For part D of my gold arts award, I have focussed on the arts issue of LGBTQ+ representation in media. Throughout this essay, I have vocalised my opinions on this issue using the historical context for the present-day situation as a way to show how and why my opinions have been formed.
LGBT+ Representation in Media
Representation is something often talked about in critical discussions of films, books, television and other media. In the past decade alone, there has been a clear, positive shift in attitudes towards diversity in media, although there is still a very long way to go. Women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people are beginning to be represented more often, more prominently, and more respectfully - something vitally important for making entertainment inclusive and relatable to people outside of what is considered the default in our culture. LGBT+ people in particular have a very turbulent history when it comes to being represented in cinema, and as it stands, good representation is still hard to come by in mainstream entertainment. In this essay, I would like to outline this, the present state of representation, and how it can improve going forward.
Around the time early cinema was developing, America was suffering amid the great depression. The audience for cinema had greatly decreased, leading to filmmakers using increasingly controversial topics to try to shock audiences. This coincided with the rise of feminism which led to a combination of both men struggling to find jobs and women beginning to enter the workforce (although the numbers were still very small). This backdrop, where traditional male gender roles propagated by capitalist structures, were being very minorly undermined led to the emergence of Hollywood’s first gay characters, often heavily stereotyped as effeminate and weak-willed, with stereotypically feminine jobs such as hairdressing, and used for little more than a cheap joke. This stereotype still exists to this day and, whilst very harmful, did not show homosexuality as inherently wrong or perverse and did allow it to be shown, for example in the film Morocco, which featured the first kiss between two women on screen (although within the film it is framed as a heterosexual character exploiting lesbian relationships to attract the attention of men, thus making it seem as though the director was doing similarly) or Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, in which Chaplins’s character appears to have some form of relationship with a rich man he meets at a party. Another very well known example is the 1927 film Wings, which featured what is considered to be the first gay kiss on screen in American film and whilst their relationship is referred to repeatedly as friendship, the framing, acting and directing at the end of the film appears to contradict this: as one of the leads (Dave) dies in the other’s (Jack’s) arms, Jack assured Dave that nothing meant more to him than their relationship, and they kiss. This was pretty groundbreaking, as the two characters were not stereotyped or used purely for the shock value, but had a genuine, meaningful relationship. Other films, such as Pandora’s Box and Florida Enchantment showed clearer images of women together than would follow in later years. Some of these are seemingly small gestures in representation, which were only allowed because they were not the main focus of the film and they were small enough to be explained away, but in the era of silent films, the audience gleaned more from the actors' actions than what was explicitly said on screen.
Gender roles were also often reversed in early cinema; Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman being a notable example, in which he dresses as a woman. Other examples include the 1915 film Miss Fatty, starring the Academy Award-winning actor Wallace Beery, which created a view of drag that audiences found entertaining, A Florida Enchantment, directed by and starring Sidney Drew, Mabel's Blunder, directed by and starring Mabel Normand, Charley's Aunt, starring Oliver Hardy, and Morocco, starring Marlene Dietrich, in which she performs a song in a tuxedo and kisses another woman. Characters and films such as these disappeared almost entirely once the Hays Code was instated.
Some audience members seemed to view LGBT+ characters as comical, which is often how they were portrayed in a large number of the films of this era. Others, most notably religious groups, began to campaign against the inclusion of such characters, resulting eventually in censorship in the form of the Hays Code.
The History of the Hays Code
In 1915 a court case, known as the Mutual Film Corporation vs Industrial Commission of Ohio resulted in the court ruling that because film “... may be used for evil… we cannot regard [the censorship of film] as beyond the power of government”. In other words, films did not have First Amendment Protection and local governments in some places passed laws restricting ‘immoral’ or ‘indecent’ films. Soon after this, Hollywood decided that they needed to self regulate before regulations were imposed upon them.
The Hays Code or the Motion Picture Production code was introduced in the 1920s, following a shift in the image of the film industry. Scandals around actors were becoming increasingly common and garnering a significant amount of attention and producers were beginning to test the boundaries of what they could portray on screen, leading to calls for censorship. In order to minimise external censorship, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was set up in 1922 to help the industry respond to the increasing demand for censorship. Their solution was the Hays Code, named after the U.S. Postmaster General William Hays and written by a Jesuit priest and a Catholic Publisher, intended to act as a code regulating the ‘moral content’ of feature films, supposedly advisory but quickly became necessary to follow due to outside pressures. The code required all producers and distributors to submit their scripts before production for the MPPDA to censor and to submit their films for approval before release.
