Five LGBTQI+ characters missing from our screens
Michael K. Williams as Omar in 'The Wire' (2002–08)
Stories & Ideas

Fri 06 Oct 2017

Ten LGBTQI+ characters missing from our screens

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ACMI X colourful wallpaper

Miles Openshaw

Writer

We take a look at LGBTQI+ screen characters that should exist and the issues with those that do

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.

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in 'The Fast and the Furious' (2001)

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in 'The Fast and the Furious' (2001)

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.

Progress

“Omar's comin'!” Omar from HBO's The Wire (2002–08) 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 categorised as containing negative representations at the time of their airing. An additional 35% were categorised 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?

Progress

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?

Progress

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.

Ursula

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.

Progress

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.

Progress

Characters like:

Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)

Max Blum from Happy Endings (2011–13)

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

6. The acknowledged bisexual

Mainstream moving image has long used bisexual characters as tools of sexual intrigue. Insert any TV episode or film in which a straight, white male is interested in a flirtatious woman only to be suddenly dumb-founded when she turns around and kisses another woman. She’s the unattainable objective. Cut to later that episode, a few episodes later, or reaching the climax of the film and yep, she’s fallen for him. We no longer hear anything about her bisexuality, apart from that now he’s satisfying her needs so she must have “made a choice” because she’s found “the right guy”.

Dodgeball’s Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor) is one such example of the bisexual character that fits snuggly into this category.

Dodgeball (2004)

'Dodgeball' (2004)

As writer Vrai Kaiser suggests:

“Whether you view it as a phase, a way of continuing to 'pass' in straight society, a sexy fan service opportunity that can still be hooked up with a heterosexual love interest in the end, a lascivious villain out to draw every wide eyed or stalwart innocent into their life of depravity, or just referring to them as solely gay or straight depending on their partner at the time, there are a whole host of exciting ways to ignore and trivialise non-monosexual people.”

Even in films which offer a refreshing take on non-monosexual norms, such as Chasing Amy, there’s still an unwillingness to acknowledge that the character could possibly be bisexual. Of course, Amy is certainly within her rights to identify as a lesbian despite having had sex with men and dating a man. The issue here is that the reluctance appears to be an industry standard where sexually fluid or bisexual characters are concerned.

Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams in 'Chasing Amy' (1997)

Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams in 'Chasing Amy' (1997)

Further, although the film is rather progressive, even by today’s standards, it focuses more on Holden’s hurt feelings as opposed to Alyssa’s actual sexual identity and choices. Still Chasing Amy remains as an interesting look at biphobia, depicted from both the hetero- and homosexual sides of Alyssa’s social circles.

Fighting the media’s love of bi-erasure, may we present you with Ilana Wexler (Alana Glazer).

From the much loved Comedy Central TV show, now in its third season, Ilana is one-half of the dynamic duo in Broad City. Wexler is a character that our favourite shows have been missing for a long time. She’s fiercely proud of her non-monosexualism and owns it. 

Why is Wexler so compelling? For a start, her sexuality – though very important to her – is not solely who she is. Instead, it’s her and Abbi’s friendship that is front and centre in the show. The adventures on which the duo embark, the situations they manifest and find themselves in which are often wonderfully ludicrous and bizarre, and the degree to which their quirky traits are fleshed out, are the foundations on which the characters are moulded.

By extension, Ilana is a fascinating character whose bisexuality is explored in interesting and exciting ways. In one memorable scene, while reflecting on the ills of the world, she ponders “Statistically, we’re all headed toward an age where everyone’s gonna be, like, caramel and queer”. Thus, she reveals her idea of utopia to us. And we only have one thing to say about it. Yass Kween!

7. Non binary gender role models

Maybe it’s some kind of holdover from Victorian England in which we feel the need to classify everything, but this mentality certainly bleeds through into Western screen culture. It’s taught to us at a very young age. Establish the scene, the mood, and the characters. What are they wearing, how do they act, strong or weak, are they a man or woman? A character’s motivations and storylines in moving image work have long been dictated and driven with gender being one of the primary influences. Given this desire to order the world, often TV, films and videogames that truly represent non binary gender characters are few and far between.

