No longer relegated to the realms of innuendo and secrecy, today we see a wide range of gender identities and sexual orientations represented on television and in mainstream film alongside cisgender people. 2SLGBTQ+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, queer and gender and sexually diverse communities) people see their reflections on screen in a wide variety of roles. And yet, there remain many challenges.
The following sections will examine how media produces and legitimizes or delegitimizes 2SLGBTQ+ sexualities, as well as how 2SLGBTQ+ media differs from its heterosexual counterpart. To begin, though, it is worthwhile to examine the trajectory of 2SLGBTQ+ media criticism over the past thirty years.
The first form of 2SLGBTQ+ media criticism was articulated under a minority model of identity politics. This type of criticism has its roots in the gay liberationist movements from the 1960s through the 1980s and is heavily influenced by the types of issues gays and lesbians were concerned with at the time. Under this model, minority model criticism was particularly preoccupied not just with visibility in media, but with having the right kind of visibility. This criticism was particularly concerned with negative portrayals of gays and lesbians as “sissies,” drag queens, butch lesbians and other groups that didn’t fit into mainstream gender categories. This model also assumed a certain amount of uniformity within the gay and lesbian community – that members shared similar characteristics relating to experiences, points of view, behaviour, desires, et cetera.
Over time, many 2SLGBTQ+ people found earlier models of activism too narrow in focus. They asserted that the movement had focused exclusively on the concerns of those who were primarily male, decidedly white, and overwhelmingly middle class. The early gay liberation movement’s focus on assimilation into the heterosexual mainstream was also a concern. While some gay men could pass as straight and appear less “visible,” many other gay, lesbian and trans people, who for any number of reasons didn’t fit the mainstream mold, did not have the same luxury. The movement had effectively silenced differing identities to the point where gay white men were able to complain about and take action against inadequate representations of themselves in the mainstream media, but other groups couldn’t even hope to see themselves represented on television or in film. These critics reclaimed the pejorative term “queer” as a way of reinforcing the notion that they were all different, though they were joined in a collective bid for civil rights.
Within queer culture, notions of identity underwent a radical shift, from being seen as fixed and stable to more fragmented and layered. Thus 2SLGBTQ+ people were not merely “queer” – they could be males or females, white or Asian or Black, factory workers, businesspeople or bus drivers and so on. Instead of arguing that homosexuality is the binary opposite of heterosexuality, this model proposed that all sexualities and gender identities are merely points on a continuum of possibilities.
In the sections that follow, it should become apparent that when dealing with 2SLGBTQ+ media issues, we are not dealing with a single monolithic entity, but rather with diverse and varied identities and experiences that respond to media representations in different ways: what one group may consider fair, others may find oppressive.
2SLGBTQ+ representation in media
Many controversies over negative depictions of queerness have focused on how such portrayals marginalize and silence 2SLGBTQ+ 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 has often been cruel and homophobic. During that period, 2SLGBTQ+ 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 notes that such a character was a source of amusement and reassurance for the audience.[ii]
As well as stereotyped portrayals, there are a number of harmful storytelling tropes that often occur depictions of 2SLGBTQ+ people. The most prominent of these is the “bury your gays” trope, which refers to how frequently queer characters are “killed off.” This may be a consequence of how early depictions could only imagine tragic endings for 2SLGBTQ+ people, as well as the wave of AIDS-themed stories that brought queer characters into the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike some other negative depictions, this is one that continues to be common and significantly compromises the increased representation of 2SLGBTQ+ people in media.[iii]