Some of the notable regulations to this discussion are below.
1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law-divine, natural or human-shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation
Some of the items listed were somewhat within reason - such as gruesome violence, detailed crime and sexual assault - the normalisation and portrayal of which could perhaps be legitimately damaging, depending on the framing. More importantly for this discussion however is the banning of ‘sexual perversion’, meaning any deviation from the perceived natural order of romance, sex and gender. As such, all characters attracted to the same gender or whose gender presentation differed in any way from the perceived norm were forbidden from appearing in any film that wanted approval -- and at the time, Hays Code approval was needed for the film to be in any way successful, or shown at all.
Despite the code, many filmmakers still attempted to tell stories featuring LGBT+ characters, a rather difficult thing to do due to the near-constant threat of boycotts. Filmmakers often relied heavily on stereotypes to communicate characters’ identities. Presenting characters as gender non-conforming was one of the most common ways to do this, creating pervasive archetypes which soon began to bleed out into the real world, creating many dangerous homophobic and transphobic stereotypes that persist to this day. A notable example of this is the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. In the film, the lead character, a private investigator called Sam Spade meets a character called Joel Cairo, who was explicitly gay in the books the film was based on. He is characterised as very feminine, in appearance, voice and mannerisms. These stereotypes are magnified, and made harmful by the fact that he is villainised, a common way to circumvent the code, which stated that ‘morally bankrupt’ characters could be portrayed as long as they were condemned and punished within the film. This led to most depictions following this formula - showing homosexual characters as cold-hearted villains who committed crimes due to their sexual orientation. This pervasive trope led to it becoming a way of showing villainy; by coding characters as gay (using the already established tropes of femininity, flamboyancy etc.), a filmmaker could show that the character was evil and villainous, which can be seen to this day in many films. Alfred Hitchcock is another very famous director who often used LGBT+ characters as the villains and murderers of his films, for example in the 1948 film Rope, in which two friends kill a classmate after seeing him as a threat to their intellectual superiority. The killers are heavily implied to be more than just friends and were based on Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, lovers who kidnapped and killed a boy as an experiment in staging the perfect crime. Their sexuality could only be subtly hinted at due to the Hays code but Hitchcock still emphasised their relationship being the root of their villainy.
Lesbian representation at this time was even more sparse. These characters were often presented with masculine traits, building a stereotype in contrast to the often more motherly nature of heterosexual women on screen. These traits were able to slip past the code, particularly since they were often the butt of a joke or more rarely someone to be feared, creating a stereotype similar but the opposite of the ‘sissy’, as the butch women became a villain archetype themselves. There are instances of more explicit representation, but these are hardly better: For example, The Children’s Hour, in which two women run a boarding school and are rumoured to be in a romantic relationship, one of which admits her feelings and hangs herself at the end of the film. In films such as these, the stereotypes were not about representation but about punishing a character for their sexuality to shock the audience. The is also a clear pattern at this time of characters coded as lesbian being written by men, exploited by the male gaze through caricature and what men found attractive.
The examples thus far have been a list of films that stereotype and cause harm but that presents a rather skewed view of cinema at the time: for the most part, the Hays code created a cinema that didn’t include LGBT+ people in films; they were brushed under the rug and ignored because the code didn’t allow for it. By the 1960s, the code was impossible to enforce and films such as Some Like It Hot were very successful despite not receiving code approval and other films like The Pawnbroker received code approval despite not conforming to its standards so the code was finally abandoned in 1968.
Post Hays Code
The Hays code has had a lasting impact that can still be seen today. Film can heavily influence the perception of marginalised groups, so by not portraying LGBT+ people in media, years of opportunity were lost to allow them to seen themselves on screen, educate cisgender and heterosexual audiences and to normalise the existence of queer people. But worse, by codifying LGBT+ people and even just people who didn’t conform to rigid gender stereotypes as inherently untrustworthy and villainous, a subconscious image was created in the collective consciousness that helped to allow for open discrimination for years during and after the code was officially removed.
