We need more LGBT characters on TV and in film

Only eight movies passed the Bechdel Test last year


It is easy to look at the question of representation on TV and films as a marginal issue, something that only affects marginalised groups.

Historically, LGBTQ+ representation in the media has either been lacking, largely negative or in the case of queer women highly sexualised, whether this is the assumption that everyone is straight, jokes at the expense of individuals, or the ‘slutty’ bisexual woman. Whilst we are seeing an increasing amount of representation, it often remains tokenistic.

It is getting better – there are an increasing number of openly gay characters in the media, we are starting to see equal representation of homo- and hetero-sexual relationships. The coverage is becoming less sensationalised – coming out is no longer framed as a key plot device.

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Game of Thrones captured this ‘casual’ coming out through the portrayal. People are allowed to be gay without it becoming a defining characteristic of who they are. Yara Greyjoy, in this week’s Game of Thrones was an exception to this rule when her sexuality was depicted so casually with no coming out required. However, Game of Thrones is really an exception – this luxury is often only the case for white, cis, gay men.

Whilst GLAAD found that in 2015 there was a 68 per cent increase in LGBTQ+ characters in major studio releases. This might seem like a victory, but most of these characters were white, cis, male, and reasonably well-off. This is not what the majority of the LGBTQ+ community look like, but it is the only side often shown in films. This is not to say we need to stop representing white, gay men in the media – but I do think we need to be careful that a victory for one element of the community doesn’t come at the expense of others, as well as the fact that we celebrate meaningful representation, not just cheap tokenism.

Despite representation in films increasing, it was found that only a fraction of these films had meaningful representation.

The Vito Russo test is a queer/LGBTQ+ counterpart for the Bechdel Test. In order to pass this test, LGBTQ+ characters must:

  1. contain a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
  2. not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity
  3. be tied into the plot so that their removal would have a significant effect, meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline.

GLAAD applied the Vito Russo test to 126 major studio releases. 22 of these featured LGBTQ characters – however, only eight pass the Vito Russo test. This means that only six per cent of all major studio releases had meaningful representation of LGBTQ+ people. Compared to 2014 where 11 films passed the Vito Russo test, it appears the film industry has backtracked on any progress made regarding important LGBTQ characters.

Whilst this might seem like a small or insignificant issue, it is anything but. Being able to see yourself and your relationships portrayed in the media is an unacknowledged privilege – and the validation it gives can be transformative.

I doubt I would be such an open and proud queer woman today without devouring all the LGBT+ media and TV shows I could get my hands on as a teenager. I would estimate I have sat through 90 per cent of all lesbian films available on Netflix. Most of these were clearly very low budget or truly awful or often both, but they were there and that was what was important.

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These films definitely helped make me more comfortable with my sexuality – however, they are still relegated to the gay and lesbian section and probably not on the radar of many straight people. This is why the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters in the ‘mainstream’ media is so important, because LGBTQ+ people and our relationships should not be marginal and the representation of an estimated 10% of our population benefits everyone.

I was lucky, I had LGBTQ+ friends, I had unfiltered access to the internet. I hunted gay media out – not everyone will have that same luxury. Making LGBT+ representation in the media more diverse and more accessible is so important, especially when LGBT students are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

But not only is vital that young LGBTQ+ people get to see this, but all people must. It is only by acknowledging all LGBTQ+ people and issues as part of the social fabric that we’ll be able to challenge the attitudes that lead to things such as the bathroom bills in North Carolina.