Fictional LGBT characters have become more common in movies, TV, and more as the LGBT community has gained wider visibility. That said, perceptions of LGBT characters in mass media still has a long way to go, but independent media are trailblazing new paths for character sexual identity and gender equality.
The distinction between mass and independent media can largely be summed up by money. Generally, million-pound budgets drive development periods that have larger production crews and more drawn-out promotions. Popular films and TV typically fall into this category, but of late popular video games are represented as well – Grand Theft Auto V, for example, had a budget of $170 million, or about £105 million. While budget numbers are impressive on their own, it’s important to realise that these budgets imply ample opportunity to build characters creatively, or to perform basic research that lends their stories a semblance of accuracy.
Despite the opportunity to build accurate character portrayal, archaic and unrealistic LGBT characters pervade mass media. Such characters are built for a single purpose and are often driven by the plot, rather than driving the plot themselves; to this end, LGBT characters are often consigned to the status of supporting character, at best, to a heterosexual lead. Such characters often represent predictable tropes that fall into stifling, thoughtless categories.
The first role for most LGBT characters, particularly for those in hetero-driven comedies, is that of comedic relief. That is, their LGBT status in itself something to laugh at, to mock, or to generally deride in some fashion. The American TV series Will & Grace was notorious for exploiting their gay characters, suggesting LGBT lifestyle is one supported by a laugh track. In movies, gay male characters are portrayed as de-masculine, becoming the object of comedic subplots. For example, Todd Cleary (Wedding Crashers) is mopey and useless, with ‘He’s a homo’ being the punchline in multiple dialogues; to-be trans character Loretta (Life of Brian) is bumbling and confused; Mr Chow (The Hangover) is flamboyant and never taken seriously despite actual threats to the protagonists. This is not a comprehensive list, merely examples to prove a point that movies appear to portray: in popular media, men who deviate from the hetero norm are mocked and sidelined, and never develop outside of their comedic sidekick status.
Another over-used trope for LGBT characters is that of over-sexualised decoration. Much like women, and particularly women of colour, LGBT characters’ sexualities are often exaggerated to cater to a cisgender male-dominated audience. Hyper-sexualised lesbian characters are written to titillate the male viewer: Pussy Galore from Goldfinger and Lucille from Sin City, for example, are all but defined by their sexual allure. In these examples, lesbians are written to provide exoticism to a character in order to increase male interest, and character development outside of their status as ‘exotic, attractive lesbian’ is practically nil. For gay male characters, hyper-sexuality serves more as an offshoot of the comedic sidekick routine, where gay sexualities are overblown for comedic value. From True Blood, Lafayette Reynolds’s overblown, hyper-feminine mannerisms are written for comedic effect; from the Fable series of video games, Reaver’s sexual exaggerated sexual appetite is written simply for sake of mockery, and many players are happy to do just that. In themselves, sexual appetites and personal appearance are not wrong, but nor are they factors that should dictate a person’s or character’s development. When gay or lesbian sexualities are exaggerated to such a degree, LGBT characters are never allowed to develop in a wider context.
Recognising the failings of LGBT character portrayals in popular media is one thing, enacting change quite another. The prevalence of archaic heteronormative standards particularly amongst Hollywood and major videogame designers has consistently placed obstacles in the way of accurate LGBT character portrayal. Many of these obstacles have little to do with the works of media themselves, and more with the infrastructure behind producing them.
LGBT film characters have long been seen as deviant, and standards in the film industry reflect that notion of non-‘normal’ LGBT culture. In the US, nearly any film that takes LGBT characters as serious leads – Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, even the recent Love is Strange – receives an automatic R rating regardless of content. To put that in perspective, movies featuring rape, torture, drugs, and other traumatic experiences also receive R ratings. While it’s easy to agree with severe ratings for gratuitous violence, the shared ratings between gore-fests and touching LGBT films begs the question of what is so ‘adult’ about the second category. Further investigation reveals that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings board is not alone in its targeting LGBT-friendly films: recent research has revealed that Hollywood as a whole has a serious problem with anti-LGBT bias and discrimination, giving weight to the system that resists efforts to equalise LGBT portrayal in film.
Popular video games have equally systematic obstacles to accurate LGBT character portrayal, and has infamously pandered to a white cis male audience since the inception of video games. Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games webseries scrutinises how women in particular have been carelessly and maliciously handled in video games, but recent videos highlight the role of LGBT characters as well. As with many forms of discrimination, misogynist and anti-LGBT biases share several key elements where systems in place pander exclusively to a perceived audience.
