The Flawed Representation Of LGBT+ Characters In Media

The representation of the LGBT+ community has been consistently problematic, even in recent years. Media representation has relied on outdated stereotypes, or giving LGBT+ characters the bare minimum of screen time or acknowledgment in most cases. LGBT+ characters have also become victims of overly depressing stories, including the notorious “Bury your gays” trope. These approaches to LGBT+ representation have a detrimental effect on the minority group’s mental health, which is already sub-par when compared to the general public.

Stereotypes are often what constitutes the representation of the LGBT+ community. The most common stereotypes are effeminate men and bisexual women who are somehow emotionless or only genuinely interested in one gender. In a thesis analysis of gay male representation in television, it was found that “heteronormative roles persist” (Sief 2017, p. 42), and that there is generally an “assumption and/or expectation that there is a boy and a girl role in same-sex relationships” (Sief 2017, p. 43). This study specifically pointed towards Modern Family as an example, but similar effeminate stereotypes can be found in some recent media such as The Umbrella Academy (2019) character Klaus Hargreeves. Additionally, gay men are often depicted with “either too much sex or rarely showed physical affection” (Sief 2017, p. 41). Too many sex scenes perpetuate the cultural stereotype that gay men are somehow more depraved than heterosexuals, while the lack of any affection gives a token and robotic feel to such characters. 

Similarly, Bisexuals have reason to feel hard done by. According to GLAAD (2019, p. 10), several films in 2019 had bisexual women “who are only shown in queer relationships in a transactional way”, rather than any genuine affection. This again perpetuates a stereotype that Bisexuals are somehow fake, and in reality are heterosexual. Additionally, it reinforces the stereotype that Bisexuals cheat in monogamous relationships (Vrangalova, 2014). Meanwhile, male bisexual characters often had their sexuality questioned, and were far less represented acorrding to the GLAAD report (2019, p.10). 

As for the community response to such stereotypes, a 2017 study found that LGBT+ people are “frequently exposed to stereotypical, misinformed, heterosexist, and/or homophobic representations of LGBTQ people” (Mcinroy, 2017). Additionally, the people they surveyed “frequently chose to define themselves in opposition to these stereotypes”, and were “highly critical of the limited representation” (Mcinroy, 2017).  The study also stated that such limited representation meant that LGBT+ people had “few role models, negatively impacting identity validation and potentially increasing isolation and alienation” (Mcinroy, 2017). 

Another issue that has contributed to this feeling of isolation and alienation, is the corporate response towards diverse representation. In the last handful of years, there have been multiple films that have had their directors, writers and cast tease an LGBT+ character, only for their sexuality to be barely noticeable, if at all. GLAAD (2019, p. 34) in particular detailed one such instance with Solo: A Star Wars Story. It had one of it’s screenwriters, Jonathan Kasdan, answer an interview question about whether the character of Lando Calrissian was Pansexual, he stated “I would say yes. There’s a fluidity to Donald and Billy Dee’s [portrayal of Lando’s] sexuality. I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie. I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of” (Bradley, 2018). However, GLAAD criticised this comment, stating in it’s report that “When viewing the film separate from that quote, this possible sexual fluidity only comes up in terms of Lando potentially being attracted to a female droid. Though there are subtextual moments between Lando and Han Solo that could be interpreted as flirtatious, that alone is not enough to distinguish the character as queer.” (2019, p. 34).

Other films have followed similar paths. Famous examples include J.K Rowling retroactively claiming that the character Albus Dumbledore is gay, which so far has not been explored or shown in either the books or any of the films (GLAAD, 2019, p. 36), and Beauty And The Beast director Bill Condon touting Le Fou as a gay character, when it was barely subtext in the film (Damian, 2017). Meanwhile, other studios have simply left gay characters as extras and nameless characters, rather than any significant role. Such were the cases with Avengers: Endgame (2019), Toy Story 4 (2019), and Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (2019). In it’s 2020 report, GLAAD stated that of the films it analysed, “More than half of LGBTQ characters (28 of 50, 56 percent) received less than three minutes of total screen time, with 21 of those appearing for less than one minute” (2020, p. 4). What’s more frustrating, is that “only three major studio releases counted in GLAAD’s report included bisexual+ characters despite bi+ people making up the majority of the community”, and that there were “zero bisexual+ men” (2020, p. 14). GLAAD summarises the problem this creates perfectly, stating that the “erasure has a real impact on bisexual+ people who are less likely to be out of the closet than gays or lesbians, and report higher levels of minority stresses” (2020, p. 14).

