By Jared White
The Importance of LGBT+ Representation in TV and Film.
I recently finished watching It’s A Sin, Channel 4’s new five-episode series that tells the story of a group of friends living in 1980s and 90s London as AIDS tore through gay communities worldwide. As we find ourselves in LGBT+ History Month, it encouraged me to reflect on the importance of TV programmes like this, the stories they tell, and the need for more like them.
TV and Film, among other forms of popular culture and art, are important forums for influencing people’s identities and self-expression. In order to properly reflect society, they must tell queer stories.
The heteronormativity of popular culture, and wider society, has, until recently, largely prevented gay and trans people from identifying with the characters they see on screen. Even when queer characters have made appearances, they have often been put there as the butt of a joke, or simply misrepresented, often as the ‘gay best friend’ or the repulsive trans woman. This demonstrates the importance of accurate representation in providing LGBT+ people with community and recognition, as well as to normalise queerness.
In 1989, the first gay kiss on UK television, between two characters on EastEnders, was met with homophobic commentary from the mainstream. The description of this moment by Piers Morgan, a columnist for the Sun at the time, as “a love scene between two yuppie poofs” is indicative of the popular response to LGBT+ representation on-screen at the time. Remnants of such views still live on, particularly among those who see such representation as part of a woke agenda. The implication here being that queer stories are not normal stories and should remain marginalised.
Fortunately, genuine and well-considered queer character are on the rise, as both stars and supporting characters. These accurate portrayals play an important role in breaking down prejudices. By giving the audience an opportunity to engage with queer characters and their stories, these depictions show the, often mundane and ordinary, realities of queer life and can effectively counter misconceptions predicated on misinformation and othering.
These depictions provide recognition and community for queer people. To see someone ‘like you’ on screen is an incredible feeling, but not one that queer people experience very often. Representation helps queer people to understand their own history and community, especially given its once complete marginalisation from academia and society.
Stories of abuse and rejection relating to gender identity or sexuality have been, and remain, all too common. Telling them fosters an understanding of the struggles faced by many LGBT+ people worldwide, both for queer individuals who can relate to these stories or seek to learn about them, and for those outside the community who remain unaware of these issues.
On the other side of that, positive stories are crucial in LGBT+ representation. Stories that show happy, successful LGBT+ people experiencing love, community, and friendship are very important in providing examples for younger generations that what makes them ‘different’ can still be beautiful and can make them happy.
While there has been massive progress made in the last 50 years, LGBT+ representation in TV and Film is a far from finished process. There has long been a focus on gay white men, and more needs to be done to tell other stories. But progress is being made. The character Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, in Orange is the New Black provides a tactful analysis of the treatment of trans women in the American prison system, and in society as a whole. The stories of characters Eric Effiong (played by Ncuti Gatwa) in Sex Education and Roscoe (played by Omari Douglas) in It’s A Sin discuss growing up openly gay in religious African families. And Pose brings to the screen stories of the New York ballrooms during the 80s and 90s.
It is always a joy to see LGBT+ characters and stories on screen that provide a respite from the all-engulfing heteronormativity we find in most popular culture. That is not to diminish the need for telling heterosexual stories, or to suggest the supremacy of LGBT+ ones, but it’s a call for the current trend in queer visibility in popular culture not to lose pace. LGBT+ representation in popular culture matters. For those within the community. For those outside it. For everyone.
Some recommendations for LGBT+ History Month (not an exhaustive list)
- Disclosure (2018)
- Funny Boy (2020)
- The Handmaiden (2016)
- Banana and Cucumber (both 2015)
- It’s A Sin (2021)
- Pose (2018-)
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