It’s easy to fall into a chicken-and-egg trap to determine blame in a convoluted system: does an unbalanced system drive the production of inaccurate LGBT characters, or does the prevalence of LGBT misrepresentation make it difficult to overhaul biased systems? Both arguments hold valid points, but for our part we at LGBT.co.uk believe the systems are to blame. The characters, after all, are the product of lengthy development, and they are not the agents of their own development.
In wider-known mass media, accurate LGBT characters are gaining traction, albeit slowly. The film Love is Strange, despite its severe rating, demonstrates that a gay relationship on film can be every bit as moving as a straight relationship. For comedies, The Birdcage demonstrates how LGBT characters can actively drive comedy instead of being its object. High-budget video games are also starting to slip in rounded LGBT characters: relationship systems in the Mass Effect series famously allows players same-sex relationships, though the actual impact of these relationships remains unclear. Occasionally a more significant gem will surface and provide a glimpse of real, three-dimensional LGBT relationships, such as Tony’s scene from Earthbound. Television has a bit more diversity, with shows such as Orange is the New Black featuring leading LGBT characters and a cast who is perfectly comfortable with it. However, these popular-media examples are the exception rather than the rule, and even the current LGBT characters seem to be stuck in a gay-lesbian dichotomy.
Lesser-known media appears to be more welcoming to LGBT character and lifestyle portrayal. Interestingly, some of the best independent (‘indie’) video games abstract LGBT identity to something that can be understood by everybody but are particularly resonant with the LGBT community. Lim, for example, focuses on adopting different identities to fit in with otherwise hostile groups; A Closed World deals with queer issues more directly, but still offers the opportunity to work out these issues via monsters and quests. These games bridge a gap between queer and cis cultures through abstraction, and their respectful treatment of sensitive issues is particularly admirable in a culture that places non-conformist producers at considerable risk.
Perhaps the greatest player in LGBT-friendly media at present is webcomics. A relatively new media – the longest-running webcomics still in production are not yet 20 years old – webcomics are generally free to everybody with an Internet access. What’s more, LGBT users don’t have to sift through a mountain of ‘Best Of…’ lists to find one or two LGBT-friendly products: many of the best webcomics available feature rounded, complex, and interesting LGBT characters.
Here are a few examples from various story genres:
A long-running comic with a significant LGBT focus developed hand-in-hand with wider themes of relationships, entering adulthood, and more. A diverse cast covers the spectrum of LGBT identity, utterly shattering the binary ‘gay/not gay’ trope prevalent in most popular media. Interweaving storylines also allow LGBT and cisgender characters to co-exist comfortably and grow together. With endearing characters, excellent humour, and memorable plotlines, Girls with Slingshots is an excellent introduction to webcomics and a frontrunner in accurate, sophisticated LGBT character development.
Nimona has really shot up in popularity over the last couple of years, thanks in large part to Stevenson’s excellent writing and colourful character design. Despite its often whimsical humour the comic is not afraid to tackle quite serious issues, not least of which is the complicated relationship between the main protagonist and the first antagonist, both knights of a strangely modern-looking kingdom.
Another long-running comic, Questionable Content introduced a bisexual leading character early in the series, but in later storylines the treatment of LGBT individuals reached a much higher level. In particular, the portrayal of trans woman Claire (pictured) was exceptionally mature. Throughout her role in the comic, Claire’s identity helps to shape her character but is not the single controlling factor in it.
If you’re a fan of superheroes, then Spinnerette is an excellent bridge between traditionally cisgender-dominated hero comics and LGBT character development. The opening chapters are a bit heavy on pinup-style poses and artwork, but an artist swap led to more mature artwork linked with a change in tone for the storyline. An impressively complicated lesbian relationship drives much of the plot and character development for the two main protagonists.
Supernormal Step strikes an interesting balance between action-packed fight scenes and convoluted plotlines that any LGBT reader can identify with. The main protagonist, Fiona, is quite a knot of challenges herself, having been torn from everything she knows and forced to find her way through a strange world. A confessed asexual and aromantic heroine, much of the story deals with the challenges of self-discovery, identity, and building relationships in spite of her lone-survivor mindset.
This list is hardly exhaustive, as many other webcomics deal with or feature LGBT characters in realistic, believable settings. But the diversity of genre in the aforementioned comics should make it easy for new readers to become fans of the medium.
It is clear that accurate LGBT character portrayal is fully possible, but institutionalised anti-LGBT bias means that popular media is very slow to catch up. The increasing popularity of independent LGBT-friendly media demonstrate that the push for more accurate LGBT portrayal is justified, not just ethically but economically. The rapid, runaway success of comics like Nimona in the face of declining popular media sales demonstrates that new approaches can easily replace tired stories – as well as defuse arguments against change. But more importantly, the complex, dynamic, and interesting characters in friendly media serve as brilliant examples of humanity at its most honest and inclusive.
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