Straightwashing – LGBT+ Characters In Media (Part 3)
Written by: Lewis Rees
There’s an odd assumption in Hollywood that a straight, cis, white man is the most relatable. Films with female casts are usually referred to as chick flicks; films dealing with LGBT+ issues are a rarity within the Hollywood system and, supposedly, no white person has ever gone to see a film with black stars. Disturbingly, old stereotypes still find an unexpected foothold in Hollywood; Eva Mendes was chosen as Will Smith’s co-star in the film Hitch because producers were afraid that a black man dating a white woman would make people uncomfortable, and that a romantic comedy with two black leads would alienate white audiences.
It’s the 21st century, and Hollywood is still caught up on the idea that a black man dating a white woman is somehow taboo. Sure, people do exist who have an issue with that, and we have a word for them: racists.
Back on point, we too often see ourselves in a situation where the entire leading cast is uniformly heterosexual. Even Lost, a show with an astonishing twenty-nine actors credited as main cast members over six seasons, only had three LGBT+ characters, two of whom appeared in only one episode.
This is a show that had polar bears on a desert island, time travel, purgatory, a shapeshifting smoke monster, and a man winning the lottery with possibly cursed numbers he got from a guy he met at an insane asylum. If you’re going to throw that much weird shit at the audience then I guess it makes sense that none of the main characters were anything but card-carrying heterosexuals.
The thing is, “straightwashing” is a very real problem in the media. LGBT+ characters are too often seen as an unnecessary distraction; why does he have to be gay? Why does she have to be trans? Why do they have to be genderqueer? After all, nobody goes to see Die Hard for the romance, they go to see Bruce Willis kicking ass for two hours.
The problem with this, of course, is that it assumes that an LGBT+ character should only appear in any prominent role in a piece which centers on LGBT+ issues. Whereas a straight man can be the star of just about any movie, an LGBT+ character can only star in a film which centers around their sexuality. Of course, there are many exceptional films of this sort- Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mysterious Skin, Boys Don’t Cry and Blue is the Warmest Color, to name just a few- but why can’t a gay man be the action hero? Why can’t the trans lesbian be the final girl? Where are all the asexual superheroes?
Maybe they were there, once, but rather than court controversy or “push an agenda”, producers turned them into yet another straight character. If their sexuality doesn’t matter, what’s the point in them being anything else?
After all, why would there be a gay police officer or bisexual private detective? Why would there be a lesbian superhero or a trans firewoman?
From Hollywood’s perspective, heterosexuality and cisgenderism are trivia; anything else is, too often, the story itself. While there is fiction with LGBT+ people of all the professions listed above- and many more- they’re mostly positions reserved to the “default” sexuality and gender identity, whereas the LGBT+ community is more likely to be seen as an actor, dancer, hairdresser, make-up artist etc. It’s not that there aren’t LGBT+ people who do all of these things that’s the problem; it’s that no mainstream production company will fund a film about a young gay man studying theater, or a lesbian trying to get her flower arranging business off a ground, when they can fund a film where Will Smith fights aliens, or adapt the latest YA series which got any modicum of mainstream success?
In short, the Hollywood system too often delegates the LGBT+ community to supporting roles rather than risk alienating the straight, cisgendered audience by forcing them to sit through, say, an action movie with an openly gay lead. It doesn’t matter if the sexuality has no bearing on the story, because if that’s the case there’s no reason for them to be gay, for example. The issue, of course, is that in real life we don’t have a reason, or a choice, about where we sit on the spectrum of human sexuality or gender; I’m not gay because I didn’t play enough sports growing up or I was raised by a single mother- I’m gay because I like men. I choose to write because I’m good at it, it’s something I enjoy and, while I’d be a terrible soldier, there’s any number of brave, heroic people from all across the LGBT+ spectrum who risk their lives every day in the military, and it’s an insult that, with the amount of films made every year about war, LGBT+ characters within those films are few and far between.
It’s just utterly baffling that, in this day and age, representation is even an issue. “Just think of the children!” the critics shout, dragging their knuckles across the ground. “I have no problem with the gays, but I don’t want to see them in action!” they cry, between breaths.
After all, we already have equal marriage (in some places), the ability to adopt children (in some places) and the ability to go about our lives without being executed (in some places), why would we ever want to see ourselves represented in the media we consume?
The thing is, most media which features canonically LGBT+ characters is marketed and geared towards an older audience. Remember the furor over the gay kiss in The Walking Dead? Why is a show which features undead cannibals, living cannibals, rapists, murderers, wannabe warlords and Carl Grimes only controversial when it features a loving, same sex couple?
See that picture right there? The one with the sweet old man with a gun to his head? Moments before that he’d literally (not to mention gruesomely/tragically/awesomely) been disemboweled. How the hell is that more acceptable than seeing a same sex couple kiss, or a transperson openly talking about their gender identity without being the butt of the joke?
How the hell is writing characters that reflect how wonderfully diverse the world is seen as pushing an agenda?
