Queer Representation in Film and Television

When discussing media representation of various groups, especially those we consider marginalized, stereotypes are often a primary concern. But sometimes, breaking a stereotype doesn’t go quite far enough, and the issue can be a little more complicated than merely determining whether or not a character is represented in a positive or negative way. The section that follows explores different approaches to queer content by analyzing various ways that popular media have used characterized LGBTQ people.

Approaching Queerness in Media

One of the most difficult things about approaching film and television’s use of queerness is that there will rarely be a single verdict on any given cultural product. With the exception of the most simplistically supportive or bigoted representations, there is room for much discussion and debate in determining a positive or negative LGBTQ presence. Because of this shift, seriously engaging with and thinking about the images we consume has become more important than ever.

Defining Queer Media

Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, in their book Queer Cinema: the film reader, elaborate three general criteria for identifying cultural products as queer: Auteurs, Forms, and Reception.

Auteurs: Has this media product been created by queer people?

Web sites, films, magazines and other cultural products made by out queer people can usually be defined as being queer media. The works of television and film creators such as Alan Ball (Six Feet Under and True Blood), John Waters (Hairspray), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Gods and Monsters, Dread) and Bryan Singer (House, Superman Returns, X-Men and X2) fit into this category. Although cultural products in this category may not be overtly queer in theme, some auteurs find ways of inserting queer issues into their mainstream productions through more subtle references such as Singer’s use of the coming-out trope in X2 or Ball’s deployment of the contemporary vampire myth in True Blood.

Forms: Does a media product rely on “queer aesthetics”? Is it concerned with queer issues?

Queer aesthetics typically challenge conventional ideas of what is thought to be universally true. While it is impossible to completely define “queer aesthetics” there are certain styles and modes that are more often employed in queer art. For instance, “camp” is considered a queer aesthetic because of its traditional use in many queer cultural products. Camp can be defined as the purposeful and ironic adoption of stylistic elements that would otherwise be considered bad taste. Camp aesthetics are generally extreme, exaggerated and showy and always involve an element of mockery. Queer aesthetics typically rely on distinctive visual vocabularies – symbols and images that other queer people will recognize. Even without relying on an identification of queer aesthetics, queer media can be recognized by the fact that it engages with and is interested in events and ideas that are of concern to the queer community or a large segment of it. The music industry is rife with examples of the use of queer aesthetics. Artists such as Janelle Monáe, Cee-Lo Green, and the Scissor Sisters pull heavily from queer aesthetics, as do television programs such as Ugly Betty, and Glee.

Reception: Has a media product been widely embraced by queer people?

Queer media doesn’t necessarily rely on queer people being the intended audience, nor does it require that queer people be affiliated with a cultural product in any way other than as consumers. Some very obvious examples of otherwise heterosexual mainstream media that have been embraced by subgroups within the queer community are television programs such as Xena: Warrior Princess or The Golden Girls; films such as The Wizard of Oz or The Rocky Horror Picture Show; and musical acts such as Hole (and lead singer Courtney Love), Dolly Parton, and more recently Lady Gaga. Many artists and cultural texts are adopted for their direct championing of queer rights such as Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Antonio Banderas (Shrek), or Kathy Griffin (Glee, Ugly Betty, Law & Order: SVU). Some individuals embody a struggle with adversity that strikes a chord with some members of the queer community (such as Courtney Love, or Tammy Faye Messner). Other cultural texts are particularly popular within queer communities because of ambiguous sexuality such as Xena: Warrior Princess, Batman, or High School Musical (particularly the character of Ryan Evans). Sometimes characters (as is the case with Evans) are coded as queer (using verbal and visual markers to connote queerness without explicitly stating it. This includes elements such as body language, vocabulary, dress, vocal inflection, and various other aspects that are peripheral to sexual orientation), other times the subtext is unintentional.

With these criteria in mind, let’s look at the status of queer people in film and television over recent years.



Many controversies over Hollywood’s negative depictions of homosexuality have focused on how such portrayals marginalize and silence queer people. In his book The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo analyzes the representation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films from the 1890s to the 1980s and argues that Hollywood’s portrayal of lesbians and gay men has often been cruel and homophobic. During that period, gay and lesbian characters were defined by their sexual orientation and lacked any complex character development.