When artist Sakimi Chan decided to put a gender-bending spin on some of the most familiar Disney faces we grew up watching, the works immediately break down expected gender norms and the results are breathtaking.

Sakimi Chan's take on Ariel

Sakimi Chan's take on Ariel

Knowing what we know about these famous characters and the stereotypical tropes of gender attached to them, these new characters would make for some incredible remakes.

Even in predominantly queer friendly shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, trans contestants have since spoken out about instances of transphobia, proving that even within the LGBTQI+ community ongoing education and communication is crucial if we are to change media portrayal of non-binary gendered people.

Contrast this to the incredible Tangerine. Shot on iPhone 5, this bittersweet film follows the story of a betrayed sex worker attempting to find her pimp. In what The Guardian dub a “New Wave Hollywood” film, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is on a warpath to find her cheating boyfriend and insists best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) be her winglady.

The film has a permanent Grand Theft Auto vibe going on what with the gritty Cali feel and constant Valencia filter, which makes for stunning cinematography. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are fearless and own the joint as they go from haunt to haunt. What draws us closer to the two leads is the dynamic they share and the people we meet in their world. We wait with bated breath as the firecracker Sin-Dee gets closer and closer to Chester. The characters are fleshed out and – surprise – in being offered the chance to discover more about them we forge opinions about these non one-dimensional characters.

8. More LGBTQI+ characters who are ethnicities other than white

It’s interesting that even within a minority community, who are all about diversity; there is still inequality in terms of equal representation of voice.

In what should have been a tremendously moving and proud moment for the LGBTQI+ community, it’s hard not to feel your heart sink in the movie Stonewall. Instead, a bunch of white-washing occurs. The main targets of the cops – as well as the main instigators of the riot – transgender people of colour are sidelined in favour of an attractive blonde. Why it gotta be a young, white, gay cis man who throws the brick?

It’s easy to dismiss how natural Law makes the show feel. Despite a cast of very few white characters; scenes in which the characters break into Cantonese (representing the code-switching that often occurs in bilingual households); and drawing attention to topical issues around racism, immigration and feminism, the show isn’t really like anything else on TV. Yet, it is. It feels so Australian at the same time.

What's also so wonderful about the show is the tender and subtle ways that Ben’s sexuality is handled by his family. Aunt Rose’s visit comes to mind in which Mommy Jenny is like an iron lotus in defence of her son; beautiful and soft, but strong as a shield.

Though there are those who would argue that any moving image content chronicling LGBTQI+ history is a win, one cannot help think that the film took the easy way out. Yes, it’s a bigger budget queer film with glossy production that has capacity to draw mainstream audiences - so pandering occurred. However, the act of trading in potential protagonists of colour is akin to rewriting history, and it really does cheapen any coup achieved.

Casting our gaze to shows which people ‘comfort watch’ or chain-watch (soapies, dramas, procedurals), seeing the success of Benjamin Law’s The Family Law is TV inclusiveness at its finest. It’s heartwarming to see a show with a lead non-white gay character so enthusiastically embraced. It’s also hilarious as hell.

If we look at our US counterparts, Empire represents what mainstream shows can look like with inclusion in mind. The cast is predominantly African-American, with one main character being gay. Jussie Smollett plays Jamal Lyon, one of three sons who stand to inherit Empire Entertainment, their father Lucious Lyon’s music company.

The relationship between Lucious and Jamal has always been strained on account of his son’s homosexuality. The show offers its own take on the conflict of coming out when your father is a CEO and a hip hop visionary.

What makes Jamal so excellent is that he’s complex. He values honesty, perhaps to a fault, is intense about musical integrity and doesn’t doubt himself. He’s not perfect though. His boyfriend even calls him out on his behaviour at points, making a point about how uncomfortable he is around effeminate gays. It’s this balance that makes Smollet’s rising hip hop artist so compelling, in a high-octane soapie no less.

