By Nicole Shiu
Netflix. Disney+. HBO Go. Viu. The list goes on.
You’ve probably heard of these video-on-demand streaming platforms by now, be it through YouTube advertisements, friends blabbing the latest trending series (namely, Squid Game) or while scrolling through Instagram. Even our bus stops aren’t spared from the advertisements featuring these platforms.
It’s undeniable that these streaming platforms are replacing the old bulky metal cable boxes at a much cheaper cost, and have granted us more access to international media programmes whenever we want, wherever we are. And with this comes increased exposure to media trends globally than ever before — one of which is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and others (LGBTQ+) media representation.
What is Singapore’s take on growing queer media representation?
In recent years, with the growing representation of LGBTQ+ people in media, shows such as Brooklyn 99 and Sex Education that feature LGBTQ+ people and couples, and Boys Love (BL) and Girls Love (GL) shows that centre around gay and lesbian romance respectively — such as 2gether, HIStory and Handsome Stewardess — are gaining popularity across the globe.
It is no wonder some of these shows are also slowly seeping into the mainstream of Singapore, and Singaporeans show a clear interest in LGBTQ+ media representation. For example, several films and TV series with queer characters reach Netflix Singapore’s top 10, such as Brooklyn 99, The Old Guard, and, most recently, Sex Education.
This interest does not only extend to just watching these shows, but also online discussions and even articles by a range of media outlets, including mainstream media outlets like The Straits Times, reviewing or recommending such shows.
Not only are we consuming more media featuring LGBTQ+ themes, but the local ground-up media scene is also producing more content with queer representation. Recently, due to popular demand, a crowdfunding campaign has been started to turn locally-produced short film Summerdaze with three million views across the internet into a BL Drama web series — a first for Singapore. Its crowdfunding trailer, released on Oct 4, had gained more than 300,000 views on YouTube in just the first 5 days.
We interviewed the directors of the upcoming web series, Jeremy Kieran Ng, 27, and Zhang Minhua, 31, and they expressed that their intent was not to advocate but to simply show two people, who happened to both be boys, falling in love. Zhang also shared that more and more people in the local media scene are starting to see the potential in venturing into the BL genre as well.
While motivations for creating local media with LGBTQ+ representations are diverse, it seems that Singapore’s media scene is indeed making its first foray into featuring more LGBTQ+ representation.
So what’s stopping Singapore?
It will likely take some time before such LGBTQ+ media representation becomes mainstream in Singapore. Ng and Zhang noted that the viewership of the Summerdaze short film mostly consists of international audiences, such as those from the United States or China, rather than Singapore. This could be due to Singapore’s smaller population and its conservative attitudes.
So, while there is undeniably a growing interest amongst Singaporeans in queer media representation, society at large still holds a conservative attitude towards LGBTQ+ issues.
On top of that, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s media regulations still serve as a huge barrier to queer representation in Singapore. Most notably, IMDA defines “alternative sexualities” in its content code as “[s]exual identities or preferences that stand in contrast to the social norm of heterosexuality” and thus considered a mature theme.
As a result, any media centring around “alternative sexualities” are also classified under the M18 or R21 rating, depending on how explicit the portrayal is. For instance, Modern Family, which is rated PG respectively in the USA, is classified under the shockingly high rating of R21, just because of its queer characters.
The most recent victim of this regulation is Marvel’s Eternals (2021), which is rated PG13 overseas but M18 in Singapore. According to IMDA, the reason for this rating was “depictions of mild sexual activity or acts of intimacy (e.g. kissing and hugging) between persons of the same gender”. This is referring to an openly gay character, Phastos, who (spoilers alert) is shown briefly kissing and embracing his same-gender partner before leaving for the mission to save Earth.
Getting slapped with such ratings sends the message that LGBTQ+ issues are inappropriate and taboo, and that queer folk are something to avoid and shy away from. In addition to it being barred from airing on free-to-air television, queer youths below the age of 18 are also barred from seeing explorations of queer themes — themes about their own lived experiences. Not to mention, this reduces the chance for the general public to see diversity on screen.
Essentially, queer media representation in Singapore is strictly regulated.