In Hollywood’s early years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, homosexuality was often presented as an object of ridicule and laughter. The archetype of “the sissy” – foppish and feminine males, often of delicate sensibilities – was popular at this time, and Russo asserts that such a character was a source of amusement and reassurance for the audience. The sissy was not a threatening representation of homosexuality because he occupied a middle ground between masculinity and femininity.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, religious and women’s groups criticized Hollywood films for contributing to immorality. As a result, the industry introduced the Hayes Code, a system of self-censorship that, among other things, affected the portrayal of homosexuality. During these years, films could not feature overtly homosexual characters – so homosexuality was coded into a character’s mannerisms and behaviours.

This strict code was loosened in the 1960s and 1970s, which also saw the dawn of the women’s and gay rights movements. While gays and lesbians were becoming more visible and vocal in public life, their representation in films was becoming increasingly homophobic. At this time, gay characters were often represented as being dangerous, violent, predatory, or suicidal such as in the films The Children’s Hour (1961), The Boys in the Band (1970), Midnight Express (1978), and Vanishing Point (1971).

Since the 1990s, Hollywood has improved its portrayal of gay and lesbian characters. The popularity of films such as The Birdcage, Philadelphia, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Flawless and In & Out demonstrates that audiences can and do enjoy films with gay and lesbian characters. Despite these advances, however, the industry is still cautious in its portrayals of gay themes, characters, and experiences. With Hollywood films designed to appeal to as large an audience as possible, producers fear that focusing on gay and lesbian themes may risk offending a significant portion of the audience, not to mention potential investors.

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain grossed over $178 million proving that movies portraying queer people could be lucrative for large studios. That said, the film has received mixed reactions from within queer communities on the grounds that a movie about “straight-acting” gay men who barely have sex and who cannot even accept their own desires is hardly a gay movie at all.

Queer Cinema

Queer filmmakers have succeeded in creating a vibrant underground and alternative film scene. In the ‘90s, New Queer Cinema challenged established notions that queer legitimacy could only come through assimilation into mainstream heterosexual society. Filmmakers such as Gregg Araki, Alexis Arquette, Todd Haynes, Jennie Livingston, Cheryl Dunye, Gus Van Sant, John Waters and John Cameron Mitchell achieved this through the use of heavy irony and an antagonism towards the naturalistic style that dominated cinema at that time. For instance, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch the realism of the story is broken through the use of music, meta-narrative (where characters acknowledge that they’re in a movie), animation, and identities that are in constant flux. (In particular, the title character is a post-op transsexual who has suffered a botched sex-change operation and who performs a destabilized gender identity that is always hybrid.) New Queer Cinema faded as a movement when queerness became more acceptable within the mainstream. The movement has, however left behind a legacy in the form of queer film festivals that exist all over the world. Canada alone boasts at least eight different film festivals in London, Regina, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, and Calgary.


Any discussion about portrayals of gays and lesbians on television must consider the commercial demands of the medium. In her article Gay Activists and the Networks (1981), Kathryn Montgomery talks about the process involved at that time in creating a made-for-television movie that featured a gay character in a prominent role. Since the main objective of the movie was to reach as wide an audience as possible, various compromises were necessary:

  • the story had to be told within the constraints of a popular television genre: the crime drama
  • the narrative had to focus on the heterosexual lead character and his interactions with gay characters
  • the movie could not depict any scenes of affection between characters of the same sex

Montgomery concludes that “these requirements served as a filter through which the issue of homosexuality was processed, resulting in a televised picture of gay life designed to be acceptable to the gay community and still palatable to a mass audience.”

In recent years there has been some improvement in the representation of queer people on mainstream network television. The popularity of shows such as Will & Grace; La vie, la vie…; and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy demonstrates that networks are willing to feature queer characters as long as the shows draw high ratings and generate profits for advertisers.

This profit-motivation means that networks are careful in their portrayals of queer characters. While Will & Grace (currently in syndication) features two openly gay male characters, there is little or no discussion about gay relationships or romance. The two gay characters are friends, not lovers, and they are rarely shown in romantic situations. The primary relationship for both gay men is with the heterosexual female characters.

