Does the controversy surrounding the series 'Queer as Folk' reveal more the banality of current TV or society’s persistent homophobia?
There have been times in television history where certain programmes have tackled society’s taboos in a particularly vivid way by coming to fruition at sometimes sensitive times. For example the controversial topic of the sixties was of immigration and the media's double edged ability both inflamed public opinion through newsprint and reflected their concerns through controversial comedy sitcoms such as 'Love Thy Neighbour' and 'Bless This House' which both dealt with the then taboo of race. As within any cultures what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable changes over time and so it could be said that Queer as Folk (QAF) is a nineties' equivalent of such shows.
Homosexuality is arguably one of the last remaining taboos in many cultures and one that dominates the topic of social change, particularly in the West. This notion of taboo was blatantly challenged when the first episode involved consensual gay sex between an adult and a 15- year- old. Much has been said on this topic in recent years as society’s views have gradually liberalised, as the traditional societal unit, marriage, has fallen into terminal decline. In this context the new Labour government has, since taking office in 1997 attempted to introduce several equality laws, most significantly equalising the age of consent and the repeal of section 28 that disallows the 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools. The political impact of this show is acutely measured in Peter Billingham’s Sensing the City through Television where he refers to a letter from the National Viewer’s and Listener’s Association to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) on the 24th Feb 1999:
This programme is calculated to influence public opinion at a time when the age of homosexual consent is being debated in Parliament [Billingham 2000:121]
In a similar vein to the controversial shows of the sixties, the newspapers have had a feeding frenzy stoking public opinion and yet the other side of the media, TV has sought to tackle issues in a different way through an unexpectedly acclaimed drama series and its sequel. Such a show therefore must contain substantial communication techniques and so I felt aside from personal interest it would prove a valid subject to research into. Within the media, much is made of controversy; indeed it could be considered a vital element of, for example, the music industry.
Therefore I decided to frame my research around the reasons Queer as Folk caused such controversy, identifying two potential strands. Firstly whether the construction and content of the show was radically different from its peers in an era when TV is increasingly referred to as banal and 'dumbed down'. Secondly to attempt to gauge whether our society has indeed liberalised its attitudes to homosexuality and the subsequent affect such media texts have. Regarding the actual construction of the research question, I am making the assumption that the level of controversy was unusually high and so builds revelations above the normal controversy that some shows intentionally promote just to increase ratings.
My aims for this research are numerous. Firstly I wanted to subject aspects of the show to a communication studies analysis which I hope would further my understanding and appreciation of the show while revealing interesting results. Widening the scope onto the media industry and how such a show is communicated and its effects. Also I wanted to scratch beneath the surface of common assumptions; for example whether the gay population is as homogenous as the press would have you believe. To this end I highlighted two methods of inquiry that would prove most fruitful within the limitations of this research. Firstly the methods of surveys and sampling in order to ascertain opinion on my two main research strands and to qualify my theories, taking into careful account a review of what literature there has been around the series. Secondly the method of selective content and textual analysis as research into the cultural level of controversy and communication techniques used. I will be discussing epistemological issues in so far as I will be deconstructing certain preconceptions that myself and wider society hold and using my survey results to test my subsequent theories.
For this research project, I have divided my literature review in two. Firstly there is the question of what academic texts I have consulted and their degree of validity. Secondly I will review a selection of varying literature that has dealt with Queer as folk and the issues it raises, all the time looking from a Communication Studies angle.
Two useful academic texts I have used are A Handbook of Qualitative Methodologies for Mass Communication Research by Bruhan Jensen, K & Jankowsi, N.W (1991) and Researching Communications by Deacon, D, Pickering M, Golding, P & Murdock, G (1999).
Both have proved useful. I found Jensen & Jankowsi to have a more theoretical approach with detailed insights into how many Communication methodologies and techniques came into practice, such as Semiotics. Relating these concepts to working theories in the field I found Sonia Livingstone’s Making Sense of Television detailed discourse of semiotic analysis of soaps as a framework against which I could position my analysis of QAF. However in the area I am studying, a visual text (television programme) I found there to be a discourse concerned at the lack of communication progress in this area. For example Researching Communications explains:
When we turn to images, however, we have much less to go on since work on the visual dimensions of media remains relatively under developed [Deacon, Pickering, Golding & Murdock 1999:185]
Since Jensen & Jankowsi published in 1991, analysis in this area was even less developed than it is today, so while I have attempted to take on board some of the issues raised, I found myself concentrating on the other text.
I found Researching Communications to be valuable for several reasons. Firstly while it deals with the theory, it is written from a practical viewpoint so it has been a valuable guide to correctly utilising the relevant methodologies. It is a joint effort from four lecturers and professors increasing the scope of what the text covers. Its recent publication date means some of the more recent Communication discourses, especially advancement in analysing images, are covered in greater depth.
