Unlike the old adage, “all publicity is good publicity,” the same can not be said for representation. Because portraying a historical figure or representing an entire community negatively or poorly can garner negative or poor consequences. For instance, if you hired Kevin Costner to portray Martin Luther King Jr. in a biopic of his own life, that would be an example of bad representation and the negative consequences would be extreme with this piss poor example. Costner would never work again and probably neither would the production team. Not to mention, this would distort our already fragmented sense of history and it would cause lots of confusion for kids in elementary schools where most of history is already glossed over to begin with. Again, this may be an extreme example, but my point remains the same. Bad representation is simply bad representation and doesn’t help the cause of whomever you’re portraying or embodying. Sadly, there is plenty of bad representation when it comes to the LGBT community. In this article, I’m going to discuss what bad representation is with a few examples in recent media, and how we can correct this egregious distortion of our community.
What is bad representation? Like an evil bacterium, it comes in many forms. A very clear example of bad representation usually comes in the shape of pandering. Pandering to the audience is not exclusively an LGBT concern by any means. Audiences in general are often pandered to by creators and producers to order to please them by giving them what they want to ensure their continued support. This is also called Fan Service. The problem with kowtowing to your extreme fans and serving them up exactly whatever they want is that the quality of the property itself suffers. The creators are focusing only what makes the fans happy and not necessarily what makes the property itself good or creating a well-thought out creative product.
In the case of the LGBT community, we are pandered too an awful lot.
Since the LGBT movement started gaining momentum and become a genuine global concern more than just a Western millennial crusade for social equality, all forms of media have pushed to include LGBT characters in their respective properties. Purely based on face value, this is a good thing. Inclusion is important. However, how we are included and represented matters just as much as just being included itself. And it’s always easy to tell when a Gay character is inserted into the plot just for the sake of having an LGBT figure in the movie, TV show, video game, or comic book. They are generally a static, one-dimensional character that have no real characteristics or attributes other than the fact that they are Gay. These characters are expressly written into the plot in order to appeal to the LGBT demographic, so that we will watch and support the project. They usually come in the form of supporting characters and they generally say and do inconsequential things that neither reveal new information or progress the plot further. This kind of representation isn’t effective or positive because the LGBT figure was not included for any real merit other than a desperate attempt to get the LGBT community to watch the show or movie. They are included for the self-involved reason of getting better ratings or making more money at the box office. Because I guess at one point creators and producers realized Gay people pay to watch TV and movies, too. *sarcasm intensifies*
In the case of misrepresentation by way of pandering, I wanted to include an example that’s a bit out of left field. A peculiar thing has occurred in recent media and it seems to be catching: turning formerly straight characters… Gay. A shining example of this would be Iceman from the X-Men comic books. (I’m referring exclusively to the comic book character and not Shawn Ashmore’s loose interpretation of Iceman in the X-Men films.)
Since Iceman’s induction into the Marvel pantheon in X-Men #1 from 1963, for all intents and purposes, Bobby Drake was Straight and that’s how he was remembered for the past 50 years. However, in Sina Grace’s Iceman series, we are given a similar wise-cracking Bobby Drake except he’s grappling with a new emotional struggle. And it isn’t overly expressed until a young Jean Grey accidentally reads Bobby’s mind and discovers his secret. This is another poor, but also strange representation. It’s not completely without merit, though. I do believe Grace was intending to develop Bobby’s character more than to just pander to the LGBT audience. However, turning a well-known straight character Gay under the guise of character development isn’t the proper way to represent a subsection of the human species. It, in a way, insults the readers by ripping apart the history and identity of a character you thought you knew well enough and one that has existed for 55 years. That’s a lot of story and character that was dismantled for the sake of inserting a Gay character into the Marvel comic panels. It also feels like the cheap way of doing it. Marvel was trying to find a way to make a popular and appealing LGBT character, but they didn’t have faith in their own team of writers and artists to create a compelling and convincing one. So they took an already popular character from the pages and made him Gay. Which they didn’t have to do because comic books are already enriched with Gay superheroes and villains as it is with their own unique powers, POVs, and backgrounds. Mystique, anyone?
Another way to misrepresent the gay populace includes stereotyping. In many cases, LGBT figures in media are represented as cartoonish, outlandish, hyper-sexualized, or serve as the punchline to badly-written jokes. A lovely example (sarcasm intensifies again) of this would be the character named “All” from Zoolander 2. All is a long-haired, androgynous model, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is clearly portrayed as over-the-top and hyper-animated. But mostly, All serves as a very clear mockery of transgender and non-binary individuals in society. This is essentially the equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority and in this case, the minority is that of a transgendered person. Additionally, All serves no real purpose to the plot. So, it’s very obvious that her inclusion into the story is only for the purpose of making a joke out of LGBT people. By making All so utterly ridiculous and over-the-top, the movie is reinforcing a negative stereotype of LGBT people… that we all must be as animated and outlandish as All. We’re not. Not every single LGBT person is like this. Some are more reserved. Some are shy. Some are loud. We as a community paint with all colors of the wind, bitch!
Other bad examples of this type of mockery include moments from the film Hot Pursuit, which also features a transgendered person, but who only appears for five seconds and is ultimately, the punchline of a stupid joke. It gets even worse with the film Get Hard, which is two hours of gay panic presented in the form of prison rape jokes that basically signify to the audience that any sexual contact between two men is disgusting and the assumption that if men experience sexual violence or rape, it’s hysterical and should be laughed at.
