Thursday, 7 January 2016

From Dot Cotton to Torchwood...

Torchwood is a useful show for examples of representation of sexuality. I'll post some clips below which we'll look at in class and you can use to practice your semiotic deconstruction skills.

Anytime you are doing this, always try to use terminology as much as possible - remember, there are 10/50 marks for Use of Terminology. I've also provided formally written examples of how you might combine this with EX (use of evidence [denotation]) and EAA (explanation, analysis and argument [connotation] get 20 marks each).

These clips would have been broadcast post-watershed, and do cover some quite adult ground.

When considering representation of sexuality the topic of gender is important: the basic stereotype of a gay man or woman is centred on showing characteristics of the opposite gender [so... binary opposites], especially as regards hair and clothing but also body language and aggression or passivity (and taste in music etc).

This picture is complicated somewhat by having two conflicting stereotypes of lesbians: the 'butch' lesbian (diplaying masculine characteristics) and the 'lipstick' lesbian, an ultra-glamorous, hyper-feminine figure. When we see a lipstick lesbian we should consider if the character is perhaps being included to pander to a male audience (the feminist 'male gaze' theory), using codes of pornography rather than seriously exploring social issues.

The first clip shows how far UK TV has come in its treatment of gay characters. Eastenders broke many taboos in its depiction of a gay male couple back in the 1980s, but was also heavily criticised for centring their storyline on the issue of AIDS.

We can see clearer examples of butch lesbian stereotypes in dramas such as Prisoner Cell Block: H [wiki].

(can play at higher, 360p, qual direct from

Eastenders has gone on to include gay characters with somewhat less controversial storylines, though appeared reluctant to permit some of these to have sexual relationships, notably Pauline Fowler's long-term companion. There was considerable controversy in 2008 when the BBC included two young men kissing in the Eastenders omnibus, so the inclusion of gay characters clearly remains a sensitive and controversial issue.
The Mail tried to fuel a moral panic. It'll be a while before they catch up to the 21st century

Again, this is one of the ways in which you are assessing representations of sexuality: when you see homosexual (or bisexual) characters, are they represented as different, unusual or even deviant? The academic term we'd use to denote this is 'the other', taken from psychology theory: in this clip the homosexual character is represented as 'the other' by... If their sexual identity is not represented as a particular issue, and largely ignored by the other characters this would probably be a progressive, positive representation.

The following clip, actually a trailer for Torchwood, provides a good example of countertypical representation ... on the whole. Can you see any ways in which it is also arguably stereotypical? In written analysis, it shows sophistication if you can discuss conflicting points; the potential for polysemy or negotiated readings that exists in any text no matter how strong the anchorage for the preferred reading.


The aggressive, macho representation goes against the conventional stereotype, but there are several comedy signifiers which is something to look for; using gay characters for cheap laughs is something we often see on UK TV.
A more conventionally stereotypical representation can be seen in the following clip, with multiple signifiers of femininity including the music. It is always interesting to note the reactions of any characters to displays of homosexuality; although there is something of a 'politically correct' consensus these days, it is useful to speculate on whether or not any appalled characters in the clip are there to represent the more homophobic parts of a a mass audience. Setting this clip in the past is also a useful device to make the point that we as a society have moved on from times of such ignorance, and are much more advanced in our social outlooks.


This is the clip I'd like you to try out as an exercise in applying your semiotic skills. As we've seen in class, you get some straightforward opportunities with this to use some fairly short sequences to draw in points on all four technical areas (sound, editing, mise-en-scene, camera work) plus the main area of representation, in this case sexuality. Basic aspects of mise-en-scene (eg the clothing of the two female characters set up as a binary opposition) interact with non-diegetic music (emotive, slow keyboard music, also a signifier of sci-fi), use of close-ups to convey emotion and a switch to a two-shot to connote their growing closer together, with the 30 degree rule also in evidence as the suddenly aggressive/dominant 'possessed' woman throws Gwen against the wall to kiss her, moving in from medium shot to medium close-up.

We get interesting responses to the kiss from the other characters, with one very stereotypical male response perhaps illustrating the show's producers are striving to avoid using this as titillating material for the male gaze; another woman unexpectedly seeming absorbed by this, and Captain Jack scoffing at us earthling's obsession with categories of sexuality, representing a very liberal point-of-view. The CCTV-style footage could be taken as a critique of the widespread - intrusive? - use of CCTV cameras in the UK today.

We'd also be looking out for signifiers of the sci-fi genre, and evidence of verisimilitude being achieved (or not: you can critique the clip you get as being poor in some ways!) especially through mise-en-scene, but also sound effects.

The editing is also interesting, with some fast-paced sections with short takes balanced out with some longer takes to slow things down ... and make the frights (such as the creature appearing behind Gwen) all the more frightening when they come. The physical barrier of the cell wall is used to symbolise the shifting nature of the relationship between Gwen and the possessed girl, the opening shot-reverse-shot sequence for example highlighting the barrier between them.


This clip provides a sophisticated representation of gender and sexuality, reflecting but also undermining common stereotypes and normative values. The dark-haired female is signified as the central protagonist by her central framing (rule of thirds) and through editing choices. We keep cutting back to her, notably when the possessed girl is in agony, positioning the audience to identify and empathise with her; if we feel sympathy it is because this character does, and the CUs and MCUs emphasise her emotional response.