On the subject of mental health, there is an even more worrying trend in LGBT+ representation; the “Bury your gays” trope. “Bury your gays” is the trend of LGBT characters being killed off, usually as a source of shock value. A journal article (Hulan, 2017) revealed that this trend initially began as a “tool for queer authors to write queer narratives without facing negative consequences associated with the “endorsement” of homosexuality” (Hulan, 2017, p. 18). Since then, it has become something used by writers “to symbolically punish queerness in their narratives—The Children’s Hour, The Fox—or as shock value for their [straight] audiences—Siberia, Executive Suite. Straight authors using the trope as spectacle often use the trope irresponsibly” (Hulan, 2017, p.24). The trope became notorious in the public consciousness, when the popular young adult show, The 100, killed off a popular lesbian character (Bakalarski, 2016). Other examples of it include the 2016 french-canadian film 1:54 and 2017’s Beach Rats. Smaller budget films such as these often tend to have depressing storylines too, so even if the LGBT characters do survive, it’s often not for a happy ending. For example, Moonlight (2016) is a film that has it’s gay protagonist grow up in an abusive home, be bullied at their school, get sent to jail for 10 years, and spend his adulthood as a drug dealer. Beach Rats (2017) also has a depressing storyline, as it’s protagonist is left with the guilt of having killed a fellow gay man, and facing the reality that he may never comfortably come out. While depressing films do have a place in cinema, one must question why it seems that almost all films with an LGBT+ protagonist have a similar depressing mood and tone. 

These films and such representations are especially important to place under scrutiny. Not just because they are often the most in-depth and fleshed out representations film has to offer LGBT+ people, but also because of the mental health statistics surrounding LGBT+ people. In National LGBTI Health Alliance’s report on mental health, it found that “LGBTI people are more likely to have thoughts of suicide, specifically: Lesbian, gay and bisexual people aged 16 and over are over six times more likely” (2020, p. 2).  Additionally, “LGBT people are twice as likely to be diagnosed and treated for mental health disorders” (2020, p. 3).

So when you have films that perpetuate stereotypes and studios that are making very weak attempts at representing LGBT+ people, that’s already a bad enough situation that has the possibility of adding to the feeling of alienation for LGBT+ people. However, when film and television has become notorious enough for killing off LGBT+ characters to become a trope, and most in-depth representations have depressing stories, then the media appears as one of LGBT+ people’s greatest threats. Studios reinforce the stereotypes, providing a foundation for prejudice, and a feeling of alienation from the LGBT+ community. Studios have shown that they will do the bare minimum in terms of representation, just to get a few more people in cinemas. This, in effect, continues to contribute to the alienation and isolation of LGBT+ people. Studios have targeted LGBT+ characters as mediums for depressing stories and shock-value deaths, that it has potential to seriously affect the community’s mental health, which is already vastly worse off than the general population.

