An investigation of queer representation on television: Part II

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By Kylie Gorski

Continued from 2/20/2013

Rumple Stiltskin’s lesbian moms are the perfect example of what is happening with queer relationships in television today. The gay viewer is baited and given just enough Swan Queen or Sleeping Warrior — two non-canon, queer relationships on Once Upon A Time — without offending the sensibilities of the homophobic viewer. Captain Charming, another non-canon character in a gay relationship, is joked about, Once Upon a Time’s version of Mulan almost tells Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) that she is in love with her.  Emma Swan, Snow White’s daughter, and the Evil Queen Regina sob  their goodbyes and Regina gives Emma a happy-ending, but no one ever touches romantically or addresses their feelings directly.

Meanwhile, more acceptable straight relationships are not only canon, but also being heavily promoted.  This is often referred to as “queer-baiting.”

In many ways, Once Upon A Time is a great example of what is happening all throughout television today in regards to representation. It is one of the two shows — the other being Supernatural — that very heavily “queer-baits.” “Queer-baiting,” is when a show strongly implies that a character or characters are queer and/or in a relationship without ever making it main-text.

Queer-baiting, a lack of representation and misrepresentation can be very harmful. Firstly, it is harmful to queer youth. Growing up queer means, for a lot of kids, that they don’t know anyone else that’s like them and they feel alone. Being able to turn on the television and see someone like themselves could make a world of difference. Furthermore, while life does inspire television, television can also effect reality. More representation for the community on television means more understanding in real life.

Another thing that we discussed during the Out for Coffee event was the fact that having the same sexual and/or gender orientation as someone does not make you the same. For example, we diagramed two hypothetical lesbians: one was a Democrat, liked cats, was Christian and believed in abstinence; the other was a Republican, liked dogs, was Buddhist and did not believe in abstinence. This is why the scarcity of queer representation is a problem: having one or two “token” queer characters does not satisfy the requirement of representation. When a show puts a queer couple in their storyline simply for the sake of seeming open-minded, it does not make them open-minded or evolved. The point is that queer people have no variance in characters to choose from and they don’t have many characters to choose from. Straight and cis people do. Furthermore, many of the gay characters on television currently are based on stereotypes and the entirety of their story arch is based around their orientation, which is simply unrealistic. I’m gay, but my entire life does not revolve around this fact. Sometimes these characters fall into offensive tropes, like having sex with a lesbian until she becomes straight or the heartless and over-sexualized bisexual.

Another thing that is harmful is when the actors and creators of these shows are not receptive to the idea of adding queer characters. For example, creators of Once Upon a Time, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, as well as actresses Jennifer Morrison and Lana Parrilla are often dismissive of queer fans that suggest a romantic relationship between the two lead female characters. Other people involved with the show, like Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Snow White, have written off  the pairing as purely sexual and saying that it won’t happen because Once Upon a Time is “a family show.” This means that young fans, still struggling with their identity, are receiving the message from their heroes that the way they love is not okay or that they can’t build a normal family based on a queer relationship.

In some cases, as with Rizzoli and Isles, the people involved with the show are receptive, open and grateful.

But, this is the exception and not the rule. Too often I have found myself talking to LGBTQIA youth online after they’ve been upset by negligent and ignorant actors or show creators. The more queer representation in television, the more these people will be proven wrong and the more role models queer youth will have to identify with. It’s particularly frustrating for me because I am online constantly talking with young viewers, fighting for LGBTQIA rights and being a bulwark for bullied teens, and yet my words are tiny in comparison to the words of these actors and actresses. They possess the power to really make a difference in the lives of their fans, but they are often silent or even offensive.

Many of my straight friends’ own piles and piles of mainstream romantic comedies and dramas center around straight relationships. I, on the other hand, have to dig through e-zines, blogs and Netflix recommendations constantly to even find one television show or movie that I can relate to. Even after extensive searching, I only found shows like Queer as Folk, The L Word and Lip Service that design characters entirely around their sexual orientations, which, as I said before, is unrealistic. The question to ask is: how do we change this for the next generation?

The ideas we brainstormed included: writing to the creators, demanding participation of queer writers, applauding shows when they do something right, punishing them when they do something wrong or staying silent and being active online. So, when a show like Doctor Who features a story about two married lesbians who are in a functional, normal relationship and whose storylines don’t revolve around their sexual orientation, viewers should promote the show. However, when shows like Supernatural and Once Upon a Time queer-bait, viewers should stop watching. Viewers can even organize online and elsewhere to boycott a show collectively. This may seem extreme, but protecting the emotional well-being of LGBTQIA youth is important. Being online to protect young queer kids from bullying is also important. I personally make sure that I am known online as a trained ally. This way, many kids from many forums and many fandoms can come and talk to me.

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