by Daley Wilhelm and Matthew Yapp
It’s important to recognize that in terms of LGBT+ representation, we are certainly doing better. But that doesn’t mean that we’re doing our best. Our best doesn’t mean sprinkling on the queer for flavor as seen with one-off characters or flat stereotypes. It certainly doesn’t mean introducing a queer character, and then burying them a season later as so many shows—even well-meaning Degrassi—are guilty of. It means writing characters whose sexuality isn’t what defines them, but is also an undeniable part of them rather than a footnote.
GLAAD’s annual report on LGBTQ inclusion found overall, queer representation is on the uptick, but has dwindled in certain aspects. Between June of 2016 and May of this year, 43 out of 854 characters on television, both broadcast and on streaming services, were LGBTQ. Bisexual representation rose to 30% of that 43 with 16 bisexual women and five men. ABC has the highest amount of representation of LGBTQ characters, followed by FOX, and the CW in third.
Optimism is justified: we’re in a much better place than ever before. These percentages are little leaps, but still steps forward. However, it’s more than accurate to admit that we could be doing better.
The meme of “this is what the liberals want” depicting a drag queer, false lashes cast down on her phone, sitting beside a woman in a full niqab on the subway has been floating around lately. And I agree that it’s personally what I want in terms of people populating public spaces, and feeling secure in doing so no matter how they present themselves. So maybe I’m greedy when I want our media to do the same. After all, media reflects reality, which in turn is influenced by media. It’s a vicious circle, no end or beginning, and that’s why I think it’s hard to deny the importance of representation in media. When we have a glaring lack of queer characters on television, there’s a gap in the general public understanding as to their problems, even their existence.
The LGBT+ community has always struggled to be seen in mainstream media. I remember when I was younger the only shows I could see queer characters on was Glee or Will and Grace. I also thought Golden Girls was about old lesbians but I digress. We have made serious strides in just the past few years, however it’s still not where we’d like it to be. Sure, you can see more queer characters but they just aren’t cutting it in terms of representation. It feels like even though more writers are creating these characters, they don’t know how to write them. They are either completely defined by their sexualities and stereotypes like Titus from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or their sexualities are just ignored, making it kind of hard to be real representation. Looking at you Rizzoli & Isles. That being said we do have some diamonds in all this rough. We’re going to be highlighting shows that we feel represent the LGBT+ community well.
First off, I’d like to give bonus points to the show for making their title a pun, that’s really respectable. Transparent follows the Pfefferman family dealing with the realization that the patriarch of the family is actually a transgender woman named Maura. Coming off its third season the show continues to receive critical acclaim as one of the best shows streaming right now. Something that has always stuck out to me is that it shows true family dynamic. Often shows gloss over the hardship that goes with coming out, but not this one. It’s very realistic in showing that your children who thought they had a father for 20 some years, are going to struggle to understand that they have another mother. Beyond that the show looks at all the characters understanding themselves, and how family has to understand each other. In season two, spoilers, Ali and Sarah both explore their sexualities realizing that they might be on the queer spectrum in some way, and even that was handled in a tasteful way. This show really checks all the right boxes and is the representation that the trans community deserves. It manages to balance between talking about queer issues and just classic family antics so it never feels heavy handed at any point. Touching, realistic, funny, and groundbreaking Transparent is easily one of the best shows for LGBT+ representation.
Before this show I had given up on the CW in terms of representing the LGBT+ Community. The 100 had fallen victim to the trope off dying lesbians, Arrow had Sarah Lance, a bisexual character who was portrayed as constantly sleeping and flirting with women, but never actually showed interest in men or mentioned her sexuality. The Flash had two gay men, both of which were one off characters that almost felt like were just inserted so they could say they were there. Then Supergirl came in and blew me away. In season two Supergirl’s sister Alex meets a police officer named Maggie and it sparks something in her. Alex goes through the process of realizing that she has feelings for Maggie, and that she is a lesbian. Alex’s coming out story is easily the best I’ve ever gotten to see on television. The tearful admission that she’s always known there was something different about her, that she thought maybe she was just never supposed to be with anyone, the fear that the people she cared about would look at her differently as she came out to her mother was something that so many people could relate to. Alex and Maggie have gone on to have one of the best relationships I’ve seen. Both characters are so fleshed out, neither of them fall to stereotypes, or sacrifice any character development for the sake of being the gay character. Most importantly they love, encourage each other, and throughout the show bring out the best in one another. It’s incredible that a show that should just be your basic superhero TV show has managed to craft such a beautiful love story. Had someone told me I’d be watching a badass alien hunter propose to her cop girlfriend on a major television network I wouldn’t believe them, but I sure am glad it’s true.
