What Is the Future of Queer Female Representation in TV and Film?

on

pussy-galore

AfterEllen has tracked the evolution of Hollywood’s depiction of queer female characters for almost a decade and a half. When the site started, the handful of lesbian characters on TV tended to be bit parts, or characters with brief story arcs. They were not widely found in movies, and when they were, it was in independent films. Then as queer female characters began to appear more frequently, they tended to be given male fantasy roles or negative roles: the queer woman was the sexy femme fatale cat burglar or the crazy bisexual out for revenge. When a TV show wanted to add a lesbian couple, they were often given the storyline that they were trying to have a baby. In movies, lesbians tended to be “quirky.” Hollywood then became interested in depictions of teenagers grappling with their sexuality: young adult oriented shows often depicted a main cast member experiencing a same-sex attraction. As a result of these historical “theme” trends, it has only been in the last seven or so years that TV has finally given queer female characters a true diversity of roles, from succubi to witches to police officers, and not one but two shows with all queer female characters. Queer female characters have been the subject of at least three major studio movies in the last 13 years (Monster, The Kids Are All Right, and Carol), too. From villains to heroes, mothers to goddesses, queer female characters have been found in every role that straight female characters have (with the exception of Disney princess).

Photo: Focus Features

Photo: Focus Features

Per GLAAD’s 2015-2015 Where Are We on TV report, queer women make up 2% of TV characters. Interestingly, while somewhere between 1.5-8.8% of women globally identify as non-heterosexual, the average is probably close to 2%. Additionally, only about 1.5% of women at any time are actually in a same-sex relationship. This sets up a bit of a representation problem: should TV add more queer female characters…with the possible consequence that viewers overestimate the percentage of the female population that’s queer? (Americans when surveyed by Gallup in 2015 estimated that 23% of the population is gay or lesbian–http://www.gallup.com/poll/183383/americans-greatly-overestimate-percent-gay-lesbian.aspx–which is one reason it is hypothesized that many Americans think gay rights is no longer a problem). Or does TV keep the present 2% to be most true to statistics? To add to the representation dilemma, 7-20% of women report having same-sex attractions. How should this be handled? For movies, GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index reported that 17.5% of major studio releases had queer characters, of which 23% were women, meaning that about 4% of all characters were queer women. Again, the same Goldilocks question applies: is this too little, too much, or just right?

For many queer women, this is an absurd question. Obviously, the more the better and if every female character was queer that would be just fine. I feel similarly, but I acknowledge how unrealistic that scenario is. Perhaps a better way to approach the question is to look at quality over quantity. What percent of characters pass the Vito Russo Test? The Vito Russo Test is a rubric GLAAD created for evaluating the quality of queer characters. It can be summarized as: are the characters there for more than just their sexual orientation (depth) and does their presence further the plot (impact)? Although GLAAD assessed that movie studios fared worse on the Vito Russo test in 2016 than in any previous year the Studio Responsibility Index was published, it is worth further exploring whether queer female characters on TV and in movies did better than male characters. This is an important difference because at least anecdotally, queer women seem to be doing fantastically on TV and in movies.

With a glaring caveat, of course, which is the 1 in 3 mortality rate of queer women on TV. So is that the last frontier then? If Bury Your Gays is finally, ahem, buried, then have we reached the pinnacle of representation? Probably not. The Vito Russo test is a minimum baseline for quality. An additional relationship and character rubric should be created and used in the future. For example, does the queer character get as many significant others as her peers? Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars has had an impressively rotating rack of paramours, but historically most queer female characters have gotten just one girlfriend. Are the relationships of queer female characters treated as all OTPs, or are the characters allowed to have one-night stands or affairs like their straight peers? Do the queer characters look like they stepped off the cover of Vogue, or are they allowed to be non-gender normative?

Photo: Freeform

Photo: Freeform

Realistically, the future of queer female representation hinges on the decision-making of almost uniformly heterosexuals. This is not a heterophobic comment but rather a practical one: it may not occur to straight people to add queer characters, flesh out existing queer characters, or study the history of queer representation to avoid falling into common tropes. Although sexual orientation does not automatically make someone better or worse at adding or writing queer characters (Ilene Chaiken has been criticized for her characters while Emily Andras has been praised, for example), it has an undeniable influence. It’s hard to rely on the goodwill of a few key allies like Andras to carry all the water for the queer female community. For now, the future looks a lot like the present: one or two highly popular lesbian pairings a season, an unacceptably high queer body count, and a bunch of middling characters that register barely a blip on the collective queer female radar because they are either one-dimensional or are poorly written. How do we change that? I’ll let you know when I’ve figured that out myself.

 

More you may like