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Media stereotypes of LGBT characters set misleading standard, isolate viewers

The American sitcom, “The Middle,” follows a lower middle class family, featuring the middle child Sue, living in Indiana through their daily struggles with a comical yet relatable family dynamic. 

In the first season, Sue had a boyfriend named Brad, a theater nerd, tap dancer and fashion lover with a peppy personality, but their relationship didn’t last long. In the seventh season Brad finally broke the news … he’s gay. His coming out didn’t surprise anyone as his mannerisms making it easy for the audience to assume his sexuality early on in the show.

The actor who plays Brad, Brock Ciarlelli, is gay in real life but is very different from his character on the show. In a 2017 interview with Afterbuzz TV, Ciarlelli’s voice is notably more natural in tone and the outfits that populate his Instagram are far less vibrant.

When writers only characterize male characters as exuberant personalities, it puts pressure on LGBT Americans, especially a younger audience which is typically more susceptible to the influence of TV and movies to conform to these images.”

“The Middle” gave Brad a stereotypical personality for the sake of comic relief, but this creates a false definition of what it means to be gay. While men similar to Brad certainly exist, the media often portray this trope of a flamboyant, theater-loving character as the only possibility for this identity, failing to showcase the wide spectrum of LGBT personalities that exist and leaving many unrepresented.

Shows and movies like “Modern Family,” “Mean Girls,” “Faking it” and “Schitt’s Creek” feature stereotypical lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) characters. When writers only characterize male characters as exuberant personalities, it puts pressure on LGBT Americans, especially a younger audience which is typically more susceptible to the influence of TV and movies to conform to these images. With many LGBT teens already ruminating their identity, the typecasting of LGBT roles only serves to isolate them further.

Similarly, with lesbians a notion exists that they must have a masculine appearance to be accepted for their sexuality. Within the lesbian community there are labels, such as butch, femme, stud, stem, emo, chapstick and even more. A butch lesbian is more masculine and tough; a femme dresses more feminine; an emo wears dark clothes and has dyed hair, and all the other labels fall somewhere in between. Despite the various identities that exist, on TV we only see butch or emo lesbians.

Not all stereotypes about LGBT members can be physically displayed, some are situational. For example, some common misconceptions about bisexuals are that they cheat, they prefer open relationships or even that they can choose their preference toward men or women. The TV show “Good Trouble” supports the idea of bisexuals preferring open relationships with it’s characters Gael and Bryan who are in a nonexclusive relationship where they’re free to see other people.

“With many LGBT teens already ruminating their identity, the typecasting of LGBT roles only serves to isolate them further.”

The transgender community is also misrepresented according to a 2019 report by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), an American non-governmental media monitoring organization. Of the characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted primetime programming that season, only 4.3% of 879 characters were transgender. Another article by GLAAD shows since 2002, 40% of transgender characters play the role of a victim and at least 21% are villians or killers.

One of the most famous scenes of a trans woman used solely to scare the audience is from the 1991 movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” The serial killer put on a wig made from the scalp of one of his victims, got dressed in women’s clothing and swayed to music in his home. The actions of putting on a wig, applying makeup and dressing in feminine clothing is a process that a lot of trans women are familiar with, but this film presented that experience as the epitome of horror.

This stereotyping paints trans people, a group already heavily discriminated against by society, as evil social outcasts. Even when studios typecast LGBT characters in a less negative light, they still put a box around people who identify with this community and put pressure on them to meet society’s standards of how they should look and act.

“Even when studios typecast LGBT characters in a less negative light, they still put a box around people who identify with this community and put pressure on them to meet society’s standards of how they should look and act.”

In the 2004 movie, “Mean Girls,” a teenage classic that follows the new girl at school Cady Heron and her relationship with the popular clique “the plastics,” Cady immediately befriends two social outcasts, Janis Ian and Damian. Both are examples of stereotypical LGBT characters: Damian wears colorful shirts and enjoys being on stage while Janis is emo and wears dark, masculine clothes and frames her eyes with thick eyeliner and dark eyeshadow.

While some LGBT people do fit the labels attached to them and deserve to see people like themselves on screen, so do the queer people who don’t fit the vast majority of media portrayals. Journalist for iNews, Amelia Abraham, wrote in a 2019 commentary, “I met gay men from the Middle East who wanted to express a more camp side of their character but couldn’t out of fear for their safety, alongside gay men from the U.S. who felt ‘trapped’ by the idea that they might need to be flamboyant in order to somehow fit in as gay.”

Although the trend is certainly to type-cast, not all shows with queer characters are stereotypical and many can serve as a model for nuanced and more realistic portrayals. The 2018 film “Love, Simon,” focuses on a seemingly average high school boy and follows him through his coming out journey. Although everyone’s coming out story is different, this movie does a good job portraying the struggles of acceptance from friends and family.

The 2018 film ‘Love, Simon,’ focuses on a seemingly average high school boy and follows him through his coming out journey. Although everyone’s coming out story is different, this movie does a good job portraying the struggles of acceptance from friends and family.”

Other exceptional gay characters include Oscar from “The Office” and Raymond Holt from “Brooklyn 99.” Both characters are people of color, and they dress in average everyday clothing and don’t have peppy personalities. A good example of femme lesbian representation is  Santana from “Glee” because she’s feminine cheerleader with a high status.

LGBT representation in TV has come a long way, according to a 2019 report by GLAAD. Of the 879 regular characters expected to appear on screen in 2020, 10.2% were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. This is the highest percentage GLAAD has found in their 15 years of research. Considering that early depictions of homosexuals were mostly child molesters, victims of violence or drag queens, the media has made substantial progress by including more LGBT characters but far more change is needed.

“Only showcasing a small portion of the queer community sets the unrealistic standard of which LGBT personalities are acceptable for viewers at home.”

Today’s LGBT representation, while improved, still sets an unrealistic standard for society of how queer people should look and behave. Only showcasing a small portion of the queer community sets the unrealistic standard of which LGBT personalities are acceptable for viewers at home. Before assuming sexuality based on personality traits, remember queer people can present themselves in all the same ways a straight person can and should be written in TV and movies as such. Calling out stereotypical or derogatory portrayals as unacceptable and boycotting shows or movies would force companies to recognize the error of their ways and trend toward more complete and positive depictions of LGBT characters to avoid backlash.

How do you think media companies should ensure accurate representation of the LGBT community? Let us know in the comments below. 

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