Why Representation of LGBTQ+ Characters in Pop Culture Matters
Representation matters. Point blank. Simple as that.
Media connects us to one another and allows us to express the things we see happening around us in the world, our feelings about them, and inform our identities. Media play vital roles in how current events, problems, and occasional successes affect us.
So when we watch our favorite television shows and movies and we see gay, lesbian. Bisexual, trans, and/or queer characters, those characters inform viewers of what it’s like to be LGBTQ+.
Now why does this representation matter? Because the things we see in day-to-day media create the norm. What we see in the media helps shape or shift public opinion.
A study from 2015, written by Bradley J. Bond and Benjamin L. Compton, found that a positive relationship existed between exposure to on-screen gay characters and gay equality endorsement.
Those who are homophobic or transphobic may be so becuse they are unfamiliar with the LGBTQ community, or because they don’t know anybody who is queer or trans. The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis (PCH) is a theory that proposes that we can reduce prejudice by watching TV. Because of the public’s uncertainty with the LGBT community, the PCH states that anxiety and hostility, such as homophobia and transphobia, which act as barriers to intergroup contact, could be removed if the majority group (straight and cisgendered individuals) experiences intergroup contact vicariously rather than in-person.
Seeing LGBTQ people on television and in movies helps get rid of the unfamiliarity--especially for people who do not know any LGBTQ people in real life.
According to GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance Survey from 2014-2015, there was a decrease in non-LGBTQ people who felt uncomfortable about issues such as seeing same-sex couples holding hands (from 36% in 2014 down to 24% in 2015) or learning their family member is LGBTQ (32% [‘14] to 27% [‘15]).
The thing is, people who lack other sources of information heavily rely on the things they see on television, or other forms of media, to form their opinion. Positive LGBTQ representation can cause people to be more accepting of LGBTQ people in real life. But, the tropes that are still present in media cause people to have a warped view of queer and trans people in real life.
The “Bury Your Gays” Trope
This trope refers to when a lesbian or gay character dies for no solid reason, and is usually done by showrunners with the intention of furthering a straight character’s storyline.
“Bury Your Gays” stems from the times when ones sexuality on the LGBTQ spectrum was considered immoral and an illness. LGBTQ folks if at all shown, can not be seen happy in their immorality and thus have to be punished, or, more unfortunately, killed. This became common in fiction and media.
The trope that queer characters get killed and queer relationships are doomed has become burned into our culture. Creators influenced by this conditioning then see nothing wrong with killing queer characters, and thus it’s all you see of queer relationships and representations. For non-LGBTQ viewers they internalize that understanding of queer bodies as well as LGBTQ folks--making it a harmful trope all around.
There is already so little LGBTQ representation in media, that when you kill off, usually, the only queer character or one of two queer characters on your show, it hurts.
One of the more recent examples and one that garnered a huge amount of backlash from fans was Lexa from The 100. Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) were end game. Once enemies turned allies, in the 7th episode of the show’s 3rd season, Clexa was made official. The season so far had been focusing on the evolution of their relationship and its gradual shift towards romance (though Lexa had made her feelings clear for Clarke in season 2). Towards the end of the episode, after sleeping with one another (literally the next scene) Lexa is shot by a stray bullet meant for Clarke.
For a full history of the “Bury Your Gays’ trope rearing its ugly head visit Autostraddle.
“The Depraved-Bi” and “Ambiguously Bi”
A lot of shows when introducing bisexual characters portray bisexuality as a villainous trait rather than a lived identity. This is where the nuances of coding come into play. A character coded as queer or openly introducing a character as bi in order to insinuate/code them as bad by labeling them “other.”
“Television needs to include a wider variety of bisexual+ (including pansexual, fluid, and queer) characters. Of course, villains and antiheroes may happen to be bisexual, but bi characters are rarely given opportunities to also be heros and multidimensional people living their everyday lives. Too often, creators overwhelmingly choose to portray bisexuality as a villainous trait rather than a lived identity. This trend of inaccurate portrayals undermines how people understand bisexuality, which has real life consequences for bi people and their well being,” said GLAAD’s Senior Strategist, Global and U.S. South, and bisexual advocate Alexandra Bolles.
