Representation is a huge talking point in TV; it always has been. In recent years, however, the conversation has continued to get louder as more people have found their voice. It’s not that nobody ever cared, but most people didn’t think anybody was on the other end listening – especially when it came to LGBTQ+ representation.
Thankfully the era of staying silent has gone by and more people are taking a stance. Those it doesn’t effect will continue to question the demand (which shouldn’t even have to be a demand) and not every representative will listen, but slowly things are changing.
There’s so many reasons why more LGBTQ+ representation is needed. It helps members of the community to live more authentically, provides a feeling of support that may not be present in reality, normalises identities and relationships, educates everyone watching; the list goes on.
Considering how much of our everyday life is taken up by bingeing television shows, representation is undeniably pretty important.
In December 2019, Netflix released some key viewing figures for some of the shows on its platform which not only allowed us to see what was most popular, but just how many people are consuming what they produce. Below you can see a few of those statistics:
- At least 105 million households watched at least one episode of the hit show Orange is the New Black over the course of its 7 seasons.
- There were around 76 million views of The Witcher in the first 4 weeks it was on Netflix.
- 64 million households viewed the 3rd season of Stranger Things.
The list continues and can be viewed here if you’re interested in learning more.
Millions of people all around the world are watching these shows and are taking in what they’re being shown, whether subliminally or not. That matters. The message that these shows are giving to those viewers therefore matters.
Excluding LGBTQ+ characters from the narrative can be more damaging than most would realise. It also highlights the ignorance of those creating them. You can’t just ignore a branch of society and create a world where it doesn’t exist. There needs to be more inclusivity in what we consume if we ever want to try and improve it in reality. Whether we like it or not, the media has a huge impact on our thoughts and behaviours so it’s vital that it’s done right.
So, has on screen LGBTQ+ representation really improved that much? And how far do we have to go?
Let’s start by taking a quick look at the timeline of LGBTQ+ representation.
LGBTQ+ representation before 2000 was pretty lacklustre, which isn’t surprising. Change only really begun to happen after the Stonewall Riots which saw a demand for equality and inclusion. A significant amount of the LGBT representation was negative which did nothing to change the ignorant views held by a significant portion of society. As the movement got louder, the National Association of Broadcasters Code Authority agreed to change their code of conduct to help ensure fair treatment. Whilst this didn’t change the world over night, a few more LGBT characters slowly started to appear in prime time television.
The first kiss between same sex characters didn’t appear on network TV until 1991, which was in an episode of LA Law. It was increasingly common that when shows would air scenes like this, the advertisers sponsoring them would threaten to withdraw their ads. There were even instances of scenes being demanded to be reshot in the dark (Picket Fences) because they were simply “too much’ for viewers to handle. Whilst popular shows such as FRIENDS broke ground by featuring a lesbian wedding, the couple weren’t even allowed a kiss during the ceremony which I highly doubt has ever happened during a M/F on-screen wedding.
Television was slowly starting to become more inclusive but it had a long way to go.
One key thing to address here too is that the inclusion of LGBT characters in this era largely focussed on white narratives. LGBT people of colour have always been, and still are, very much underrepresented. The representation in this era of TV was also largely focussed on gay men and lesbians, with the trans community being excluded almost entirely.
There’s more of that to be addressed later on…
The new millennium thankfully saw some huge changes to how television represented the LGBTQ+ community. The first 10 years alone gave us some of the best characters and shows we’ve ever seen and will hold on to forever.
In 2000, Queer as Folk aired in the US which focussed on five gay men. Most notably in 2001 was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was the first TV series to actually develop a lesbian relationship (and even better, it was a good one) between two main characters; Willow and Tara. In 2003, Ellen DeGeneres went from having her sitcom cancelled for coming out as gay to being the host of her own talk show. In the same year, the realty series Queer Eye came out and went on to win an Emmy. 2004 changed the game for lesbian representation with the release of The L Word which focussed on the lives and friendships of a group of lesbians in Los Angeles (and continued for 6 seasons). All of a sudden there wasn’t just a queer character in the sidelines, there were several taking centre stage in one show.
Some of the other most popular LGBTQ+ characters/stories in this decade were featured on the following shows:
- Will and Grace
- Dawson’s Creek
- The OC
- Grey’s Anatomy
- South of Nowehere
- Modern Family
2010 – Now
The GLAAD report “Where We Are in TV” for 2010-2011 revealed that LGBTQ+ representation had increased for the 3rd year in a row. It now accounted for 3.9% of all scripted regular characters in the 10-11 season. Finally, things were looking up.
As society has become more accepting of the community, TV has become more inclusive. There’s a higher demand than there ever has been for positive representation. Networks and producers are regularly called out for their lack of care over the LGBTQ+ characters that are featured on their shows. Shows were once shamed for daring to include a kiss between same-sex characters but now, they’re shamed for their lack of inclusion.
The 2019 GLAAD report revealed that out of 879 regular characters on broadcast scripted TV, 90 were LGBTQ+ (with an additional 30 recurring). This equals a percentage of 10.2% which is a lot higher than at the start of the decade. There were a total of 215 recurring and regular characters on scripted primetime cable and 153 across the original steaming series.
The most notable shows for LGBTQ+ representation (whether it be for the relationship they included or the show itself) in the past decade include:
- Pretty Little Liars
- Orphan Black
- The Fosters
- Lost Girl
- Person of Interest
- Orange is the New Black
- Brooklyn 99
- Jane The Virgin
- The 100 (which is also notable for other reasons to be touched on)
- Wynonna Earp
- Legends of Tomorrow
- Dear White People
- One Day at a Time
- Gentleman Jack
- The OA
Seeing how many shows there are today that not only feature LGBTQ+ characters but focus their whole narrative around them is extremely gratifying. It’s taken a long time, but it feels like we’re at a point where we can all can find someone who represents us (and it’s not necessarily from the same show!).
