3 Thoughts From ClexaCon on Representation

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If you haven’t heard of it before, ClexaCon is a convention that “aims to empower media creators to produce and distribute more positive LGBT content, providing educational resources for the community to aid in the push for better representation. ClexaCon strives to lay the foundation for improved visibility within the media while encouraging more lesbian and bisexual women to participate in creating the stories they desire.” It’s also a rollicking good time, an absolute missed opportunity for marketing Subaru and plaid shirts, and a showcase of artistic creativity among multiple fandoms.

This year, only ClexaCon’s second, the number of attendees doubled to over 4,000, proving there are a lot of women (and some men) that support Clexacon’s goals. ClexaCon was full of ideas and conversation about the history and future of LGBT representation on TV. The following judgments were made by repeatedly by panelists throughout the convention, and they speak to the growth areas of representation in the next few years.

One: We need more storylines in addition to coming out stories. Gays live rich lives, and TV should show these other parts of their lives.

There will always be a need for coming out stories. Viewers struggling with their sexuality latch onto coming out stories and use them as positive models for their own lives. For some lesbians and bisexuals, coming out storylines even offer a paradigm for how to come out: what to say, who to say it to, what reactions to potentially expect or hope for, etc. For straight viewers, coming out stories offer a glimpse into the psychological conflict caused by questioning one’s sexual orientation and identity. Many of the actresses at ClexaCon reported that they often hear from fans that their characters and storylines inspired the fan to come out or to accept who they are.

That said, from 2018 forward a character’s story arc shouldn’t just be: character comes out, end of show (or character’s presence), as we saw commonly even into the early 2010s. Perhaps, as for Alex Danvers on “SuperGirl,” a coming out arc can be incorporated into a few episodes or a season of some shows, then for every season thereafter the character gets to explore new and exciting new storylines. Shoot on “Person of Interest,” AvaLance on “Legends of Tomorrow,” and even Clexa from “The 100,” on the other hand, offer an example of how to write stories that don’t address coming out and instead are about two people finding each other and then having adventures together. The future of representation is therefore moving from “Oh my God, this character is lesbian!” to the character’s sexual orientation being incidental, the way it is for straight characters.

Two: The shift in representation on TV over the last two years is unparalleled and can’t be rolled back.

2016 represented a turning point for how lesbian and female characters are treated on TV (we basically buried the “Bury Your Gays” trope by 2017) and subsequent years have more than doubled the number of characters since then. The magnitude of this shift can be demonstrated in several ways:

Sheer numbers. In 2010/2011, there were 29 regular or recurring lesbian or bisexual characters on American TV (I think. GLAAD’s report is kind of hard to read). In 2017/2018, there were for 204 characters on all English-language platforms. This means that in the space of a mere seven years, we had probably at least 500% growth in the number of characters. Nor is that all. In 2016, there were 80 shows with recurring lesbian or bisexual characters on English-language TV. In 2017, there were 116 shows. That’s a 45% increase in the space of a single year. Yeah, that’s big.

Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW — © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Quality of storylines. This is a tricky qualitative call because all of my OTPs are from 2014 or earlier (evidence that before 2017 there were tons of excellent storylines that shouldn’t be dismissed), but it’s possible to say that as a whole, the entertainment industry began to move away from a storyline only being a character coming out, to the character coming out and then having other storylines, which is improvement. It’s becoming less common for the same-sex romances to be quarantined from the rest of the show; now these characters are having their storylines woven into other storylines. Also, in 2018 we got a black lesbian superhero. The idea would have been impossible almost any other year but this year.

Straight people are paying attention. It was news to straight people that when 26 regular or recurring lesbian or bisexual female characters were killed on TV in 2017, that was around 40% of that type of character, and it was enough to bring to their attention how lesbians and bisexual female characters are being treated. “Bury Your Gays” was awful, but it had the silver lining of being reported by pretty much every mainstream pop culture news site in 2016. Now, the mainstream seems better about reporting on LGBT representation, and straight people who read about “Bury Your Gays” are more educated.

Although it seems like this high watermark can’t possibly persist, TV writer Lynn Sternberger (“Heartbeat” and “The Bold Type”) reported in the “Lexa’s Legacy” panel that she’d been reading pilots for the 2018/2019 season and that all of them—and this includes the major broadcast networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox—had LGBT representation in them. The train has left the station, and it’s not going back.

Three: Almost all the lesbian and bisexual women on TV are femmes. We need more diversity of representation.

Lez be honest here: Hollywood seems to think that we all have fabulous, long hair and enjoy casual wear of little black dresses and heels. In fact, anyone who went to ClexaCon would know that at least a fourth of attendees wore plaid shirts and jeans. Our community is a rainbow of diversity: androgynous, butch, femme, boi, chapstick, lipstick, diesel, etc. Definitely one of the next steps in increasing visibility on screen is to show a broader range of diversity in gender presentation among sexual minority characters. We need to see more characters like Bullett on “The Killing,” Big Boo on “Orange is the New Black,” Denise on “Master of None,” Franky from “Wentworth,” and Kat Sandoval on “Madame Secretary.” It’s not enough to put four high femmes on a show and say the show is representative; we need TV to mirror the reality of our community.

Did you go to ClexaCon? What else did you learn from it?

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