So we have a few examples of how the media is doing us wrong. Now how can we fix it? Let’s look to a few good examples to weed out the solution amongst the bullshit.
A great instance of inclusion and representation can be found in the form of 2018’s Love, Simon. The premise is simply about a modern yet average boy’s coming-out and the ramifications of such an atypical process. It’s presented as half-comedic and half-dramatic, interwoven inside of other plotlines that involve his friends and family and the character of “Blue,” who he strikes up a secret anonymous romance online. What makes this movie so extraordinary is how ordinary the story is presented. Our main hero, Simon, is very average. He doesn’t display extraordinary skills. He doesn’t behave more femininely than the next Gay man. He doesn’t necessary dress better than his friends. Simon is depicted as run-of-the-mill and that is crucial for representation. Most gay people, especially the ones I’m friends with, are just like him. They’re normal. They just live and they just want to be loved and respected. That’s the core fundamental aspect of almost every single person in the world. That’s what we all crave in life and that’s exactly how Simon is. It’s also important for this movie to exist because it’s the first film from a major studio with a gay teen lead. This is a big deal because a Gay teenager will go see this movie and realize how normal this coming-out thing is and the friends they bring with will see it, too, and discover it’s nothing to fear from someone and nothing will change about that person.
My boyfriend in particular was quite moved by Love, Simon because he saw himself through Simon. He couldn’t believe how similar he felt to him. His own feelings were personified by someone he could relate to. How many times have you read a book or watched a movie and never was able to find yourself in a fictional character? In fact, a Gay teen came out after watching Love, Simon because it normalized the situation for him and gave him the courage and strength to come out and live the life he was meant to have.
Another minor good example of representation can be found in quite the unlikely medium – a video game: Mortal Kombat X. Yes. A violent, bloody video game that contains sequences where you actually dismember and murder your opponents also features a very smart and well-crafted bit of LGBT representation that other video games and movies could learn from.
In Mortal Kombat X, a brand new character was introduced named Kung Jin, a former Shaolin Monk of the White Lotus Society who left the monastery and become a rough and tough rogue of the streets. His secret sexuality isn’t elaborated on very much and you won’t find it in his in-game biography. It’s also never expressly said either. To find out his sexuality, you have to look for the clues inside the game’s story mode. When you finally reach Kung Jin’s chapter, we encounter the Thunder God Raiden who questions Kung Jin on why he left the Shaolin Temple. Kung Kin is only able to reply with “I can’t return. They wouldn’t accept…” before Raiden cuts him off and returns with, “They only care what’s in your heart – not whom your heart desires.”
That’s it. That’s the end of it. It’s not expressively said that Kung Jin is Gay, but it’s very obviously hinted at in so many words. Plus, it’s never brought up again except for a few tongue-in-cheek jokes that are made during the game’s intro fight dialogues. And this is why it’s a great form of representation. Because the game doesn’t make a big fucking deal out of it! This is the only time it’s really even mentioned. Otherwise the game and the story focuses on Kung Jin’s other great qualities such as his combat abilities and his relationships with other characters. Things that matter far more than his own sexuality especially in a game like this. Bad representation of LGBT people typically include making the character solely gay and lack any other real attributes. Kung Jin’s sexuality doesn’t matter and that’s why it fucking matters.
So what can we learn from these examples? How do creators and producers include LGBT characters without pandering to us or making a stereotype of us?
Easy. Don’t include characters that are LGBT for the sake of doing so or for your ratings or your box office receipts. Instead, if you include an LGBT person, don’t make their sexualities the vocal point of their character especially if they are a supporting character. Supporting LGBT characters do not have to be hyper-animated. They don’t have to be witty. They don’t have to be sassy or hyper-feminine. Basically, don’t stereotype us. A person’s sexuality is only a 10th of who they are. There’s so much more to a person than their own sexuality. Unless the story is akin to Love, Simon where the goal of the story is to normalize gay situations. That’s obviously different and serves a real meaning and purpose.
If you want to create and include an LGBT character into an existing property, don’t make formerly straight characters Gay. That’s just being lazy. Invent a new character that just happens to be Gay. Unless for some reason that character being Gay serves the plot a purpose or drives the narrative forward in some way, don’t make their sexuality hyper-important. It serves the plot nothing if a character is Gay and you constantly reinforce it every five minutes with a joke that isn’t funny. It’s like this bandwagon to make Poe Dameron and Finn Gay lovers. It’s cute, but what does it have to do with Star Wars?
Representation in media is important because it gives minority communities someone to look up to – a role model. Our role models inspire us – motivate us. They teach us lessons. Encourage us to become better versions of ourselves. We need them to guide us – to lead us. Representation and inclusion gives us as LGBT people hope for the future. Movies like Love, Simon teaches us that being Gay is just a fact of life now and you have no more control over it than you do your own eye color. It gives us hope that one day we won’t have to rely on representation in media to portray the LGBT community and culture accurately or lest risk appearing ridiculous or animated like a Butch Hartman cartoon. It develops the belief and the hope that one day no one ever has to say “Mom, Dad, I’m gay” again.