A 2020 film industry analysis showed that just 2% of recent films had explicit LGBTQ+ representation. When looking for reasons, there isn’t adequate representation in media; queer people are often told that LGBTQ+ films don’t make money; such is presented as a fact. I will examine the case for representation, question the lack of ‘queer blockbusters’ and romantic comedies (rom-coms), discuss common LGBTQ+ tropes in media and why they are harmful, suggest a trope that could be useful, and finally discuss how the lack of LGBTQ+ representation can affect the community for the better. In this piece, the term ‘queer’ will also be used as an umbrella term for sexual and gender identities other than cis-gendered and heterosexual.
Case for Representation
In an age where media is on the rise, and we are more entertained than ever, media can be a powerful tool for communities to get their mouthpieces heard and their message across. Media representation humanizes and educates communities; when people realize that those who seem worlds apart actually conduct parallel lives to them, it increases the outpour of empathy by accurately depicting these marginalized demographics and the struggles they have to go through.
A more significant impact representation has on the lives of members of the LGBTQ+; seeing themselves adequately represented is a highly affirming experience, who at that moment feel that they are recognized and not hidden behind the walls of stigma. Members of the community must see themselves being represented in media, so they realize that being part of the community is not only normal, but it is not a crutch; it is a valid identity that needn’t be hidden; it is not a barrier. Representation can serve as an awakening for many, with stories of people who deeply connected with books or films with queer characters, to a level where they reckon with their sexuality and come to terms with who they are- this is extremely common but not limited to the Bi, Trans and Ace members of the community.
Not enough ‘queer’ blockbusters
A 2020 analysis revealed that just 2% of recent films have explicit LGBTQ+ representation. The abysmal numbers have often been explained under capitalism and the fact that LGBTQ+ characters aren’t marketable, in addition to the painful reality that, internationally, there is the erasure of LGBTQ+ characters in movies. However, there are more reasons why queer people can’t have more than a millisecond-long kiss in the latest Star Wars or an unspoken lesbian relationship in Captain Marvel.
Research by Elle Lockhart, a Transgender data scientist, proves that big-budget LGBTQ+ films are marketable. She states that audiences, home and abroad are willing to see them, naming films like Deadpool, Bohemian Rhapsody and Harley Quinn, and the birds of Prey, which had queer protagonists. The hitch is that most of the queer films that boasted of blockbuster status were franchises and within the strict blockbuster movie genre. Films outside the big-budget franchises with queer characters don’t do so well. The role that these blockbuster protagonists’ sexuality plays in these films is relatively downplayed. Still, in the latter part of this article, it will be shown that it may be a nod in the right direction regarding representation.
The real reason why there are so few queer blockbusters is that writers and directors have not yet mastered how to employ a queer character in a storyline in such a way that they exist beyond their sexuality; this will be proven factual in the continued sections of this article.
No Queer romantic comedies
Initially, this article idea came to mind when I was watching a Netflix Rom-Com (I didn’t finish it; It was poorly written),which, although it tried to break some stereotypes with the inclusion of people of color, erred on the side of using overused tropes. I found myself asking, why couldn’t the main character be gay? And wishing for a day when I’ll have my pick of cheesy, overplayed queer rom-com. The dampening reality is that same-sex romantic comedies barely exist. Despite the changing political times, with a record 70% of people in the United States supporting gay marriage,according to a Gallup report, despite the rise in gay and lesbian characters seen on screen and kept more to series than films, same-sex romcoms are appallingly low.
The ones that do tend to be coming of age stories or a closeted queer coming to terms with their sexuality, but none hold the ethos of a romantic comedy; the longing, the obstacles, the slim chance that perhaps the protagonists won’t end up together (which is more than thin for members of the community). It begs why people are so interested in trauma and struggle more than actual romance. Why is the trauma and struggle of a same-sex relationship more marketable than the relationship itself?
It may be argued that because romantic comedies or drama films have long been looked down on, unable to gain as much traction as their book or series counterparts, writers steer away from the idea of writing them. Romantic comedies don’t even near the top-grossing films of 2021, according to data found in The Numbers, the last to achieve this feat was more famously 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians and the less known Book Club. The stigma against romantic comedies seems even more displaced when you compare it to other genres; in action movies, we’re supposed to believe that a high-stakes stakeout and two high-speed chases all ending in dispute resolution can be neatly tied in 90 minutes, but a romance cannot. We’re living in the age of superheroes, with Marvel and DC gripping the box offices tightly. However, the onus still falls on writers and directors to appeal to a broader audience of people who are tired of watching rom-coms on their TVs or laptops. The question of when I will get to watch a blockbuster queer rom-com on the big screen is met with the answer; unlikely.
