It’s more and more common to see LGBTQ+ characters in TV and film, but there is still so much further to go to achieve representation that doesn’t just promote LGBTQ+ stereotypes.
LGBTQ+ representation is increasingly more common and talked about. It’s not rare for series or movies to feature characters from the community. That said, we still see a lot of outdated stereotypes in these representations. Instead of spreading a positive message and having the right effect on society, these stereotypes reinforce the preconceptions people have about LGBTQ+ people.
First, let’s look at a bit of the history of the LGBTQ+ representation in film and TV in order to better understand how we got here. At first, Queer characters were created to get a laugh, using a set of stereotypical gestures to create comic situations. This type of characterization took place from the early 1900s to the 1930s.
Once the Hays Code, which censored films, was established, all homosexual references and characters were absent from the screen for 20 years. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that we started to see LGBTQ+ characters again, but they were presented as dishonest, violent, and dangerous. We can see this in movies like Midnight Express or The Children’s Hour.
As years passed and we approached the nineties, the representation of homosexual and Queer characters became far more accepted…as long as they weren’t the main character. Think: Clueless, Mean Girls, Birdcage, As Good as It Gets, or My Best Friend’s Wedding.
In these movies, LGBTQ+ characters are relegated to the role of the best friend/sidekick and don’t get to have a deep storyline or fall in love. They only serve to support the main character. It wasn’t until the critically acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain came out that we saw a homosexual couple as main characters. However, this movie wasn’t very well received by the LGBTQ+ community because the characters represented two people who weren’t accepted by society and had to hide their true selves.
TV is another story. Before streaming, broadcasts relied on advertising income, so the content of programs had to fit into certain social norms. Therefore, LGBTQ+ characters were again secondary roles and didn’t have big storylines or get a lot of screen time. Then, the 1990s revolutionized the scene with critically acclaimed hits like Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Gone were the days when LGBTQ+ characters were only sidekicks or a punch line.
In following years, we started to see a new kind of character, one that targeted younger viewers, like in Glee or Ugly Betty. Kurt and Justin (respectively) go through the emotional journey of acceptance and becoming their true selves. But, even though these shows openly celebrated the homosexuality of their main characters, we still weren’t really seeing fair representation. Why? Because these characters embodied the same old LGBTQ+ stereotypes as always, like loving fashion and drama.
By the beginning of the 21st century, countless Queer and homosexual characters were stealing the show with their endearing, loving personalities. But, at the end of the day, it was more of the same: the gay friend, the comic, the hyper-sexualized character, or the lonely type. These stereotypes create a stigma that helps promote the idea that everyone in the LGBTQ + community must fit into one of these boxes.
One of the milestones was Queer as Folk. This pay-per-view TV series came out in the UK in 1999 with a lineup of gay characters. The show revolved around their lives, relationships, and personal growth. For me, this marked a clear “before and after” for television. It showed the world that LGBTQ+ personalities can be main characters in internationally renowned series. It gave way to other series like The L Word and, more recently, Euphoria. In these series we see LGBTQ+ characters who are deeper and more complex; they face real problems; they show emotion; they are flesh and blood.
It is important that all human beings, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, are represented fairly in the media. Young Queer people need to be able to see characters that they identify with and who are part of society. They need to know that it’s ok to be different and that they shouldn’t be afraid to express themselves. Representation is a very important factor in promoting self-acceptance.
It is also important that the characters representing the community go beyond being one-dimensional and reinforcing the LGBTQ+ stereotypes that have created stigmas around the community. I’m not arguing that we should say we are all the same; instead, I think we need to stop promoting the idea that members of this community do not fit into society.
That is why members of the LGBTQ+ community should be part of the teams and workgroups that make decisions on representation. This helps movies and shows from falling into the same old stereotypes as always. In order to achieve fair and dignified representation, a cisgender white person isn’t going to be able to capture and understand what a Queer character or a character of another race goes through. In the last 30 years, we have advanced as a society much more than in the 60 years previous to them.
Our community is more and more understanding and accepting of the fact that we are all different. Now that we know this, we need to demonstrate it. We are not all the same, and we do need to represent LGBTQ+ characters everywhere in the media, whether in movies, television programs, radio shows, or advertising campaigns. This is how we start to lift the wrongful stigma off of this community.