While there have been some improvements in the visibility, authenticity, and diversity of 2SLGBTQ+ characters – for instance, Netflix’s Bojack Horseman and the rebooted Archie comics have included landmark depictions of asexual characters – other harmful tropes remain. In particular, asexuality is still associated with inhumanity in works such as Harry Potter, Dexter and Sherlock.[iv] The greater visibility of 2SLGBTQ+ people in areas like sports has also led to an increase in homophobic and transphobic coverage from conservative news outlets such as Fox News.[v]
One persistent issue is the casting of straight or cisgender actors in 2SLGBTQ+ roles. Though this is becoming less common, especially when it comes to trans characters, the Best Picture-winning Moonlight, Prime’s series Transparent and Netflix’s Prom all had straight and cisgender actors in gay or trans roles. Journalist Liam De Brún has highlighted the history of straight and cis actors winning accolades for playing 2SLGBTQ+ characters, arguing that “it’s not brave playing a gay man, in fact you stole the role from a member of the LGBTQ community.”[vi]
Another issue particular to 2SLGBTQ+ representation is “queerbaiting,” in which a queer relationship is implied or hinted at in a media work but never actually confirmed. While this has its origins in the historical unwillingness of movie studios and television broadcasters to overtly portray queer relationships, in more recent years it has become a way for media producers to win over 2SLGBTQ+ audiences without alienating conservative ones. In some cases, producers have confirmed a character or relationship’s status as canon after the work is no longer being produced, like the relationship between Korra and Asami in the animated series Legend of Korra.[vii] This kind of after-the-fact representation, though, is in some ways worse than nothing, since it reinforces the idea that queer relationships cannot be shown openly.
Though The Legend of Korra ran for four seasons, the title character’s sexual orientation was only revealed in a spin-off comic three years after the original series was cancelled.
Impact of improved representation
A reason why queerbaiting is so problematic is that, perhaps more than any other historically under-represented group, more and better representation of queerness in media has a significant impact on individual and public attitudes towards 2SLGBTQ+ people,[viii] as well as queer youths’ views of themselves.[ix] As representation has increased and improved, more and more people have felt safe being open about their gender identity and sexual orientation – even in traditionally conservative fields such as sports.[x] Media representations also provide opportunities for 2SLGBTQ+ youth to talk about queer issues with their families.[xi]
[i] Jones, S. (2014) “Laverne Cox Is The Woman We’ve Been Waiting For.” Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/saeedjones/laverne-cox-is-the-woman-weve-been-waiting-for
[ii] Russo, V. (1981) The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper and Row.
[iii] Hulan, H. (2017). Bury your gays: History, usage, and context. McNair Scholars Journal, 21(1), 6.
[iv] Chiu, V. (2017) “Why Positive Representations of Asexuals on TV Are So Important.” BuzzFeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/vchiu/why-we-need-better-asexual-characters
[v] January, B. (2021) “Fox News has aired more segments on trans athletes so far in 2021 than it did in the last two years combined.” Media Matters for America. Retrieved from https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-has-aired-more-segments-trans-athletes-so-far-2021-it-did-last-two-years-combined
[vi] Carras, C (2020). James Corden’s performance in ‘The Prom’ condemned as homophobic: “It’s not brave.” The Los Angeles Times .Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-12-14/james-corden-the-prom-criticism-twitter
[vii] Figa, A. (2015) “In Plain Sight: On the Authenticity of Queer Characters.” Women Write About Comics. Retrieved from https://womenwriteaboutcomics.com/2015/06/in-plain-sight-on-the-authenticity-of-queer-characters/
[viii] Gillig, T. K., Rosenthal, E. L., Murphy, S. T., & Folb, K. L. (2018). More than a media moment: The influence of televised storylines on viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policies. Sex Roles, 78(7), 515-527.
[ix] Bond, B. J. (2015). The mediating role of self-discrepancies in the relationship between media exposure and well-being among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents. Media Psychology, 18(1), 51-73.
[x] Heroux, D. (2021) “’It’s powerful to be out’: Canadian Olympic couple reflects on LGBTQ representation in sport.” CBC Sports. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/sports/pride-month-canadian-olympic-love-story-truly-something-of-which-to-be-proud-1.6047254
[xi] Mares, M. L., Chen, Y. A., & Bond, B. J. (2021). Mutual Influence in LGBTQ Teens’ Use of Media to Socialize Their Parents. Media Psychology, 1-28.
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.