WHY DOES REPRESENTATION MATTER?
Even with so many milestones over the past decade, the LGBTQ community in the US continues to face setbacks. The Trump administration has implemented a range of anti-LGBTQ policies, including banning transgender people in the military, cancelling visas for unmarried same-sex partners of diplomats and removing protections for transgender medical patients, to name just a few. It has also nominated multiple anti-LGBTQ individuals to the courts and most recently, prohibited US embassies around the world from flying the rainbow flag during this month’s Pride celebrations.
It may come as welcome news then, that it has been a record breaking year in terms of LGBTQ representation on screen. There has been a proliferation of LGBTQ characters and stories, in TV shows such as Queer Eye, Killing Eve and Orange is the New Black and films such as the The Favourite. This is important, because these mediums play a crucial role in shaping public attitudes. On screen representations have real consequences for people, as how members of different social groups are represented influences how they are seen and treated by society. Representations can work to reinforce dominant understandings about gender, race and sexuality, but they also have the power to challenge them.
As GLAAD, a US based NGO that focuses on LGBTQ representation in the media argues, ‘entertainment has a reciprocal relationship with society - the characters and stories on screen are a reflection of our cultural values and our wider culture is influenced by and can evolve from seeing stories and people that are different from them on screen. Studies have repeatedly shown that in the absence of knowing an LGBTQ person in real life, TV and films with LGBTQ characters foster understanding and acceptance’. For example, a survey conducted by Variety found that 38% of people said LGBTQ characters were a ‘key influence’ in their support for the LGBTQ community.
Not only important for transforming societal attitudes, LGBTQ representation on screen is important for members of the LGBTQ community. Seeing yourself represented on screen can affirm your identity and boost feelings of self worth. Furthermore, LGBTQ representations on screen can provide a way for viewers to live out what is not yet possible in their own lives, because of societal pressures and prejudice.
LGBTQ REPRESENTATION ON SCREEN: WHERE ARE WE AT?
Historically, there has been a huge lack of LGBTQ characters on screen and often when present, they were used to perpetuate negative stereotypes that worked to justify prejudicial attitudes in society. However, GLAAD’s latest TV and film reports suggest that things are improving. GLAAD found that the percentage of LGBTQ series regulars is up to an all-time high of 8.8%. The number of trans characters increased and for the first time ever, more LGBTQ characters were people of colour than white.
In terms of film, 18.2% of films from 7 major studios contained LGBTQ characters, a significant improvement from 2017’s 12.8%. However, the racial diversity of LGBTQ characters in film fell and there were no trans characters in any of the 110 films analysed. This demonstrates the need for a more diverse range of LGBTQ characters on screen, with multiple and intersecting identities.
Of course, simply being visible on screen is not enough and we must ask in what ways LGBTQ people are being represented and how these representations reinforce or challenge dominant understandings of sexuality and gender identity. Though the number of LGBTQ characters are increasing, many are not main characters. If they are, storylines tend to focus on homophobia and coming out, which robs characters of their multidimensionality. Furthermore, damaging trends in LGBTQ representation continue to exist, such as the ‘bury your gays’ trope and ‘queer-baiting’. ‘Bury your gays’ refers to the alarming frequency of LGBTQ deaths on screen. Recent examples of this include in Mary, Queen of Scots, where both LGBTQ characters (who existed in history, but were written as LGBTQ for the purpose of the film) were brutally murdered and Killing Eve, where every LGBTQ character except from Villanelle is killed by the end of the first series. Scholars argue that this phenomenon reflects persistent cultural anxieties about sexualities that don’t conform to societal norms and research has demonstrated the damaging psychological affects of on-screen deaths for LGBTQ audiences.
TV also has a long history of ‘queer-baiting’, where producers will show obvious sexual tension between same-sex characters, but won’t develop on this or explicitly write them as a couple. This is because producers want to attract LGBTQ audiences and the profitable ‘pink pound’ without risking other viewers. As a consequence of this, some LGBTQ critics have demanded that LGBTQ sexualities be clearly defined on screen. However, this also has its problems. For example, as Ben Goldberg from Into More argues, these demands wrongly assume that all relationships can fit neatly into preexisting categories. He asks, ‘why do we demand our queer stories be so cut and dry? What is at stake in explicitly naming and identifying a particular form of queerness - one that so often resembles hetero relationships? And whose stories do we risk leaving behind in the process?’.
Taking inspiration from the ‘Bechdel Test’, which examines the way women are portrayed on screen, GLAAD has developed its own ‘Vito Russo Test’ for analysing LGBTQ characters. In order to pass the test, the film must contain a character that is obviously LGBTQ, but is not only defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity but is given the same level of multidimensionality as straight cis-gender characters. Furthermore, the character must be important enough to the storyline that their removal would have a significant effect. In 2018, 65% of films passed the LGBTQ Vito Russo test, indicating there is still significant work to be done. Let’s hope that the upward trend of LGBTQ representation on screen carries on and we continue to see shows and films that are reflective of the diverse society we live in.
Representation matters onscreen and in our workplaces, where seeing ourselves reflected in leadership gives us hope for a path forward in our careers. WERKIN’s Modern Mentorship is inclusive, connecting junior and senior employees at global organisations. Let’s get WERKIN on career development through mentorship.