Mass media is certainly beginning to feature representation of queer characters. Gay and lesbian characters are no longer revolutionary, and transgender characters have been growing in representation. Bisexual characters exist, although often not entirely explicitly, forcing viewers to assume sexuality based on partners throughout the show. With all of these great strides towards normalizing queer communities, many other facets of queer identity are entirely nonexistent in mass media. Specifically, genderqueer characters have not yet been introduced to live-action television in America, and many queer characters in various media are played by nonqueer actors.
I am a strong believer in the importance of media representation. In a society where media is everywhere, it is hard to resist influence from outside sources. When a character identifying as a minority is successful or powerful on a show, viewers in that same minority group see themselves and see their potential success. By showing characters of different races, genders, and sexualities, viewers receive a greater chance of relating to characters, and shows may be more likely to positively impact viewers.
Normalizing minorities on screen leads to normalizing minorities off the screen.
While many argue against labeling queer identities and advocate living beyond strict binaries, opting instead for freedom to explore the fluidity of gender and sexuality, creating labels and showing people within those labels is crucial for queer youth. For many queer youths, the realization that sexualities and genders beyond heterosexuality and cisgender normativity is liberating – finding words to describe how they feel provides comfort and a sense of belonging.
This is largely the point of the LGBT community, although “LGBT” covers only a small fraction of queer identities.
Finding these identifying labels can be nearly impossible without media. Between the internet, television, and films, we have countless options to discover new things about the world ourselves. Coming to terms with my sexuality was incredibly difficult, but finding the word “bisexuality” and seeing other people who could relate to my internal struggle provided clarity to my dilemma. Media representation of bisexuality is still very small with very few shows even saying the word “bisexual”, but even knowing that this label existed was enough to comfort me and support me as I sorted through an identity crisis.
As queer sexualities are being normalized within the public eye, queer gender identities still have a long way to go. Transgender representation is very small – notable examples include Sophia Burset from the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, Maya Avant of The Bold and the Beautiful, and Max Sweeney of The L Word. Even within this representation, transgender actors and actresses are rarely cast to play transgender roles. Of the three previous examples, only Sophia Burset is played by a transgender actress, Laverne Cox. Maya Avant is a transwoman played by a ciswoman, and Max Sweeney is a transman played by a ciswoman. While the existence of transgender characters is remarkable and moving the industry towards inclusivity, the reluctance to cast transgender actors shows a lack of actual activism and suggests these characters exist for shock factor and potential publicity.
While transgender representation is beginning to exist, there are no live-action American television series featuring genderqueer characters. There are characters in comics, video games, animation, and web shows featuring characters who are genderqueer gender fluid, or non-binary, but there is no representation in American live-action television. The closest thing to representation is a mockery of genderqueer individuals through Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of All in Zoolander 2, a cartoonish and exaggerated character played by a cisgender man. In live-action television, the closest thing to the representation of genderqueer individuals is also a joke – Saturday Night Live’s recurring character Pat, whose androgyny and unknown gender is the punchline of jokes.
The media industry is aware that genderqueer individuals exist. However, we only exist as cartoonish jokes, and genderqueer characters are not played by genderqueer actors. The two most important changes I would like to bring to the media industry are the existence of genderqueer characters and queer characters played by queer actors.
The second goal is far from unrealistic. Laverne Cox has shown that transwomen can play transwomen characters. There is an abundance of transgender and queer actors and actresses to play queer roles. This goal is not entirely revolutionary as it is already being done on a very small scale, but I want queer roles played exclusively by queer actors and actresses. To achieve this, I can work in casting, show development, or executive positions in television. By pushing for the creation of queer characters and requiring queer characters to be played by queer talent, queer identities will receive accurate representation rather than a portrayal of struggle from a person that could never understand the difficulties of finding queer identities. It also provides aspiring queer youth with nonfictional icons – their favorite shows featuring queer characters also feature queer talent. In addition to queer representation in fictional worlds succeeding in life and achieving positions of power, queer youth can realistically aspire to the success of their own, rather than see their identities being taken by non-queer talent.
The first goal may prove to be more difficult. Creating awareness of previously hidden identities is often met with resistance, and genderqueer individuals expect no different, especially as we have only been seen as cartoonish punchlines in media. Luckily, genderqueer people are people. Writing a show starring a genderqueer character is no different from writing a male or female character. We have work drama, relationships, embarrassing moments, and every other television trope and plotline. Any show that currently exists or has ever existed could easily feature a genderqueer character – all it takes is a declared preference of pronouns and gender identity. The reluctance, or ignorance, of showrunners and the industry as a whole, is the only thing stopping queer representation and accurate representation. As with the other goal mentioned, I can bring about this important change by working as an executive or show creator in the television industry.
By introducing a more accurate representation of queer identities and genderqueer characters in general, very little would change for many people. The change for people like myself who have struggled in finding identification and representation would be monumental. Furthering queer representation would take very little effort within the media industry – it would only take show creators and executives to be willing to feature new queer identities – but have an immensely positive influence on frontier youth.