Each year in March our cinemas turn into an exciting hub of queer cinema for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. This translates into a week-long celebration of minority voices, LGBTQI+ stories and gender and sexual diversity on film. It's also a chance to have a sneaky chow down on some choc tops!
Despite this fiesta though, under-representation of queer characters on-screen in mainstream movies and on TV is still palpable. Many films and TV shows intended for mainstream audiences (and even some queer films that aren't) explore the same issues, use similar tropes and invite the audience to meet the same characters over and over again.
Rather than lament this situation, we pulled together a list of gender and sexually diverse characters that are already represented well on TV and film and identified five LGBTQI+ characters that should exist to break down stereotypes.
1. The Lead Gay Action Hero
From Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) talking shop about street racing his Supra in The Fast and the Furious (2001) to Neo (Keanu Reeves) as “the one” saving our enslaved bodies in The Matrix (1999), action heroes are largely made from the same mould. They’re tough, resourceful, courageous and, of course, straight.
Even in films with greater representation of other minorities, such as Rush Hour 2 (2001) which stars Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, the only (obviously) gay character is a flamboyant retail supervisor (Jeremy Piven). And yes, he’s the comic relief.
Are we asking too much from the industry that the double agent kicking down doors also has a love interest who’s a dude? Why couldn’t a buddy-cop film include gay and straight officers working side by side? What Hollywood seems rarely capable of acknowledging in this genre is that you can have a complex and interesting character whose sexuality is only one part of the whole package.
“Omar's comin'!” Omar from HBO's The Wire (2002-2008) is a stellar example of a well-rounded character in a role that breaks all the conventional rules of the action man.
He’s tough, gutsy, smart and happens to be gay. His sexuality is just one component of his whole persona, not the defining feature. The fact that he’s a feared, streetwise stick-up man who robs street-level drug dealers and an anti-hero who upholds a high moral code is of greater consequence to the web of characters around him than who he loves.
The drug dealing gangs of Baltimore fling scorn at Omar with phrases such as “that faggot’s gotta be get”, which is a clever paradox on the show’s behalf. It reflects the strong prejudice against gay men that still exists. It’s meant to be a barb that suggests his sexuality is detrimental to him, that he’s weak. On the other hand, the comment suggests that he’s a danger that needs to be eliminated urgently and directly contradicts the intended insult. They’re fearful of him because he’s such a threat even though they’re simultaneously deriding his character as a faggot.
While not typically a “lead gay action hero”, Omar is a great example of a gay action character written well.
2. More Transgender Role Models
In 2012, GLAAD examined 10 Years of Transgender Images on TV. The findings are somewhat heartbreaking.
“After cataloguing 102 episodes and non-recurring storylines of scripted television that contained transgender characters, they found that 54% of those were categorized as containing negative representations at the time of their airing. An additional 35% were categorized as ranging from "problematic" to "good," while only 12% were considered groundbreaking, fair and accurate.” - GLAAD
So what would a more fully-formed and complex representation of a transgender person look like?
Until recently with the release of Transparent (2014- ), stories dealing with issues facing the transgender community – which cut through to mainstream audiences – had been few and far between. The Golden Globe winning TV series is changing all that.
The story follows Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), a father who really wants to share a secret with his three children. After the first family dinner, we quickly learn that the children are consumed with themselves, oblivious to the fact that something has changed for their dad.
What is so refreshing about Transparent is how much like any other TV show it feels. The show goes to great lengths to depict a naturally flowing family dynamic, dysfunction and all. The lies that the characters spin to keep each other happy, their desires to meet expectations, their yearning to be supportive – the show could be your typical US drama on network television. Perhaps this is the key? The focus is not solely on the trans person themselves but the story that orbits around them. At its heart, the series is a family drama with a trans lead character.
3. The Non Sexualised Lesbian
As TV Tropes states, "In the real world, LGBTQI+ persons are just as varied in personality and traits as straight/cisgender ones, it has suited television [and film] writers to use common stereotypes for their gay characters in lieu of actually making them "real people"."
Unfortunately, if we created a montage of lesbians on film and TV we’d likely end up with a lot of frat movie make-out scenes, or scenes in which women are servicing each other in front of men. Surely there's more to lesbian characters than being beautiful temptresses? What are their names? Where do they work? Do they have hobbies?