There appears to be a binary opposition between the two females, although there is some polysemy here, as is frequently the case throughout this clip. The protagonist is not the crude stereotype we so often see of a sexualised, objectified busty blonde - there is limited focus on her body (though we get one very short high angled take framed on her bust). She is dark haired and not heavily made up, and is not wearing revealing or glamorous clothing; her clothing is practical, and arguably (the black t-shirt) a little masculine. By adopting the Proppian hero role, she is also taking up traditional male territory (though her initial response can also be read as a stereotypically gendered, maternal response, as conventional 'performativity' of gender, as queer theorist Judith Butler put it).

Conchita Wurst famously refused to adhere to expected gender roles

Nonetheless, we could still read this as a normative representation, staying within conventional gender roles and expectations: her eyebrows are manicured, she is wearing eye shadow and mascara, foundation and lipstick; she is still a fairly glamorous figure, meeting our expectations of a conventionally attractive female figure even if she is not over-glamourised. Her lips are thick and she is wearing lipstick, but this is quite pale; a glossier, brighter red would have been used if the producers wished to connote and draw attention to her sexuality in a more blatant way.

The victim/villain (two Proppian roles are combined) is notably less made up; her hair is unstyled, and natural (a pink streak, for instance, would considerably change our reading of her), she lacks make-up (bar eye shadow - which could be argued to be an oversight or poor choice by this show's producers), and it is especially notable that her lips are thin and pale, and without lipstick. She matches neither the 'lipstick lesbian' or 'butch lesbian' stereotypes.
Intertextuality with Silence of the Lambs (source)?
The treatment of sexuality is open to multiple readings. Refusing to match conventional stereotypes suggests a liberal ideological viewpoint. The horror-signifying non-diegetic violin music (long, drawn out high-pitched notes intended to unconsciously make the audience hold their breath and thus, by interfering with the natural heartbeat, create the physiological effect that will lead to the psychological impact of tension) is part of the signification of the lesbian passion that follows as monstrous. In this case it is very literally denoted as alien through the narrative device of alien possession!

It may seem as if the audience is being invited to share the male character's crude, and again literal, 'male gaze' (feminist critic Mulvey's contention that media texts are constructed, often unconsciously, with a notional heterosexual male audience in mind). His voyeurism is denoted by framing the CCTV monitor in close-up and cutting back to him in a tight close-up. His comments are presumably intended to be read as crude; the female protagonist we have been positioned to identify with later physically attacks him; if the audience did fall into a classic male gaze stance they are being attacked for this too. Captain Jack is also heard mocking humans for their hang-ups on sexuality. it is notable that we get a protagonist who is signified in the series as heterosexual (we repeatedly crosscut between her husband and her during phone calls) engaged in a lesbian scene, and a second, also notionally heterosexual female character, appearing to be equally aroused by this scene as the two men. A very fluid representation of sexuality has been drawn here, one that notably refuses to adopt a hetero-normative stance, instead providing a counter-hegemonic depiction overall.

If you want to try your hand at other examples of gay representation (and when we are looking at sexuality don't neglect heterosexual representation!), try the following on YouTube (again, all of these would have been post-watershed): Sugar Rush [wiki], Tipping the Velvet [wiki], Queer as Folk [NB: the school web filter blocks 'queer' as a search term] (look for the original UK version [wiki])

There are many interesting articles on the development of gay characters within TV drama, not least on the Media Guardian site. The following is extracted from an article on the BBC site (

Outrage or titillation?
The EastEnders kiss was the first gay kiss on primetime television. In fact, it was more of a peck, planted by character Barry Clark on the forehead of his partner Colin Russell. (Audiences had to wait another two years before witnessing Colin in the first mouth-to-mouth kiss). Channel 4's Brookside followed in 1993 with a lesbian kiss that provoked as much titillation as it did disapproval. Then a year later children's drama Byker Grove depicted Noddy misreading the signs in the cinema with pal Gary.

1987: Barry and Colin in EastEnders
1993: Brookside's Beth and Margaret
1994: Noddy kisses pal Gary in the cinema in BBC's Byker
2003: Todd and Nick in Coronation Street
2006: Men kiss in Dolce & Gabbana ad
Although more and more soap operas, including The Archers on Radio 4, began to include gay storylines, the capacity to shock audiences with the content of these relationships did not diminish.
The Coronation Street kiss between Todd and Nick in 2003 was much discussed in the media and columnist Ulrika Jonsson was speaking for many when she complained that it should not have been broadcast before the watershed. A letter writer to the News of the World said "it seemed like sensationalism just to boost viewing figures".
Television adverts have been slower to embrace same-sex characters. A kiss between two men on a Dolce & Gabbana advert screened during the X Factor in 2006 provoked 89 complaints. And a few months later a lesbian kiss used by French Connection failed to boost sales. Two years ago a computer game Canis Canem Edit, originally called Bully, was given a 15 certificate because of a kiss between teenage boys.
Michael Cashman, who played Colin in that groundbreaking EastEnders scene, recalls how the kiss in 1987 - and the storyline - caused uproar in the media and questions in the House of Commons.
"Opposition ranged from 'Get this filth off our television screens' to 'you're promoting homosexuality and promoting the spread of Aids, children and families may be watching this," says Cashman. "We pointed out that it was preferable to have two people kissing than two people beating the hell out of each other.
You can read more on Colin and Barry here.

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