The Importance of Authentic Queer Representation in Media
By: Samantha Bernstein-Naples
Queer representation in film and on television has come a long way since Peter Panama of “The Corner Bar,” became the first recurring queer character on American television in 1972. Like many of the early depictions of queer people in media, Panama embodied gay stereotypes that forced the few onscreen LGBT characters into narrow, suffocating boxes. Queer representation was bound to the narrow confines of how straight people saw queer people instead of how queer people saw themselves, coloring the straight audience’s views of the LGBT+ community in often problematic and offensive ways. Fast forward to the present day and the vast majority of current television programs and movies include some form of queer representation. Queer youth are growing up and seeing themselves on screen and in the media more and more. Not only that but the range and the diversity of these characters have grown exponentially. No longer do the flamboyant gay and butch lesbian dominate the queer portrayals offered by the media but asexual characters like Misty Day of “American Horror Story” and pansexual characters like David Rose of “Schitt’s Creek” bring the truly vibrant nature of the queer community to life on screen. However, an increasingly urgent cry from LGBT+ advocates calls for queer roles to be reserved for queer actors.
What it comes down to is authenticity. Dimensions of nuance and layers of complexity that accompany being a queer person in a heteronormative society can only truly be brought to life by someone who breathes in this perspective every second of every day. The performance of a brilliant, dedicated straight actor portraying a queer character will always be just that, a performance. A certain depth of emotion and honesty of understanding will always lack. Beyond that, is it really a straight person’s place to tell a queer person’s story? With an inexhaustible supply of eager queer actors, gifting the majority of these roles to straight performers is unjustifiable. Darren Criss, who rose to fame for his role as Blaine Anderson or “Gay Blaine” on the teen drama sensation “Glee” addresses just that in a 2018 interview. Criss voiced that moving forward he would no longer be assuming queer parts because he wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role. Criss’s commitment stunned Hollywood as the series’ wild success served as the launchpad that propelled the actor to major stardom. Criss’s vow demonstrated true allyship in that his message echoed what queer advocates have been calling for, giving queer performers, writers, and directors, the space to share their stories authentically.
The authenticity that bursts from an LGBT+ performer telling their story is also key in protecting against the straight washing of queer narratives as well the hypersexualization of LGBT relationships and the perpetuation of queer character tropes. “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Love, Simon,” both center around stories of gay men but feature straight leads Timothee Chalamet and Nick Robinson. The two films represent straight-washed versions of queer stories, performed and marketed to appeal to straight audiences in ways considered palatable and digestible. Stonewall director Roland Emmerich admits that he chose a lead for his film who was a “‘straight-acting’ hero” because he thought it “would sell better with heterosexual audiences.” Manipulating queer stories in a vain attempt to be accepted by mainstream society entirely misses why these films are important in the first place, to reach and inspire queer youth. Allowing queer directors and queer actors to take the lead on such films is a necessary first step in ending the watering down of LGBT stories.
On the other hand, the hypersexualization of queer people, especially women, is all too common on TV and in film. TV shows such as The L Word and Orange Is the New Black which heavily features oversexualized examples of lesbian relationships contribute to, as highlighted by Marissa Tappy of Curiosity Shots, “[s]tereotypes that gay women face today…it also allows a romanticized and fantasized version of what should be presented. Fetishization.” Tappy speaks to the tremendously harmful trend of featuring relationships of queer women that have been heavily tainted by the male gaze and sculped overwhelmingly by straight writers and actors. Authors and advocates Susan Wolfe and Lee Roripague emphasize that using “models who look stereotypically heterosexual pretending to be lesbians provides titillation without threat as there is an implicit understanding that these are not ‘real’ lesbians.” Hypersexualization coupled with straight washing speaks volumes as to why it’s critically important to have queer people play queer roles as doing so will help to safeguard against the perpetuation of fantasized or straight idealistic visions of queer people and relationships.
Additionally, featuring authentic performances by LGBT actors will minimize the spreading of queer character tropes which contribute heavily to stereotypical visions of queer people. For example, the 2020 film “The Prom” featured James Corden, a straight man, playing, as described by NBC News, an “aggressively flamboyant caricature of a gay man.” “The Prom” fell into the common trap of showcasing an offensive, overall unrelatable, even mocking performance of a straight person attempting to tell a queer story.
Finally, queer youth, especially people who are closeted or are in unaccepting environments, rely on film and on television to feel connected to their community and to find people who they can relate to and look up to. Queer stories told by straight actors can feel inaccessible and inauthentic. When a simple internet search crumbles the facade crafted by a straight performer, a profound disconnect is created between the story and the audience. The fact that it is just a story becomes all too real, the characters can start to feel unrelatable, and the plot implausible. Authentic queer performances serve as comfort and inspiration, elicit pride, and build a sense of community. Authentic queer representation is critically important in ensuring that queer actors are provided with the opportunity to tell their stories, in protecting against straight washing, hypersexualization, and character tropes, and in providing queer youth with people and stories that they can relate to.