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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Tai

LGBTQ+ CINEMA: WHAT MAKES GOOD REPRESENTATION?

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

The role of media representation in the LGBTQ+ movement.


With a growing influence over trends in public opinion, accurate and meaningful media representation has become an indispensable catalyst to fuel greater inclusion and acceptance towards diversity. As globalization catalyzes a growth in sociocultural heterogeneity, normalizing the presence of queer identities in the media not only builds a more accurate and transparent picture of human sexuality and social diversity, but also stands as the first step in mitigating a multitude of issues affecting the LGBTQ+ demographic today.


In many parts of the world where legislation meets the resistance of sociopolitical conservatism and a fear of mass conservative pushback, evaluating the roots of our polarized opinions can help us better understand why the impediments to LGBTQ+ rights exist in the first place, and help us gain a clearer picture to our next call to action~


Early Queer Cinema


Queer identities have only begun making appearances in the digital media space during last century or so, and that history is not all glorious. With the rise of cinematography in the Western hemisphere in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the earliest visibilities of gay and gender-queer characters were mostly rare, caricature (used as comedic elements of mockery), or dehumanizingly antagonistic. The 1930s’ rise of the horror genre exemplifies this extent as film-makers began depicting monsters as queer, diseased perverts.


Into the Hays Code Era of Hollywood production (1930s-1960s), the legal prohibition of positive LGBTQ+ portrayals on film quickly came to be a major attribute to the development of toxic stereotypes surrounding (mostly) gay men, leaving the presence of queer characters on film to be either non-existent or depicted as a form of perversion. And even as we make our way into the 21st century, censorship laws banning or restricting LGBTQ+ content continue to perpetuate the many misconceptions and underwhelmed urgency of queer normalization today.


Media Representation


The presence and representation of LGBTQ+ identities are two drastically different subjects and understanding where the line between them stands is critical to our sourcing and exposure to healthy and meaningful narratives of queer stories. From sitcoms to horror movies, let us look at some of my top picks for LGBTQ+ television and cinema!


1. SKAM


Source: NRK


Coming from a relatively traditional East Asian background, it may come as a surprise that one of my favorite TV series is the Norwegian teen drama SKAM (meaning “shame” in Norwegian). Written and directed by Oslo-born screen writer Julie Andem, SKAM takes us along its four seasons through the lenses of four main characters: Eva, Noora, Isak, and Sana. Shedding light on the skam plaguing the lives of each character, the show underscores a multitude of social issues from eating disorders and mental illness to LGBTQ+ identities and sexual assault. With its candid way of storytelling, SKAM really has transcended cultural barriers to highlight issues as fundamentally universal.


Following the story of Isak and his boyfriend Even, Season 3 of SKAM focuses its narrative on the two characters’ personal and interpersonal conflicts, highlighting the complexity of social issues as they intertwine. What’s so refreshing about SKAM is that although Isak and Even’s tumultuous relationship serves as the central conflict of the season, it isn’t portrayed as the result of Isak’s struggle with his sexuality, but a combination of factors exclusive of gender or sexual identity.


Source: NRK


The season also features several queer subplots to underscore commonplace social issues within the LGBTQ+ community. In a beautifully-delivered monologue following Isak’s comment that he’s not “gay gay” (a ‘type of gay’ he later clarifies as belonging to the people who take the whole “gay package,” who parade the streets in tights and mascara), the show underscores the damage of internalized homophobia, calling out the toxicity of hierarchical hatred within the LGBTQ+ community.

“I need to tell you one thing about these people who you don’t want to be associated with, Isak. About those people who have worn tights and mascara… and went out and fought for the right to be who they are. They’re people who, throughout the years, have chosen to endure harassment… and hate… who have been beaten up and killed. And that’s not because they’re so insanely keen on being different… But because they’d rather die than pretend to be something they’re not. And that, Isak, requires courage on a whole other level than most human beings are able to understand. And I think that before you’ve fought that battle yourself, before you’ve dared to stand up for who you are, you should be fucking careful with talking and raising yourself above gay pride.”

