Queer characters have been a topic of discussion for as long as they have existed. Up until the 1970s, queer people were not even represented fairly in mainstream television or movies at all. If there was a queer person, it was a great tragedy, they were sick or they were a sinner. We’ve come a long way since then but we still have so much farther to go. For instance, in more recent years, queer characters, especially queer women, tend to die at alarming rates (a trope known as “Bury Your Gays” in media circles).
I wanted to start this post out by acknowledging that it is inherently problematic to always discuss sexuality and gender identity together because they are not the same thing. It is often said that, a person’s sexuality is who someone wants to go to bed with and someone’s gender is who they want to go to bed as.However, because a person’s sexuality depends on what gender(s) they are attracted to, they are often discussed together. This post will focus on the increase in LGBTQIA+* representation in film and television, and how representation have affected and continue to affect policies and popular opinion about queer people.
The video above describes the main points that this post is trying to convey. Basically, how queer people are depicted on television and movies can influence the way people see queer people. This is true of stereotypes of all kinds of people. For instance, in 1915, a movie called Birth of a Nation, was made and in it African American men were depicted as predatory and evil. This helped perpetuate the stereotypes that already existed for African American men, so soon after the ending of slavery. This film helped people buy into the fact that African American people were bad.
In a study performed by Iman Tagudina at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, studies how stereotypes of queer people on television can influence a person’s view of queer people. She argues that while there is no “before television,” because we are all exposed to it at such a young age, that stereotypes that we have learned are reinforced. Tagudina uses Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory, which states that the more time people are exposed to television, the more likely they are to believe that television programs display reality. Tagudina finds that one of the more pervasive stereotypes that is portrayed is that of the parlor gay, also known as a camp gay or the idea that all gay men are supposed to be very effeminate, even to the point of wearing women’s clothing. This is not the case and even if some gay men do this, not all of them do. This helped people believe in this stereotype and treat people as such.
Today, camp gays are still found in all kinds of television. Network television shows like Glee and Modern Family have characters like Kurt Hummel, the first person to come out at his high school who sings in a contralto and loves fashion, and Cameron Tucker, a man who loves Broadway and wears loud colors . Reality television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race or numerous programs from the network Bravo ( for example, Shah’s of Sunset) show gay men in real life who behave this way. This new effeminate men however, show more dimension and are people outside of their queerness. This has helped lead to the increase in support of gay people. People are able to see members of the LGBTQIA+ as people.
All kinds of stereotypes and stories of queer people are shown on television and this can lead to many negative impacts on the community like people believing that their bigotry is the norm because a beloved television character discriminated against an LGBTQIA+ person or that queer people are entirely one-dimensional and that their queerness is the entirety of their essence and identity. Another affect of negative stereotyping is that of people whose only experience of an openly queer person is in the media. If the media portrays queer people all the same, or negatively, these people may get a “single story” idea of queer people.
On the other hand positive representation can help non-queer people accept and understand members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In a poll by The Hollywood Reporter (previously mentioned in on this blog in this post), voters who watched television programs with gay characters in them, were more likely to be pro-marriage (this poll was conducted in 2012 before marriage equality was legalized in 2015), even among voters who planned on voting for the more conservative candidate during the 2012 election, Mitt Romney. Positive queer representation is helping people become more accepting of queer people in real life.
So when you are enjoying a form of media, whether that be a television show, a movie, a comic, a song, remember to think about whether it is helping the LGBTQIA+ community or harming it. Here are some steps to analyze this media for yourself (adapted from Media Smarts):
- Who made this media? Was it queer people?
If the piece was made by queer people, they probably worked very hard to make sure that they were representing people well. However, this may not always be the case. There may have been pushes from their network to change things or they wanted to appease their viewers. Also, look to the creators identities. A cisgender gay man might not always understand the struggles of a transgender man and may play into stereotypes.
- How do the people look? Is the gay man flamboyant? Does the gender queer person have neon hair?
This is called playing into “queer aesthetics”. Again this most likely means that the creators were trying to appease a larger audience. If this is the case, there might be other forms of misrepresentation in the piece.
- How does the LGBTQA+ community feel about this piece?
Do queer people actually enjoy this piece? What are they saying about it? If they do not enjoy it or say it misrepresents them, listen to them. They know more about their identity than you do.
*The plus (“+”) represents all of the other identities that fall under the queer umbrella. Here are a few examples of such identities and other helpful vocabulary to know when discussing gender and sexuality. For a more comprehensive list, check out this glossary, made by The Safe Zone Project.
Queer- an umbrella term for people who identify as not straight and/or as not cisgender; used to be used as a slur and can still be offensive in many contexts
Romantic attraction- who you want to love
Sexual attraction- who you want to have sex with
Aesthetic attraction- who you find beautiful
Polysexual- being attracted to at least two genders (bisexual and pansexual fall under this)
Polyamorous- being attracted to multiple people at once
Genderqueer, Gender non-conforming (GNC), genderfluid, non-binary (NB)- people who live outside of the binary
Agender- someone who does not identify with any gender
Cisgender- someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth
Featured Image via Buzzfeed
EDITED AND REUPLOADED FOR FORMATTING ISSUES AND BROKEN LINKS ON 3/20/17. ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 3/10/17.