Bisexuals are consistently depicted as unfaithful, or their bisexuality is used to show a lack of commitment, or point to immaturity
“As a general rule in popular media, bisexuality is never depicted for its own sake or for the sake of the character. More often than not, it’s there as a trope, as shorthand for something else, a hint to help us understand something entirely different about the character. In short: it’s a form of stereotyping. For example, we can often find bisexuality as a way to emphasize a character’s “exotic” nature, to underline lack of commitment, or point to immaturity,” said Bolles.
And with the ambiguously bi trope, the character’s sexuality is hinted at, inferred, or used to incite a ship tease. Which moves us into “queerbaiting” territory where showrunners will add homoerotic subtext between two characters to attract LGBTQ audiences. The showrunners usually never intend to make these subtexts into an actual relationship and canon.
The Gay Best Friend is as basic as it sounds. It refers to gay characters, usually teenagers or young adults, who are treated more as an accessory than a person. The GBF exists mostly for laughs in a particularly straight-cast, they talk about sex a lot (though seldom depicted having any) and they gossip. The most common depiction is the male GBF to the female protagonist.
We are seeing less and less of this trope, though. As we grow as a society and becoming more comfortable with gay people, we are finding more multidimensional gay characters where their sexuality is incidental to their character.
Not only does this inform cis/straight viewers, but also LGBTQ people. Another reason why representation is so important is because these tropes may then seem like something they have to live up to or despise about themselves and their relationships.
These representations should show LGBTQ folks that they are not alone in their story. By looking at these characters in their favorite show they can learn about their own sexuality. This year has seen great improvements in LGBTQ representation. GLAAD found in their Where We Are on TV report that out of 901 regular/recurring characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted primetime programming this season, 58 (6.4%) were identified as LGBTQ. Which is up from last year’s 4.6% reporting. On cable television there are 173 LGBTQ characters and on streaming services, 70 LGBTQ characters.
Tracked across all the platforms, bisexual characters make up 28% of the LGBTQ characters tracked and this year and 17 regular/recurring trans characters (9 trans women, 4 trans men, and 4 identifying as non-binary--the first time GLAAD has been able to track non-binary characters).
It is especially important now to have so much representation (and even more) with the current political climate. While the numbers are high in our media, GLAAD has found in their Accelerating Acceptance Survey for this year a significant decrease in acceptance for LGBTQ people in 2017. A first for their report, which up until 2017 had shown remarkable progress in acceptance. There has been an increase in discrimination through attacks, bias, and erasure by the Trump administration.
More, now than ever, does our media need to focus on the representation of marginalized groups. Representation makes people feel seen and understood and not alone and not strange. Queer characters as one-dimensional sidekicks without happy endings aren’t the move; it just won’t fly anymore.
Perception shouldn’t be as much as it is, but the lack of visibility unfortunately harms LGBTQ folks. Ultimately, it is these voices that matter.
But how do we get these voices as frontrunners of LGBTQ stories in the media?
The answer is that we support our fellow queer people, we buy their books, their art, we watch their short films, we boost them, put them on a platform, we demand that these are the people we want creating our stories, we insist that they are in writing rooms, that they are directors, producers, and actors.
People of marginalized identities should be calling the shots on how they are portrayed and how we come into the mainstream. So take note showrunners and writers and production companies because then, maybe, you won’t get hell for writing offensive characters or killing a lesbian character directly after sleeping with her girlfriend.
(And we haven’t even gotten to racial diversity and asexuality, yet! We see you TV, but you gotta do better.)
Check out some of these shows and movies that do a pretty good job with LGBTQ representation:
The Bold Type
North Sea Texas
The Way He Looks
Skam (Oslo and Austin)
One Day at a Time
Degrassi: The Next Class
Marvel’s The Runaways
Artwork by Susannah Price