That’s the good news…but there is some bad news
By Courtney Hardwick
Television is changing. Thanks to networks like HBO, AMC, Showtime and more, the writing and production values on TV shows have started attracting huge Hollywood talent and critical acclaim. Shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have paved the way for a new Golden Age of Television—where a good TV series is just as buzz-worthy as a feature film.
Of course, it’s only natural that television would evolve with the rest of the world, constantly growing in the maturity of its stories so that audiences can better relate to its stories. GLAAD’s annual Where We Are On TV report found that in the 2016-17 television season, there are more characters identifying as LGBTQ than ever before. And they’re not just your typical “token gay character,” like Ross’s lesbian ex-wife Carol in Friends, or supporting character Rickie on My So-Called Life. GLAAD reports that of the 895 series regular characters in scripted, primetime shows this season, 43 (or 4.8 per cent) of them were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. That may not sound like much, but at the very least, it’s an improvement. Add another 142 regular and recurring characters on cable network shows, and it’s becoming clear that the representation of LGBTQ experiences is entering the mainstream, where it belongs.
In addition, this past season saw more than double the number of transgender characters in primetime and cable shows, including Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura Pfefferman on Amazon Studios’ Transparent and Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Cox also became the first-ever openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy.
For a little history, one of the first TV shows to feature a gay couple was the short-lived Hot l Baltimore in 1975. A 1991 episode of L.A. Law aired the first-ever TV kiss between two women, but not without advertisers threatening to pull their ads over it. It wasn’t until 2000 that the first passionate kiss between two gay male characters was shown on-screen, in the third-season finale of Dawson’s Creek.
The 2000s brought us Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and The L Word, shows that focused almost exclusively on the experiences of LGBTQ characters. Established shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and All My Children portrayed existing characters who started to question their sexuality and experiment with same-sex relationships—something many viewers can relate to.
Today, LGBTQ characters are no longer “token” or “secondary.” They are fully developed characters who navigate love, relationships and life in general just like every straight character does. Shows like Modern Family, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards all portray different stages, lifestyles and perspectives from the LGBTQ community, making sure their characters are well-rounded with storylines all their own.
Despite the progress, there’s still a long way to go. GLAAD’s report also notes that the “bury your gays” trope is still alive and well, especially for lesbian and female bisexual characters. A total of 25 characters were killed off during the 2016-2017 season, contributing to a pattern in which gay or transgender characters are killed just to further a straight character’s storyline. According to GLAAD, this pattern sends a dangerous message that LGBTQ characters are disposable. Not to mention, 70 per cent of the LGBTQ characters are white, so there’s still lots of room to grow in terms of representation for people of colour.
But progress is progress, and we can only hope LGBTQ characters will continue to be written and portrayed authentically, bringing more and more awareness and compassion to the struggles their real-life counterparts continue to face on a daily basis.
COURTNEY HARDWICK is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared online at AmongMen, Complex Canada, Elle Canada and TheBolde.