Featuring LGBT+ characters on television has many benefits: it affords LGBT+ individuals visibility, offers them role models, promotes tolerance, and can help advance genuine progress within society.
However, failing to look past stereotypes or treating characters as ‘the gay/bi/trans/ace one’ doesn’t reflect reality, creating a type of misunderstanding that furthers prejudice instead of progress. While some shows are guilty of this, others have been more successful in LGBT+ representation – here are a couple of examples of what has succeeded and what hasn’t.
THUMBS UP: SEX EDUCATION
Sex Education has been praised for the genuine diversity among its cast – it features an array of gay, bisexual, asexual and pansexual characters, several of whom are people of colour. No character has the same story as another regarding their sexuality either. For example, although Adam is somewhat ashamed of his bisexuality, which is realistic and relevant to explore, we also get to see characters like Eric who are comfortable with their identity – after all, not all LGBT+ people have to be burdened with shame. Most importantly, none of the characters’ sexualities define them; they aren’t erased, but they develop as people with more concerns than just who they are attracted to.
THUMBS UP: CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend offers not only an accurate but unique representation of bisexuality: Rebecca’s boss Darryl discovers his attraction to men shortly after a divorce and later dates one of her male friends. It departs from the norm in that rather than having a teenager discover their sexuality, it is a middle aged man, which is great considering that older characters aren’t often represented or are dismissed as just being gay and in the closet all their lives. Furthermore, his outrageously funny song ‘Gettin’ Bi’ actively debunks various myths about his sexual orientation in a light hearted yet realistic fashion. Darryl is absolutely shameless and proud, and it is joyous to watch him celebrate his identity.
THUMBS DOWN: GLEE
Glee championed diversity and LGBT+ representation before either became buzzwords, featuring various LGBT+ characters. However, they slip into stereotypical territory too often. Despite evolving later on in the show, Kurt is initially only a typically camp gay man, which we have all seen far too many times, and later becomes a ‘predatory gay’ in his behaviour towards his unrequited straight crush Finn.
Meanwhile, Brittany is seen as promiscuous first and bisexual second, which is lazy and ineffective. Likewise, when previously gay character Blaine wonders if he is bisexual, Kurt hypocritically invalidates his questioning. Despite chastising him, Blaine decides later that Kurt was right all along, as if to further undermine bisexuality as a valid identity.
We later encounter two trans characters, student Unique Adams and football coach Sheldon Beiste, but the former is frequently mistreated by older characters – she is even bullied out of playing Rizzo in a production of Grease because she is still seen as male. Meanwhile, Sheldon’s transition in the final season feels forced and unrealistic. Before transitioning, he was a fairly butch woman who still wanted to feel feminine, and his transition storyline defeated the point of the show’s more valid idea that you could be a butch woman without wanting to actually be a man. Glee is an example of why inclusion of LGBT characters, while being somewhat progressive, is just not enough: lazy portrayals only prove unhelpful.
THUMBS DOWN: FRIENDS
We can give Friends a bit of credit for breaking at least some new ground for its time: it featured the first lesbian wedding on US television alongside a same-sex parent family. However, Carol remains little more than Ross’s lesbian ex wife and the mother of his child, and Ross treats her and her wife Susan particularly badly, acting as if his ex wife being a lesbian is a personal attack. A video compilation of the homophobic jokes in Friends even amounted to a staggering fifty minutes (a lot of which has to be Joey’s rather disturbing fetishisation of lesbians).
Furthermore, Chandler’s father is supposed to be trans – she is played by a woman and presents femininely in everyday life, implying she is more than just a drag queen. This handled in a very confused way, almost suggesting that there is little that separates her profession from her gender identity. Chandler’s lack of acceptance or empathy feels unwarranted when you realise the truth about his father’s identity. The vicar’s speech praising love in all forms in Carol and Susan’s wedding suggests that the creators intended to promote equality, but far too often they fall short of the mark, shaming LGBT identities instead of celebrating them.
As far as mainstream television goes, LGBT+ couples are an increasingly popular choice to be featured in shows. Most notably, it is in American and Teen dramas where the inclusion and representation of such couples seems to excel (but also at times falter and rely on overused stereotypes), and these examples demonstrate both the positive and negative aspects.
THUMBS UP: DEGRASSI
Degrassi happens to be a staple in its inclusion of gay and lesbians couples throughout its 14 season run. Paige and Alex was an interesting pairing, given Paige’s bisexuality, which was explored in good depth during season five. Their relationship did not feel forced and they had good chemistry, the fact that they didn’t work out as a couple in the end makes it much more realistic, and avoids an idealistic presentation of LGBT couples – instead they’re just like any straight couple, they also face relationship issues.
On the other hand, the presentation of gay male couples in the show is not quite as effective, and ultimately stems on a stereotypical notion of gay men, whereby their sexuality is presented as the only important aspect of their identity, and this is epitomised through Riley and Zane. Riley for the most part of his time on the show, is a closeted jock. Whilst coming to terms with being gay he also falls for Zane – a character who’s entire existence is based on being gay, and, Riley’s boyfriend. The writers do little to separate Zane from being more than a plot device for Riley’s character growth – which by the end of the show, is little more than being the gay jock who eventually accepts his sexuality. However, for the time in which the show was airing (2001-2015), it was breaking boundaries for simply including main characters who were in gay relationships, despite these flaws in their presentation.
THUMBS UP: SOUTH OF NOWHERE
South of Nowhere perhaps gives one of the best presentations of an LGBT+ couple when considering the majority of teen dramas. The show ultimately gave us one of the most inspiring pairings through Spencer and Ashley. Spencer, a somewhat closeted lesbian from a close-knit Christian family comes to terms with her sexuality, whereas Ashley is openly bisexual and as a result, faces discrimination from some of her classmates at school. Ashley and her former lover, Aiden, both become closer to Spencer, and an inevitable love triangle is formed between the three.
Whilst the focus is primarily on Spencer and Ashley, it is refreshing to see Ashley’s relationship with Aiden consistently explored throughout the show, as it reminds us that whilst the main premise of the show centers on the lesbian relationship of Spencer and Ashley, Ashley is still bisexual and is still into guys. It avoids the notion of bi-erasure and acknowledges that Ashley is still attracted to men as well as women. Spencer and Ashley’s feelings for each other are developed in a gradual and realistic way, and it’s hard not to root for them, because as viewers, we genuinely believe that they are in love – which Spencer’s conservative Christian mother eventually realises, and accepts.
THUMBS DOWN: PRETTY LITTLE LIARS AND GOSSIP GIRL
Other big name shows such as Pretty Little Liars feature LGBT+ couples, however their portrayal is rather shallow. The majority of Emily’s plotlines focus on her interactions with girls. Her relationship with Alison (whilst featuring good chemistry) feels rather forced in the later seasons of the show. And Alison’s sexuality is never explored in any depth, the only girl she shows any interest for is Emily, which to an extent makes their pairing feel ingenuine or generated for fan-service. Gossip Girl features gay characters such as Serena’s brother Eric and hints at Chuck’s bisexuality, however the only siginificant gay pairing’s would be Eric and Jonathan who are still, nonetheless, secondary characters within the show. Whilst there is gay representation through the couple, it at times feels like the writers included this pairing just for the sake of representation – whereas the main characters, which we spend most of the time with are all straight, whose relationships are potrayed as the important ones. These shows have continued to help pave the way for LGBT+ representation with the inclusion of these couples, however, there is still something missing in the majority of these portrayals.