Enter the strong and dynamic bond that Piper and Alex from Netflix's Orange is the New Black (2013- ) share. It's an intimate portrait of two women from different walks of life whose relationship is complex and layered. Their relationship isn’t perfect (hey, it’s a drama) but their relationship isn’t just sex on screen, either (particularly for the male gaze). It’s their struggle to remain cordial with each other in a claustrophobic environment, it’s their relationship prior to incarceration, it’s the emotional strength they draw from one another. We discover they’re two resilient and bold ladies.
Importantly, Piper and Alex are also not defined by their relationship or sexuality. Throughout the show, we're fed glimpses of their past lives through a series of flashbacks which helps establish all that they have all left behind. Their motivations and dreams are revealed affecting their future actions for better or worse.
What also adds to the enjoyment of watching these two leading women on screen are the many issues that they encounter within the system. From their perspectives and those of their fellow inmates we're privy to entrenched racism, socio-economic disadvantage and stereotypes or prejudice that offenders often face while in jail or upon release. Orange is the New Black's stories, characters and environment are extremely lush, thus Piper and Alex as people are enriched.
4. The Drag Queen and King (in and out of Drag)
With the exception of a few films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Venus Boyz (2002) and Paris is Burning (1990), many representations of drag queens and kings on screen are negative and almost certainly relegated to minor characters. Often members of the community are depicted as victims or villains, or inspirations for "bad guys" - for example, Ursula, the sea-witch from The Little Mermaid (1989) is based on the drag queen Divine.
In terms of more mainstream representations, some movies have offered interesting interpretations. Chris Tucker plays the extraverted Ruby Rhod in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997), a character who blurs the line of gender in terms of traditional clothing norms. Yet, despite being a lead character he’s still mostly there for comedy relief.
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009- ) is a reality TV show in which drag contestants compete to be crowned "America's next drag superstar!" It’s a cobbled together creation, part America’s Next Top Model (there are many funny cheap shots at Tyra’s expense) and part Project Runway.
The show does everything within its power to not only entertain, but also to educate along the way. It highlights that the men on the show are performers and artists, dispels misconceptions that because they’re female impersonators that they automatically want to be women, and reveals struggles that a lot of working drag queens face. It's also hilarious.
There have been some criticisms of the show about transgender issues, particularly when the show is being flippant for laughs. Overall, though, the show has been received positively and amassed a large following. It's proved popular with non-LGBTQI+ audiences too.
Venus Boyz is a fantastic documentary that explores the world of drag kings with a similarly candid approach to that of Paris is Burning. We meet a series of performance artists who share their innermost thoughts, feelings and joy of being on stage.
The enthusiasm of the documentary is transferred to the audience as the kings take us behind the scenes and into the work that goes into male impersonation. One quite memorable scene is with Diane Torr, an internationally recognised pioneer of drag king performances. In the documentary, we’re afforded a glimpse into a rehearsal space where she teaches her renowned "Man for a Day" workshop.
5. The LGBTQI+ Supporting Cast Member Who Doesn't Suck
LGBTQI+ characters aren't going to be the main character in a majority of films or TV shows, which is fine. But why do these characters in supporting roles suddenly become one-dimensional and woeful if they aren't the lead?
Portrayals of LGBTQI+ characters are getting better gradually, especially in the sphere of TV shows. Until more recently the defining feature of gender and sexually diverse characters was as a basic plot-assist, such as the sarcastic best friend, a distant relative, a victim, or a neighbour. They'd float in and out of a series, be painfully simplistic and never be heard from again. Thankfully, writers are starting to explore the potential of these characters in greater detail.
As a result, they are no longer flimsy attempts at sculpting people, but rather the characters are being fleshed-out - even if they're side characters. An example is Danny, the openly gay, well-loved co-captain on the lacrosse team in the MTV series Teen Wolf(2011- ). As always, however, there's still more room for minorities in terms of time on screen.
Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Max Blum from Happy Endings (2011-2013)
Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black (2013-)
Danny Māhealani from Teen Wolf (2011-)
Lily from Black Swan (2010)
Blaine Devon Anderson from Glee (2009- )
Dr. Luisa Alver from Jane the Virgin (2014-)
Keoki from Party Monster (2003)
Doris from Looking (2014-) *she identifies as straight, however she makes this list because she's a well rounded straight character amongst LGBTQI+ mates
- Miles Openshaw, Digital and Social Media Advisor