“Decolonization is relevant in a bunch of different areas, and one that I don’t shut up about is cinema, particularly film theory.”
Hi! On today's episode of film things that intrigue and occasionally infuriate me, I want to talk about on-screen representation. This encompasses the cinematic or televisual portrayal of marginalised communities, aka fictional characters embodying an experience and/or an identity that we, as the viewers, are supposed to be able to relate to. Knowing how much what we see in the media affects our sense of self & surrounding, there is a good reason as to why representation in film & TV is such an important subject for both filmmakers & cinema scholars to consider. So once a movie features a member of a marginalised community (sometimes even as the protagonist!), the general assumption is that the creators are inherently doing good. They raise awareness, value diversity, and obtain Oscars and Grammys for doing so. It's almost like including one or two actors who are not white, able-bodied cishets in a somewhat important role is an award-worthy act in and of itself.
Here is the issue: This is only half the truth. Hollywood's fascination with telling stories they know nothing about really shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone. Prestigious filmmakers have a well-established habit of selling heart-felt narratives that aim to make members of marginalised identities feel seen and understood, all the while profiting off of the inauthentic inclusion of their identities. Because while surely not all filmmakers have bad intentions, even for the rather good-willed and hard-trying creators, one hard fact remains: it is impossible - or at least ethically controversial - to attempt to represent a community you are not a part of. And unfortunately, this is often overlooked when it comes to representation in film and TV. Not rarely, marginalised voices are overruled by members of the dominant group, and opportunities are snatched from people who would have had a chance to tell a story they actually can tell, and rather given to the most convenient pick within a tiny bubble of straight, white nepotism.
In my Media & Culture pre-Masters at UvA (which I, on a purely self-congratulatory note, finished! Hooray), I was lucky enough to follow two courses named Media Aesthetics and Media Theory. Later down the line of both courses, our lecturers introduced us to the subject of ideology and the politics of cinematic representation. To be fair, it barely scratched the surface, as the subject has so much depth that not even a five-year PhD program could fully cover every nuance of it. And since attempting to squeeze all its different shades and layers into a few-minute blog post read wouldn’t do justice to the importance of the subject, I will focus on a niche that I, as a member of the LGBT community, can personally relate to: the representation of queerness.
Being introduced to the subject felt like that one experience I've had all my life but couldn't put my finger on finally obtained a name. You learn about representation and this one thought dominates your mind: Oh, well, that makes a lot of sense. It's not really a shocker that Disney and teen dramas made me feel like something was wrong with me, when I could try as hard as I wanted to see the manly man who shows interets in me as a person I should sexually and romantically desire, and still end up having a “what the fuck is wrong with me” driven panic attack mid-first date because I just can’t make it happen. Growing up as a rainbow kid in a heteronormative world, looking back, I often wonder how different my life and particularly my sense of self would have been if I had seen somebody on television who I was genuinely able to relate to. And this comes from my point of view, as a white able-bodied ciswoman, who at least saw bits of representation here and there - for queer BIPOC, disabled and trans individuals, there is a whole additional layer added that my experience doesn’t even remotely compare to.
I’m a fairly feminine-presenting individual who largely fits into the Western beauty standard created by men for women in their 20s. A girl who dated boys for years and felt like she was an imposter. While my own journey of queerness is a whole story for another blog post, the one thing that is relevant to highlight is that what I have seen (or haven’t seen) in the media inevitably formed a huge part in my confusion and frustration. The straight girls in TV shows didn’t feel the way I did, so I couldn’t relate. The lesbians were mere caricatures; masculine-presenting butch women who weren't deemed desirable in the eyes of men, so they resorted to dating other women instead. They usually kissed one guy at the age of 14 and proceeded to vomit, so they had their gay awakening and never questioned again. Then there were the bisexuals, the conventionally attractive ladies going through a phase of casually making out with their girl_friends in clubs for the sake of providing some male-gazey pleasure to their mysoginistic boyfriends. There were a few instances like Emily Fields in Pretty Little Liars, Cheryl & Toni in Riverdale and Santana Lopez in Glee that looked beyond stereotypes, but I surely wouldn’t be as quick to write them off as successful cases of queer representation either. And that’s because ‘the burden of representation’, as film theorists Shohat & Stam coined it, includes a variety of factors to be taken into account when evaluating the representation of a marginalised individual. Based on their work, I have created a list of four aspects to consider:
Casting: Who was chosen to embody the character?
Directing: Through the lens of whom do we see the character’s arc unfold?
Writing: What purpose does the character serve to the overall plot? To what extent does the depiction of this character feed into stereotypes? Do the filmmakers show awareness of the unique challenges that concern their marginalised identity?
Intersectionality: What other characteristics (race, gender, etc.) constitute the individual’s identity?
