Accurate representation of the Queer community in media is no easy task. One major reason for this is simply because there is not just one correct way to represent these identities. Although being Queer can be an important aspect of someone’s identity, it isn’t the only factor, and therefore writers struggle to find a way to portray characters in a realistic manner. The issue, however, is that this ambiguity leads writers to fall victim to a series of harmful tropes when writing their Queer characters. These tropes are subsequently projected onto the LGBTQ+ people in viewers’ real lives. In short, if and how Queer characters are depicted in media matters.
Take representation of diversity within the Queer community, for instance. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s annual Where We Are On TV report recorded that of the Queer characters on TV, 35% are gay, 30% are lesbian and 25% are bisexual. Only the remaining 8% were trans, Queer, asexual or undetermined. As the number of LGBTQ+ characters increases, the identities represented stay consistent. Watching two cisgender men fall in love feels more comfortable to a viewer who lacks understanding or empathy for Gen Z’s modern expansion and fluidity of the community. It’s easier for platforms to introduce gay, lesbian and bisexual characters to get the brownie points for Queer representation. As the definition of Queer continues to expand to encompass a range of fluid and inclusive identities, platforms are failing to expand their boundaries to encompass what Queer really means.
It’s important to acknowledge that in recent years, the overall representation and number of LGBTQ+ characters in the media have been changing for the better. A main reason why platforms are able to do this is because of an increase in the number of people identifying as Queer, especially in the younger generations these shows are catered to. This provides a clear economic incentive for platforms to make portraying these sorts of characters. Although a less altruistic reason to create Queer shows, the outcome remains beneficial in regard to representation for the LGBTQ+ community.
One platform has recently exceeded all others in its diversity and amount of Queer representation: Netflix. Even years ago, when there was less pressure to represent Queer identities, Netflix led the way with shows such as “Orange is the New Black,” which was centered around relationships between women in a female prison. From a purely numbers standpoint, Netflix has over four times as many LGBTQ+ characters as the next streaming platform, demonstrating their commitment to getting Queer characters on screen.
But recently, Netflix has demonstrated a commitment to diversifying the LGBTQ+ identities they portray. When the Netflix show “Sex Education” came out in 2019, it was unprecedented in many ways. For starters, they managed to represent many Queer characters as main characters while avoiding common tropes, like the gay best friend falling in love with their straight best friend. What was so groundbreaking about the show, however, was their willingness to include less-talked-about identities, such as asexuality or non-binary gender identities. Not only did they portray characters with these identities, but they discussed what they meant and how these characters felt, allowing viewers who had limited experience with these topics to learn.
In recent years, Netflix has proceeded to expand its representation and release rigid expectations about Queer characters. They allowed characters to exist in same-sex couples without assigning a label to their sexuality, like in “Young Royals.” In the show “Heartstopper,” they portray a young Queer couple navigating struggles without being oversexualized, as many Queer relationships are.
Although on the right track, Netflix and all other platforms have a lot of room for growth. There needs to be accurate and accessible representation for underrepresented identities, such as people who identify as agender, asexual, transgender, nonbinary and other less-discussed gender and sexual identities. Companies also need to stray away from forcing their character to have labels. When people going through their own journeys constantly see characters desperate to label themselves and their identities, it projects that same pressure back on the viewer. Instead, television writers should allow more characters to experience sexuality and gender in a fluid or unlabelled way, teaching viewers that they are allowed to do the same.
Negative stereotypes or views about the LGBTQ+ community are still prevalent today and continue to affect the actions and mental health of people in the community. To promote inclusivity and protect the safety and well-being of Queer individuals, streaming platforms have a moral responsibility to not cater to people with closed mindsets or homophobic attitudes. Instead, they have the opportunity to continue to change the narrative about Queer people and to create a community of acceptance. By including more Queer perspectives, either through hiring more Queer writers or connecting with members of the LGBTQ+ community, representation can continue to become more inclusive and accurate. Older writers need to listen to younger generations to represent new perspectives and experiences and to stray away from old and outdated tropes.
Claudia Flynn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.