Capitalism! Love it or hate, that’s the economy we rely on in America.
Wonder why I’m slapping you with the obvious stick? Because Capitalism affects every aspect of our lives in very unique and complicated ways.
It fuels industries like film, television, print, and digital media. It fuels — well, everything.
I’m not about to take a stance on whether that is a good or bad thing, but I am going to suggest that it fuels an atmosphere of homophobia and heternormalism in the media.
The basic concept is that assembly line we love and profit from. Yes, it’s not just cars and tangible material products that can are more affordable to produce this way!
Just as the mechanical assembly lines that help make our toys, cars, and bombs do so by mass-producing the same parts to disperse widely, the metaphorical assembly line runs most efficiently and smoothly if it can re-use the same parts over and over again.
We all know that personal belief systems and values lead to individual homophobia and heteronormalism. But on a cultural level for a society comprised of so many different ethnicities, personalities, beliefs, and dialects, it is just plain cost effective to mass-produce everything – even sexuality.
Admittedly, I’m not the biggest consumer of media. I don’t have cable or dish, I tend to seek out my favorite news sources rather than watch network shows, and I don’t subscribe to any magazines.
However, that hermitage of mine is a decision made based on these observations, market research (interviewing people who do consume these and most media more regularly than I), and good, old-fashioned nerdy research, scouring scholarly articles and books.
So here are four ways that sexuality is mass-produced.
Let’s be honest. Almost every relationship seen on American TV is heterosexual. (And I use the term “relationship” in reference specifically to marriage and long-term commitments.)
Even in the few instances where shows include a gay or lesbian character, they are either perpetually single, promiscuous, or their relationships are not fully developed.
What I mean to say is that if there happens to be a portrayal of homosexuality, it is the sexual orientation itself that is the storyline in mainstream culture. The individual personality is “gay” or “lesbian,” whereas a straight couple may be comprised of an ironically witty lawyer and an ambivalent, but attractive police officer.
Sandra Bernhard, also known as Nancy on Roseanne, told The Advocate that her portrayal of one of TV’s first lesbian relationships would “never really look like a real relationship. It’s just kind of dealing with the superficiality of it. I come out on the show, but it’s very funny. We’re not going to get real serious together.”
That was in 1992.
Over twenty years ago! And yet, have we really fulfilled homosexual identities on any network television show?
So, sexuality on television is mass-produced as predominately heterosexual. How does that turn a profit, exactly?
It’s re-using the same mold for infinite products (or shows). It’s a mold that is tried and true, it doesn’t take a lot of (any) new market research, it isn’t going to earn that station any controversial political labels, and it’s not going to turn any viewers away.
It’s a safe bet that doesn’t take excessively creative narrative skills since we have centuries’ worth of hetero-character development to base these stock characters on, no church is going to protest outside of your studio, and your actors will get paid decent wages.
Television that pretends homosexual relationships of substance don’t exist does not mean that they do not exist in the real world. Unfortunately, it does perpetuate that idea in certain sheltered minds that have not had the distinct pleasure of learning firsthand how obnoxiously off-kilter those portrayals lean.
It’s also important to remember that TV perpetuates those ideas not because that is what all owners of all stations believe, and definitely not because it is what most people in America believe; networks make decisions based primarily on money.
If cookie-cutter use of heterosexual “relationships” is not going to turn a profit, they will have to invent a new mold (or fifty).
For now, it is much more cost-effective to produce hetero-normative television, even if it harbors harmful homophobic tendencies.
2. Lady Magazines
I know, I know. Cosmopolitan has already taken a feminist beating or two. I know you’ve heard gripes against it before, but hear me out! I do not hate Cosmo or Cosmo Girl or any magazines I can think of.
I just support media literacy, which is why I have to ask one question: Who is he? That one guy that every article refers to, telling girls and women that “he will love this,” you’ll “drive him crazy,” you’ll “keep him happy?”
Extolling sex and relationship advice that is only heterosexual, and then taking it one step further in pretending that every single man in existence is identical in every way is insane.
I’m all for giving women confidence in all aspects of their lives, but minimizing male personality, sexuality, and desire is incredibly misandristic – and just flat-out misleading.
Not to mention, any rubric that minimizes men so incredibly is also minimizing women by extension.
If every single woman reading this ‘zine is looking for exactly the same type of man who likes the exact same things, the take-away logic says that all of those women must be the same.
They must learn the same “moves” and “tricks,” wear the same lip-gloss and lingerie, and treat men exactly the same.
Just like television production, deciding on print content is a matter of money and not values. I don’t think that the inherent heterosexism of mainstream magazines is reflective of any latent bias on the part of writers, editors, or even owners.
The reason mainstream ladies’ magazines focus solely on heterosexual relationships and try to focus on a certain single male identity is because it is cheaper.
It is cheaper – and easier, for that matter – to produce content of a very specific mold than to acknowledge how amazingly diverse the sexuality of young women actually is.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t read any lady magazines. For one thing, your gyno waiting room excursions will be super-duper boring, but also, we’ve all wondered how to de-frizz our hair at least once in our lives.
The point is media literacy.
The goal is to be more aware that these magazines are products, that the people writing the articles are doing so to make a living, and that their bosses are giving them assignments based on the need to maximize the company’s profits.
