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Pride in Your Art: A Look at LGBTQ+ Representation in Media (Part 2)

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In March of 1970, one year after the Stonewall Riots, director William Friedkin released a movie called The Boys in the Band. The movie, based on the play of the same name originally written by Mart Crowley, was seen as a landmark is gay cinema for being one of the first honest and genuine depictions of homosexuality in film. Gay men weren’t just punchlines, comic relief, or strange and antithetical to the average American values, but instead fully developed people with lives, trauma, and regrets. The film was praised at the time, though when viewed by the gay community today, some regard it as portraying a negative narrative that gay men are destined to be miserable and can’t be happy. Sure, they aren’t comedic punchlines, but the impression that some have taken from the movie is that if you’re gay, then life is going to be pretty miserable for you, especially if you’re bisexual, as a healthy percentage of the men in the movie are.

50 years since the release of The Boys in the Band, the LGBTQ+ scene is now far different. Homosexuality has become more legitimized (depending on which part of the world you reside in). Film depictions of the LGBTQ+ community has become more vast and varied, no longer just focusing on the stories of gay men but also gay women, bisexual men and women, trans man and women, and non binary people. There are more mainstream movies that released in the past five months that have LGBTQ+ characters present in them than there ever were in mainstream movies in the 1970’s.

So representation has been solved. The LGBTQ+ community has become more visible within pop culture today than ever before. That should be enough… right? Unfortunately, no. There is still much work to be done. Far more work.

 

While surveying members of the LGBTQ+ community, I asked a variety of questions pertaining not only to the state of LGBTQ+ representation in media today, but what steps could be made going forward to help better portray the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light. Today’s feature will focus on the current state of affairs and where the community stands in pop culture. To start, I asked two questions about the current state of state of representation; is there enough of it, and is it positive or negative? Out of the 31 respondents, a staggering 97% agreed that no, there isn’t enough representation within media, and the representation that is there isn’t positive with 55% of the believing that most of the representation is negative.

When asked about why they believed there were more negative portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters and situations in film and television, Kate M., a museum educator, had this to say: “I think there is more media that portrays white, cis gay men in a positive and non-tokenizing way than stories of trans women, or even cis bisexual men. A lot of media about the queer experience is focused on coming out narratives or queer suffering, which is important to talk about, but sometimes I just want to see happy queer people, or even queer people whose suffering is totally irrelevant to being queer.” To many of the respondents, Hollywood will only portray LGBTQ+ relationships when it is safe and accessible, or as one participant perfectly phrased it, if it was “heteronormative queerness.” This is the story of white gay people and the suffering they endure as white gay people.

That in itself is another problem that many of the respondents claimed was all to frequent in mainstream representations of the LGBTQ+ community. To be gay is to live a difficult life. It will most likely end in tragedy with the general takeaway being that the act of being gay is the struggle. To some, it’s important to discuss. As Kate M. said above, while it’s important to address that there is inherently more suffering put on a person if they are born gay versus straight, film is still escapism. People want to escape from the harsh realities of the world, but if the media you’re consuming is reminding you of the problems you come across in your everyday life, that’s not escapism. It’s a reminder.

The list of negative LGBTQ+ stereotypes that were submitted as still present within media today is long and comprehensive. While I was aware of tropes like “bury your gays,” where non-heteresexual characters were more likely to die by the end of a movie or TV show, or the gay best friend, depictions of a myriad of sexualities are complicated and unfortunate. There are some well known tropes like gay men being extremely effeminate and feminine and lesbians are stern or “butch,” but then you have the rampant biphobia on display in media. According to the respondents, there are countless depictions of bisexual characters as being unfaithful, flirtatious, sexual predators, coded as villainous, and often times being confused about what they want.

The respondents were vocal in stating that the situation is even worse for transgender people as most of them are primarily depicted solely as crossdressers and drag queens and generally only being acknowledged when they’re “passable” and don’t look transgender. Oh, and let’s not forget the general assumption that LGBTQ+ members are more likely to be shown as contracting HIV/AIDS, especially if the person in question is black. Double oh, if you’re not straight and a person of color, then chances are your story is not easily digestible by mainstream audiences because you’re black and not white. Then you have to actually put effort into navigating both LGBTQ+ issues and race issues, which is something that most studios don’t want to tackle. For as progressive as it is, Moonlight is the exception, not the rule.

That was just only a small fraction of the complaints lodged at representation within media today. Yes, there are positive examples for all of these subsects of the LGBTQ+ community, a list of examples were compiled back in Part 1, but the general sentiment is that the current scope of representation is not enough. As Emily B., a lesbian actress put it, “When I was younger, I found myself unable to connect with these characters and felt unrepresented because of it. I did not have any positive role models. The characters were almost always depicted as unfaithful and predatory towards heterosexual women. And if these were not the issue, then the character was almost always the “token” or “stereotypical” LGBT member, often presenting as a masculine woman.” Out of curiosity, I asked if even negative stereotypes present in media was partially beneficial to the LGBTQ+ community, under the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Over 85% of the respondents disagreed and says that negative stereotypes in media are NOT okay, even if the community is being represented.

For as negative as that may sound, that’s only half of the story. In truth, there’s just as much to celebrate nowadays than ever before. No one surveyed believed that Hollywood was greenlighting LGBTQ+ movies just to pander to the community. The desire to include LGBTQ+ characters into scripts is a generally accepted one, as 45% of the respondents indicated that positive LGBTQ+ representation, no matter how big or how small, should still be celebrated. The fact that studios choose to put an LGBT character in a movie, fully aware of the fact that it will cost them business in certain parts of the world and with several homophobic crowds, is still something to be praised according to the people polled.

