One-dimensional ultra-camp clowns, storylines centred on “being gay”, potential sexual menaces who want to get into the pants of straight men, lesbians whose sexuality makes them a challenge for men to turn – this is how LGBTI characters often appear on film and television screens. If they even appear at all.
According to a new study by Glaad (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the United States-based group campaigning for LGBTI representation in the media, there has been a small increase in films with LGBTI characters, but from a low base.
Out of 114 films, all of them released in 2014, 17.5% featured non-straight characters, up from 16.7% the year before. Many of these depictions had problems, with only just over half passing the Vito Russo test, which measures the quality of the representations.
A film only passes the Vito Russo test if it includes a LGBTI character, who is not entirely defined by their sexual orientation or gender, and who has a significant impact on the plot. (Russo was a pioneering writer about the representation of lesbian and gay people in film.)
Take Get Hard, the new so-called comedy starring Will Ferrell, which taps into the revulsion of some straight men at the very idea of gay sex. The release of such films is a salutary experience for many LGBTI people. Look how far we have come, we often rightly think: the overturning of anti-LGBTI laws across the Western world, the transformation of once overwhelmingly hostile public opinions.
And then, in 2015, it is still acceptable to release a film that taps into the very much still present fears and prejudices that many have about LGBTI people.
For trans people, the situation is even worse. Attitudes towards trans people are stuck roughly where they were for gay men back in the 1980s: a toxic rhetoric of disgust abounds, with a frightening prejudice that trans people are sexual predators who will somehow trick the unassuming into having sex with them.
As well as facing violence – sometimes murder – there are still legislative attempts to oppress and stigmatise them, even in the West. An example would be the Bill submitted by a right-wing Miami Republican to ban trans people from using public toilets. And, according to Glaad, there are all too few films featuring trans people.
Despite the appearance of Transparent on American television, the need to show the reality of life for trans people is desperate.
Let’s face it: representation of LGBTI people on our screens is comparable to how it was for those one-dimensional, insulting portrayals of black people that used to be so widespread in mainstream popular culture. Not that that battle has been won, either.
Many gay writers have suggested that the portrayal of gay characters is sometimes analogous to those old minstrel shows, which are now rightly seen as unacceptable: silly, cardboard cut-out gay men, comically mincing around for our general amusement.
Both television and film reflect society’s general attitudes, but they also help reinforce them. More nuanced and complex takes on LGBTI life are all too often ghettoised with television shows such as Cucumber and Banana. A character being gay is often a storyline in and of itself: surely we need characters who simply happen to be gay, rather than being defined by it?
Yes, some men are camp – loudly and proudly so – and some of us need to get over that. But others are football-obsessed, or metalheads, or any other repudiation of the pervasive stereotypes that exist. Some are bisexuals, facing prejudice from all sides and airbrushed out of existence. Orange Is the New Black, with its many lesbian characters, has rightly won accolades and awards, but how often are lesbians otherwise portrayed on our screens?
LGBTI people are as complex and varied as anybody else. They are still all too often invisible on our screens, and portrayed simplistically and problematically when they do appear.
That will only change when we overcome the general prejudices in society that still exist. But that’s not an excuse. The films and television shows of today will surely provoke bafflement in the future: “Where are all the realistic gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people?” they will ask.
It will be a good question. – © Guardian News & Media 2015
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist and the author of the bestselling book The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (Penguin). Get Hard opens this week in South African cinemas