Unhelpful LGBTQ+ tropes
Hollywood’s refusal to invest in a queer blockbuster should at least be offset by the representation that members of the LGBTQ+ can connect with. However, the reality is that the industry is littered with overused tropes that quite frankly need retiring; these tropes and why they are so harmful will be examined in detail.
The first is the ‘gay best friend,’ standard in almost everyday modern television or drama; this character is usually a gay man who is comfortable with and in his sexuality; rather than building on that, the industry veers off into making him an accessory for his female heterosexual friends. They are supportive and often pushed to the sidelines, comfortably expressing that the female best friend is ‘living his dreams.’ While initially, and in some sporadic cases quite charming, this overall portrayal of the gay male as a little less than a ‘fan’ of his heterosexual friend is insulting at best and tasteless at worst, especially in films where the gay is subverted for ‘metrosexual who enjoys fashion’ avoiding labeling the character as openly gay and leaving it up for speculation, which I interpret as doublespeak for ‘playing it safe because the audience would rather see a metrosexual than an openly gay man.’
The next trope is the ‘Transgender sex worker.’ However, this trope pays homage to the historical roots by portraying this unique set of people who worked the streets; transgender people still struggle for representation in media asides from this role, which tends to do more harm than good when it is handed to a cisgender actor. The problem here is that a multi-dimensional trans character is hardly seen. Hollywood focuses on sexuality rather than the dynamic nature of the person wielding it, especially when it has to do with community members.
The ‘promiscuous queer’ is another trope that reduces one’s sexual liberation to a tool for shock value or as a plot driver. It is a highly one-dimensional portrayal often used as a cover-up for shortcomings that are never expanded or even addressed but insinuated. Characters with casual flings are labeled as anything from ‘unable to love’ or feel deeply for other human beings to unstable and power-hungry, using their sexuality as leverage on the social ladder rather than focusing on the character’s motive. This perpetuates stereotypes that members of the community are a promiscuous, socially and relationally inept bunch who are at least suitable for a ‘wild time.’
Finally, the trope often all-encompassing is the ‘Bury your Gays.’ More common in series than in film, this trope usually ends in queer characters being killed off to further the story for the heterosexual characters. This is problematic for several reasons, but it speaks volumes of how queer characters in media are poorly treated and poorly represented by the film industries. Directors and writers seem unable to fathom an end where queer character advances beyond their heterosexual and cis-gendered counterparts. The fact that these deaths result from suicide, caused by rejections, hate crimes, or other ways that serve the plot, at first, nods at the mental health issues in the community. A recent study by rainbow health showed that in the community, 61% have depression, 45% have PTSD, 36% have an anxiety disorder, and 40% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide; these are discouraging numbers allotted for several reasons. Still, stigma and trauma are significant contributing factors. However, seeing the ‘bury your gays’ trope employed numerous times begs the question; Where is the message of hope? This trope is especially harmful because it treats the death of queer people like an occurrence that should be normalized,significantly when furthering the plot for heterosexuals and lacking complex storytelling. It’s almost as if the directors and writers can’t fathom how to factor an LGBTQ+ character into the field beyond their sexuality. A thought that is disheartening and limiting.
A trope to end all?
In many discussion forums and comment sections, there is heated debate about tropes that could serve LGBTQ+ people's rights, making them feel included and represented and not just as an accessory for TV shows and Movies to use and boast of their political ‘wokeness.’ The reality is that it’s best a trope for LGBTQ+ characters, POC characters, or any character that shouldn’t exist. Especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ and POC characters, who audiences feel is never represented, perhaps they should be allowed to live beyond a stereotype and an overused cliché.
The only thing that characters should have in common is that they are queer; directors and writes need to think beyond using their sexuality and gender identity to steer the plot in any direction, but as part of the whole that is a multi-dimensional character, that’s what sets apart films written by and for members of the community from others registered for blockbusters. The characters are complex; the writers understand that although sexuality and gender identity does affect decisions to a certain degree, there is more to the surface than that- from aspirations to sinister motives, which are not driven by but instead inspired by their orientation and identity. Perhaps that’s why the few ‘blockbusters’ with queer characters got a positive reception from the queer audience. Their queerness was part of their personality, but it wasn’t overly emphasized.
A positive outlook
This leads to a discussion of why the lack of adequate representation in mainstream media, coupled with the cult following behind films written by and for queer people, brings us closer together. We bond over a feeling of general misunderstanding from people who don’t fully understand us and over the surface of being appropriately portrayed by people who do. The discontentment felt in being unduly represented causes us to build a stronger sense of community and go above and beyond, not only to find but create films that speak to and for us. Although the fact that we have to do so because of poor representation is unfortunate, the positive change that stems from a painfulsituation should at least be recognized.
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