A direct result of this capitalist-driven content is perpetuated stereotypes of heterosexism.
3. Lad Mags
There seems to be a tendency toward claiming diversity of sexual appetites that makes a mockery of real sexuality.
For instance, if a magazine features one or two non-white models, they are praised or labeled as unique.
In reality, most non-white models hired for mainstream magazines still exhibit certain Caucasian traits (glossy, fine hair or only a moderately darker skin tone, for instance) instead of celebrating the beauty of different cultures and physical traits.
Even more homogeneous is the body type of models.
The dimensions of each woman (because these magazines presume heterosexuality as the norm) are relatively close, and when a “plus-sized” model is displayed, they are much closer to an average sized, healthy woman.
I’m not necessarily saying it’s wrong, but I am pointing out that there is a specific type of sexuality being marketed. In both ladies’ magazines and men’s, it is almost entirely heterosexuality of a very specific nature that is sold.
They are magazines hinged on articles and depictions of sexuality that we buy and consume.
The articles and depictions are not necessarily chosen because they anyone in charge really believes that sexuality is that uniform.
Instead, by convincing consumers that there is a certain correct way to express sexuality, they can mass-produce and sell one or two or ten magazines instead of having to produce and market thousands.
Paper costs; plus hiring completely different staff writers, editors, and designers; plus selling different ad space to completely different companies; not to mention all of the ridiculously complex market research it would take to sell all of those spaces…
Financially speaking, of course all of the models look the same. It costs too much money to sell reality.
I’m ashamed to admit that I am far from a porn-expert.
In fact, I have much more experience reading scholarly articles about porn than actually watching it firsthand. And I say this because I don’t want to misrepresent myself as an expert on any media – I’m just supporting media literacy.
Let it be known: I’m not pro-porn. I’m not anti-porn, either.
I’m pro-healthy expression of diverse sexualities.
What does that ambiguous term I just made up mean?
It means that as long as representations are not misogynistic or misandrystic, homophobic, racist, or depict non-consensual sexual encounters, I probably have no qualms with its production or consumption.
That being said, from my meager first-hand experience and robust secondary research excursions, I have been made to understand that porn also produces an illusion of diversity.
In Michael Kimmel’s Guyland, interviews revealed that black college-aged men were severely less likely to consume porn because as one grad student said, “[I]t doesn’t feel like it’s about me, even if it’s black guys in it. I can’t exactly describe what’s wrong, but I know it’s not about me. Not for me.”
That was an integral moment in the conversation of porn.
Mainstream depictions – even those that include depictions of homosexuality (usually lesbian interaction for male consumption) and racial diversity – are still using those characters to fulfill a predominately white, male, heterosexual fantasy.
There are some (I’m thinking of work like Ignacio Rivera) that intentionally specialize in queer porn that attempts to depict various gender-identities, sexualities, and desires from a myriad of vantage points – meaning not just white, hetero men.
However, those are never going to be mainstream.
And by dichotomizing the porn industry into mainstream and queer, we are still stuck lumping millions of different sexualities into the latter category, we are setting them at odds against each other, and we run the risk of idolizing the relatively few queer porn examples as their own new stereotypes.
Again, I’m not trying to tell you don’t watch porn or only watch a certain type of porn. Watch whatever you like with or without whomever you like for whatever reasons you choose. I’m just suggesting a little extra critical thinking.
If you happen to love mainstream porn as is, that’s wonderful for you, probably.
However, if you internalize the cultural message that one type of sexuality is supreme and anything you don’t see represented there is inherently weird or abnormal because it is not represented there, that is problematic.
What Does Mass-Producing Sexuality Really Do?
Media are virtually impossible to quantify.
That’s why media literacy doesn’t mean learning to decipher some subliminal messages pumping through your TV and radio. It’s just referring to the need to think about what you’re consuming and the ways in which it might affect culture.
There are homophobic tendencies to our culture. We live in a society where even LGBTQ+ allies are likely to fall prey to viewing heterosexuality as the norm. The reason it’s so difficult to shake those deep-seated messages is because they are perpetuated all around us.
Television and film representations of love (and sex, for that matter), pornographic genres, and the various “advice” columns and books most commonly consumed all hinge on a homogeneous, heterosexual storyline that robs any queer characters of depth or validity.
And, we just happen to live in a culture that still suffers daily from homophobia and fear of Otherness, both in ourselves and those around us.
It can’t be scientifically proven that the prior representations directly cause the overwhelming heterosexism in our culture anymore than we have been able to prove that advertisements directly cause people to buy certain products or services.
However, even capitalism’s greatest superpowers continue to use as many media platforms as possible to sell themselves.
It might not be realistic to expect that media will ever represent the physical, ethnic, and sexual diversities that bloom in real life. Unless society as a whole demands more realistic depictions by only watching shows and buying magazines that do so, it will never change.
Because as much as we talk activism, it’s money that is heard in a capitalist society.
If you make bias, hatred, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness unprofitable, it will diminish.
Kelsey Lueptow is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Kelsey is a small town amateur yogi, poet, and feminist from Wisconsin. She’s a single mother and seasonal waitress working on a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies. Caffeine addict and book enthusiast, Kelsey spends her time playing with her son and hanging out at coffee shops. Read her articles here.