For this reason, representation of LGBTQ+ issues in local media is incredibly few and far between, and the age ratings for international shows with queer themes will always have a rating of either M18 or R21.
But things are changing.
There have been remarkable shifts in LGBTQ+ attitudes of Singaporeans, and these changes are occurring rather quickly.
According to an Institute of Policy Studies survey on perceptions and attitudes towards social and moral issues taken between August 2018 and January 2019, there has been a stark increase in favourable attitudes towards homosexuality now as compared to five years ago. A little more than 20 per cent of the participants said homosexual relations between adults were not wrong at all or not wrong most of the time — an increase of about 10 per cent since 2013.
These shifts in attitudes were also largest among the younger generation. Close to half of those between the ages of 18 and 25 did not disapprove of sex between adults of the same sex in the latest survey, which is a huge leap from the 20 per cent in the same age group observed five years earlier.
Researchers have attributed this change to growing LGBTQ+ rights activism amongst youths, who are also more likely to know someone in their lives who is queer and have been exposed to queer media representation.
As people see more queer themes appearing in the media they consume, they become more aware of LGBTQ+ topics, and conversations about queer issues are likely to increase as well. This then encourages people to grow more empathetic towards the LGBTQ+ community.
What does this mean for LGBTQ+ Singaporeans?
Queer representation bears even larger significance for LGBTQ+ Singaporeans as they are able to see themselves in the queer characters. Just as Hollywood movies featuring Asian people, such as Shang Chi and Crazy Rich Asians, are important to the Asian community, media featuring queer characters likely holds much significance to queer folks, including those in Singapore.
Representation matters because it allows minorities, such as LGBTQ+ people, to feel validated and become more comfortable in their own skin. Furthermore, queer individuals will be better able to connect with one another through shared media representation.
However, with this increase in LGBTQ+ representation and interest in media featuring queer themes, there are some growing concerns within the queer community.
One is a worry that the growing interest and reception of queer media might be due to a fetishisation of queer identities, that is the treatment of queer folk as sexual objects. This concern is most prevalent in discussions about the BL genre, where oftentimes both the creator and the target audience are female, and not queer men. Fetishisation of the queer community is harmful as it oversexualises queer people, treating them and their experiences as something for others’ gratification and entertainment. There are queer folk who express discomfort at being objectified and having their identities and lives treated like dirty sexual fantasies.
Another concern is that the majority of queer representation today are of gay and lesbian themes and characters. This is despite how the LGBTQ+ umbrella encompasses a varied range of identities, such as bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, and asexual, just to name a few.
Some argue that media today presents an oversimplification of queer identities, and there is a lack of visibility for all the other identities. In turn, the experiences of queer folk who are not homosexual are not known, and there are few media that such people can connect with.
While all these are valid and genuine concerns, LGBTQ+ media representation is still something to be celebrated, especially in the context of Singapore.
Singapore is still a largely conservative country with close to no legal protections for the queer community and, thus, the foundation for a safe space is still being built. Having queer media representation creates ripples through Singapore’s conservative society and encourages empathy towards the queer community.
Hence, LGBTQ+ media representation, with its capacity to raise awareness and increase engagement with queer issues, serves more good than harm, even with all the aforementioned flaws and inadequacies.
Queer media and Singapore
Ultimately, it is important to understand that media and society share a bidirectional relationship. An increase in LGBTQ+ media representation is causing more Singaporeans to grow interested in this topic, and become more supportive of queer individuals.
Simultaneously, an increase in this interest is also causing Singaporeans to become more liberal in their attitudes towards queer issues. Already, we are seeing some of the effects of these shifts in attitudes on a policy level.
In the United Nations Human Rights Council’s latest Universal Periodic Review for Singapore, which took place in Geneva on May 12, Singapore has supported the recommendation made by Norway to remove all existing obstacles to the registration of LGBTQ+ organisations. On top of that, Singapore also supported the recommendation made by Malta to implement training for healthcare professionals on LGBTQ+ issues to eliminate discrimination in healthcare access.
So despite all the challenges queer media representation still faces in Singapore, growing liberal attitudes and interest in LGBTQ+ issues indicates an upward trend for Singaporeans’ favourable reception of queer media representation and, consequently, support for Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community.