Gay people: slowly becoming prominent in the media after years of hating ‘em. Since the first queer TV character, who dates back to the ‘70s, we have seen many more diverse characters hit the big screen. You may think that simply saying somebody is gay is enough but no. This might seem crazy, but they do actually need a personality. And, although it’s asking a lot of our old straight white filmmakers, it’s always best to represent the gays in a non-harmful-or-insulting-or-gut-wrenching-or-soul-crushing-or-malicious kind of way.
From the most disgustingly stereotypical gay man to a girl whose sexuality doesn’t define her character but is still a great part of her, we will discuss the ups and downs of the portrayal of gay people in television. We will analyze them so deeply that you’ll feel like you are them. That’s the goal. Now . . . how about some gay people?
Bad Rep: Kevin Keller, Riverdale
Obviously, everyone who’s watched it has some extremely strong opinions about Riverdale. It’s a love-hate relationship for me, and it always has been. Overall, Riverdale has had quite a few LGBTQ+ characters and has indeed improved its skill for representing them in a non-stereotypical way, although they’re still not perfect at it. The first character introduced as LGBTQ+ in the show, Kevin Keller, is an example of one of their not-so-great gay rep moments. He walks into frame, flamboyant as ever, a best friend of Betty Cooper (a straight female lead). Already not off to a great start.
When he meets Veronica Lodge (another straight female lead), their interaction goes as follows:
Veronica: “Gay, thank God.”
Yikes. Pretty problematic on Veronica’s part (and the writers’ part), especially when Kev brushes it off like a fun little joke. This alone feels like a jab at how obviously Kevin presents himself as gay, and while, of course, there are flamboyant gay men out there and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s leaning into the stereotype that’s the problem. So, already a walking stereotype, serving only as comic relief, talking only about how hot all the guys are and making references only to female celebrities, it’s again not off to a great start for Riverdale.
Bad Rep: Any queer character in Glee
Sometimes I look back on my Glee phase and wonder what really happened. What was going on in Ryan Murphy’s mind? Why does he think he can do what he does? In Glee, there are 2 main queer couples: Kurt and Blaine, Brittany and Santana. One is better than the other, although both are bad. Kurt and Blaine make me want to cry sometimes and not in a good way. I could write a whole article about just Kurt Hummel, but we’re not up for that. Here's a smaller version: Similar to Kevin, he is the epitome of “gay.” He wears scarves and Justice t-shirts and cat tails and talks about The Sound Of Music singalongs and is the only mediocre countertenor to hit TV screens. He’s quite unforgettable. Every single one of his storylines revolve around him being gay or feminine, which just ends up going back to him being gay. His partner, Blaine, is a little less stereotypical, so go him!
Moving on to the girls, Brittany and Santana are something! Santana is a homophobic lesbian who is constantly excused for being homophobic because she’s a lesbian and hot. Brittany is a “sleeps with everyone” bisexual girl. Santana was always trying to convince Brit that cheating was okay because it wasn’t “the same piping” (actual quote from the show), which made no sense by the way, and hurt Brittany a lot in the process. It’s bad. They also had a double gay wedding. I don’t know why I watched this show.
Good Rep: Ian and Mickey, Veronica and Svetlana, Shameless
Shameless is one of those iconic shows with iconic queer people, and when you think of ‘em it’s Ian and Mickey. When the show came out in 2011, not many pieces of media had an openly gay character; especially not one that isn’t a stereotype like the ones I previously brought up. Ian Gallagher, one of our characters, defies pretty much all stereotypes. A main plot point in the early season is that he wants to be in the army, which is pretty crazy since during that time, gay people on TV obviously didn’t want to do anything a “straight guy” would. What’s even better is that he doesn’t question his sexuality and is super comfortable with it. His storylines don’t only revolve around him being gay. He’s three-dimensional and is more than his sexuality, contrary to the “bad-rep” shows. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air.
Moving on to the man he later marries: Mickey Milkovich. Mickey had a terrible childhood and experienced a lot more homophobia than Ian did, but his storylines also didn’t strictly talk about him being gay (except the ones with Ian). Pre-season four, most of their plots talked about the restrictions they had because of Mickey’s absolutely disgusting scumbag of a father. They were incredibly well-written. Certain scenes between them, especially in season three, show how fear can get in the way of love and happiness. Mickey is one of the best written characters and Noel Fisher deserves all the credit he gets for that role because his portrayal is real. The performance is raw and it’s beautiful seeing Mickey grow as a character and accept himself.
Another really great relationship, in my opinion, was Veronica and Svetlana . . . and Kev but mainly my girls. In their early days, I thought they were the cutest throuple. It was a great way to show that people can find out who they are even when they’re sure of it being something else. Svetlana was like . . . Veronica’s gay awakening. It was also one of the only polyamorous relationships that was looked upon in a positive connotation so go Shameless. Unfortunately, they had a bad falling-out, but it was great when it was great, you know? One of my favorite lines is: “I was really in love with her, Fi,” a line said by Veronica when talking about Svetlana, who had left the show. It always makes me cry a little bit. I love my girlfriends.
Good Rep: Edward Teach and Stede Bonnet, Our Flag Means Death
One thing that showrunners and writers don’t usually take into consideration when writing badly represented gay characters is that when someone is gay, it doesn’t mean their whole life revolves around it. What a lot of writers think when writing an LGBTQ+ character into their show or movie is “Oh, they’re gay, so let’s bring it up in every single scene they’re in. That way no one forgets.” But the thing is, that’s not actually how gay people act.