Rupaul’s Drag Race
I don’t think there’s any show on television that celebrates queerness quite as well as Rupaul’s Drag Race does. At its core, it’s a reality competition in the same vein as America’s Next Top Model or Project Runway but with drag queens. Each week one of the queens leaves the competition until one is left to receive the seal of approval from the legendary Rupaul as America’s next drag superstar. What makes this show so special is that it is created by queer people for queer people. There is next to nowhere else on mainstream television that you would see an entire cast of a show be a part of the LGBT+ community. Not only that, but because all of the contestants are queer we get real people talking about real queer issues. Right from season one, we got to see one of the contestants, Ongina, tearfully reveal that she had AIDS which is a difficult reality for many in the community that is still hard to talk about in this day and age. They’ve talked about everything from coming out, being homeless after rejection from family, self-harm, eating disorders, being gay in the military, all the way to the Pulse shooting. All the issues that someone in the LGBT+ community could face has been discussed on the show. It also teaches so much about the history of LGBT+ movements as Rupaul is always eager to drop knowledge and give challenges that shines a light on how we got to where we are today. Most importantly, the show doesn’t just gay men, it’s had contestants that are all over the gender spectrum that are out and ready to discuss their identities. They’ve had transgender contestants like Peppermint, gender-fluid folks like Violet Chachki, and non-binary people like Jinkx Monsoon. This show has provided a platform for amazing queens who have gone on to do amazing things for the community, by Rupaul giving these queens a voice thousands of people have been able to see and be inspired by people like them. This is why I agree with season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen when he says that Drag Race is “the most important show to queer culture ever.”
I hate the notion that you can’t be funny without being offensive. Please someone direct me to where it is explicitly written that in order for someone to laugh, someone else has to hurt. We can move past the physical humor of children falling off bikes and hold my beer moments from the days of America’s Funniest Home Videos. We’re now in a very humor-rich environment and I’m of the belief that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the funniest shows around. The show captures and parodies procedural cop shows with a quirkiness that celebrates its diverse cast. No procedural cop show is complete without the hard-ass boss who won’t put up with his subordinates breaking rules or cutting corners. Captain Ray Holt of the 99th precinct inhabits this tired stereotype to the T with his stern, unmoving face and considerable reputation. What’s refreshing is that he is also the first openly gay police captain in New York City, according to the show’s canon. And this isn’t a joke. He’s not suddenly flamboyant when his office door is closed. He openly talks about his struggles being a black, gay cop in New York. If anything the joke is on the archaic administration that laughed at him when he suggested starting a support fund for LGBT and minority police officers. (There was no express no, so he did it anyway.) Captain Holt is a fantastic example of what representation should be; not hidden and not a punchline. Brooklyn Nine-Nine avoids the way comedy can be reductive to underrepresented people.
Degrassi: The Next Generation and First Class
Degrassi has long been one of the most progressive shows, doing much by the way of backing up the fact that “it goes there.” Despite it’s occasional outright campiness and it’s after school special air, Degrassi has been at the forefront of representing LGBTQ characters. The show clearly grew in terms of it’s depth of writing queer characters over it’s considerable run time. At first, characters like closeted Marco were only given airtime in relation to plot lines that focused on their sexuality. Later, the show moved on from exclusively focusing on gay men, or that sexuality was black and white. What I really want to give Degrassi credit for is this focus on fluidity. All the characters in Degrassi were high schoolers, defining themselves and their identities for the first time. The show gave them room to explore, and this is especially demonstrated in one of my favorite characters Imogen Moreno. When first introduced as a freshman she was weird and awkward (aren’t we all) and definitely interested in boys, dating one to an… obsessive extent. In later seasons, she dates two girls respectively, but never “takes back” liking boys. Imogen never put a precise label on her sexuality, and later other characters do the same when exploring their sexualities. When exact labeling is focused on, it’s making a point. The latest season of Next Class made a powerful statement in featuring Rasha, a Syrian refugee, who stood up for herself under the contention that you can’t be a good Muslim girl while dating girls. The fact that there’s more queer characters than I can count on two hands speaks volumes of Degrassi‘s history of representation, which is far from perfect–remember how the show recklessly killed it’s only trans character?—but nevertheless there.
