Opinion | LGBTQ+ Representation: Has it really progressed?
By Ella Olson
In general, it seems as if the media has developed higher standards for representation as the years have progressed. Many more characters within the LGBTQ+ community have begun to grace television and movie screens, and it seems as if Hollywood is finally giving the people what they want. The real question is, are these characters written well enough to fulfill basic standards of representation? Is the film world investing in well rounded characters that aren’t part of the majority?
No, they are not. While strides have certainly been made, many of these characters perpetrate out of touch stereotypes that tend to do more harm than good. Hollywood and the media treat these characters like the means to an end, seeing as they receive little screen time or character development. They follow the same trope as every other character with the same sexual orientation, resulting in tired and washed up characters that don’t accurately represent people. All in all, these characters only create the facade of a more inclusive television environment.
Lesbian characters especially suffer at the hands of film and television producers on the rare occasions that they are actually represented. So much so, in fact, that a trope was born off of the consistent death of any queer women. “Bury Your Gays” refers to the overwhelming presence of gay female characters that are killed off, even if they are a central character to the plot. There are countless examples of this phenomenon, which paints these characters as simply a means to an end, rather than an integral part of the plot. They are a chess piece in an industry trying to please the younger generation, and they are constantly treated as such.
A prime example of this trope, and kind of the start of the avalanche, was the death of Lexa, a character in The 100. For those unfamiliar with the show, it was a dystopian show marketed mainly towards teens that dealt with humanity’s survival after a nuclear apocalypse. The show had many flaws, particularly in it’s final seasons, but possibly it’s largest one was killing off an incredibly powerful, and coincidentally gay, character in the third season. Lexa was a strong and complex female character, and just an episode before her death, she had started a relationship with the female protagonist, Clarke. It was the first example of a queer relationship in the show, and they treated it like any other relationship. The show dealt with much more dangerous problems than it’s characters’ sexualities, and it was incredibly refreshing to see. Unfortunately, the writers then made the decision to kill off Lexa, which resulted in backlash from fans and critics alike, as well as many who had never even seen the show. The death of Lexa started the recognition of how many gay characters are killed in TV shows. “Of the 193 American scripted television shows airing between 1976 and 2016 that had queer female characters, the queer female character was killed off on 68 (35%) of them.” That is over a third of all television shows in which the female character doesn’t receive a happy ending. Additionally, out of 383 total queer female characters, 95 (25%) have been killed off. It doesn’t really count as representation if the character is killed as soon as they are introduced, and in some cases, it may even be worse. By continuing this trope, shows and networks are asserting that these queer female charactes have no value other then invoking emotion from the audience at their deaths. They aren’t given complete storylines or development because their whole purpose is to die, which is incredibly demoralizing for queer women to see. It does the exact opposite of providing them with representation. These characters and their relationships, such as the previous example of Lexa, are toted around as inclusivity until the writers or the network eventually decides that they’re tired of them. It leaves fans feeling unsatisfied, and queer women wondering what to expect in life other than an early death.
With this idea of the early death trope, it also promotes the thought that queer women don’t deserve happy endings. Out of the the small percentage of queer characters that do survive to see a shows finale, they are rarely given the happy ending that many straight, cisgender characters get to end up with. “Out of the 1,452 shows LezWatch.TV has catalogued around the world with queer female, trans, or non-binary characters as of April 2020, only 77 (5%) are tagged as having happy endings for its characters.” Specific statistics don’t exist for the heterosexual side of things, but it’s estimated that about 60% get their happy ending. Once again, these tropes promote the idea that queer women don’t deserve happiness. Rather than offering the representation that these shows try to achieve, they further demean queer women to nothing more than a means to easy representation.
Certainly there are other causes for these characters dying or being written off, like contractual reasons, but the statistics don’t lie. While some of the time these character deaths can be because the actor can no longer continue their job or serve as a necessary part of the plot, it too often happens to queer characters for homophobia to not play a part. In a society that is working to be more accepting and inclusive, simply creating characters with certain traits isn’t enough. They need to be well rounded people with pertinent storylines, and not just a way to satisfy a certain demographic.
Fortunately for many gay male characters, they tend to survive to see a shows end. Unfortunately, they really don’t receive any more character development then lesbian characters do, sticking to the same harmful tropes that fail at breaking down stereotypes time and time again.
These characters often lack any character development, and are instead used to champion diversity characteristics. “Queer media doesn’t necessarily rely on queer people being the intended audience, nor does it require that queer people be affiliated with a cultural product in any way other than as consumers.” With gay male characters particularly, the history of their portrayal in Hollywood is exceptionally important. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s, films were heavily criticized by religious groups for any example of homosexual characters. This resulted in the Hayes Code being introduced. It was a “system of self-censorship” that resulted in homosexuality being heavily “coded into a character’s mannerisms and behaviors”. Since characters couldn’t be openly portrayed as gay, many behavioral characteristics, and therefore many stereotypes, were born. With this, the idea of queerbaiting grew and continues to be prominent. Since writers relied on using mannerisms to imply someone’s sexuality, many still recognize certain traits as meaning the same things, including many modern day television writers.