Obviously not all literature I consulted would prove to be useful, I consulted the Sexuality and Culture online journal but found it to be largely American- centric and the detailed case- studies failed to largely deal with gay representation on TV.
Regarding the literature produced following the show, there has been little academic study into the shows' effects due to its recent airing. However the show has the potential to affect things that would not normally appear obvious. For example the 14th May edition of the Metro newspaper (a free paper for Londoners) reviewed a restaurant opening in Soho, Manto, that had gained popularity due to the original Manto appearing in the Manchester based series. As an attempt to reach across traditional boundaries, mimicking the show, the restaurant aimed to have a sexually ambivalent atmosphere, catering for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.
In more immediate circles Queer as Folk has been written about fairly extensively. Academically Billingham has a specific chapter on the show (see section on Content and Textual analysis). The writer of the show, Russell T Davies has made prolific comments on the series, with some interesting information revealed on both the released CDs by dance specialists Almighty to include and supplement both UK series’ modern soundtracks. A prolific writer, on the first he details how in TV in the past there had often been gay characters but never ones centre stage. Popular shows attempt to reach as wide an audience as possible, so the temptation to target a particular minority exclusively is obviously a narrow bridge to walk. Dated February 1999, Davies writes
And striving to make it good drama - never mind that it's gay, never mind the issues, they [Channel 4] just wanted it to be good [QAF Album: 1999]
As a note of context here it needs to be considered who commissioned the show. Channel 4 came in to being in the 1980's as an alternative to the mainstream BBC and ITV. I found an interesting resource here to be A Queer Romance by Paul Burston and Colin Richardson as they describe Channel 4’s initial struggles to gain a distinctive identity aside from the mainstream.
In particularly how Outrage heading by the direct activist Peter Tatchell launched a petition for a gay representation on TV with a call for a gay program to ‘sit’ with a black program and similar minorities. A major part of its brief was towards minority programming, as an alternative the Channel quickly gained a reputation for courting controversy (A similar discourse can be seen today with C5's reputation for showing soft pornographic movies). So the channel may seem bold in retrospect but it was only fulfilling its brief in a similar way to ITV commissioning a Sunday drama series for example. Channel 4 was deemed the natural home for the series according to Davies (see Appendix 1) because of its remit, though of course there was the risk that the show’s content would have a negative impact. Surprisingly Davies makes the point that the then, commissioning editor for ITV, David Liddiment said he would have picked up the show, though tellingly from a commercial channel, this was told in retrospect when all the publicity and high video, CD and DVD sales was apparent.
From the QAF 2 album dated February 2000, to coincide when the sequel series aired; Davies commented
Let's be honest. When you're commissioned to write a late night drama for Channel 4 you expect viewing figures to match the guest- list for a teetotal prayer meeting. [QAF 2 album: 2000]
In reality the Show's performance exceeded all expectations, regarding the programme’s content, channel and time slot. It regularly achieved over 3.5 million viewers, being one of the few specialist minority programmes to cross over into the mainstream, with a demographic of heterosexual women and their partners being a considerable boost. I will examine the communication reasons for this success, in my report sections on analysis of my results and analysis of a section of the show.
As research into society’s homophobia and the series, the 5th May 2000 edition of The Pink Paper had an interesting article by Michael Osborn where the ITC revealed their latest TV complaints (These can be obtained through their website www.itc.org.uk). The article reports there had been thirteen for Queer as Folk 2 but twelve were regarding a poor taste joke about the late Jill Dando and not homosexuality. This is in contrast to the thirty complaints received for the original series. The head of ITC makes the point:
The gay issue is more discussed by people now and the more this continues the less prejudice there will be [Osborn M 2000:32]
A powerful riposte to those who looked towards the show's first episode with its provocatively controversial gay sex and labelled the entire series as shock material and no more, in particular tabloid TV critics. Of particular note here was the Daily Mails reaction which saw the show as diametrically opposed to its courtship of conservative middle England sensibilities. I take the stance that had there not been an uproar caused and the provocation of subsequent discussion then how will prejudices ever be broken down?
In the February 2000 edition of Gay Times, in an interview with Russell T Davies, there is the irony of the communications media battling against itself. In a commodity driven market this can have a restraining effect on right wing opinion, for example Davies here observes that Gary Bushell in his regular showbiz column for The Sun newspaper originally said after the airing of the first episode:
 This was successful in the Scottish assembly though was repeatedly frustrated in Westminster by a House of Lords conservative revolt led by Baroness young, See www.stonewall.org.uk
 Founded by Mary Whitehouse – the paradigm of meridian reactionary values