What complicates matters is when studios decide to include representation in halfhearted, non-meaningful ways. Is it enough to have two gay background characters kiss? Is that a win for representation, or just a studio trying to appear progressive without fully committing to the idea of it? To one respondent, it’s queerbaiting, or hyping up a show or movie’s inherent queerness without actually delivering on it in any capacity. Star Wars fell victim to this during the sequel trilogy where there was a fair amount of hype over allegedly larger LGBTQ+ presence, yet Disney failed to deliver in any substantial way. No, Finn and Poe were not revealed to have feelings towards each other as was hinted at throughout the trilogy, but two background actors kissed for a split second in Rise of Skywalker. There’s your representation! Is that progress? It’s a tricky subject because while it does normalize the LGBTQ+ experience as just being a part of life in this universe, which is what a vast majority of the respondents indicated they want in future representation, the marketing hinted at and made it seem more significant than it actually was.

Marketing will do a lot to drive people into theaters and studios are aware that there is a portion of audience members who will see a movie if it promises to have more LGBTQ+ elements within it. 71% of respondents said that they would be more inclined to see a movie if it was open about its LGBTQ+ representation and featured it as part of its marketing, but how could anyone know if the movie has any meaningful representation unless they have actually seen it? It’s possible for corporations to feign support all in the name of profit and deliver half heartened representation.

Which leads us to one of the most controversial tactics used by filmmakers and creators to try and appeal to the LGBTQ+ community; turning previously established straight characters gay. Dumbledore in Harry Potter. Lefou in Beauty and the Beast. Lando in Star Wars. All of these characters were introduced as being straight, or at the very least didn’t have their sexual orientation specified, yet they have become retroactively homosexual/bisexual in future sequels, prequels, and remakes. The effect of these changes are polarizing to say the least, with no clear consensus as to whether or not they are positive or negative examples of representation.

To most of the respondents, context is key. As one respondent phrased it, “I feel that changing a character’s sexual orientation often depends on much of the character’s background… Lefou for example builds more character because as a child I never understood why he cared so much for Gaston. When the Beauty and the Beast remake released, I felt it made much more sense for him to be gay/bisexual. It added a background story for me to understand that.” If the justification can be supported by examples that can be retroactively coded as being gay without fundamentally changing the character’s history or personality, then it’s generally accepted. Not all of the respondents shared that same perspective as several viewed it as queerbaiting by Disney. Beauty and the Beast’s quality isn’t determined by Lefou’s sexuality, so one could make the argument that it’s cashing in on a trend and giving Disney brownie points for being woke without actually doing any heavy lifting.

Then you have LGBTQ+ members who believe that the act of retroactive queerness is wrong no matter how it is implemented, which is the perspective of one person who wished to remain anonymous. “If the character’s sexuality is never mentioned in the movie, why would these companies feel the need to claim the character is gay years later? Adding a sexuality that was never there to begin with is wrong, and frankly irrelevant. The character’s sexuality does not change who they were originally.”

Which leads us to the queen of the retcon and the transphobic dame herself, J.K. Rowling. I’m not going to dwell too much on her legendary ability to be as retroactively progressive as possible by turning Harry Potter into the most perfect series ever that advocates for ALL of the social justice (at least according to her Twitter account), but it was near universal that her tactics of changing Dumbledore’s sexual orientation without textual support is frowned upon at best and reviled at worst. My favorite quotes from the respondents about Rowling’s sloppy execution said that Dumbledore’s change in sexual orientation without any prior context was “handled extremely poorly,” “not real representation,” “an attention grab,” “forced and token,” “a waste of energy,” and “pandering.”

There were some positive ways that were pointed out to me on how retroactive queerness can be handled wonderfully and praised without coming across as pandering. Take Mr. Ratburn from Arthur, who was recently revealed as a gay man despite decades of not being presented as that. There was an episode dedicated to his wedding, it taught children that the LGBTQ+ community is normal and explain it in a very mature way that respected the audience’s intelligence, and gave children an example of what a positive homosexual relationship is like. But most importantly, the revelation that Mr. Ratburn was homosexual didn’t define him from that point onward. He was still Mr. Ratburn and didn’t suddenly develop any of those negative tropes associated with being homosexual. As the person who recommended that example said to me, “A character’s sexuality doesn’t define them, but it is an aspect of their experience and makes them who they are.”

It shows when care is put into depicting a character’s sexual orientation. It’s good when movies make it a point to cast LGBTQ+ actors to play LGBTQ+ characters or include LGBTQ+ writers when drafting a script that will feature LGBTQ+ themes and ideas. It’s even more evident when a production team features no LGBTQ+ voices involved in the production, yet still try to placate a community that they don’t really understand. To quote my absolutely favorite response from this entire project from a woman named Seralina, a panromantic bisexual teacher, “Straight writers are fucking clueless most days. They don’t understand what [LGBTQ+ people] want, so when they think they know they can be like ‘HERE SEE? THIS ONE CHARACTER IS LIKE YOU, SO NO COMPLAINTS’ but it’s just not accurate.”

Time and effort need to be put into movies that heavily include LGBTQ+ ideas. It’s not just a random facet that should be included post-production. It needs to be meaningful and genuine. But how exactly can studios and filmmakers make those steps to help the community? How can they show genuine support without appearing like they’re only supporting the LGBTQ+ community for profit? How can those negative tropes that have plagued the LGBTQ+ community in media becoming a thing of the past? How can LGBTQ+ representation be better? I don’t have the answers. But my respondents have some suggestions. Next time, they’ll chart out a potential path for better representation.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.