TVB’s gay and lesbian characters lack depth and misrepresent the community, writes John Yip
In the recent TVB hit Master of Play, actor Wong Wai-tak plays the character of Michael – a well-groomed and soft-spoken 30-year-old divorcée. He works out regularly with his personal trainer and often goes to bars with neon lights. Michael is, not surprisingly, a gay man (in the closet). In addition, he’s also a suspected serial killer. In other words, he’s just your average homosexual character in a TVB drama.
As LGBT awareness has increased in recent years, leading public broadcaster TVB has opened a bigger door for homosexual characters and LGBT plotlines in its shows. But where exactly is this door leading audiences, our local queer folks and our city?
“Actually, I don’t think there are more gay characters, but the way we handle them has definitely changed over the years,” says TVB veteran scriptwriter Chow Yuk Ming. His works include the ‘cannibal drama’ When Heaven Burns and the Qing Dynasty period drama War and Beauty, both of which have received critical acclaim. “In the past, most stories were discriminatory in nature, labelling homosexuals as perverts or immoral. Today, we are more careful.” According to Chow, TVB tries to steer away from negative portrayals of queer characters in its shows.
In Master of Play, Michael turns out to be an innocent man. But it’s apparent that his character is still largely based on stereotypes, many of which are unrealistic, notes RTHK’s Brian Leung, co-host of Hong Kong’s top LGBT radio programme We Are Family and a vocal gay rights activist. Leung laughs off the generic setting which most queer characters are placed in. “It’s a joke how all gays in TV dramas have to end up in gay bars,” he says.
Leung’s fellow We Are Family host Jean Tsang is equally upset by how politically incorrect and homophobic TV dramas are. “Lesbian couples break up. One of them becomes straight, finds a guy and lives happily ever after,” says Tsang, pointing out another stereotypical situation. “There is neither understanding nor depth.”
Even more examples of the portrayal of queer characters can be found in the recent primetime TVB sitcoms Be Home for Dinner
and Daddy Good Deeds in which parents spy on their sons just to make sure they are not gay. Constant references to Ang Lee’s iconic movie Brokeback Mountain and lines such as ‘it’s okay, I won’t tell others that you’re gay’ seem to imply a similarly homophobic undertone which fails to do the minority any justice.
Vivian Tam, an instructor at CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication, thinks that homosexual characters on TV are far from a fair representation of the many gay men and women in Hong Kong. “Gay characters rarely have a job, not to mention a well-established one. They don’t seem to have a family or any other normal social relationships.” The absence of such qualities affects how believable and likeable these characters are, making them superficial in nature and never the focus of a series.
TVB’s Chow reveals the invisible hand behind these shallow queer plotlines. “It is of utmost importance that we create something which can be sold to international markets, such as China and Malaysia, which can be much more conservative than Hong Kong.”
Yet, a quick search online shows that popular American musical drama Glee, which has a prominent gay plotline, is broadcast all over Southeast Asia including Malaysia while Korea has seen two leading gay roles in its primetime TV drama Life is Beautiful. RTHK’s Tsang is not convinced by the reason Chow puts forward. “If other countries are doing it, I don’t understand why Hong Kong can’t,” she says.
While public broadcasters defend their commercial considerations, CUHK’s Tam stresses that unlike newspapers and magazines, television stations need to obtain a licence before engaging in public broadcasting, and hence ‘should be subject to certain social responsibilities’, namely to ‘avoid advocating ideologies that are against minority groups’.
Even though many, including TV-insider Chow, agree that LGBT characters and plotlines deserve more depth, Chow quickly shatters the hope of seeing Hong Kong’s first leading gay character in the near future. “Audiences today only want entertainment and if homosexuality remains a controversial issue, I don’t see it becoming the core of any upcoming dramas.”
However, Tam believes that more competition in public broadcast holds promise for more realistic plotlines. “The opening of new public television stations may bring new changes to the industry,” Tam says, noting that TVB has held a near monopoly for decades.
They say all publicity is good publicity, but in this case, RTHK’s Leung doesn’t agree. “We are not saying that all homosexual characters have to be the good guys simply because that is not true either. But if they are going to continue the stigmatisation, I’d rather they leave us all alone.”