Representation of LGBT on TV: Still a long way to go…

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As part of LGBT History month The Edge and The Wessex Scene have joined forces with SUSU’s Equality and Diversity Committee and SUSU LGBT Society to create a special issue magazine. This article is the first of the online series celebrating LGBT in the entertainment world.

Every year GLAAD do a ‘Network Responsibility Index’, a study of all of the American TV channels and their representation of LGBT, and usage of LGBT plotlines. The index not only assesses the presence of LGBT characters, but also the diversity in their roles and characterisation. In 2014 only HBO, ABC Family and MTV scored a rating of ‘Excellent’ in their representation of LGBT characters, with the highest scoring channels including LGBT-inclusive characters on 50% of the screen time broadcast. This statistic, along with the others included in the report (which I encourage you to have a look at on GLAAD’s website) suggests that there is still a long way to go in making the representations of LGBT individuals, particularly those who are transgender, the norm, as opposed to something that a show should be applauded for.

There is still the trend in American teenage dramas, in particular ,to use a character coming out, or a character’s sexuality as a plot point. At the start of American drama Revenge there were no out characters presented. Along the course of the series, it was revealed that one of the central antagonists, Trevor was gay. This singular presentation of a homosexual character as a villain was concerning, and was only a little remedied by the fact that serial character Nolan was revealed to be bisexual with no kind of fuss or fanfare.

For television programming to be representative it has to be diverse. The majority of LGBT characters who are represented on television in general, particularly reality television shows are gay, white males. The inclusion of the same kind of homosexual character is not enough for a network to claim to be inclusive and representative. Representation needs to move forward from just presenting LGBT characters who are defined by their sexuality, and nothing else – their plotlines need to revolve around things other than their relationships.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel and hope that attitudes on television are changing. Orange is the New Black is a massive step forward in the representation of LGBT groups, more specifically female-centric minorities. Lesbianism is presented not for the titillation of an imagined male audience, but with a gritty realism which grounds it completely in the prison setting of the show, and in the female experience as a prisoner. The show is outstanding in the platform that it gives to transgender individuals, though the presentation of Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset. Here is a trans woman playing a trans character with sensitive authenticity – she is a character with a background, and fully formed personality. While she may not be the central character in the show, she has certainly become a star, as the show has given a platform to transgender individuals. Cox has appeared on the front cover of TIME magazine in the last year, and was the first openly transgender individual to be nominated for an EMMY in an acting category.

Similarly, there are television shows which treat homosexual relationships no differently to the heterosexual ones. Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family both present committed homosexual relationships which have the same kind of troubles and trials as any of the heterosexual characters. Grey’s Anatomy presents two female Doctors in a relationship, one identifying as lesbian, and the other identifying as bisexual. Pretty Little Liars features openly gay character Emily as one of the central female four characters, and Scandal includes White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beam who is in a committed relationship with a man throughout the course of the series.

Whichever way you look at it, there is still a long way to go before television truly embraces LGBT representation as fully as it should. Bisexual erasure is still rampant – even in Orange is the New Black central character Piper Chapman is frequently referred to as a former lesbian when she is in a relationship with a man, rather than as a bisexual woman.

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Studying for my PhD focusing on Eighteenth Century Pirate Literature. Writer 2011-2013, Culture Editor 2013-2014, Editor 2014-2015, Culture Exec 2015-2016, Writer 2016-2017. Longest serving Edgeling ever is a title I intend to hold forever.

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