One show that executes gay representation immaculately, by hardly ever bringing it up, is Taika Waititi’s HBO Max hit Our Flag Means Death. Based on the unlikely story of Blackbeard and the Gentleman Pirate, their relationship in the series is interpreted as a very subtle romance—although, the love story is hardly ever brought up. The two pirates have individual lives, friends, and it is never brought up that either of them are gay. Until it’s canonized, the show is a pirate comedy with no trace of gayness to be seen (aside from some sexual tension here and there). The beautiful romance is technically the main plotline of the show, but it’s hidden most of the time. And even after it’s confirmed that they’re in love, there are no traces of codependency.
Furthermore, a non-binary pirate (played by non-binary, genderfluid actor Vico Ortiz) is introduced to the show very tastefully, and although their gender is a plotline only because they had to hide it to sneak onto our ensemble’s pirate ship, it is never used as one of their personality traits.
I could go on and on about this show and how perfect it is, but I won’t. Onto the next!
Good Rep: Catra and Adora, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
When it comes to good representation in shows with a target audience below the age of ten, it’s extremely important to get it right. Of course, it’s important to get representation right in every context, but for little kids, they might believe everything they see. So putting a very stereotypical character in a show like She-Ra might teach some younger audience members to think stereotypically of LGBTQ+ people. Similarly to Our Flag Means Death, She-Ra does an excellent job of concealing the romance between the two leads until the very end.
Both characters are very strong individuals, so it’s also a great representation of female empowerment. Not only this, they don’t once treat any of the LGBTQ+ characters and relationships in the show (of which there are several) at all differently than how they treat their allies (whom we also love). They don’t bring up anything regarding sexuality, never an “Oh, you’re this,” or even “we support you no matter what.” The universe created in the show is one without discrimination, without labels, and it’s so refreshing to see. All the characters love who they want to love, and it’s an amazing view of what this world would look like if there was no hate against people just for being who they are.
The ultra-emotional scene between Catra and Adora in the last episode of the show (including a two-sided love confession, a kiss, tears–the full shebang) is a beautiful conclusion to the series and an unafraid representation of a woman-loving-woman romance.
There is so much to say about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. This show did so many things right and deserves praise for all of eternity.
Good Rep: Penguin, Barbara Kean, Gotham
Sometimes it’s refreshing to see gay charaters in shows where it’s not totally expected. Some shows (like action, non-comedy in particular) have absolutely zero gay rep just because we don’t usually see LGBTQ+ characters in this type of media.
Gotham is a FOX network show that premiered in September of 2014. The show’s protagonist is Jim Gordon, and focuses also on the rise of Batman (Bruce Wayne) starting the day his parents were murdered. Some other major characters in the Batman branch of the DC Universe like Barbara Kean, Ed Nygma (The Riddler), Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska (two twins serving as the show’s Joker), Selena Kyle (Catwoman), and more. Almost every Batman villain is explored, with the main antagonist throughout all five seasons being Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin).
Oswald Cobblepot is a very strong character, always bouncing back through everything that the writers throw at him. The most important relationship for Oswald in the series emerges in the second season with Edward Nygma. In season three, however, the obvious romance Oswald feels towards him starts to blossom. Although it's one-sided, Oswald makes it clear to the audience that he has feelings for Ed. Some examples are deep talks with him and saying “I am going to confess my feelings to Ed.” It’s literally being spelled out. In an early episode of season three, there’s a scene where Oswald tells Ed he needs to tell him something and decides to say it over dinner. Ed responds with: “I’ll find us a perfect bottle of wine.”
On the way to get the wine Ed meets the girl of his dreams. Thanks Gotham! Honestly, it sucks because it’s known that their “thing” was just queer-baiting since Ed never felt that way towards Oswald. What makes it even sadder is that Oswald was rehearsing what he was going to say. I could relate, deeply. I was watching the scene and could see a little 5th grade me planning how I’m going to confess to my best friend, a girl, but it was too hard because she’s straight and I’m me and now I’m emotional and blah blah blah. To put it simply, I got emotional because of a little gay man in my little Batman show.
I also wanted to talk about the women in Gotham, one of my favorites being Ms. Barbara Kean. I. Love. Barbara. Kean. She was super annoying in season one but once she became a psychopath her character got 10,000x better! It was also super cool since her being bisexual was just brought up and not questioned. A plotline in the season before she killed her parents was that she was dating and planning on marrying our protagonist Jim Gordon. There was this other character named Renee Montoya who was revealed as Barbara’s ex-girlfriend and absolutely nobody cared! I almost didn’t believe it. I was so happy to hear that a girl loves girls without having anyone question her. When Jim found out, he didn’t care about the fact it was a woman she was with, but instead whether she was still with her. Throughout the show, she continues to have relationships with men and women. She and Tabitha Galavan had a solid relationship from the beginning and they are one of my favorite duos to this day. I love Barbara Kean, and I am her.
What’s the takeaway?
Gay representation in the media is still fairly new. With only a couple decades’ worth of LGBTQ+ characters in TV shows, that doesn’t leave very many that aren’t problematic or harmful. But there are a few diamonds in the rough, a few characters and relationships that serve as a breath of fresh air from all the stereotypes.
So, whether a cat-woman and a space princess fall in love and save the world, or two middle-aged pirate men find comfort in each other on the open seas, there’s never a reason to disclude representation—book, movie, TV show, or any other form of media. Gay people exist and we deserve to be shown off!