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Cost of Stereotypes: Understanding Media's Impact on Gay Men’s Mental Health

The United States is experiencing a mental health crisis! Suicide rates among men are frighteningly high, and in tandem with high rates of self harm and elimination, research at the Williams Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles indicates stigma and discrimination contribute to adverse health outcomes for LGBT people, such as major depressive disorder. This can lead to self-destructive habits like binge-drinking. In an article titled, “Media Representation, Perception and Stigmatisation of Race, Sexuality and HIV among Young Black Gay and Bisexual Men,” researchers Gregory Sallaback et. al firmly articulate that media has a profound influence on shaping societal narratives and influencing public perceptions; the narratives it propagates can shape assumptions and beliefs, often reinforcing stereotypes and stigmas. This impact is particularly significant for marginalized groups, such as Black gay and bisexual men, whose representation in media is not only scarce but frequently marred by stereotypical portrayals. This lack of nuanced and positive representation perpetuates social stigmas, contributing to broader societal issues like discrimination against and health disparities within the LGBTQ community.

Media's Influence on Beliefs and Stigmas

“Media creates and propagates narratives that influence assumptions and beliefs—including false or stigmatizing beliefs.” Media plays a crucial role in constructing social reality, influencing how different groups are perceived and treated. For Black gay and bisexual men, the media often fails to capture the complexity of their identities, reducing them to simplistic and harmful stereotypes. These representations can shape public perception, leading to the reinforcement of existing prejudices and the creation of new forms of stigma.

Scarcity of Positive Representation

The media's failure to provide diverse and positive representations of Black gay and bisexual men is a significant issue. “Media representations of Black gay and bisexual men are scarce and the few representations that do exist may perpetuate and amplify stigma due to stereotypical representations.” The scarcity of positive representation means that when these individuals do appear in media, they are often depicted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes. This lack of representation not only marginalizes these individuals but also denies them role models and narratives that reflect their real-life experiences. Scarcity of positive representation further marginalizes and intends to limit the very quality of life lived and experienced by gay men.

Stereotypes and Tropes: Analyzing Impact

Media representations of LGBTQ characters often fall into harmful stereotypes and tropes. Some of the most common and damaging tropes include the “tragic gay” trope, the “bury your gays” trope, and the “gay best friend” trope.

The “Tragic Gay” Trope, for example, depicts LGBTQ characters as destined for suffering and unhappiness, reinforcing the notion that their lives are inherently tragic. This portrayal can have detrimental effects on the mental health and self-esteem of LGBTQ individuals by suggesting that happiness and fulfillment are unattainable for them. Additionally, the “Bury Your Gays” Trope involves the disproportionate and violent killing off of LGBTQ characters in media. “Bury Your Gays” perpetuates the idea that LGBTQ lives are expendable but also robs the community of positive and enduring representation. It sends a message that LGBTQ characters are not meant to have lasting, happy endings. Lastly, the “Gay Best Friend” trope often relegates LGBTQ characters to the secondary, supporting role–this trope ultimately results in one-dimensional sidekicks whose primary functions assist the heterosexual protagonist. This trope diminishes the complexity of LGBTQ individuals and characters, reducing them to mere accessories in the lives of straight characters while denying them their own narrative depth. All in all, the great utilization and overwhelming consistency of these tropes reinforces the dehumanization of LGBTQ audiences and people through regressive, stagnant, and one-dimensional media roles.

The stereotypes perpetuated by the media have significant political and social implications. They contribute to the marginalization and discrimination of LGBTQ individuals, influencing everything from social interactions to policy decisions. For instance, the negative portrayal of Black gay and bisexual men can exacerbate social stigmas that contribute to disparities in healthcare, such as access to HIV prevention and treatment services.

“Participants advocated for increasingly diverse representations of race and sexuality and efforts to challenge media stereotypes and social perceptions of Black identities and gay Black identities.” Diverse and accurate representations are crucial for challenging these harmful stereotypes and fostering a more inclusive society. Media creators have a responsibility to ensure that their portrayals are reflective of the true diversity and complexity of LGBTQ individuals.

All in all, the great utilization and overwhelming consistency of these tropes reinforces the dehumanization of LGBTQ audiences through regressive, stagnant, and one-dimensional media roles. Moreover, however, the intended audiences of these misrepresentations are demanding more and demanding better.

Conclusion: Social Media's Dual Role Demands Intentional Representation

Social media, as a pervasive component of modern life, plays a dual role in this dynamic. "As a component of the social environment and primary source of information, social media can amplify portrayals of young Black gay and bisexual men that may perpetuate racist, homophobic, and transphobic tropes and messaging, contributing to discrimination and HIV disparities.” On one hand, social media can spread harmful stereotypes and misinformation rapidly. On the other hand, it offers a platform for marginalized communities to share their stories, challenge stereotypes, and connect with others who share similar experiences.

Urgently, filmmakers, producers, and executives must become more active and intentional in their portrayal of gay characters and storylines. Stereotypical representations in media reinforce social stigmas against the LGBTQ community, leading to real-world consequences such as discrimination and health disparities. By committing to more diverse and nuanced representations, media creators can play a pivotal role in challenging these stigmas and fostering a more inclusive society. It is through intentional and positive representation that the media can begin to dismantle the harmful narratives that have long marginalized LGBTQ individuals, particularly those who are also members of racial minorities.

  1. Christy Mallory, Taylor N.T. Brown, Susan Freeman, Brad Sears.

  2. Gregory Sallabank, Natalie A. Blackburn, Megan Threats, Deren V. Pulley, Megan C. Barry, Sara LeGrand, Gary W. Harper, José A. Bauermeister, Lisa B. Hightow-Weidman, & Kathryn E. Muessig. (2022). Media representation, perception and stigmatisation of race, sexuality and HIV among young black gay and bisexual men. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 24(12), 1729-1743.

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