On May 15th, 2020, the series finale to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power aired. Over the past year and a half, the show was notable not only for its quality but for its major steps in LGBTQ+ representation in children’s television. Representation occurred from all across the spectrum, whether it be from Bow (a major supporting character) having two dads, princesses Netossa and Spinnerella being in a married relationship, or the presence of Double Trouble, a non-binary shapeshifter also played by non-binary actor/activist Jacob Tobia.
The most notable event in the show’s history, however, occurred in the final episode. In it, the main character Adora is about to sacrifice herself to save the world. Her childhood friend, Catra -who has had a complex relationship with Adora that spanned from a friend to rival to enemy-, confesses her love for Adora after everything they’ve been through. In one final, climactic moment, Catra saves Adora from certain death. Adora reciprocates her love for Catra and the two kiss, giving Adora the power needed to save the world and keep her life.
It was an uphill battle for writer Noelle Stevenson to convince the upper echelons at Netflix to go ahead with the ending after push back she received for an earlier episode, “Princess Prom,” hinting at a relationship between the two leads. It finally happened, though. No more reading between the lines. No more dancing around the fact. Two main female characters in a television show professed their love for each other and were able to have a happy ending.
While the last feature was centered on discussing the current state of affairs with LGBTQ+ representation in media, now comes the most difficult question of all. What happens next? Progress has been made in the 51 years since the Stonewall Riots gave birth to Pride Month, but Pride Month isn’t the end and shouldn’t be the end. So I asked the respondents what should happen next. How can representation continue to move forward in a positive direction and not be relegated to be discussed once a year for a month? Needless to say, the most obvious answer I got was that LGBTQ+ issues shouldn’t be relegated to just one month.
“I love that pride is extensive during June, but it’s not as if the LGBTQ+ community goes away for the other 11 months of the year, so there should be representation throughout the year,” asserts Sam, a bisexual teacher. “Companies that usually wouldn’t support the community are capitalizing on the fact that they can slap a rainbow on a t-shirt and make money off of their ‘pride’ for the community.”
While awareness for the LGBTQ+ community is at its most visible during the month of June, many of the respondents felt that the representation allotted to them by major companies (including companies involved in film and television like HBO and Netflix) can come across as exploitative. 42% of respondents believed that these companies pander to the LGBT community during Pride Month and that 45% of them are split on whether they feel exploited or not by these major companies. It is nice to have representation and awareness, but unless that support is year-round, it’s a hollow gesture to many within the community.
As it was explained to me by a person who wishes to remain anonymous, it’s the equivalent of a company creating a Pride logo for their company in June, only to revert back to business as usual once July 1st rolls around. But that’s a problem that extends far beyond the purview of this piece. “Rainbow capitalism,” as it is referred to by many of the respondents, extends far beyond film and television and is something that has created a mixed reception within the community. On the contrary, many of the respondents believed that at the very least, it’s not impossible for major Hollywood studios to look out for and support the LGBTQ+ community in a meaningful way. 58% believed it was possible and that there is already a fair amount of positive representation being shared.
While the last piece examined the problems that many within the community felt in regards to how LGBTQ+ people were portrayed in media, there were plenty of positive examples they listed as well. We’ve talked about those already, but it’s proof that there can be ways to spread positive messages through media. Hell, in the first part of this series, the vast majority of titles that were recommended to me came from the past decade, showing a genuine step forward in more fair representation than in previous decades.
An interesting point that was made in the survey was a two-part question posed on an ADQ (Agree, Disagree, Qualify) scale. The two statements were “film studios need more LGBT representation” and “not every movie needs an LGBT character in it.” 90% of the respondents agreed that film studios need more LGBTQ+ representation, but the response to the next question piqued my interest. That number decreased to 61% in the following question.
I reached out to a respondent after compiling the data to ask about the disparity, as it seemed paradoxical in nature. However, the answer was pretty straightforward. Not every story needs to have LGBTQ+ themes within it. If it centers around the story being told, then that’s wonderful. If the story is not about LGBTQ+ themes, then it shouldn’t draw attention away from whatever narrative is being shaped for audiences. If the LGBTQ+ community is going to be represented, this person would prefer it if it was “boring, normal, and as if nothing is different.” Another way put forward by Jason G, a gay social worker, is that LGBTQ+ people in media should be seen as “normal and not an event” within media.
