Gay-friendly representation might feel uplifting or escapist to some queer people, but it can be hard for others who have experienced discrimination in their lives to watch. Idealistic representation may not be super realistic, but it shows what a world might look like if sexual orientation or gender identity wasn’t an issue.
Despite advances in media representation, there is still a long way to go to ensure that the LGBTQIA+ community is seen and heard. The media industry has a great opportunity to change the perceptions of LGBT people around the world, and they can do this through diverse, well-crafted storytelling. This is especially true for TV, which can be a powerful cultural institution that can influence people’s attitudes and beliefs about minority groups.
In fact, it was recently reported that the number of LGBT series regular characters on US TV has reached an all-time high, according to a new analysis by LGBT media advocacy group GLAAD. However, the report also found that Hollywood has a lot of work to do in terms of representation – 92 LGBT characters out of 775 series regulars were on broadcast and cable television in 2020-2021, but only two recurring TV characters are LGBT and have HIV, despite more than a million Americans living with the virus.
Another issue is how LGBT characters are portrayed on screen, and this can be either positive or negative. Negative portrayals are often stereotypical and denigrate the community, such as portraying gay men as non-monogamous sex seekers or as promiscuous. This is incredibly damaging to queer people, as it re-enforces negative stereotypes that lead to discrimination and unsafe communities.
On the other hand, positive depictions are uplifting and wholesome. They can help queer people to see themselves in a positive light, and they can provide a much-needed sense of hope. This type of representation is referred to as idealistic representation, and it may not be super realistic, but it’s important that it’s present.
Finally, there is also queerbaiting – a type of representation that uses sexuality to attract the attention of LGBT audiences. This can be a good thing, as it shows that LGBT content is being marketed to its audience. However, it is important to distinguish between queerbaiting and real representation, as it can cheapen the impact of genuine allyship.
Many LGBT people are uncomfortable with the current media portrayal of their community. They want to see themselves reflected on screen in media that gives them fuller character arcs and better development, not as a punchline or comedic relief. They want to be taken seriously, and that can’t happen if the only representation they see is of their gay community marching for same-sex marriage or being portrayed in drag shows.
When TV writers and producers use minorities as tokens, they not only limit the stories they tell to a specific part of society’s experiences, but also reinforce stereotypes in doing so. This is a huge problem because it means that individuals are often exposed to the same types of characters and experiences over and over again, which is a bad idea for anyone, but especially for marginalised communities.
For example, in a study on television programs in the Netherlands, multiple programmes showed lesbians and bisexual women with masculine characteristics, while most of the programmes showing gay men had feminine acting ways. This type of stereotyping is problematic because it promotes the notion that lesbians and bisexual women are masculine and gay men are feminine, which can lead to bias and discrimination against them.
Tokenisation is not a new issue, but it seems to have become more prevalent in recent years. While the past decade has seen great strides in the fight for equality for members of the LGBTQ community – same-sex marriage is now legalized in more countries than ever before, and openly gay politicians are a common sight – much work remains to be done.
A big reason why is that people still don’t understand what it’s like to be part of the LGBTQ community – and how different it can be from heterosexuality. Too many of us think that being gay is about having a particular political ideology and opposing capitalism, when in fact it’s so much more complex than that.
For a girl who might be exploring her sexuality, seeing the hint of a lesbian plotline on a TV show might be enough to make her feel understood. She might feel invested in the relationship between two women who exchange flirtatious quips and meaningful glances. She might create a social media hashtag of their portmanteau names (as fans are known to do) and wait with anticipation for them to finally consummate their love. But then the show ends, and the storyline fizzles out. This is a classic example of queerbaiting. It’s a way of courting LGBTQ audiences, but also making sure not to lose the homophobic ones by depicting anything too explicit. Think the rumours about Thor: Love and Thunder being gay, or JK Rowling trying to hint at Dumbledore’s sexuality while refusing to fully depict him being bisexual.
While some may see the hints of queer representation on television shows like Riverdale, Brooklyn 99 and Love, Simon as a positive thing, others see it as dishonest and harmful. For some, the commodification of homosexual coding (once used by members of the community to signal their sexuality subtly) and queer caricatures is an insult to those who have had to face persecution for their identity over the years.
This sort of queerbaiting can be seen in many forms, from the eroticism and fetishism of women-identifying characters to the constant ‘gay sex’ scenes on shows that don’t even include a single LGBTQ character. The problem with this is that it isn’t just sexist and homophobic, but also dehumanising and deceptive. The only way to stop this kind of portrayal is to be conscious of what we consume and support shows that are more honest. With the increased visibility of LGBTQ characters on the screen, we can hope that queerbaiting will eventually fade away.