Justin Suarez and Kurt Hummel from Ugly Betty and Glee respectively. Both characters are rather positive portrayals of gay teenagers who are solidly supported by their parents. They are both cast as oddities without being freaks and they are portrayed as having loving support networks. Suarez’s case is particularly interesting as he has an older gay role model throughout the series.

In fact, this seems to be an emerging genre: the gay/straight romance. Television shows such as Will & Grace and films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Object of My Affection and The Next Best Thing all portray a gay man and straight woman as the “perfect couple.” While some critics have suggested that this trend represents an attempt to include gay and lesbian characters, others feel that such portrayals still marginalize and silence the experiences of gays and lesbians by denying them their own storylines and sexuality. This trend has not died out: in a 2011 episode of Glee entitled “Sexy”, two gay male characters perform a song and dance routine before an auditorium full of screaming and cheering girls, one of whom hands her phone number to one of the boys at the end. While the male character does reaffirm his homosexuality and declines the telephone number, it seems strange that gay boys in an all boys school still need to perform in front of straight women in order to legitimize the display of their sexual selves. Just as in earlier incarnations, queer sexuality remains filtered through a heterosexual gaze and is articulated in heterosexual terms.

Though mainstream television and movies continue to “sanitize” the portrayal of gay and lesbian life, specialty and pay-TV channels have begun to show more cutting-edge, controversial and critically acclaimed series about gays and lesbians. In 1999, for instance, Britain’s Channel 4 made history when it broadcast Queer as Folk, a miniseries focusing on the lives and loves of three gay men living in Manchester. The series was highly regarded not only by the gay community but also by the mainstream press.

The series was not without controversy – some people complained that the subject matter was inappropriate and others were upset that one of the characters was only 15 years old, while still others worried that it portrayed gay men as being over-sexed. But despite these criticisms, the series enjoyed international success: it aired on the Canadian specialty channel Showcase and also inspired an American version.

The financial success of early television programs like Queer as Folk is important because it paved the way for investors to take a chance on queer programming. Whereas anyone with a little money and equipment can put together a film, television is a much more expensive medium. Unlike film, television relies on generating long term advertising money for investors, which means that networks and advertisers are generally looking for programs with as wide appeal as possible. This model may be the greatest hurdle to any minority group gaining widespread and fair exposure on television.

That said, stations such as Showcase and HBO broadcast content created by queer people and Canada has its own queer channel. In the summer of 2000, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) granted a broadcasting licence to PrideVision TV, the world’s first queer television channel. Its mandate was to provide programming for the gay and lesbian community, which – despite recent advances – continues to be underserved by the current broadcasting system. In its application to the CRTC, PrideVision TV argued that its programming would contribute to the diversity of the Canadian broadcasting system and would provide a public service by challenging the prevalence of stereotypical media portrayals of gays and lesbians.

PrideVision TV was slow to pick up initial subscribers because it was marketed by television service providers as an “adult” station. PrideVision TV also encountered much resistance from Shaw Communications, one of Canada’s largest cable providers. During the station’s three-month preview period, Shaw subscribers had to navigate through multiple screens before being able to access the station: a requirement that was not applied to any other specialty channel. Ultimately, the CRTC intervened and ordered Shaw to let viewers access the preview as they would for any other station.

PrideVision TV’s early struggles culminated in the eventual sale and rebranding of the station, which was re-launched in 2004 as OUTtv. Once again, Shaw resisted the new channel, and another hearing with the CRTC was required. OUTtv continues to operate, airing various programs from other networks, but it has not produced original content since 2009, citing cost issues. In Canada, despite the apparent wider acceptance of queer people by the mainstream, there is a dearth of queer representation on television. While Canada boasts a rich film and theatre tradition in which queer people are very much represented, there are almost no queer characters on television and only a handful of out queer media personalities. While Rick Mercer, Gavin Crawford, Elvira Kurt, and Trevor Boris have all been successful in the realm of comedy, these performers are among the few exceptions in an otherwise overwhelmingly heterosexual Canadian television broadcast industry.

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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