An Investigation of queer representation on television: Part I


By Kylie Gorski

I am the current president of Student Allies for Equality, our LGBTQIA focused club on campus. During one of our regular club events, Out for Coffee, some of my fellow students and I discussed queer representation — or lack thereof — in television today. What we discovered was concerning enough that I decided to hopefully extend our message to a greater audience.

What I mean by “representation — or lack thereof,” is the startlingly small number of primary queer characters (for my purposes I will use the term “queer” to indicate the entirety of the LGBTQIA community) and queer relationships on television, especially in comparison with straight, cis-gendered representation. The first step in our discussion was to list popular television shows that we were familiar with.

We came up with titles like: Rizzoli and Isles, Supernatural, Doctor Who, Once Upon a Time, How I Met Your Mother and many more. From there, I went through the list and asked, “How many canon, queer characters, if any, are in these shows?”

That question alone made the list of 12 shows become a list of only five. We then listed the number of queer characters and the number of straight characters and, in every example, including The Fosters, which is a show about a lesbian couple, the number of straight, cis characters greatly exceeded the number of queer characters. Out of the shows that did include queer characters, how many included primary queer characters that had a main storyline and were in every episode? The answer is two.

Out of the characters we listed, only Captain Jack Harkness of Doctor Who is pansexual and only Callie of Grey’s Anatomy is bisexual. None of the characters were trans- or asexual. This is in regards to canon (something that is explicitly mentioned or referenced in the show) and not non-canon (unmentioned but implied) characters and relationships. For example, many fans of the show Big Bang Theory believe that the main character, Sheldon, is asexual. This is due to his general disinterest in sex with anyone of any gender. However, it is never explicitly referred to in the show and therefore open to interpretation. Many shows specifically leave these kinds of questions open to avoid isolating the casual, heteronormative viewer.

For example, I recently re-watched an episode of Once Upon a Time, an ABC show that  modernizes fairytales, where the audience finds out that Rumple Stiltskin’s father abandoned him as a child.  When the father abandons Rumple, two women end up adopting him. I think Once Upon A Time is a good example of how shows are strategic about content and promotion so that they can make the most money and please the greatest number of both queer and homophobic viewers.

LGBTQIA people grow up grasping for some representation, something that looks like them on the television. What they are faced with is a lot of straight and cis-gendered couples and characters. So what happens? They adapt, they find something to connect with and, in the process, realize that love is love, and love is relatable to everyone.

Now, what does this say of the casual straight, cis-gendered viewer? This is a blanket statement and certainly not true of everyone, but I do think it applies to a lot of the Once Upon A Time fandom: basically the casual non-LGBTQIA viewer grows up with no need to search for representation or relatability and do not find themselves needing to understand or watch gay relationships on television.  So, if a gay relationship is put on a television show, it needs to be palatable to these viewers. That often means either no gay relationships at all, fetishized relationships, relationships with a tragic end and/or backstory or gay relationships as a bridge into a more permanent straight relationship.  If it’s a “normal” and steady gay love story, it’s not palatable to the general audience.

So what does this mean about making money and keeping viewers? Well, a show knows that it won’t lose its gay viewers without gay couples on a show. Why? Gay people are used to not seeing gay characters in the mainstream and are used to dealing with it. They are used to watching shows with only straight couples. However, the casual straight viewer is not used to seeing gay relationships and some will stop watching in favor of other shows that have straight couples on them. Or at least that is the marketing opinion of most big, main-stream shows.

What do they do? Well, this is where the two women that adopted the character of Rumple Stiltskin come in. These two women are literally spinsters — they spin wool. But, they are also examples of the other meaning of the term spinster, a woman living without a man who makes her own way (by spinning, for example). These two women are older and live together happily. They adopt a child as their own. They are implied lesbians.  So, to gay and allied viewers, they are a sliver of gay representation on Once Upon A Time. But it has to be played safely, because ABC doesn’t want to isolate their homophobic viewers. So these women don’t kiss, don’t touch and the subject of their sleeping arrangements is skillfully avoided.

See Part II, next week!



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