9. LGBTQI+ characters who show intimacy on screen

We’ll know things have truly changed when ads targeted at the general population feature sexually and gender diverse couples having a moment with Coke on a sun-drenched bench and laughing and touching foreheads. Though for now, that kind of intimacy is a foreign land.

There are exceptions, Omar from HBO's The Wire and Keith from Six Feet Under are some existing shining examples of absolutely getting it right when portraying queer intimacy and love on screen. Omar even goes on a rampage in the name of love.

Empire normalises intimacy for its lead gay character and it’s surprising how rare it feels to see it on the screen, especially when it’s not some nightclub or bar.

Of course, shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word will always have their place as revolutionary TV shows for their time championing queer sexuality on screen. They have laid the groundwork for shows like Empire and Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me.

Josh Thomas and Keegan Joyce in 'Please Like Me'. Image credit: Ben Timony

Josh Thomas and Keegan Joyce in 'Please Like Me'. Image credit: Ben Timony

In a show which comprises story arcs about characters living with mental illness and coming out, Please Like Me charts the tale of twentysomethings Josh. Notably, we don’t encounter Josh’s same-sex scene until Season 3. As writer Tim McGuire points out, this may be part of the reason for the show’s continuation while HBO’s Looking got the chop.

The sex scene is part of the trend of more realistic portrayals of sex on television, depicting realistic intimacy between two gay leads. There’s a visible condom wrapper and a brief chat about comfort and consent. It’s a promising template for the future.

10. Representation of LGBTQI+ characters in video games

Video games have long been a straight males’ domain, or at least targeted and marketed to this audience. The plethora of fighting games in which scantily clad woman with enormous décolletage battle fiercely speaks to the work of developers and their vision. Of course, there are scantily clad men too (though fewer in number). #zangiefisabear

While these games and their busty protagonists are certainly a staple for gaming companies, some have broken out of the cookie-cutter world. As that saying goes, fortune favours the bold.

The Sims  is one of the bestselling games of all time. Being a ‘sandbox’ game (in which you lack any defined goals) you create your own world. A Sim can wear whatever they like, be androgynous, be in same-sex relationships – the only limit really is your imagination in terms of how you want your character to live and interact with the world. The game doesn’t restrict players, for example giving all Sims access to all clothes.

Though of course, there is still a distinct lack of LGBTQI+ Heroes in the gaming world.

It comes as no surprise then that when Nintendo, intentionally or otherwise, introduced Birdo into their array of main characters with an ambiguous gender, they received criticism. The fact that Birdetta does not fit into the binary male or female categories challenges entrenched pop culture normalcy.

Nintendo character, Birdo

Nintendo character, Birdo

The original manual for Super Mario Bros. 2 asserts that “Birdo thinks he is a girl and likes to be called Birdetta. He likes to wear a bow on his head and shoot eggs from his mouth.” Later on, Nintendo 64’s Mario Tennis pairs Birdo and Yoshi as girlfriend and boyfriend, with Birdo’s gender identity being cemented as female. Moving forward eight years to Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Birdo is of "indeterminate gender". It’s an interesting case-study.

Despite society’s expectations, Birdo has been lauded as the first transgender video game character. Her transition taking place in the public eye has certainly demonstrated how trans and indeed many sexually and gender diverse characters are treated in the industry.

Austen Crowder from The Bilerico Project says:

“Looking at these two regionalisation processes [between Japan and the US], one thing becomes clear: LGBT people were either wiped clean off the slate or used to avoid gender-specific criticism. Various other cases show gay people being wiped off the face of videogames in this time period as well. Gay men were sometimes replaced with women, sometimes just portrayed as effeminate. Lesbian relationships turned into close siblings. Over all else, however, was the overwhelming assertion that LGBT people simply were not welcome in the videogame world.”

We’ll know that progress has truly occurred when a family friendly brand like Nintendo release a Birdo’s Island title and don't make a big deal about her relationship with Yoshi, but instead focus on her prowess at shooting eggs and going on adventures.

– Miles Openshaw