Although there is a lot more representation, not everyone gets it right. Do we just take what we can get because it’s pretty scarce, or do we demand more?
Stereotypes, tropes and the under-represented
Stereotypes have long been a problem. Whilst it can be argued that in some instances when done the right way they can be humorous, for the LGBTQ+ community they’ve done more harm than good.
Gay men for instance were long depicted as “the gay best friend”. This idea would have stemmed from the blind belief that a gay man couldn’t be a family man. He couldn’t be living an independent existence on his own, so he was there to be the side character to the female lead. His main purpose was to be camp (because otherwise how would anyone know he was gay?) gossip, provide fashion advice and would rarely be seen with another man.
Lesbian women have forever been sexualised in the media. They wouldn’t be there to provide meaningful representation for other queer women, they’d simply be there to appeal to the male gaze.
Bisexual characters have regularly fallen under harmful stereotypes. Some of these include the idea that they’re simply unable to make up their minds or they’re untrustworthy. Rather than it being classed as a genuine identity, it would be brushed under the rug. Even today it’s rare to actually hear a character say that they’re bisexual, with Grey’s Anatomy’s Callie Torres and Brooklyn 99’s Rosa Diaz being two of the most notable characters who’ve explicitly owned their identities.
As for other identities such as trans, non-binary and pansexual…well they are hardly even portrayed enough in the first place. Trans characters are regularly portrayed as the villain or victim and there’s few examples of storylines where they’re allowed to simply exist.
One of the worst tropes in television to date though has been The Bury Your Gays trope. This has been around since gay characters were first shown in the media and stemmed from the belief that they couldn’t have a happy ending. This is why when it’s used today, it’s still so harmful because it serves as a reminder of that. Coming out is terrifying enough and with so many threats against your identity, it’s impossible not to imagine the worst case scenario. This feeling of terror can easily be changed by proving that happy endings are possible for everyone.
Bury Your Gays is also widely referred to as The Dead Lesbian trope, because that’s the group it largely involves. It needs to be understood that the outcry against this trope is not asking that queer characters are never killed off, instead that there is a greater understanding of how much they matter and ensuring that the scene is done appropriately.
This trope simply can’t be discussed without referencing the CW series ‘The 100’, where the lesbian character Lexa was shot dead by a stray bullet. Fans of the character (and her relationship with Clarke) know the abundance of reasons of why this death was so controversial, primarily due to the intense amount of queer baiting that went on before the episode aired, but one of the key talking points around it is what happened before she died. In the previous scene, Lexa finally consummated her relationship with Clarke in one of the shows most beautiful and tender love scenes. It was extremely long-awaited and included a passionate kiss that in the moment gave fans everything they ever could have hoped for. To then follow that with her dying was a damagingly ignorant thing to do. This happened in 2016, decades after the trope was first used.
Because of this death, LGBTQ+ representation can almost be divided into two categories: pre Lexa’s death and post. Whilst the fact that it happened (and multiple other lesbian characters were killed off around the same time) felt like a backwards step and reminded us that things hadn’t really come that far, it did result in change.
The reaction to Lexa’s death will likely not be matched for a very long time. It wasn’t just loud, it showed no signs of slowing down. It marked an end to staying silent and accepting what you receive. No one was going to let this slide without putting up a fight first.
That fight was for better LGBTQ+ representation in the media. Petitions were signed, thousands of dollars were raised in support of the community and one by one some of those responsible for creating these series started to wake up. Whilst there’s still a number out there who haven’t fully understood its importance yet, those who have are truly making up for it with the characters they’re writing.
What we desperately need is more LGBTQ+ individuals behind the scenes writing and portraying these characters. If you don’t know how to represent them properly or simply want assurance on what you’re doing, ask those who it impacts. It’s as simple as that.
Whilst the above addresses some of misrepresentation of LGBT characters, another key talking point is the underrepresentation of some of the core groups of the community. When we say representation is improving due to the number of characters that appear, the majority of those characters are not trans. When they do appear in narratives, they’re never in the central role and tend to have the same arc in every series. It’s vital that transgender people are seen and feel included. Most importantly for themselves, especially when you look at the statistics for suicide amongst transgender teens, but also so that those who are unaccepting can see them for who they are: people.
This underrepresentation also greatly includes people of colour who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. They are increasingly more likely to be the victims of discrimination and can already feel isolated, which isn’t helped when the LGBTQ+ characters they see on television don’t look like them. The community is extremely diverse yet we primarily see the white experience. When we say we want better representation, we need to make sure that we are referring to every member of the community.
Thankfully, this is an area where things look to be improving as the statistics for how many people of colour appear in regular roles is increasing. All we need to do is continue to fight for everyone’s voice and ensure that things continue to move forward.
Can we say things have improved?
After looking at how the amount of LGBTQ+ representation on our screens has increased throughout the years, it’s evident that television is becoming a lot more diverse. There’s so much more content that’s accessible to us today that features queer narratives than there ever was before. We’re not just seeing the same coming out story repeated over and over again; we’re even seeing queer superheroes. Whilst you still can’t switch on the TV and expect to see an LGBTQ+ character on whichever show you land on, you can be assured that there’s at least one character out there who gives you your voice.
Things have improved, but they’ve not been resolved. There’s still a very long way to go and there’s even more to be learned. TV shows are going to make mistakes. Narratives are going to be excluded. All we can continue to do is celebrate those who get it right and address those who don’t.
We will continue to watch the statistics rise because we will not accept a step backwards.