When examining historical dramas, it would be easy to assume that queer people didn’t exist until the twentieth century since there’s very, very rarely a mention of the possibility. This is part of a bigger issue of queer erasure in history, but historical fiction with fantastical elements have been doing better, however marginally, when it comes to combating that erasure. Penny Dreadful is Showtime’s amalgam of occult stories, from werewolves to witchery, complete with famous names such as Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Grey. The latter, is established early on as a hedonistic playboy who regularly hosts orgies and will pursue anything with a pulse. Penny Dreadful’s win for representation does not lie with Gray’s apparent pansexuality, since it’s really just exploited for shock. What brings this show to the list is one of the main characters, Ethan Chandler. Spoilers; Ethan is an American werewolf in London, a hot-blooded sharp shooter with a gruff voice and a considerable amount of scenes featuring him seducing lovely English ladies. He’s as hetero as he can get—until he sleeps with Dorian Gray. This also adds dimension to another LGBTQ character in the show, Mr. Lyle, who is flouncy and fussy and certainly a stereotype, with whom Ethan flirts. Nothing ever comes from that, of course, and the narrative of Dorian and Ethan’s tryst isn’t either, but Ethan’s security in this encounter I think is important. Subverting his raging masculinity, Ethan proves that queerness and the alpha stereotype can exist in the same character. Overall Penny Dreadful’s least shocking premise is that—gasp!—queer people have always existed.
Matt and I once discussed the practice of slash fiction, and how oftentimes that it is written from a place of frustration in the lack of representation in media. There are no queer characters, so why not write some of them as queer? There’s an absolutely raving fan base behind the practice, and occasionally that fan base is noticed, even acknowledged by a show’s production. This can end in ships being recognized, even validated, but oftentimes ends in queer-baiting.
Here’s some honorable mentions to the list—the characters that never where, but could have been, positive LGBTQ representation.
Let’s hop back to Supergirl for a second. Someone introduced in season two was none other than Lena Luthor, sister of the infamous Lex Luthor. While it initially seemed like the setup to be a hero-villain rivalry, it actually turned into an amazing friendship between Supergirl and Luthor. But it doesn’t feel like just a friendship. While at this point Supergirl has only ever dated men, and Lena has never shown interest in anyone the two rely on each other heavily throughout the series, going to one another for advice, help, and just companionship being shown on multiple occasions on cute lunch dates. The chemistry between the two leaves many feeling as though there is something more there, from the loving looks, to Supergirl literally flying in the air while holding Lena in a bridal carry many fans are calling for the CW to give us what it seems like the characters are feeling.
Teen Wolf does have gay characters, but not the one fans want. Stiles Stilinski has been a fan favorite from the beginning, and even more so when they thought he was in a steamy relationship with the brooding werewolf Derek Hale. While it was apparent he had a pretty deep obsession with a female character Lydia, he also continuously asked a gay character if he thought he was attractive. This left viewers thinking that he could be bisexual. The writers certainly didn’t shut do anything to halt assumptions as they continuously put Stiles into flirtatious situations with Derek and romantic conversations with other male characters. While I’m a big fan of Lydia and Stiles as a couple I would also love it if they could confirm that he is bi. In my opinion there is nowhere near enough representation for bi men on television and having such a popular character on such a popular show would be amazing.
Dean Winchester is a lot like the aforementioned Ethan Chandler. He’s all American, rough hewn from years on the road, positively deadly with a gun, and an absolutely unrepentant lady killer. And he’s really in love with an angel named Castiel. At least, that’s what a significant part of the Supernatural fandom claims. And this is something that the show’s production is definitely aware of, and something that keeps Supernatural, now doddering into it’s 13th season, alive. Long, lingering looks. Intense declarations of a “profound bond.” It’s hard not to pick up on the homoerotic subtext of Dean and Castiel’s relationship. There’s also the fact of Dean’s numerous relationships with women throughout his storyline, which is why the fandom generally likes to think of Dean as bisexual. As much as I think it’s important for men to be shown having close friendships, Dean and Castiel’s relationship reads as a volatile love affair filled with I need yous. It’s something that makes sense considering how emotionally constipated Dean is. He can’t admit to feeling anything unless he risks losing Cas. The show plays off of it, exploits it, but likely will never confirm it despite the ardent hopes of thousands.