things with Marcie have made a turn to the sapphic side if Pepp’s pal didn’t always insist on insensitively calling her sir?’…That’s crossing a line. Peppermint Patty’s appearance was meant to reflect the 1960s hippie counter culture…Further, Peppermint Patty is obviously a pre-pubescent girl…This is simply disgusting; a bare-handed insult to both Charles Schulz and the fans of his legacy…I am canceling my subscription.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Mason’s response was directed at another piece in the issue altogether. Harris did not spend much time address Peppermint Patty in this piece about transgender people in media.

This fact aside, sharing the issues of LGBT people in Entertainment Weekly has sure sparked a few different types of jabs. Media is playing it’s role even as it discusses the role of media. In an ironic twist, the variety of reactions is the first piece of information Harris touches on in his article: “A sports figure comes out as transgender, and the general public is riveted by her story, which is met with everything from bigotry to curiosity to empathy.”

It seems fitting that we would have such a variety of reactions through media, especially the internet. An article by Jeffrey Hancock published by CNN offers the following reflection:

“…a lot of research suggests that Internet technology can actually make us more honest. In several of our studies, for example, people lied less in e-mail than face to face…we are in an incredibly fluid era of human social evolution.”

Perhaps Well, ZRob, Jeff and Mr. Mason are just “incredibly fluid” in their “social evolution,” or perhaps the backlash of online media just doesn’t hit hard enough to keep people’s tongues in check. To a degree, their tongues don’t need to be in check anyway—they have a right to whatever opinion they want to hold. A little respect does go a long way, though.

However, the rub about this ironic twist of an opening to Harris’ article is that even though it addresses reactions of the public, it is referencing a story from 1976 rather than a current story. The story is one many people today may not know, the story of Richard Raskind, who came to be known as Renée Richards. According to Elizabeth Fee, the once-upon-a-time captain of Yale’s tennis team also “went to medical school, became an ophthalmologist, served in the United States Navy, married, gained a pilot’s license, and competed in the US Open.” Fee did an entire interview with Renée Richards, including photographs of her as Richard and then as Renée. However, this article was featured in the American Journal of Public Health rather than a popularized magazine such as Entertainment Weekly.

This is the key difference that Harris is discussing—media attention. Media is an outlet of “inclusiveness.” To Harris, all forms of media have a hand in the shift we have made since 1976, but television is a primary one. Harris goes on to explain how common it is to see a transgender individual in a popular television show these days, referencing a variety of programs, including Transparent, Orange is the New Black, Glee, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Sense8. According to Harris, “We are, in other words, on the verge of a network meeting in which the producer of a new series says, ‘What about a trans character?’ and the executive producer replies, ‘Oh, that’s so last year.’”

This is a scary, albeit eye-opening and important train of thought. We certainly want to acknowledge transgender people because they exist. There are issues that we must discuss in regards to these people. We don’t want to overexpose a real, human issue, though. At least, we don’t want to overexpose it to the point that commentators of the internet variety compare the transgender struggle with the struggle of “a giraffe.” There is a balance required between drawing people into healthy discussion and pushing them into silence. As Harris writes, “Invisible yesterday, here today, old-hat tomorrow is a terrible formula.”

The question becomes whether or not television is doing it right. “It” meaning the depiction of transgender people and the exploration of the real crisis they often face. As Sandra Gonzalez reveals in her recent article, even reality television is jumping on what many would dub a bandwagon, as the long-running show Big Brother “welcomes its first transgender houseguest…[in] casting Audrey Middleton.”

The article also mentions CBS initially failed to mention Middleton’s transgender status when they provided the information on the newest houseguests. However, Harris seems to have high hopes for television that also explains the absence of a definitive announcement. He writes the following in the article:

“TV is more interested in the voyage than the destination—as we learn more about trans people, we’re naturally drawn to stories of transitioning, in much the same way that coming-out stories took center stage for a while soon after gay characters started to break through in mass entertainment.”

It is normal for people to become invested in certain characters and storylines. Popular culture tends to produce these obsessions in waves. Though a fleeting wave may not be what transgender individuals need, if television can produce the longevity it has in the past, it could be a positive pathway to open and important discussion. Harris tells us that “there’s no escaping the fact that a large part of why [transgender characters] are there is specifically to promote understanding—they’re a vehicle for communication.”

This is why the question becomes whether or not television is doing it right.

Harris argues that to do it right we need people who care directly involved with the shows that are putting these characters out there. Perhaps it isn’t so shocking that a “gay man…co-created Will & Grace” or “How To Get Away with Murder is overseen by a black woman.” This makes sense because no matter how much a person wants to do the right thing, there is no substitute for real understanding of a sensitive issue.

When someone comments on an article such as Harris’ online, a required field should pop up advising the person to describe their relationship to the issue. It is important to know how much experience and knowledge the person teaching us has in the subject matter.

As Harris sums up, we’re on the right track, but it is important we stay on the right track:

“It’s an important breakthrough that there are now a handful of people in positions of power with a deep and personal investment in making sure TV gets this right. Four decades ago, we got off to a false start. Now, better late than never, we’re off to a good one.”

We as consumers of television, as well as all other types of media, should be invested in getting it right, too. We should feel a responsibility to be knowledgeable and empathetic when we express our opinions. We should care about who is supplying us with information. Most of all, we should think carefully before we offer knowledge to others, and make sure we get it right at the personal level.

Sources not directly linked in article:

Fee, Elizabeth, Theodore M. Brown, and Janet Laylor. “One Size Does Not Fit All In The Transgender Community.” American Journal Of Public Health 93.6 (2003): 899-900. Business Source Complete. Web. 17 June 2015.

Gonzalez, Sandra. “‘Big Brother’ to feature first transgender houseguest in Season 17.” 16 Jun. 2015, Television. NewsBank. Web. 17 Jun. 2015.

“Social Media Make Us More Honest .com.” CNN. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 June 2015.

“Worldwide Internet Usage.” PC Magazine 26.5 (2007): 21. Business Source Complete. Web. 17 June 2015.

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