Currently, the one silver lining I personally have found, is 2018’s Deadpool 2. It has an openly bisexual lead, whose sexuality is repeatedly acknowledged. It has two side characters in a lesbian relationship, who play a large role in the film. They aren’t cartoonish stereotypes. They aren’t killed off for shock value. They aren’t characterised or depicted solely by their sexual habits. They aren’t used to convey a bleak drama with no happy ending. It is one of the few films that does LGBT+ representation right. We also had in that same year another film, Love Simon, that treated it’s LGBT+ characters with respect. In a 2018 study, it was stated that it’s research did “unambiguously defend the wide-ranging power of the persuasive effects exerted by narrative fictions” (Madžarević, Soto-Sanfiel, 2018) and that it suggested “that the consumption of narrative fictions depicting gay people in an affirmative manner enhance positive attitudes toward gay people and weaken the correlation between self-positioning and homosexual bias” (Madžarević, Soto-Sanfiel, 2018). Which means, these films could have had an incredibly positive impact for the LGBT+ community. Then Disney bought Fox, owning both the X-Men series, and the production company that made Love, Simon. GLAAD said in it’s 2020 report that “Walt Disney Studios has a weak history when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion compared to other studios tracked in this report”. That’s because not one of the films that they have produced, have treated LGBT+ representation with the respect and care it deserves. My personal hope is that this will change with the Disney-Fox merger, and we will see benefits that films like Deadpool 2 and Love, Simon bring to the LGBT+ community. However, given their track record, I’m not holding my breath.

 

References:

Moonlight 2016 [DVD], A24.

Bakalarski, A 2016 ‘Time to put the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope to rest’, University Wire, 20 August, Viewed 10 October 2020, <https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/1812708639>

Beach Rats 2017 [Streaming Via Netflix], Cinereach.

Bradley, B, 2018, ‘’Star Wars’ Writer Confirms Donald Glover’s Character Is Pansexual In ‘Solo’’, Huffington Post, 18th of May 2018, viewed 22nd October 2020, <https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/lando-calrissian-sexual-fluidity-solo-star-wars_n_5af77d59e4b00d7e4c1b37a9?ri18n=true>

1:54 2016 [DVD], Cinémaginaire Inc.

Damian, A 2017 Beauty and the Beast’s openly gay character is a poor tribute, Polygon, viewed 22 October 2020, <https://www.polygon.com/2017/3/17/14948300/beauty-and-the-beast-gay-character-le-fou>

GLAAD 2019, ‘2019 Studio Responsibility Index’, GLAAD, Booklet

GLAAD 2020, ‘2020 Studio Responsibility Index’, GLAAD, Booklet

Hulan, H 2017, ‘Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context’, McNair Scholars Journal Vol.21, No. 1, pp. 17-27

Lee, A 2017 ‘Beauty and the Beast’: Josh Gad Plays Disney’s First-Ever Gay Character, Hollywood Reporter, viewed 22 October 2020 <https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/beauty-beast-disneys-first-ever-gay-character-is-lefou-voiced-by-josh-gad-981928>

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker 2019 [Streamed Via Disney+], Lucasfilm.

Madžarević, G, Soto-Sanfiel, M 2018, ‘Positive Representation of Gay Characters in Movies for Reducing Homophobia’, Sexuality & Culture, Vol. 22, no. 3, pp.909-930

Avengers: Endgame 2019 [Streamed Via Disney+], Marvel Studios.

Mcinroy, L B, Craig, S L 2017, ‘Perspectives of LGBTQ emerging adults on the depiction and impact of LGBTQ media representation’, Journal of youth studies, Vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 32-46.

National LGBTI Health Alliance, 2020, ‘Snapshot Of Mental Health And Suicide Prevention Statistics For LGBTI People’, Booklet

The Day That Wasn’t 2019 [Television Program], The Umbrella Academy, Netflix, 15 February.

Toy Story 4 2019 [Streamed Via Disney+], Pixar Animation Studios.

Seif, R 2017, ‘The Media Representation of Fictional Gay and Lesbian Characters on Television: A Qualitative Analysis of U.S. TV-series regarding Heteronormativity’, Master Thesis, Jönköping University,  Jönköping.

Love, Simon 2018  [DVD], Twentieth Century Fox.

Deadpool 2 2018 [Blu-Ray], Twentieth Century Fox. “Super Duper $@%!#& Cut”

Vrangalova, Z 2014 Are Bisexuals Really Less Monogamous Than Everyone Else?, Psychology Today, viewed 22 October 2020, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/strictly-casual/201409/are-bisexuals-really-less-monogamous-everyone-else>

Featured Image Source: Cropped Screenshot from the film “Love, Simon”.

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