The Importance of LGBT Representation in Media
By: Danielle Cox
Representation. It’s something that, unless you yourself are affected by it, you don’t realize it’s a problem. If you’re not part of a minority, you won’t understand the huge problem in our media. It is lack of representation, especially lack of good representation. If you are white, straight or male you probably take seeing yourself in a fictional character for granted and you probably had no idea just how damaging the “Bury Your Gays” trope is. This last week saw GLAAD release their annual report on diversity in television, stating that although there has been a “record high in LGBT representation, television failed queer women this year.” This year’s report shows the highest percentage of LGBT characters on our televisions, which is progress, but lesbian representation has decreased from thirty-three percent last year to seventeen percent this year. And when more than twenty-five of those characters are killed off in the same year, we know there is still a lot of work to be done. In fact, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis released a statement saying, “When the most repeated ending for a queer woman is violent death, producers must do better to question the reason for a character’s demise and what they are really communicating to the audience.” When this ending is repeated in show after show and character after character, we can’t help but think the message they are sending is about the worth of our LGBT characters or rather lack thereof. So, what really happened this year in television and why is LGBT representation more important than ever?
This year, the catalyst for the worldwide coverage LGBT discrimination in TV is receiving was The CW show “The 100.” This series, set in a post-apocalyptic world is anything, but rainbows and sunshine. It is brutal. It’s about survival in a world where humans aren’t meant to have survived, but it has moments when it is heartfelt – when you start to believe that maybe life really is about more than just surviving. That moment, for me, started from the moment they introduced Commander Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and we saw sparks fly between her and leading lady and bisexual Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor). We saw Lexa, the commander of twelve clans and a warrior, become vulnerable around Clarke. But even with that vulnerability, she never wavered in her strength. Lexa showed us what it is like to be a lesbian in the ultimate position of power and her relationship with Clarke showed us that love is strength. Through them, we see that love, no matter who it is with and no matter gender, is a beautiful thing to be cherished. “The 100,” with this relationship, had the power and influence to make huge strides in how people perceive LGBT representation and to pave the way for other shows. Sadly, in one fell swoop (or rather one stray bullet), they threw all of that away and once again played into the idea that LGBT people don’t get their happy endings. They took away our hope and broke our hearts in the process.
Another show this year, “Person of Interest,” falls into this same category. From the moment they met, we all knew that Root (Amy Acker) and Shaw (Sarah Shahi) had a connection – that they had chemistry. We all fell in love with their developing romance and were all overjoyed when it became real in the final season of the show. We had hope that maybe, just maybe, this would be the show that handled it right. But then the worst happened. Root, our beloved “Coco-Puffs” as she was called by Fusco (Kevin Chapman), was killed by yet another stray bullet and Shaw would never get her happy ending with the woman she loves…the woman who kept her going through her imprisonment. Both of these shows killed off a beloved LGBT character with a stray bullet, in the same fashion that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did with Tara (Amber Benson) all those years ago and thus continuing to perpetuate the Bury Your Gays trope. We weren’t okay with it then and we certainly aren’t ok with it now.
Representation can go both ways though. For all the bad, and there has been a lot, there have been some happy moments, some great representation in TV shows. “Wynonna Earp” came along in 2016 and the showrunner was none other than Emily Andras, one of the brilliant minds behind “Lost Girl.” Fans of “Lost Girl” know this is the series where Bo (Anna Silk) and Lauren (Zoie Palmer) finally got their happy ending so we had high expectations for “Wynonna Earp” and we weren’t disappointed. As well as being a show that boasts a lot of strong, badass female characters, the relationship between female leads Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell) and Waverly Earp (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) slowly started to mend our broken hearts. The development of this relationship, known as “WayHaught” was beautifully written and portrayed. We couldn’t help but be drawn in, despite trying our hardest not to be in fear of being hurt again. Yet when Nicole was shot, our hearts collectively stopped. But Andras and the writers had no intention of devastating us like so many had before. Nicole was wearing a bulletproof vest and survived being shot, effectively sending the Bury Your Gays trope to hell the way Wynonna does with the revenants. As of the end of season one, they are both alive and well (aside from Waverly touching the tentacle goo; why would you do that?).
“Sense8” is another show that deserves recognition. I only watched it recently, but as well as loving the relationship between Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman), I was so happy with their decision to cast a trans woman to play a trans character. In a time where we have felt let down, this decision was a huge step in the right direction. Additionally, on the series “Black Mirror,” the San Junipero also showed great representation. The characters of Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) fall in love during what is essentially a trial run of the afterlife. San Junipero is a town where you can live on forever after you die if you so choose and it’s in this town they first meet as younger versions of themselves. It’s slow and sometimes it’s frustrating to watch them falter so many times on their way to truly finding each other, but after all of that when they “pass on” they find their way to each other and live together forever in San Junipero. This episode was so beautifully written, acted and filmed as it felt like no time had passed watching it while also feeling like forever. I can’t speak for everyone, but this one episode is perhaps the singular most important episode I have watched this year in regards to representation. Their gender wasn’t the most important thing, like in any relationship, it was their love for each other that was important, drew me in and made me believe and hope again.
There are also organizations out there that are working towards a better, more equal future for the LGBT community. ClexaCon is a convention being held in Las Vegas in 2017. It’s a convention for the LGBT community, a safe place where we can celebrate everything there is to love about this community. It’s providing a huge platform, bringing together people from all over the world to empower and represent us in a way we should be – proudly. LGBT fans have also created a huge movement this year, raising awareness of how poorly our community has been treated and raising money for The Trevor Project. Bella Books has also come to my attention after their hiring of Dana Piccoli as Managing Editor of their blog. We were all devastated, heartbroken and furious when AfterEllen, a site we loved dearly, was shut down and then ruined by straight men. We were searching for a safe online community for us. This is our safe place. Bella Books is a publisher of fiction for and about lesbians and their blog covers all the LGBT pop culture we need in our lives. These are important steps in the road to equality in our media, steps that I hope are just the beginning for us.
Additionally, OUT Magazine recently released their list of “100 Hottest Out and Proud Celebs” with many actors, writers and producers making the cut. With so many eyes around the world watching television shows, especially after this year, what better way to improve the reputation of our media than by hiring LGBT celebrities to write, produce and star in television and movies? Now, I’m not saying to pigeon hole them into certain roles or hire them just because they represent the LGBT community, but if more LGBT people in this industry had a more prominent role then we could likely see a dramatic shift in representation on and off screen.
Having great LGBT representation in our media is so important. We all need someone to look up to, someone to believe in. For the LGBT community, especially, fiction is how we escape from reality when we need to. If we all had characters we can relate to, maybe we wouldn’t struggle so much with our lives – with coming to terms with who we are. TV shows, movies, novels and more can all play a part in helping the lives of LGBT people by portraying more LGBT characters, by not playing into harmful tropes. Writers, producers and directors – they all need to start thinking about what message they are sending to the audience and how they want their show to be remembered. With the reach that all media has, it could make a huge difference to people’s lives if the LGBT community were better represented. If we saw our lives on screen and in print as normal and worthy, because we are. We deserve that.