The first of these questions is obvious: Who is the actor chosen to play the marginalised character, and does their identity equal that of the fictional persona? While it may seem obvious that authentic casting should be paid attention to (yet isn’t quite), I believe that the answer is a little more nuanced than what meets the eye. Since this post centres queer representation in particular, Hollywood’s reality is that the vast majority of well-known queer roles have been played by straight actors. As of 2022, while 0 queer actors have received Oscar nominations for major queer roles they played, 53 straight actors have received nominations for major queer roles they played. This statistic alone makes me wonder, where is my Oscar for playing straight for 18 years? I like to think that I was pretty solid at it. And I would have a great sob-story for my award acceptance speech, too. Because, contrary to the straight actors proclaiming themselves to be allies by speaking on behalf of a marginalised community they just snatched a multi-million dollar opportunity from, I can speak for myself actually.
Plenty of people will shut down this entire representation debate by saying that embodying an experience that is different from your own is the most basic part of acting, and therefore straight actors playing fruity roles shouldn’t be seen as an issue. Cate Blanchett herself actually proclaimed this point, following her Oscar nomination for playing the lesbian protagonist in Carol, as a straight woman herself. And while I agree that acting is, obviously, about playing a fictional character different from your own being, where I disagree with Mrs. Blanchett is that there is a difference between experience and identity. And while our lived experiences are inevitably shaped by our identities, experiences can be malleated by personal choices we make whereas our identities cannot. So no, an actor who has never worked as a cop playing a cop is not the same as a straight actor playing a gay character, because being a cop is not an inherent, unchangeable part of anyone’s identity, let alone a marginalised one. At this point of the conversation, some people like to bring up Neil Patrick Harris, a gay man playing a straight womanizer in How I Met Your Mother in this debate, asking “where is the difference??”. A gay man who rudely stole a valuable opportunity from the straight douchebag community, robbing these underrepresented individuals a chance to bring their stories to life authentically… The difference is the same reason why we do not need a straight pride month. Besides, Neil Patrick Harris acted straight for over three decades - I doubt he has a hard time doing it again for a few hours.
Rather than in terms of authenticity, I see the core issue of this debate in opportunities, and the lack thereof for queer actors. Hollywood is heteronormative, I don’t need to lecture anyone about this, and it has a huge nepotism problem which it is unwilling to fix. Acting skill should inevitably be the forefront criterion when casting for a role, but you can’t tell me that that’s why Sia had Maddie Ziegler play the autistic protagonist in Music, or why James Cordon was chosen to portray Barry in The Prom (or tried to lol). Yet before we shout ‘let gay actors play gay roles!’ into the world, we need to think about the feasibility of the concept first. Because the statement as it stands is impossible to realise; the only solution would be to let openly gay actors play gay roles. This would demand actors who play a member of the LGBT community to publicly disclose their sexual orientation following the booking of their part, or in return limit the potential candidates to the actors who are already out. There have been countless instances where queer news outlets have assumed actors who aren’t openly gay to be straight, deeming them unsuitable for the role (example: Timothee Chalamet playing Elliot in Call Me By Your Name - he has never publicly spoken about his sexual orientation). But I believe that we, out of all people, should know that not everybody who is not openly gay is straight. Assuming people’s identities and/or forcing people to disclose parts of their lives they may not be comfortable disclosing isn’t the way to go, and might even be linked to the dehumanisation of public figures. Especially when it comes to celebrities who spend their entire life in the public eye, many choose not to come out of the closet or address their orientation. And when I think about how scary coming out was for me with my cute little reach in my tiny bubble, I have full understanding of A-List actors choosing to keep aspects of their life such as their relationships private. Especially since this may be done to shield themselves from hatred circulating in the internet, as well as to avoid difficulties on the job market.
That being said, openly straight (this expression always makes me chuckle) actors talking about how kissing their same-sex co-star almost made them throw up but it was worth it due to the fat stacks and global praise it brought to them is not the way to go either. There have been instances of unlabeled or even straight actors playing queer roles that I personally don’t have an issue with, then there were some that disappointed me rather than offended me (which might also just come down to mere acting skills… James), and then there was Sean Penn. Sean Penn who won an Oscar for his portrayal of an iconic civil rights activist in Milk and later went on to philosophise that cowardly genes lead to the feminisation of men, which makes them wear skirts and destroy American masculinity or something. Yikes. Gendered insecurity must suck big time.
While I consider the debate on who gets to play who a more, well, debatable one, I would say that the inevitable change needs to happen behind the scenes - let’s start with the directors, the masterminds behind any film production. Because one thing that becomes painfully obvious to me when taking a look at movies centering wlw storylines is that almost all the sapphic on-screen representations are viewed from the perspective of men. Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Mulholland Drive, Atomic Blonde, Carol, Ammonite - the fact that all of these widely known lesbian & bisexual movies have been directed by men raises the suspicion in me that these stories may not have been created with us, as the supposedly represented individuals in mind, to begin with.
