LGBT+ Representation on Screen
For the purposes of anonymity, some names have been altered and all sources will be referred to only by first names.
Unless you are a white man, you’ve probably had difficulty finding characters on screen you relate to. This can be especially true for those who identify as LGBT+. In the last few years, discussion surrounding representation in film and TV started to receive some attention in the media and the results are finally starting to materialise on screen. It would appear that LGBT+ characters have evolved from being just the butt of many a joke. However, can this alone be heralded as an improvement, yet alone a triumph?
Talking to people in the LGBT+ community, when asked if they thought LGBT+ representation on screen was good, the response seemed pretty unanimous – a laugh and a defiant no.
How representation still appears flawed can vary. Creag, an aromantic gay cis-man describes how representation still appears flawed because of stereotyping: “[gay people are] most likely being used for the entertainment of cishets rather than an actual want to give representation.” Due to these methods, LGBT+ characters are not able to appear “dynamic and three-dimensional in the way other [cishet] characters [are].”
Chloe, a bisexual cis-woman, expands on this by referencing how many gay characters are written as if “the whole point of their character is that they’re gay.” Using the example of Carol from Friends, Chloe added: “she literally exists because she is a lesbian. It’s like it’s a big failure of Ross [her ex-partner] that she is a lesbian.”
The cardboard cut-out stereotypes for gay men and women are still wildly prevalent: the gay man is always loud, camp and selfish; the gay woman is always butch, unfeeling and mean. If you’re any other identity, you’re not even popular enough on screen to have your own cliché.
Chloe explains how these stereotypes have hindered true representation and instead helped cishets “accept a certain brand of gay people … it has kind of helped straight people put gay people into a nice little box that they think is acceptable and then they can ignore everything else.”
“[Gay people are] most likely being used for the entertainment of cishets rather than an actual want to give representation.” -Creag
The reason these stereotypes are so popular is likely due to who’s writing and producing material on screen. There is a continued uproar from audiences desperate to be represented on screen, however, if the majority of people calling the shots behind screen are cishet, LGBT+ characters will continue to be misrepresented. A cishet-gaze directing storytelling can perpetuate stereotypes rather than demonstrate honest character building and, in some cases, can fetishise characters’ sexuality, most notably with gay or bisexual women.
LGBT+ stories deserve to be a part of the wider narrative and this can only be done right if more LGBT+ writers, directors and producers are platformed in the film and TV industry. As in all minority groups, if an accurate story wants to be told, it should be told by those within the community and be sourced from experience, not observation.
Though many don’t fully comprehend why people need LGBT+ characters on screen, representation is actually hugely important and is needed for education and, hopefully, acceptance. Bisexuality is one such identity where knowledge and acceptance can be correlated to representation. Bisexuality has seen an upsurge of representation in the media very recently, with more characters coming out. Before, bisexuality was practically unheard of on screen. Characters who had relationships with men and women were presented to suddenly change sexuality from straight to gay, there was no in-between. This can contribute to society’s perception of bisexuality, with people assuming bisexual people are just transitioning from one sexuality to the next, completely erasing a valid sexual identity. With more characters coming out as bisexual and having healthy relationships, the audience can be conditioned to accept this sexuality as a norm rather than the unheard myth it once was.
Only 18% of Hollywood’s top 100 grossing films in 2017 included any LGBT+ character, according to research from the University of Southern California. Only 6.4% of TV characters identified as LGBT+, according to The Verge. Judging by these statistics, it’s no wonder so few people are adequately informed about all LGBT+ identities.
Many identities like transsexuality or aromantics are still widely misunderstood; the only way to fight this is to raise awareness. All interviewees agreed that LGBT+ issues are hugely underrepresented in education. Chloe joked: “they didn’t even address being gay except that you could be bullied for it. It doesn’t really help, it just makes you a little more terrified”. With schools and the wider media failing to educate the masses about LGBT+ issues, it’s down to representation.
‘The cardboard cut-out stereotypes for gay men and women are still wildly prevalent: the gay man is always loud, camp and selfish; the gay woman is always butch, unfeeling and mean. If you’re any other identity, you’re not even popular enough on screen to have your own cliché.’
Yahya, a non-binary bisexual, thinks better representation of non-binary people could help the overall attitude toward sexuality and identity. They believe that introducing more non-binary characters would help create a “collective consciousness, that gender is a spectrum and you shouldn’t necessarily pigeon hole people and just ask for peoples’ pronouns instead of assuming”. Yahya added: “If you dissolve the gender thing, the sexuality thing dissolves with it” and this would be helpful, putting less pressure on an individual’s sexuality, allowing their attraction to no longer define them.
People learn a lot from fiction – it can be a window into a new experience or a mirror reflecting a previously unnoticed characteristic. Better representation of LGBT+ characters on screen could help thousands accept themselves and others. Plus, it would be a nice change from yet another story about a straight white man blowing up buildings and being rewarded with a woman he shared two sentences with.