Culture

Quantity, Quality, and Queerbaiting: Where we are on LGBTQ+ representation

Image: two male characters in Netflix’s Sense8, Lito and Hernando, kissing, surrounded by rainbow confetti and people cheering in the background.

Television is a significant part of all our lives. Especially during the endlessness of lockdown, but also after any long day of work, many of us choose the TV to relax in front of. More than that TV shapes our perceptions. It allows us to experience things outside of the narrow scope of our everyday lives: different people, different places, different cultures. It can educate and inform. Perhaps its most important role, however, lies in its ability to provide validation and affirmation. It is for this reason that representation of minorities and marginalised groups on-screen is so important.

This affirmative representation is, I believe, particularly important for LGBTQ+ people. With formalised education on non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities almost non-existent beyond a token comment that ‘gay people exist’, questioning young people are forced to seek out other sources of information and validation. TV, certainly, can be a conduit for this, normalising the existence of LGBTQ+ people. I, myself, remember vividly the joy I felt as an uncertain, closeted bisexual teenager watching shows like Steven Universe and Sense8 which not only acknowledged the existence of women who loved other women, but celebrated this. Even now it remains something rare enough to bring a smile to my face whenever I come across it. 

So, representation is important. Unfortunately, however, for LGBTQ+ people it remains less than perfect, both in its quantity and its quality. 

So, representation is important. Unfortunately, however, for LGBTQ+ people it remains less than perfect, both in its quantity and its quality. 

GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV report for the 2019–2020 season, which analyses the overall diversity of LGBTQ+ characters on American broadcast networks and streaming services, presents a mixed picture. The overall proportion of characters identified as LGBTQ+ is certainly increasing. This year’s report found that 10.2% of 879 regular characters on American broadcast scripted primetime programming this season were identified as LGBTQ+, a significant increase from the 8.8% of the previous year’s report (p8). This represents a significant increase in the number of openly LGBTQ+ characters on-screen. It is also important to note that these characters were being presented on primetime TV. Where once a Netflix deep dive was necessary to dig out any series with a shred of representation, it seems that queer characters are now becoming, if not readily available, at least more accessible to the casual viewer. 

This proportional increase in overall LGBTQ+ representation is certainly encouraging. It does, however, need to be qualified. The key word here is overall LGBTQ+ representation, as who exactly is being represented presents a far less clear picture of progress. As has been a trend for several years, gay men still make up the majority of LGBTQ+ representation, comprising 38% of the total 120 regular and recurring LGBTQ+ characters identified by GLAAD(p8). In reality data collected by UCLA’s The Williams Institute shows that bi+ people (those who experience any form of attraction to more than one gender) actually make up the majority of LGB people, at 52% (8). Furthermore, despite this numerical prominence within the LGBTQ+ community, representation of bi+ people this year significantly dropped, with only 25% of on-screen LGBTQ+ characters identified as bi+. This is not to say that gay men deserve any less representation – it is to emphasise that the representation we have is inadequate because it is unrepresentative

Not only are most series failing to meet this bare minimum of representative representation of the LGBTQ+ community, but even when they do, the message they send to viewers is far too often a bleak one.

Not only are most series failing to meet this bare minimum of representative representation of the LGBTQ+ community, but even when they do, the message they send to viewers is far too often a bleak one. A prime example of this is the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope. This is where LGBTQ+ characters, in particular women, are consistently killed off, often for shock value or (if they are villains, as a disturbing proportion of queer characters are) as a form of karmic justice. The 2015-2016 season saw the peak of this. A notable example of this, which sparked online outrage from queer viewers at the time, was Lexa in The 100, who after having sex with Clarke, the female protagonist, was then accidentally shot and killed. This example makes stark the senselessness of many of these deaths, which often have little plot relevance and seem to only serve as some kind of cruel memo that queer people don’t get happy endings.

Furthermore, even when they survive, many of these characters are intensely unhappy, and often as a direct result of their sexuality and/or gender identity. In Gotham, for example, the Penguin’s realisation of his feelings for the Riddler culminates in the Riddler attempting to murder him, in part for his romantic intent. Gotham also commits the twin sin of having its only LGBTQ+ characters be villains of one sort or another, thus, as prior mentioned, justifying its cruel treatment of these characters as poetic justice for their evils. 

We need, and must demand, better from our TV: LGBTQ+ characters who are more than stereotypes; who are main characters; who get the happy ending so many of their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts receive as a given.

Cases such as these demonstrate that quantity is not a good enough indicator of adequate LGBTQ+ representation. Quality is also vitally important, and to have adequate representation we cannot have one without the other. We need, and must demand, better from our TV: LGBTQ+ characters who are more than stereotypes; who are main characters; who get the happy ending so many of their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts receive as a given. Clearly, whilst in some instances this is already happening, there is still room for a lot of improvement for many TV series. 

It is not all doom and gloom. One particularly concerning trend in the representation of non-heteronormative identities, queerbaiting, seems to have started to fade out of mainstream TV in recent years. For those who might not know, queerbaiting is the practice of hinting at, but never actually depicting, a potential romantic same-sex romantic relationship between two characters. This relationship is then often ignored, ridiculed, or explicitly rejected by the writers and/or cast of the series.

Queerbaiting relies solely on subtext and the subsequent fan interpretation, and as a result, creates the perfect paradox: writers are able to attract an LGBT audience with vague promises of representation, implied by the text and often encouraged by the writer, but will then never actually confirm or explicitly show said representation, reducing the amount of effort that has to be put in on their part. BBC’s Sherlock and long-running CW series Supernatural are two of the most infamous culprits. Both shows feature incredibly close male leads who repeatedly try to die to save each other and each have several dramatic confessions of how much they need each other. The promotions for Sherlock’s fourth season even went so far as to tweet a trailer for the show – the first shot showing John Watson gazing at Sherlock from behind – with the caption ‘#Sherlock’s back & he’s in love. But who with? And what has he done to his best friends?’ This hint, to anyone who has watched the season, has little relevance to any of the actual content of the series, but at the time cruelly raised the hopes of LGBTQ+ viewers. 

With the worst offenders winding down – Supernatural’s final season, delayed by the pandemic, is set to air its finale in November 2020 – it would seem that this most insidious of trends has, hopefully, begun to fade from the mainstream of TV series. 

Even with these successes, for many members of the LGBTQ+ community the televisual outlook is still less than promising. Representation for non-cis people remains incredibly sparse, with just 7 transgender characters reported on primetime TV by GLAAD: two trans women, four trans men, and one nonbinary person. Asexual people fare even worse, with no asexual characters expected for the 2019–2020 season. 

This is not a hopeless story. Things are, undoubtedly, excitingly, getting better. For some.

This is not a hopeless story. Things are, undoubtedly, excitingly, getting better. For some. But what I am trying to emphasise is that the benefits of representation are not being equally felt across the LGBTQ+ community. It would require another article to address the severe deficits in representation of non-cisgender characters, and the issues surrounding casting for these roles, which I, as a cisgender woman, do not feel qualified to write. Furthermore, even where representation is of a sufficient quantity, it is often lacking in other respects. We deserve more than side characters, more than tragic backstories and horrible endings, more than tokenistic nods towards inclusivity. We have certainly made progress. Queerbaiting has started to fade out of primetime TV, hopefully for good. More and more LGBTQ+ characters are being presented on TV, and for some, in an increasingly positive and non-stereotypical light. But there is still a lot of work to do. 

Image: Murray Close/Netflix

Categories: Culture, Film & TV

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