LGBT Representation in Media

Presented by Dr Timaree Schmit


Representations of all non-majority groups are lacking. Characters are one-dimensional, stereotypical, pathologized, villains, dispensable and/or rarely allowed major roles with their own conflicts. But there is progress. Over time these depictions become better: first, more prevalent, then more positive, then more realistic.

So, what’s the last movie YOU saw?

Bechdel Test

Apply to people of color, people outside the 18-34 age range, with disabilities, etc. And obviously, apply this to people who are clearly not heterosexual.

Schmit addendum to the Bechdel Test:

  1. Do the females have a parent-child relationship?
  2. Do one or more of the female characters die before the end of the movie?
  3. Do two female characters make out/kiss/ have sex at some point?
Outside of the horror genre, films devoted to lesbian and bisexual interests are often the only place you can consistently find developed female characters.

LGBT addendum to Bechdel test:

1. Do the LGBT characters have any identifying information besides their sexual orientation/gender identity?
2. Are they allowed to actually date?
3. Do they have a diagnosable mental disorder or addiction?

This issue is continuing to improve but LGBT characters are still the friends of the main (straight characters), relegated to smaller roles or independent films. The more mainstream the source, the more likely the depictions are sanitized.


1890s-1930s: THE SISSY, a non-threatening ambiguously gay character occupied space in spectrum of masculinity and femininity

1930s-1968- Hays Code /Motion Picture Production Code-In order to protect decent society from the debaucheries of Hollywood, this new code was adopted in 1930 that established a set of censorship guidelines about what content could be available in films released from major studios. The ban on homosexuality was never explicitly written, but was assumed as a given.

In the 60s films were released that challenged the code and would have contradicted it. Some, like “Some Like it Hot” were released without seal of approval but were box office successes anyway. Enforcement became impossible and the code was abandoned in 1968.

1969: new MPAA system went into effect, which we still use.  M changed to GP, changed to PG, PG-13 added, X replaced by NC-17.

LGBT issues and characters were returning, slowly to the screen. But more visibility meant more homophobic representation. Again, the order appears to be: denial of existence, mockery, villainization, extreme positive spin and finally, realistic depictions.

Modern day: as approval of LGBT issues increases, corporations realize the need to cater to LGBT market and be on the side of diversity and progress or get boycotted.

Lesbians in Film:

Notice anything different about the images of lesbians versus gay men? Lesbians are defined by sexual behavior, orientation is perceived as less influential on overall identity, and the women are presented as high femme if their sexuality is a positive attribute, butch if their sexuality is meant to be derided.

Bisexuals in Film:

Bisexuality is usually NOT depicted. It is, to many, not considered an actual orientation or identity.

And this prejudice is reflected in media. Characters are gay OR straight.

Dodge ball example:

What happens immediately AFTER this clip is what’s most important.

Famous people can be bi:

But only if they’re really sexy looking.

Because bisexual characters must fit into at least one of the following boxes:

  • Slut
  • Psychopath
  • “Going Through Something”
The Bisexual Psycho Killer Character
All About Eve
Basic Instinct– the gold standard of psycho bisexual killers
High Tension– perhaps example of the “Lesbian Psycho Killer”
Wild Things– the late 90s teen psychothriller trend
The In Crowd
The Roomate/Single White Female
Jennifer’s Body

Other depictions: sexuality as fluid, fluidity but socially problematic, bisexuality as symbolic, normalcy.

Dog Day Afternoon (also depicts a pre-op trans character)
Rocky Horror, The Hunger, Color Purple– bisexuality presented without comment.

The Other Side of the Argument.

Side note about comic books: Mystique and Destiny.


There were more films and TV shows with trans characters in the last 2 years than in entire previous decades.
More of the psycho killer stereotypes:
Silence of the Lambs- ironically starring Jodie Foster
Sleepaway Camp

Miss Noxy explains:

There are few representations, but some are really, really good:

Increasing presence of documentary-style and realistic depictions: Lisa Ling’s Our America, Southern Comfort, Gender Rebel, Transgeneration, etc.

In real life, trans people might face the most oppression, but in film, they’re doing OK due to the concerted efforts of trans activists and artists. This does not mean they are not depicted inaccurately. The transition of Max (from Moira) on The L Word drew considerable ire for its implications that transmen are prone to uncontrollable rages when on T.


Ultimately this comes down to the profit motive.

This profit-motivation means that networks have always been  quite careful in their portrayals of gay and lesbian characters. First the motive was pushing the envelope without offending, now it is drawing LGBT viewers and demonstrating commitment to diversity.

Looking back to the groundbreaking Will & Grace: it does feature two openly gay male characters, there is little or no discussion about gay relationships or romance. The two gay characters are friends, not lovers, and are rarely shown in romantic situations. The primary relationship for both gay men is with the heterosexual female characters.

Many depictions still rely heavily on stereotypes for laughs, but reality shows that cast LGBT people comprise a significant portion of representation. Shows for and about teens have often led the way in mainstream network TV: My So-Called LifeDawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Glee.

Jump to 5:10 to see early attempts to be open-minded.

When you have the time, check this out:

South Park tries to reclaim “fag”

Remember, this is one of the only shows that has a recurring trans character too.


The “edgier” a show is trying to be, the more likely they’ll have a gay sub-plot. This is why one of the best places to find LGBT characters is actually soap operas. Ten of the Top 50 gay TV characters named by After Elton are from soaps.

It used to be a device used to bring up waning ratings. A stunt same-sex kiss would be inserted into an episode and hyped in advance, ala  Party of Five and Friends. It’s comparable to bringing in a celebrity cameo in an episode. In the case of Friends, it was both.

  • Skins
  • The OC
  • Nip/Tuck
  • Dirty
  • Dirty, Sexy Money
  • Grey’s Anatomy
  • Southland
  • Secret Life of the American Teenager
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Damages
  • The Shield
  • Rescue Me
  • Mad Men
  • Gossip Girl
  • Greek

There is a consistency: FX, WB and AMC, all cable networks fighting for dominance in the field. ABC leads the networks by a longshot.


We started with groundbreaking depictions of same-sex relationships and have evolved to a place where LGBT characters and same-sex interactions are de rigeur.

  • Tales of the City
  • Oz
  • Queer as Folk
  • The L Word
  • The Sopranos
  • Carnivale
  • Six Feet Under
  • Big Love
  • Weeds
  • The Wire
  • United States of Tara
  • True Blood
  • Boardwalk Empire

CONCLUSION: The number of LGBT characters on TV continues to grow. There are more in the last decade than 1960-2000 combined. And again, the progression: denial of existence, stereotypes, demonizing, positive spin and realistic.

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