Homophobes may not want to see gay guys kiss, but what makes them think that a gay guy or lesbian wants to see a straight couple kiss? Surely if anything’s being forced down our throat it’s the idea that being LGBT+ is somehow weird, which just fuels the fires of homophobia.
I may not particularly want to watch a straight couple kiss, and watching Alien when I was eight may have given me a lifelong distrust of vaginas, but my reaction to seeing an opposite-sex kiss or sex scene is just that; a reaction. I’m not disgusted by it, and I’m certainly not offended by it, I just watch it. Sure, a particularly explicit sex scene might make me look away, but those films exist in a genre I typically avoid anyway.
Representation is important not just because it gives LGBT+ people characters they can relate to who are like them; it’s important because the only way to quash the notion that LGBT+ people are strange and that being straight and/or cisgendered is by normalizing it. Show me more LGBT+ character’s not just for variety, but so people will grow up surrounded by people from all across the spectrum, and we’ll see a time when this kind of bigotry is seen for what it is, instead of a perfectly acceptable way to live your life.
I was lucky enough to be raised in a mostly liberal environment; my mom had two best friends who were gay and it was never a case of “This is John and his friend, Jason.” It was “This is John and Jason, they’re boyfriends.” It never occurred to me that there was anything strange about that, because kids accept what they’re raised to believe. Nobody is born racist, homophobic or misogynistic; they’re traits that we develop as we grow older, and the best ways to combat prejudice are education and visibility.
I would have given anything to see more LGBT+ character’s growing up, because I come from the sort of small town where prejudice is commonplace. When I was first coming to grips with who I was and coming to terms with it I was in high school, where words like “F****t”, “T****y”, “D**e” were the go-to insults. Being anything but straight and cisgendered was an immediate invitation for bullying- I even had to change schools at one point because of it. I would have given anything to see someone like myself on TV, but instead all I got was the same tired stereotypes, the same one-dimensional characters. I didn’t see LGBT+ characters in the mainstream media that I could empathize with, and I was so used to seeing the LGBT+ community as the butt of the joke that I accepted it when it happened in real life.
It bothers me that so many people feel like the LGBT+ community is too complicated for children to understand, and that many of them will first hear the word “gay” used as an insult.
The rub of it is that I got off relatively easy; I was physically assaulted only twice during my time at high school. I may not have had many people I was particularly close with, but I was popular enough to be the runner-up for prom king. In a world where far too many teens face very real repercussions for something as trivial as their sexuality or gender identity, I did relatively well for myself. Still, we should all be able to say more for ourselves than “I was only attacked twice.”
The media has come in leaps and bounds since the 2000’s. In my last semester the show Skins began airing, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a show with openly LGBT+ characters in leading roles marketed towards teens and, as with everything from mental disorders to teen pregnancy, the topic was treated with sensitivity. Since then- although the media still relies on tired stereotypes far too often- more and more shows are embracing inclusivity by showcasing characters from all across the spectrum of sexuality and gender.
The world is getting better; that’s something I truly and wholeheartedly believe in. Many of today’s popular shows- especially those marketed towards teens and the key 18-45 demographic- feature fleshed-out, multi-faceted LGBT+ characters of various personalities and in various roles. Even children’s shows like Steven Universe and The Legend of Korra are getting in on the action, and there are superheroes from all across the spectrum- including Marvel’s Wiccan, for whom a case could be made is the most powerful mage in the universe. The popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale has become a phenomenon encompassing live tours, merchandise and a book (with three more on the way), and features an openly gay lead whose relationship with his boyfriend, Carlos, is the only canon one in the series. The recent video game Life is Strange stars a bisexual girl who can romance her female best friend if the right choices are made, and the rise of the ebook has made it easier than ever for anyone to publish their work which, although it means many books are published with nothing to recommend them, also means that truly exceptional books with LGBT+ themes and characters can be self-published as-is, without needing to be straightwashed to make them more commercial. On a wider, societal note, a lot has been made over the lack of diversity in the Oscars this past year, but it’s nonetheless worth noting that three of the actors were nominated for portraying LGBT+ characters.
Is it perfect? Hell no. We still see LGBT+ characters either used as a punchline or touted as a reason to see a film. Alicia Vikander won an Oscar for the role of Gerda Wegener at the Oscars this year, in a role which erased Gerda’s real-life bisexuality. It might be easy to self-publish a novel with LGBT+ character’s, find independent producers to fund your movie set in a gay conversion camp, or to crowdsource a game with LGBT+ leads- but films without those characters in prominent roles have a decidedly easier path to release with a mainstream publisher, production company or developer.
As I said in my previous articles, early explorations in the media are rarely perfect. However, it’s heartening to see that people are making an effort to give LGBT+ people the representation they deserve, and to do it in the right way instead of the easy one and, one day, I truly believe that an LGBT+ character will be seen as standard, rather than as a quirk.
This is Part 3 (of 3) of an essay sent to us by Lewis Rees. Let Lewis know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter @LewisBrite!