26 July 2011

South Africa: Soap Operas Don't Have to Reinforce Negative Stereotypes

Photo: Generations Daily Updates
Generations actors.


Johannesburg — It is estimated that around 4.9 million South Africans watch the famous soapie Generations every day. This is a huge number; more than the populations of Botswana and Namibia combined.

So what responsibility, if any, comes with attracting an audience of this size and should soap opera producers be obliged to present a responsible, fair, non-discriminatory version of society?

I think they should, which is why I recently complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) after I was offended at the portrayal of a gay character on Generations.

All soap operas have similar themes, characters and story lines: there is always a villain, a town gossip, a rich family, a poor family, never-ending love triangles, murder, sex and scandal. But what has also always been familiar about soap operas is their perpetuation of negative stereotypes in a very unrealistic television world.

Yet in recent years soaps have begun to incorporate marginalised groups and more realistic storylines, possibly in an effort to boost decreasing ratings. This has included people with disabilities, gays and lesbians and characters living with HIV.

When Generations first introduced a gay character viewers made their opinions known and a controversial kiss between two gay male characters caused an outcry among traditionalists and community leaders.

Admirably, at that time the show did not back down. Gays and lesbians are a part of the wonderful diversity of South African society and they are also viewers of shows like Generations.

However, soap operas also reinforce stereotypes of gay people just as they reinforce negative gender stereotypes about heterosexual women and men.

Homosexual men are too often portrayed as effeminate, soft, gentle, and not masculine: subservient in relation to other men.

I was recently outraged watching Generations when one of the lead characters referred to a gay male character as "my girl." At first I thought I had heard incorrectly.

Initially I laughed because I was processing what I had heard, but the laughter soon turned to anger. This was reinforcing a very negative stereotype about gay men - it was far from a progressive soapie's attempt to raise awareness.

Soap operas are powerful and their messages are taken seriously by many of their viewers (and this could be millions, knowing the numbers). When we know that gays and lesbians are daily targets of violence, bullying and rape in South Africa, this type of portrayal is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.

Some friends thought I was overreacting but I compared it to the earlier black American battle to halt negative television stereotypes of African Americans. Through the National Association for the Achievement of Coloured People (NAACP), black Americans once fought big production companies such as Warner and MGM over the perpetuation of similar damaging stereotypes.

Eventually the NAACP achieved success in ending pervasive and dangerous negative portrayals of black people.

Because South Africa is a diverse country with many cultures, ethnicities, languages, religions and ways of living it is inevitable that some stereotypes will be created and reinforced. This is why we have the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA), which is meant to arbitrate when there are cases of public commentary that may be deemed unfair or when language or vocabulary can amount to hate speech.

I complained to the BCCSA following the above mentioned episode and was told that although there was no contravention of BCCSA's code, SABC remains "committed to upholding and re-enforcing good values."

A code may not have been broken and corporate broadcast interests may well feel they are promoting good values, but this viewer is forever insulted. We need to change such harmful portrayal of gay characters in sitcoms, soap operas and all mainstream media if we want South Africa to stop making international headlines because of horrific, violent homophobic attacks. So long as our country stands out as a global hotspot for homophobia and hate crime, such issues should not be so quickly dismissed.

I challenge the writers and producers of Generations and other television shows to create characters and storylines that can help our country overcome violence, hate and discord. I challenge other progressive viewers to take up a pen and complain when, like me, you are offended by what you see on your screen or hear on your radio. It is only when we confront harmful stereotypes that our leaders actually stop perpetuating them.

Ntombi Mbadlanyana is the Gender Links South African Local Government Coordinator. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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