Coming to portray the cultural and religious complexities that exist within LGBTQ+ discourse, season 3 also features several scenes discussing the role of two seemingly polar belief systems in the face of LGBTQ+ issues: science and Islam. In response to Isak’s criticism of her Muslim identity, Sana not only delineates the misconception of Muslims being homophobic (and all cishet), but also points out the dark history of scientific justifications for homophobia, many of which still plague our society today (e.g. conversion therapy).


Besides Sana’s role as an ally in Isak’s life (a topic further explored in season 4), SKAM’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ allyship is also attributed to the several scenes featuring casually homophobic comments. The many “urgh, I love gay guys, they’re just all so funny!”s are a particularly interesting take to the issue of allyship as it comes to highlight the borderline fetishization and stereotyping of queer identities among “ally” communities. Bookending the 4 seasons on themes of social and cultural marginalization, SKAM underscores the importance of solidarity, not just among, but also within minority communities.


2. Schitt’s Creek


The popular Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek has broken grounds in many ways, but its portrayal of queer love is one that stands out among many.


The town of Schitt’s Creek essentially stands as the paragon of an ideal world where homophobia and gender norms are non-exisitent yet where queer identities remain a matter for celebration. In their casual convient store conversation, Stevie asks David about his sexual preferences through an analogy to wine, a comparison to which David explains that he “likes the wines, not the labels”. This subtle yet outstandingly creative portrayal of “coming out” as nothing more than the usual communication of sexual preferences in any sexual relationship serves as one among many examples of queer normalization in the show.


3. The Haunting of Bly Manor


Based on Henry James’ 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Bly Manor takes a unique turn from its horror origins with a beautifully-portrayed queer love story.


The series follows the love story of Dani, a American teacher who escapes a traumatizing relationship to start a new life as an au pair at Bly Manor. Kindling a slow-burned romance with the manor’s gardener Jamie, Dani is the character archetype of a heroine: brave, selfless, and loving. The series makes an effort to portray Dani and Jamie’s relationship in a relatable limelight, defined by elements true to every relationship regardless of gender.


With romance being at the center of every subplot - whether it be toxic romance, unpursued/late love, or, like Dani and Jamie’s, true love - Dani and Jamie’s story has come to be the representation of the only love in the story that is real, unconditional, and needless of external validation in the story.


Source: Netflix


Despite criticisms against Flanagan for ending the show with the death of Dani, citing a perpetuation of the common “bury your gays” trope of mainstream cinematography, I find myself looking at Dani’s death not as a usage of the trope, but as a meaningful portrayal of a love that transcends the living. The “bury your gays” trope in queer media often refers to movies or TV shows that tokenize queer identities, featuring them as supporting characters in a few scenes to achieve the title of representation, while the character’s sexuality has no contribution to the plot whatsoever, and who’s sudden and unexplained death is just convenient way to clean up the story from insignificant characters. In The Haunting of Bly Manor, however, Dani’s love stands as one of the most important elements driving the plot forward, and her death stands as a representation of her strength and true love for Jamie. Also, having said one of the show’s most iconic lines “dead doesn’t mean gone,” the death of Dani doesn’t mark the death of her presence and love, but a crossroad in her and Jamie’s love story.


4. It’s a Sin


Source: Channel 4


In a world where plotlines from queer tragedies reflect existing realities, finding a middle ground between empowerment and awareness not only raise importance for issues within the LGBTQ+ community but also inspires queer folks to embrace and celebrate their identity.


Russell T Davies’ 2021 drama It’s a Sin would be the paragon of such middle ground. The series is set in 1981 London during the rise of the AIDS epidemic and follows the journey of five friends as they begin their journey of self discovery. Through the course of the plotline, the main characters Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Ash, and Jill rent out an apartment (which they name the Pink Palace) as a safe haven for this chosen family. The film so vividly portrays the strength and unity of the queer community, hinting at the role of allies and queer women in battling HIV/AIDS. Though the series is set around a time of public paranoia against gay men, it more so focuses on the characters’ determination to live freer and love fiercer than ever, using elements of comedy relevant to queer culture for levity.


The show has not only earned overwhelming praise from the queer community for paying tribute to queer historical figures and recounting LGBTQ+ progressive events, but has also won accolades from the general public for helping cause a huge surge in HIV testing in the UK. The results of this series does more than empower and inspire people. It reflects just how big of a momentum good representation can have on public awareness and social change.


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