Navigating LGBT+ Representation in Media

Don’t just support LGBT+ media because it grants us the bare minimum of representation, but because it’s done right.

There’s no doubt that good LGBT+ representation, in basically any form of media, is still hard to come by nowadays. Being part of the community, I tend to cling onto whatever LGBT+ related movie or television show I can get as most of us do. Which can sometimes be a problem as I have to bear witness to all the ways an LGBT+ related story can be poorly executed. 

It’s often the same story repeated over and over again: coming out, facing backlash, finding a support system, and getting a partner. Yes, this is a very common experience that LGBT+ individuals face, but it’s also an extremely safe story to tell. The LGBT+ character, in this case, is most likely to be white, cis, and male. The piece of media itself is written in a way that almost caters to a straight audience and has to explain what a gay person goes through on a daily basis. 

Don’t get me wrong, LGBT+ related content is now more prevalent than ever. However, it still doesn’t feel quite revolutionary. Gay characters continue to be shoved in the background of major franchise movies for the sake of “representation” that’s barely visible (I really had to focus on that Star Wars movie to even notice there was a wlw couple kissing). It also seems like every year Disney announces their “first” LGBT+ character, which is a minor character with no significant impact on the plot of the film. All of this clearly is done so directors and writers will be given praise for doing the bare minimum; they get to play it safe so homophobes aren’t too mad and feel good about themselves for acknowledging the LGBT+ community for once.

 If you’ve ever met me, I get really into any content I consume. I have to over-analyze every nook and cranny of whatever it might be. As an aspiring Film and English major, I am especially aware of the industry overly dominated by cishet white men. In short, because cishet white men dominate the industry, we are less likely to see movies about POC and LGBT+; they simply don’t understand or feel the need to write these stories. And for some reason, they think that people are less likely to want to see a film with actual representation. 

Female directors themselves are significantly marginalized within their community: they receive smaller funding for their projects and are less likely to be discovered at film festivals due to lack of experience (from not being funded to produce bigger projects). For WOC and female LGBT+ directors it’s even more difficult. With that in mind, it’s much more likely that the mainstream LGBT+ media we see in our day to day lives is led by a male and probably straight team. This is why I find it extremely important to analyze LGBT+ movies when they actually exist and examine how these stories are being written. 

As a kid, LGBT+ representation was pretty much scarce even though I was a big consumer of all forms of content: I loved reading, watching television, and going to the movies on a frequent basis. However, the books I read were mostly about straight couples in dystopian worlds going on long stretched adventures together and kissing a lot despite enduring near-death circumstances. The TV shows I watched were all from Disney so it’s not a surprise that gay couples were seen as nonexistent in their world back then (and even now). The movies I was obsessed with were no different.

My middle school was pretty silent about anything LGBT+ related and didn’t establish a GSA until I graduated years later. Honestly, the only thing I remember from Sex Ed is watching some documentary on pregnancy and being given some cheap pads with those pink and purple swirly designs on the outside. 

My only exposure to the community was through my friend’s two moms and the one time I had the pleasure of walking through the Castro and seeing a group of men naked while playing guitar and sporting rainbow related merchandise. Because of my limited knowledge of the community, I never thought that I was anything other than straight. I would invent crushes on guys I met in preschool who I barely even looked at and would call it a day.

This is the reason why proper LGBT+ representation in the media is so important to me: it simply wasn’t there when I was that confused kid growing up.

A week or so back, I decided to go on a vacation to Barnes & Noble (yes, going to Barnes & Noble is now a vacation for me) to buy some books to fuel my daily reading routine in quarantine. I decided to take a look at their small featured LGBT+ section and all I saw were a few romance books about gay men and that was it. Although I wasn’t shocked in the slightest by this, it solidified within me how we need to continue to strive for proper inclusion for all members of the community. Black transgender women are the reason we have rights today, but they continue to be underrepresented within their own community. 

Now don’t get me wrong I love Barnes & Noble, but this example really goes to show how sometimes we have to dig deep even for our own representation. However, I am excited to say that after doing research I found some cool lesbian YA novels which I will in fact be purchasing this weekend.

So, how exactly should we analyze and critique LGBT+ media? What’s the best way to find good LGBT+ representation? Well, there’s no right answer to this, but for me, I find it best to question the material itself. 

1) Who is doing the writing? Normally it’s pretty easy to identify if the writer is cis/straight solely on how they write their LGBT+ character. Are their characters written on the basis of stereotypes? Are they a main part of the story or are they just there for the sake of “representation”? If you want an idea of what I’m getting at here, think of basically any Netflix original with a gay character.

2) Who is the target audience? Would LGBT+ people feel uncomfortable with the story shown, keeping in mind this target audience? For example, take Blue is the Warmest Color. Not only is it an extremely problematic film in terms of how the actresses were treated, the sex scenes themselves are also drawn out and overdramatized in order to cater to the male audience. Similarly, with Call me By your Name, where mlm (men who love men) have expressed their discomfort towards straight women fetishizing the characters in the film. The age gap also plays into a common stereotype of gay men, almost painting them as predatory. 

3) Is it apparent that research was actually done in order to execute the story? This one’s pretty easy to spot and is surprisingly common nowadays even though there are a ton of LGBT+ resources online. I cannot even count how many times identities, such as pansexuality, are incorrectly defined in movies and shows.

These are a few examples of how I question the intentions behind LGBT+ media. As I’ve said before, there’s no right way to do this, but I find it important to continue to ask questions and keep learning.

Being a wlw (a woman who loves women) myself, I’m more educated in the ways that wlw media can make me uncomfortable or feel poorly represented. But, I am also not a mlm for example. This is why it’s so important to talk to other people in the community: we all have different experiences and it is so important that we listen and learn from each other. 

LGBT+ media is nowhere near perfect. Even though it may have good intentions, it can come off as offensive to various members of the community. As much as I dislike it, the film industry lacks diversity and it’s something that probably will not change for a long time. That’s why we need to be conscious of what we’re viewing. Is it offensive? Does it reinforce negative stereotypes? Is it harmful to LGBT+ members themselves? These are all good questions to ask the next time you read an LGBT+ related book or watch an LGBT+ related movie/show. 

We, as the consumer, have the chance to support what we see fit as good representation. Don’t just support LGBT+ media because it grants us the bare minimum of representation, but because it’s done right. It’s time to stop praising directors and writers for simply acknowledging us; praise them when they create a product we’re all proud of.

Even though LGBT+ media is nowhere near perfect, it does make me feel better that more content with wlw characters is starting to come into existence. Hey 10-year-old me, things are starting to look up!

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