LGBTQ+ Representation in the Media
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, argues that the media provides a “mirror to life”. Therefore, “if you don’t see yourself in that mirror, why should you engage with it?”
Doran draws on the need for the media to accurately reflect the diverse culture and society we live in. This means providing a platform to a broad range of narratives, voices and, cultural groups. In a post-Stonewall era, where same-sex marriage is legal and trans people can seek reassignment surgery, the LGBTQ+ community is now more visible than ever within the media.
In recent years, we have witnessed many ground-breaking LGBTQ+ narratives on our screens: a same-sex family on Modern Family; a multitude of marginalised queer voices on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and, more recently, a nuanced exploration of the black gay male experience in Michaela Coel’s BBC drama, I May Destroy You. Over ten years after its release, Ru Paul’s Drag Race has dragged drag and black queer culture into mainstream media. It has become an iconic show that completely shatters traditional gender norms.
In an annual report, “Where We Are On TV 2019”, The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) report that 90 out of 882 TV characters form part of the LGBTQ+ community on streaming networks like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu. This amounts to 10.2%, which exceeds the inclusivity target of 10% - a dramatic increase from the mere 2% of on-screen LGBTQ+ representation in 2006.
Of course, social media is another important modern medium for LGBTQ+ representation. Twitter has provided the LGBTQ+ community a platform from which they can speak out against transphobic tweets from the likes of J.K. Rowling. It also provides a virtual community for people who are coming to terms with their identity, allowing them to reach out, ask for advice, and share experiences with one another from across the globe.
Media: A Catalyst for Social Change
While accurate representation in the media is crucial for members of the LGBTQ+ community for providing truthful reflections of themselves, their inclusion also plays an essential part in the education of those who do not consider themselves part of the community.
In 2020, GLAAD and Procter & Gamble (the world’s largest advertiser) teamed up to conduct a study focused on “LGBTQ Inclusion in Advertising and Media”, which found that
“non-LGBTQ+ Americans who had encountered LGBTQ+ people in the media were more likely to accept them and be supportive of LGBTQ+ issues”.
This illustrates the pervasive power of the media in influencing public opinion and shaping and defining groups in society. When utilised responsibly, the media can be an important catalyst for social change.
This is especially important for the education of children about the LGBTQ+ community. Media is one of the main ways in which children learn about the world around them and this will only continue to increase with the advancement of technology.
It is vital that children are taught to be as open-minded as possible by presenting the diversity of the culture and society in which we live. In recent years we have seen more and more LGBTQ+ characters in children’s films and television shows. Netflix released the critically acclaimed series, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, in which many characters are fluid in terms of their gender and sexuality. The live-action remake of the classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, has also been modernised to feature Disney’s first gay character.
This also coincides with the British government making LGBTQ+ sex education compulsory in all schools. School libraries, for example, now cover heteronormativity and gender norms by offering progressive fairy tale and educational books. They also decentre the classic nuclear family structure by including same-sex families in their literature. This will undoubtedly create a safer atmosphere and provide support to those children who may eventually realise that they are in fact a member of the LGBTQ+ community themselves.
However, it has taken a lot to get to this point.
Before the twentieth century, the LGBTQ+ community was virtually invisible in the media. Homosexual writers and poets, like iconic playwright Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, had to disguise homosexuality within their writings using innuendoes and euphemisms. In Douglas’ 1894 poem, Two Loves, he coined the term, “the love that dare not speak its name”, which is widely considered a euphemism for his homosexual love for Wilde and characterises the shame and secrecy that pervaded the LGBTQ+ community during that era.
Wilde was a key figure that illuminated the LGBTQ+ community after his 1895 trials for “acts of gross indecency” (the criminalisation of sexual activity between two men) despite posing as a straight man with a wife and children. Homoerotic extracts from his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (a text that had already been repeatedly censored because of its scandalous content), were used as evidence during the trials. The trials captivated public attention and homosexuality began to be discussed for the first time. Wilde’s effeminate persona epitomised the public perception of the homosexual man, with Michael Foucault describing the sexuality as a “kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul”.
The media has constructed and perpetuated the homophobic stereotype that all gay men are flamboyant and effeminate. Likewise, lesbians have been generalised as butch and masculine. Bisexual people are supposedly ‘greedy’ and transgender people, if featured at all, have been portrayed as hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine, suggesting that they must conform to traditional gender norms if they want to be truly accepted as the gender they identify as.
Although the relationship between gender identity and sexuality is a complex one, the media has often over-simplified it and presented the LGBTQ+ community as extremely one-dimensional.
Even in contemporary films and television shows that positively provide a platform for LGBTQ+ voices and experiences, there are still many complex issues and criticisms that can be raised, for example: should a straight actor play a queer character?
In the twenty-first century, 25 actors have been nominated for an Oscar for playing LGBTQ+ characters. Yet not one of them is openly a member of the community.
For example: Olivia Colman (The Favourite, 2018), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, 2017) and, Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018). The cisgender actor, Eddie Redmayne, and his casting as a transgender woman in the 2015 film, The Danish Girl, garnered significant criticism from the trans community with Carol Grant labelling the performance, “regressive, reductive and harmful.”
This is one of the many reasons why Laverne Cox’s performance as transgender woman of colour, Sophia Burset, in Orange is the New Black was hugely celebrated by the LGBTQ+ community. Cox states, “In 2013, there was something really ground-breaking about Sophia. A trans person to play a trans character is a really big deal”. It was a beautiful and multifaceted performance, which explored other aspects of Sophia’s identity, rather than solely focusing on the fact that she is a trans woman.
While some actors have come out in defence of allowing non-LGBTQ+ actors to play LGBTQ+ characters, such as Viggo Mortensen, others such as Darren Criss have publicly announced their retirement from such roles to allow LGBTQ+ actors to play them instead.
We cannot presume that we live in a wholly accepting and inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community just because it is now better than it once was.
Homophobia and transphobia continue to infect society, with a Guardian study finding that discriminatory attacks against the LGBTQ+ community have more than doubled in the last five years. Many LGBTQ+ individuals have expressed fear of holding their partner’s hand in public, a simple act of affection that many heterosexual couples would not think twice about. In 2019, a lesbian couple were attacked by four male teenagers on a London bus because they refused to kiss (a clear example of how lesbians can be misogynistically sexualised). The high-profile attack led Laura Russell, a director at the LGBTQ+ charity, Stonewall, to state “how much we still have to do for LGBT equality”. The charity also published a 2018 report that found that 13% of LGBTQ individuals between the ages of 18-24 had attempted to take their own life. Clearly, there remain major issues and obstacles that face the community with many LGBTQ+ individuals still feeling ostracised from society.
While the media must continue to push even further to increase LGBTQ+ representation and challenge homophobic stereotypes, it cannot be solely responsible for propelling social change.
This is because not everyone is going to engage with LGBTQ+ narratives in the media. As individuals, we must all play a part in increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community within society. A good way of doing that is by continuing to educate ourselves about the community and its history so that we can engage in important discussions in a very polarised world. We must also confront and call out homophobic and transphobic behaviour and language that is used to demonise the community.
For more resources and information, head to our dedicated LGBTQ+ Rights & Issues section.