Let’s talk about queerness in the media.
Yeah, I’m talking about movies and shows and songs. All of it. Everything that we market to the general public for their entertainment. Because here’s the thing.
I’ve been noticing a troubling pattern: queerness has become a plot device.
Allow me to explain.
A little while back, when quarantine first started, I picked up the book One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus. It’s a mystery novel, and I think it’s geared more towards a young adult audience, but a lot of my adult friends were reading it and talking about it on social media, so I wanted to find out what all the hype was about.
Without going into excruciating detail about the plot of the book, I’ll give you this general synopsis: during detention one afternoon at a high school, a student dies unexpectedly of an apparent allergic reaction. However, his death is eventually ruled not to be an accident, and the whole novel is about figuring out who killed him. There were only four other students with him in the room, and all of them have secrets that they’re hiding. Throughout the novel, each one’s earth-shattering secret is discovered, and they begin to uncover the truth about the death.
OK, so, it sounds normal, right? And on the surface, it is. It was a captivating novel. I’d say I enjoyed it. It was suspenseful and difficult to put down.
But one thing about it really bothered me: the way that the ONLY gay character came out to his family.
There’s only one gay character in the book, and he comes out about halfway through. But here’s the thing: his gayness was looked at as this rare, huge, earth-shattering thing. Like this gigantic, shocking secret that he had been hiding all of this time. And, essentially, it was used as a plot device. Being gay was his secret. It was his character’s “big reveal.”
I really didn’t like this at all. And as much as I liked the book, and as glad as I was that the other characters were accepting, something didn’t sit right with me. Because then the rest of the book became about his relationship, and his gayness. His identity as a person seemed to fall away quite considerably. Most of the plot began to zero in on his journey as a gay person, and not on his actual personality or his role in the mystery.
And maybe you look at this and say, “OK, that sucks, but it’s one example.”
All right then. I’ll give you another one.
This one’s about a TV show.
It’s called The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Basically, the show was created to help discourage teen pregnancy, so the whole plot has to do with pregnancy and sex and all of the things that teenagers supposedly do in secret. If I’m being honest, the whole thing is a little odd and the whole show is just one big mess, but for some reason I was captivated by it when I began watching it years ago.
Anyway, in the fourth season (out of five seasons) in the show, one of the main character’s mothers comes out as gay. For the whole time prior to her coming out, she had been married to and involved with men in the show, and had always identified as straight, so this was somewhat of an unexpected moment. And, of course, I liked that. I liked that they incorporated another LGBTQ character into the show. I liked that they were showing how previous relationships, age, and life experience don’t necessarily make clear indicators of sexuality.
But what I really didn’t like was that it was just one big plot device. The mother’s reveal of her sexuality caused conflict between her family for the whole rest of the show, so it was clearly being used as leverage to keep the plot interesting. The mother rarely made any appearances in the show after that, and when she did, it was centered around her new girlfriends or her conversing about gayness or talking about her journey. And that’s fine, of course — even amazing — but the problem was that her personality fell away, too. Gayness became her only trait. Her only role in the plot became being gay.
And to top it all off, everyone in the show was completely shocked when she came out. They all felt that it was unbelievable and weird and exceedingly hard to adjust to. For a whole two episodes, the main event was the mother’s sexuality. In fact, she came out in the season finale episode, so her story was used as an interesting reveal to thicken the plot. How fascinating. (Just kidding. It’s actually sickening.)
We need LGBTQ culture in the media, but we need to celebrate it rather than using it to shock people.
Because truly, it is used to shock people.
Obviously, the media doesn’t have nearly enough LGBTQ representation. Perhaps we never will, and as a society, we are ever-growing and we can always be doing better. So of course I’m not arguing against the presence of LGBTQ characters in shows, or the discussion of LGBTQ culture. I’m merely arguing against the idea that it should be used for someone else’s gain. It shouldn’t be used to shock people, or thicken the plot, or make the story more interesting. And we shouldn’t be assigning characters whose only purpose is to be LGBTQ. Because LGBTQ is an identity — not a shock, not a definition, not an overarching theme. It’s not a plot device.
Some shows actually do a really good job of exploring LGBTQ culture in a healthy way, though. For instance, the show Glee has a pretty large amount of LGBTQ characters. And the producers of Glee seem to understand that being a part of the LGBTQ community isn’t easy, and that coming out is a process — because they do tend to explore the storylines of the LGBTQ characters quite a bit, and show their coming-out moments and expose their internal emotional struggles with the audience. But there’s also other things going on in Glee. There are musicals to perform and people to defeat and status quos to rebel against.
The LGBTQ characters in Glee are important, and so are their stories, but they also have other traits. They have other things going on in their lives. Being LGBTQ is a part of who they are — it’s not treated as their whole purpose or essence. And it’s not treated as a shock, either. It’s treated similarly to how we tend to treat something like mental illness in the media — important, and worthy of exploring, but also not the only part of the plot or character.
So I guess that’s what we need: balance. We need to incorporate LGBTQ culture and LGBTQ characters into the media in a healthy way. We need to continue exploring their stories, but we also need to normalize them and not treat them like secrets and shockers. We need to continue watching their coming out journeys and their path to being a part of the community, but we also need to have other events, too. We need to celebrate the identities of LGBTQ characters, but we also need to stress that being LGBTQ is one of many traits. No character should exist just to be LGBTQ. No coming-out story should happen in the media just to shock people. No reveals of LGBTQ characters should be made to “spice up” a plot.
Because that’s where it becomes dehumanizing. That’s where we begin to see a double-standard (because heterosexual people don’t have “reveals” in TV shows, and no one uses their sexuality as their only characteristic). That’s where we begin to notice that we still have so much work to do as a society as far as exploring, discussing, and celebrating LGBTQ culture.
We can’t expect to make progress as a society and make change in the world if the media continues to portray a false reality and encourage the “rarity” and “shock factor” of LGBTQ culture.
LGBTQ deserves representation. They deserve characters in the media. They deserve to have their journeys explored.
But queerness isn’t a plot device. It never will be.
And too many times, it seems that the media still doesn’t understand.