Alex Jaconski discovered grunge music in the summer of 2004.
Nirvana – one of the mainstays of music 10 years previously – appeared on a VH1 countdown. Their songs struck a chord for the 11-year-old.
“That’s a stage in your life when you’re trying to figure out who you are. [Grunge] is a little bit darker and a little bit sadder,” he said. “That music definitely hit a note that made sense — that I could connect to and have something to rely on when I didn’t really know who else to turn to.”
Themes of isolation and solitude can resonate with people in all walks of life, so Jaconski thought grunge music would be the perfect focal point of his final project in the School of Media and Communication’s “LGBT Media Representation” class, the first of its kind at Temple University.
Jaconski did what scholars call a “queer reading” of the lyrics of songs from Nirvana, Sound Garden and other bands of the genre. Even from his perspective outside of the LGBT community, the 21-year-old native of Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood said this music showcases “the emotional disenfranchisement of [the LGBT community] being forced to deny who they are.”
Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor of media studies and production (MSP), who created the class, said it’s an important time in history to discuss how LGBT people are portrayed in media.
“Especially given a lot of different political shifts that have happened over the past five years, there are more and more gay issues and queer issues in the news and in media, but I feel like a lot of students don’t necessarily understand the history of where those images came from,” Shaw said. “The class is providing the background of that history and theoretical tools for unpacking why images of homosexuality, of queerness or of transgender identity, exist they way they do now.”
She said the analysis of LGBT people in media is “almost never” a standard part of a communication school’s curriculum, which it is at Temple.
“One of the things I appreciate most about [the MSP] program is that is matches media studies and production together. In order to be a good media producer, especially in this day and age with the amount of critics online, you have to understand what those critiques might be and where they’re coming from,” Shaw said. “It’s not enough to just learn how to make a movie or how make a TV show. You have to understand the history of representation.”
Even when a movie or a song isn’t explicitly written for or about the LGBT community, Shaw said it’s important to take a look at popular media from that perspective, much like Jaconski is doing for his project, to understand how they might see themselves. Other students are examining works like Frozen and Mulan.
“A lot of meaning from media comes from what the audience brings to it,” she said. “Queer readings are a way for people to see themselves in this world… and see that something about themselves connects to this media that may not specifically be about them.”
When shows only represent LGBT characters in specific ways – for example showing gay men as white and affluent– Shaw said it is hard for people who are gay but not white and affluent to connect to those characters. She believes movies like Frozen or television shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are much more about difference and accepting diversity.
“It’s not to say that explicit representation isn’t good. It’s important for people who aren’t queer to see that there are queer people who exist in the world,” she said. “Implicit representation can be really important for people who are a part of marginalized groups because it allows them to imagine possibility.”
For the most part, Shaw said many forms of media – especially television – are getting better at portraying the LGBT community because, “People going into those industries grew up taking classes in media studies programs that taught them to think about these things. You see more nuanced characters. You see more characters not included to be the ‘gay problem’ in the show, but to be another character.”
The true social impact of LGBT people being shown in a realistic way is hard to determine, but Shaw has heard stories of positive results.
“I know people who say their parents were homophobic and then, after watching Will and Grace for 10 years, don’t say things that are as homophobic. It doesn’t mean that their politics got better, but they began to recognize that gay people exist, which is always a step in the right direction,” Shaw said. “That is one of the kinds of social change that you see from media representation.”