2016 TV: Where Are All The Lesbians?

GLAAD (a media-monitoring organisation that works to promote and ensure accurate, fair and diverse representation of LGBTQ people) has just released its annual report showing ‘Where We Are On TV’; a comprehensive study of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer characters on television in the past year. GLAAD have been doing a version of this study for 21 years, and since last year it includes characters from streaming content providers (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu).

GLAAD does amazing work in analysing not only the amount of LGBTQ characters on television, but more importantly, examining and commenting on the quality of storylines given to these characters. For anyone wanting to read the full report (it’s a really fascinating read), follow this link: GLAAD Where We Are On TV 2016.

7-nov-2016-tv-lesbians

This year’s report was encouraging, showing improvement in lots of areas; an increase in LGBTQ characters from last year, with the highest percentage of LGBTQ series regulars since the study began. Both gay and bisexual representation increased, and there is one recurring and two regular trans characters on broadcast primetime TV this year, compared to none last year, and all three are played by transgender actors.

However, for anyone following queer TV, it’s easy to predict the problem areas. There was a massive drop in the depiction of lesbian characters this year, and even more significantly, 2016 has marked an epidemic of queer women characters being killed off in shows as varied as (spoilers) Orange is the New Black, Empire, Jane the Virgin and Pretty Little Liars, amongst others, with Lexa from The 100 being the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of her death, there was a fan backlash against the number of lesbian and bisexual characters being killed off to further the emotional development of other (usually straight) characters.

Film and TV nerds may well have come across the site TV Tropes before, a wiki that contains common media concepts. Tropes don’t have to be negative, but an unfortunately widespread one found on TV shows with queer characters is Bury Your Gays. This recurrent trope is basically a narrative shorthand that dictates that the majority LGBTQ characters end up dead. The more it is seen on TV, the more viewers internalise the message that queer people don’t/won’t/can’t get happy endings.

This is a massive problem and it is essential for viewers and creators, straight and queer alike, to pay attention. The real world violence against LGBTQ people, and in particular queer women of colour, is rampant and devastating. Tragedies like the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando have rocked the queer community this year, and homophobia, transphobia and gender and sexuality hate attacks are still all too common.

The media, and TV in particular is a powerful tool in increasing familiarity and understanding of LGBTQ people and issues for those who don’t have friends, relations or acquaintances who are out. This exposure to different genders, sexualities and narratives helps create empathy and combat the kind of ignorance that breeds hate. Not only this, but getting to know and follow a queer character or storyline on a show that you watch with friends or family can provide a environment that allows discussion which gives LGBTQ folks a chance to test the water and gauge reactions as to whether it would be safe to come out to these people.

Perhaps most importantly, seeing characters that reflect ourselves is affirmative; it reassures, reminds that you’re not alone, that what you’re feeling and who you are is right and okay. It can provide comfort to the bereaved in the aftermath of hate-motivated tragedies to see people like yourself not only just existing, but living well and being loved.

It’s not enough any more to have TV shows that pay lip service to inclusivity by having a token white gay best friend, or who bury their lesbians. The time has come to show a full range of diverse queer stories, that discard the tropes, across every genre; sitcoms where queerness isn’t the butt of a joke, dramas that display faithful bisexual marriages, shows that have their lesbians and trans characters living long, happy lives. As viewers, we have to support shows that do this, shout them from the rooftops and call out writers and showrunners who fail to meet that standard. Let 2017 be the year that buries the Bury Your Gays trope for good.

Words: Heidi Teague
Tweet Heidi @TeagueHeidi

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