In the Blog
When Will We Get the Queer Representation We Deserve?
Illustration by Ki Chin
Growing up in a world where new movies are released every month and new TV shows are constantly being made means diversity in media representation is all the more important.
When we are raised seeing very few groups of people represented on screen, it instills the idea in our heads that these few groups of people, like white, straight, cisgender people, are the most important, successful, and desired. This mindset is harmful for people of all ages, but when children are raised with minimal exposure to marginalized people starring in movies and TV shows, they grow up thinking that marginalized people cannot be the stars of the movie, or the heroes of the story. Seeing queer characters, trans characters, and characters of colour on screen does so much more than earn “diversity points” — it’s a way for marginalized folks to see ourselves in important roles on screen, and for other people to see that marginalized people can, too, be the main character of a story.
Throughout the past five years, movies and TV shows featuring queer characters have become more and more common: movies about coming out stories, TV shows with lesbian sex scenes, and more and more queer characters. This is a fantastic thing, right?
Well, not always.
A recurring theme in films about queer characters is tragedy. Known as the “Bury Your Gays” trope, queer characters are often simply not allowed happy endings. While queer people deserve complex storylines portraying our struggles, hardships, and identity, we seriously lack plots in which queer characters are showed experiencing life in a care-free and joyous way. It’s important to talk about the violence against queer people face — and especially that trans women of colour experience even higher rates of violence — but it’s also essential for there to be space for queer characters to be seen living happy, fulfilling lives.
“Coming out” is another common theme for queer storylines in movies, and this comes with its own set of issues. Sure, coming out is a big part of lots of queer folks’ lives, but the reality is, we are so much more than just a plot about how we learned that we love someone of the same gender. Movies like Love, Simon (2018), But I’m A Cheerleader (1999), Alex Strangelove (2018), and First Girl I Loved (2016) tug at our heartstrings, but what message does it really get across? That being gay somehow makes you different than others, that your life will magically become changed for the better when you come out, or that coming out has to be a big process at all? This is certainly not the case for all queer people. Reducing queer characters to only stories about coming out limits the various storylines that could potentially contain queer characters. In this current place of one-note representation, seeing a queer character whose sexuality isn’t a main part of the plot, or even a queer character who is a secondary character, could be revolutionary.
Even when a queer film isn’t based on a coming out story, it doesn’t always portray queer characters in a multidimensional way. A classic controversial queer women’s film is Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013). From the questionable age difference between the two main characters, to the overly graphic, borderline pornographic sex scenes, and the fact that both women were quite feminine-presenting, Blue’s version of queer representation is very flawed.
This wasn’t the first time queer female characters have been hypersexualized. Because many films about queer women have been directed by men, including Blue, Carol (2015), Duck Butter (2018) and Disobedience (2018), many of the queer female characters portrayed on screen were created through a lens of the male gaze, meaning the female characters are based on what a straight man might desire. Women and feminine-presenting people are already sexualized in a lot of media, and queer feminine characters are often, unfortunately, no different. The male gaze that heavily influences the creation of films starring queer female characters results in the over-sexualization of queer women, and, often, the over-representation of the generic male fantasy figure — exclusively white, thin, feminine-presenting women playing the queer characters on screen.
It’s always wonderful to see myself, a queer woman, represented in mainstream movies and TV shows, but at what cost? At the overly graphic sex scenes, the lack of racial and gender diversity, and the absence of body inclusivity in the characters and cast? We want representation, yes, but we deserve the kind of representation that is authentic and real: queer people come in all races, body sizes, genders, and abilities. Showcasing only thin, white, feminine-presenting women and calling it “representation” is almost as harmful as not having any representation at all.
While accurate representation of marginalized people on screen is not overly common, it does exist. One stellar example of a show that represents many different marginalized groups is The Fosters (2013-2018). With trans characters played by trans actors, an interracial lesbian couple, and other characters from various racial and ethnic groups,_ The Fosters_ portrays and normalizes marginalized people in a way that so many other shows should strive to do. The lack of trans characters in mainstream media is problematic in and of itself, let alone the fact that many trans characters, when they do exist, are often played by cisgender actors.
Another great example of complex queer representation is a more recent movie, Booksmart (2019), that showcases a young queer woman in a way that is important yet subtle. Like many classic coming-of-age films, Booksmart follows Amy as she navigates her first hook up with a girl, getting over her first girl crush, and discusses her struggles with being queer, but without making it a main part of the plot. The film is really about Amy and her best friend, Molly, as they go from party to party on their final night of high school, and try to re-invent their reputations before graduation. Seeing queer characters living on screen in an authentic and complex way is validating and reassuring that myself and other queer folks can exist and move through life in a way that is normalized, yet still maintain the unique community we have created for ourselves. Queer identities are inherently political, complex, and diverse, so being able to see characters on screen embracing their identity while still living a life that is normalized and realistic is meaningful and important.
So what does proper representation look like? Simply put, it’s realistic and diverse portrayals of characters from marginalized groups of people. It’s queer superheroes, comedies with trans characters played by trans actors, and horror movies with people of colour starring in the lead role, rather than being disposable, less important, or stereotypical characters like many other times.
“Intersectionality” is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to talk about the legal system’s failure to address Black women’s discrimination claims. The term is now often used to consider how many factors, like gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality, shape our experience of the world, and is extremely important in conversations around representation. The intersections of marginalized identities are often left out of mainstream movies and TV shows, which results in an inaccurate portrayal or even erasure of the many marginalized people that belong to more than one marginalized group, such as being both queer and a person of colour.
One standout example of intersectional representation that does exist in mainstream media is Moonlight (2016), a film that follows Chiron, a Black man growing up in Miami, as he struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality and identity. Moonlight has won various awards, including the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture. That a film featuring a queer, Black main character was so well-received by a mainstream audience and won such a prestigious award was groundbreaking — progress that has been long awaited by both the Black and queer communities. Queer storylines only about thin, white, conventionally attractive characters artificially limit the queer experience by portraying it solely as a white experience which is absolutely not the case. Creating fat characters, disabled characters, trans characters or non-binary characters of colour gives people with intersecting marginalized identities a chance for long-awaited and much-deserved representation.
Seeing yourself represented by realistic, complex, strong, and powerful characters on screen is something that rarely happens for a lot of different people, and that needs to change. I want every child in future generations to be able to turn on the TV and easily access content in which they see people like them represented, navigating life, solving problems, and being the heroes of the story. If queer people, trans people, disabled people, and people of colour cannot see themselves on screen doing incredible things, how will other people be able to? Representation is needed not only for us to see ourselves be the star, but so that other people see that we can be, too.
About the Author: Hailey Orrange is an 18 year old queer writer and social justice advocate living in Vancouver, BC. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, and hopes to pursue a writing career in the future. Her goal is to use writing and creating art as tools for activism, and to spark conversation surrounding difficult topics. Poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction are Hailey’s favourite forms of writing.