So let’s take a look at the lesbian bible, the blueprint of on-screen wlw, and, in my humble opinion, one of the worst movies ever made: Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013) directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. The movie revolves around two white French ciswomen developing feelings of romantic and sexual attraction to each other, and that’s the plot. Here is my hot take as a queer woman: The 10-minute-long raw sex scene in Blue Is The Warmest Colour made me hella uncomfortable. And that’s not because (shocker) two women having sex makes me uncomfortable, but watching these scenes knowing that it’s a man behind the camera directing two straight women to act out his fantasy of how two women must look like when having sex just makes my skin crawl. And these were my feelings even prior to knowing that Kechiche humiliated and sexually assaulted both actresses on set. Also, plot-wise, why did Adele cheat on her girlfriend with a man after she realised that she’s a lesbian? Do all lesbians just date girls to protect themselves from male heartbreak but actually all women are into men at the end of the day, in Kechiche’s eyes? How could this movie even possibly have been created for a sapphic audience when it is so clearly made by & for heterosexual men?
Based on these questions, we should venture into the writer’s room. Because the burden of representation also considers the role of marginalised individuals in the bigger picture of storytelling, more particularly their function to the overall plot and the presumed purpose their inclusion served. Ever so often, especially in TV shows, there will be one gay character and they’re.. there. It’s the inclusion of a character with a marginalised identity for the sake of saying ‘look, we feature a gay character in our show!’ all the while robbing them of any complexity or importance that I call ‘tickboxing’. Emily, as one of the main characters on the mystery show Pretty Little Liars, is the prime example of this phenomenon. Because while it is super cool that 1/4 of the teen show’s main cast is queer, Emily’s only function to the plot was being the gay friend to the straight leads who actually had complex, intruging personalities and carried the plot. The same pipeline was played out in Riverdale; kudos to you if you can find one single moment in which Kevin Keller displayed any other personality traits than being the gay best friend, or if you can pinpoint an interesting storyline Cheryl & Toni had post-getting together (no, the time they got into trouble for stealing a glamourget egg doesn’t count).
Tickboxing strips queer characters off of their complexity, which produces stereotypes that viewers subconsciously internalise, especially when they have no real-life connection to the represented community. On a personal note, the fact that these characters being gay equaled them being shallow, irrelevant side characters genuinely terrified me. As I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where being queer wasn’t downright condemned, my biggest fear surrounding coming out was to have every trace of my personality be overwritten by the fact that I’m gay. Because according to closed-minded homophobes - and Hollywood filmmakers as it turns out - that seemed to be the only thing that really mattered about me. If I was asked what I would like to see in terms of queer on-screen representation, I’d root for a gay serial killer. Who’s cunning and malicious and complex and intriguing. Who stars in this wickedly smart psychological thriller that we’ll talk about in film studies class for the upcoming decades. But I fear that as long as our stories remain to be told by people who know nothing about us, it’s the lame overused stereotypical love stories we’ll get. And blue remains a cold colour.
What every single one of the viral examples I discussed above have in common is that each of these characters is white, able-bodied, neurotypical and cisgender. And that’s because the notion of intersectionality, as the crossroad of various identities and the acknowledgement that multiple features including race, gender and sexuality all contribute to our beings as a whole, are largely dismissed on screen. Most of the queer on-screen representation is dominated by Caucasian gay cismen - but where are the queer BIPOC women, the disabled nonbinary folks, the trans lesbians? I’ve also noticed that most of the queer characters fall into a conventionally attractive, tall and skinny Western beauty ideal, and I assume that this is done to make their marginalised identities as relatable and ‘digestible’ as possible for the dominant audience. A straight white guy watching a movie including a straight white guy in a wheelchair will make him think: “Hey, he’s just like me! Only in a wheelchair.” Which means he can empathise, and see him as a legit human. And I would argue that the lack of intersectionality is directly linked to tickboxing - BIPOC character, tick. Queer person, tick. Disabled individual, tick. Which once again makes me question the presumed intentions behind writing these characters to begin with, considering they were not given the same level of complexity and importance as their non-marginalised counterparts.
We want authentic representation, not just stories told by people who know nothing about us, not just flattened stereotypical mockery, not just queercoded maybe-maybe-not-characters that are ‘open to gay readings’. So to conclude on an uplifting note, here are some of my recommendations for authentically told queer TV shows:
Euphoria (definitely no stranger to overused cliches, yet it pays attention to intersectionality and shows commitment to authentic casting)
Sex Education (brilliant example of playing with and subverting stereotypes)
Anne+ (by queer women for queer women, and it plays in Amsterdam)
The Bi Life (bisexual dating show executive produced by Courtney Act)
She-Ra (some LGBTQ+ animation my younger self would have loved)
Heartstopper (bingey new Netflix series)
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (suggested by my co-writer, Lukas)
And check out my letterboxd list for queer movies that aren’t terrible (if you want to):