The non-threatening gay man: white, middle-class and straight-passing. He is queer representation for straight audiences.

Representation is an important aspect to consider in film, and one that is increasingly taken into account. The past few years have given us a number of mainstream queer hits—Love, Simon and Call Me by Your Name come to mind immediately—which is a clear sign of increasing queer representation. But what does more representation mean if it only represents a single queer identity? What does more representation mean if it enforces stereotypes instead of subverting them? If representation is shallow and aims to simply check the box for diversity, is it not doing more harm than good? Representation matters, but responsible, intersectional representation matters more.

Despite the progress made in recent years with queer representation, the acknowledgement of the breadth of queer experiences is still severely limited. Yes, there are more and more queer characters on screen—characters that are often well developed – but certain members of the queer community are consistently excluded. For example, in a 2020 Studio Responsibility Index report by GLAAD, a queer media advocacy group, it was found that 22 out of 118 films by the eight largest studios included queer characters, which was the highest representation percentage in the eight years of the report. However, no male bisexual characters were included. Nor were there transgender characters for the third consecutive year. The number of queer characters of colour had decreased for the third year in a row. It is clear that even in terms of quantity, queer representation in film is lacking. Even with white gay men being the most represented of the queer community in media, this inclusion is still limited, with more than half of all queer characters appearing on screen for less than three minutes.

Of course, a purely quantitative analysis of the inclusion of queer characters in movies is not one that will provide an accurate view of the shortcomings of film in this regard. Even in terms of plot and character development, when it comes to queer characters, diversity is often included for diversity’s sake. Take, for example, the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, where queer characters are killed off to progress the plot lines of the straight main characters. Moreover, queer characters are often written as characters whose defining personality trait is the fact that they are queer. In such cases, stereotypes are, more often than not, enforced rather than subverted. Of course, there are movies, such as Rocketman, where a character’s queer identity is central to the plot. But, there is a need for characters that just happen to be queer and for representation that doesn’t centre around suffering, ostracisation and tragedy. We need to see queer characters depicted holistically. The subtle ways in which the queer community has been villainised is also interesting to consider. Take queer-coding villains in Disney movies, for example. Queer-coding is the subtextual characterisations of a character as queer through the use of recognisable stereotypes. Often these traits are used to signify or characterise villains. For example, Hades in the Disney film Hercules or Him from The Powerpuff Girls. Both villains are queer-coded and their characterisation as such is used to villainise them.

So, while there may be more representation of the queer community in film today, the way in which it is portrayed enforces stereotypes, caters to a particular demographic (white, middle-class and straight-passing) and adds little value to the film. However, it is not all doom and gloom. For the many movies with terrible representation of the queer community, there are movies that handle representation well, introduce queer media to the heterosexual mainstream and characterise the experience of the queer community in holistic and empathetic ways, such as Moonlight and The Half of It. The importance of movies that represent queer characters in this way cannot be understated. Representation, when it is authentic and empathetic, broadens perceptions, challenges stigmas, and allows people to feel seen. Film not only represents reality, but affects change in reality. It is a tool to explore the human condition and share the lived experiences of different kinds of people; a means of relating to others and understanding them. Queer representation matters, and it needs to be expanded.

Illustration: Cassandra Eardley

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I am Muskaan, a second year BA Law student, and am involved with TuksRes Women in Leadership Academy. I am passionate about social issues, and enjoy reading and bad puns