Starting in the 60s and 70s, this code was loosened, and queer charcters were portrayed more openly. That being said, they were still done in a pretty distasteful way. Many gay characters during this time were represented as being “dangerous, violent, predatory, or suicidal”. As time progressed, these representations grew a bit more wholesome but today, they still have their problems. Think Brokeback Mountain. Bringing in $178 million, it proved that movies with queer main characters could be succesful in the industry. However, many criticized it as a surface level portrayal of gay men, who could barely accept themselves and didn’t even end up together. Brokeback Mountain is an example of the industry trying to force representation by creating queer characters that mainly appeal to straight people, and they once again re-enforce the “Bury Your Gays” trope. This isn’t to say that some can’t or don’t enjoy the film, but in the grand scheme of things, it really was a very half-hearted attempt at creating two well rounded gay characters.
There are countless other examples of how Hollywood has failed the queer community, particularly for gay men, throughout the years. They are consistently used as background characters and frequently portray the traditional feminine stereotypes that society thinks gay men have. Once again, it reduces real queer people to nothing more then a tool to appease the majorities. In order to do better, these characters need to be complex and well written, and writers should consult people from the queer community in order to create the most accurate and beneficial character possible.
Transgender characters are drastically less common then other queer characters, so that’s a problem within itself. Still, even when they are present, they are often side characters. They don’t get a title role, any complex character writing, and are often reduced down to only their gender identity.
GLAAD, an advocacy group, studied transgender characters in shows from 2002 to 2012. They found that they were portrayed in a victim role 40% of the time, cast as killers or villains 21%, were depicted as sex workers a fifth of the time (20%), and that anti-transgender slurs and actions were present in these shows 60% of the time. These statistics are not good. In many crime shows, like CSI, NCIS, or Criminal Minds, serial killers are portrayed as being transgender, and often commit acts that relies on them being insecure with their identity in some way. Transgender people don’t want to see their main source of representation as being serial killers, or a serial killer’s victim because they are transgender. These messages are not only harmful, but also incredibly tone deaf, as many transgender people suffer violence because of their orientation. In these shows as well, they often portray some major law enforcement characters as siding against or accepting violence as inevitable against a transgender victim. In one episode Law and Order, a transgender woman is accidentally outed to their partner and then assaulted by their enraged partner, and the episode ends with the character being placed in a men’s prison and gang raped. All through the episode, several of the characters express sentiments against the transgender character that rationalize and excuse the violence perpetuated against her. Not only do shows abuse their transgender characters with poor writing, but they use their suffering as a plot line to further the character development of the protagonists. These characters have the potential to have complex storylines that accurately depict what trans people go through. Unfortunately, all of these chances are abandoned so that once again, networks can cater to the majority of cisgender viewers.
Within this section, it’s important to emphasize that there are many other gender and sexual orientations out there, but they aren’t represented in shows or films at all. Some productions are getting better, such as Sex Education, which has grown increasingly progressive in it’s depiction of other queer orientations. Still, many parts of the LGBTQ+ community are forgotten to avoid making any straight, cisgender people uncomfortable at the idea of other sexualities taking center stage.
Of course, there are some knights in shining armor within the television industry. Some networks are becoming more progressive and giving examples of well-rounded queer characters. Here are a few shows that are changing the narrative for how queer characters are written.
The Wilds. It’s a show done by Amazon, and it follows eight girls who are in a plane crash and then stranded on a deserted island. The show has only one season so far, but has an amazing plot and a lot of mystery. It also features a lesbian character, Toni, that butts heads with another one of the girls, Shelby, a Texas native who has very conservative parents. Shelby battles with her internalized homophobia towards Toni, and towards herself, and the show does a great job at acknowledging the religious trauma that some young people face with their sexuality.
Sex Education is another show mentioned earlier that is taking huge strides. It deals with the violence and bullying that some gay characters face, and again tackles the idea of internalized homophobia. While the bully to boyfriend pipeline can be overdone, like in Glee, Sex Education treats it a little bit differently, and offers real character development rather than a heartless apology. Additionally, it shows the struggle that an asexual character faces at accepting her sexuality. Overall, the show is probably one of the most accurate portrayals of teens while increasing the standards for representation.
While there are infinitely more shows that are doing things well, the last character worth mentioning is actually from a movie. On November 5th the new Marvel movie, Eternals, entered theaters featuring one of the first openly gay superheroes within the Marvel films. Many Marvel characters are comically a part of the queer community, but the films had never addressed it until now. Without spoiling the film, Phastos, one of the heroes, has a husband and a son, and when they briefly part ways, they share an onscreen kiss. It was the first queer represented kiss in the Marvel films (though not in the non-canon Marvel tv shows) and while it certainly sparked outrage from homophobic viewers, it’s a huge step in the future of Hollywood and the MCU. Eternals does a fantastic job at representation in all senses, but it is a groundbreaking film in the aspect of queer superheroes.
There are many other examples of positive queer representation in the media, and they should absolutely be celebrated. The shows and films that negatively represent the LGBTQIA, though, need to be called out and held accountable. For there ever to be a better standard for diversity and representation in Hollywood and television, harmful stereotypes need to be recognized and corrected, rather then accepted as an appropriate rendering of the queer community. This growth can be aided through the input of queer individuals in the writing and directing process. While it all seems bad, there are some shows and films that are doing these things well, and they are creating a higher standard for queer characters. It’s refreshing to see the bar being raised, and it hopefully encourages other networks to pursue the same positive reinforcements.
Ella Olson is a rising high school senior from Sumner, Washington and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.