A recent example that was brought up was with Pixar’s 2020 animated film Onward. In it, a side character -who was only present in two scenes- casually talks about her girlfriend and them raising a child. There’s no attention drawn to it, no lingering shots, no shock from the main character. It’s just a blink and you’ll miss it moment. That kind of relationship is normal in the world of Onward and no one points this out as extraordinary because that’s just life in their world. That being said, that moment itself spawned a fair bit of controversy, not just the obligatory vitriol from the typical homophobic crowds who will protest anything, but also from within the community. Is making LGBTQ+ relationships and moments commonplace the best course of action at the moment?
Honestly, I don’t know. I admit that I have no answer to that question. It’s not exactly an easy question to form an answer to. While 45% of the respondents did say that any LGBTQ+ representation in film and television should be celebrated and discussed, 35% were neutral on the matter with 20% believing that it shouldn’t be discussed at all. When pressed why it shouldn’t be discussed, one respondent said that it would help to normalize the LGBTQ+ experience. By far, that question gave me the most divided response out of the entire survey. Is it right to make LGBTQ+ representation mundane, or has it not reached that point yet?
I acknowledge that everyone will probably have a different opinion on the matter, and I will admit that I’m not qualified to offer a definitive answer on if that’s something that should be done or not. This is an ongoing debate and one that will eventually reach some kind of conclusion. At the moment, I am not capable or comfortable providing a concrete stance on the matter.
There were some very clear indicators and ideas submitted to me during this study on how to better reflect the needs and ideas of the LGBTQ+ community. An anonymous storyboard artist offered a pretty simple solution that would help represent the needs and desires of the wide range of people: hire more LGBTQ+ creators. “There are shows and films with an overwhelmingly positive reputation,” the artist stated, “but I think it comes down to who’s in the writer’s room and pushing for that positive content. To me, it’s incredibly obvious when a straight person has written an LGBT character because said character usually has their story focused on abuse surrounding their sexuality, or it’s their only trait.”
While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of LGBTQ+ directors, writers, and producers within the industry (examples include Rebecca Sugar, Roland Emmerich, the late Joel Schumacher, Cheryl Dunye, Kenny Ortega, and The Wachowski’s, just to name a few), more voices is never a bad thing. Putting more effort into inclusive practices to hire creative talents that are active within the community can only help to create a more authentic experience.
The same extends to hiring LGBTQ+ actors to play characters of their genders. For example, hiring a bisexual actor to play a bisexual character, or having a trans actor play a trans character, and so on. Hollywood certainly isn’t short on LGBTQ+ actors and they should hopefully be beyond the point of casting cis-white actors to play non-cis-white roles.
But the most important point that was stressed to me over and over is that “sexuality does not define personality.” Every respondent agreed that when an LGBTQ+ person is seen in media, their sexuality should not be their only characteristic. Sexuality can be a facet of a character, but it should not supplant depth. They stressed that people are more than their sexuality and should be seen as such.
It was also recommended that if companies truly did support the community and are willing to help spread awareness, then they should help donate to LGBTQ+ organizations like The Trevor Project or It Gets Better. If a company is going to support the LGBTQ+ community during Pride, donating to organizations like these helps more than just creating a curated selection of LGBTQ+ content on a streaming service.
Creating this series has been an interesting project due to the amount of feedback I’ve received over the past month. There have been plenty of suggestions on how I could improve these posts to create a better platform for LGBTQ+ representation. Others have been critical from the outset because I’m a cis-white male who is not a member of the community -ergo I cannot talk about the community-. Up until now, I’ve presented the content directly from the LGBTQ+ community with no insight of my own because this wasn’t my platform. This is their platform.
All I could hope to do was present the content in a way that’s understandable and educational to people outside of the community. The hope is that these posts inform them of the issues in representation that still exist to this day. To that end, I want to conclude this series with a suggestion from actor Robert Q. on where LGBTQ+ representation in media should go from here:
“Companies can make initiatives to hire us and also not just support the cisgender white men in the community. They should support gay people of color, trans men and women, gender fluid people, etc. The biggest issue with [LGBTQ+ representation in media] is they don’t truly take minorities in the LGBTQIA+ community into consideration. There should be a mix of people in the full gender spectrum and a mix of people with different races. When these big companies start supporting all people in the community then they will actually be helping.
Companies that boast support of the LGBTQIA+ during Pride Month should openly support the community all year round. Seeing that the identity of everyone in the community is a year round thing. We don’t suddenly become gay during June and then the other 11 months aren’t gay. I like to support companies that not only support the community, I like when companies call upon Queer artists to create their [products]. It shows that they may not be the most knowledgeable of what it means to be in the community, but they are willing to raise up people in our community and give platforms to new artists.”