While nudity and violence were quickly reintroduced into the films after the Hays code was abandoned, LGBT+ characters remained taboo, even though they were allowed to appear in films. Their sexuality and gender were shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues, with the characters often being gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted if they showed any signs or stereotypes of being queer, spawning a number of new tropes when they began to be hesitantly introduced.
This had a very damaging real-life effect. In 1992, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute showed that there was a 31% increase in violence against gay people from 1991 to 1992, and suggested that this was because LGBT people were depicted as villains that needed to be stopped, for example in popular films such as Basic Instinct, Silence of the Lambs, and J.F.K., which all show their LGBT characters as murderers, often implied to be due to their not conforming to cisgender and heterosexual norms.
Representation in the mainstream did begin to spring up throughout the 1970s, as Hollywood began to see LGBT audiences, mostly upper class white cisgender gay men, as a marketable audience, leading to the 1970 film Boys in the Band, perhaps the first attempt at a film aimed at this audience, although it was heavily criticised for continuing the stereotypes of the previous decades and presenting its gay protagonists as largely miserable and unhappy. In 1971, Fortune and Men’s Eyes was produced by MGM, dealing with homosexuality in prison and is regarded as giving a more realistic depiction in a less stereotypical manner. A Very Natural Thing (1973), Something for Everyone (1970), Cabaret (1972) and Ode to Billy Joe (1976) were other films of the 70s directed at gay audiences. Despite this, there were very few films depicting LGBT+ people and films at the time still used derogatory language and depicted gay and lesbian characters in a negative light, if films were not aimed at a gay audience specifically. This was partly due to the increase in the clout of the religious right in America, particularly fundamentalist Christian groups, a large audience base Hollywood risked boycott from by depicting LGBT+ characters in a positive light, as they moved to oppose LGBT+ rights and helped to elect the Republican party. The treatment of LGBT people in cinema was also shaped by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, fueling the homophobic myths that surrounded it. The first notable film to do this was Parting Glances in 1986, followed by An Early Frost (1985), but the first mainstream Hollywood film about the pandemic and its impact on the gay community was Longtime Companion released a full decade later, followed up by Philadelphia in 1993. Whilst some of these films depicted LGBT+ people in a somewhat positive light, all of them marketed towards white middle-class or upper-class men, and were usually very sombre and emotional. In these such films, homosexual characters and the HIV/AIDS were either shown in a negative light or they were shown together with the disease as something manageable. In the mid to late 1990s, the power of the religious right and the opposition to the gay rights movement began to decline, more prominent figures such as celebrities and politicians began to come out and younger people seemed to be coming out at earlier ages and in larger numbers as it became more acceptable and easier to do so, many of whom became involved in queer cinema.
New Queer Cinema, independent filmmaking and film festivals
‘New Queer Cinema’ is a term coined by B. Ruby Rich in Sight & Sound, a British film magazine in 1992 to describe the queer independent filmmaking of the 1980s and 90s, and specifically to comment on the prevalence of gay and lesbian films on the previous year’s film festival circuit. One of the major influences on this was the emergence of queer theory in academia, as well as by feminist theory, which helped in the development of queer theory, as well as the depiction of LGBT+ people in the past decades being called into question by some audiences, mostly queer audiences themselves. Within this movement, LGBT stories could be told by LGBT people without being exploitative or stereotyping. The films of this era were often experimental and defiant, informed in large part by the AIDS crisis and the gay rights movement, as independent film was largely reflective of activist movements at the time. In fact, the tone of these films often reflected the atmosphere of outrage around the activist movements of the 1980s and many prominent queer filmmakers were directly involved in activism. On top of this, many influential and prominent independent films at the time were explicitly about AIDS or referenced it, commenting on the failure of the Reagan administration and the social response the queer community experienced.
The genre was also used in new and interesting ways, subverting conventions, as well as depicting homosexual elements in places they had been erased through straight-washing. There has been a question of lesbian invisibility, as more funding went to gay male filmmakers than lesbian filmmakers, although it was a vast improvement on the previous decades, producing films such as Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, and Yvonne Raider’s MURDER and murder. The protagonists of these films were often presented as outsiders to conventional society, often as outlaws and fugitives who accepted and embraced different gender roles and the films often had a confrontational approach to heterosexual culture.
Modern and Mainstream Representation
To fast forward a bit to modern times, representation has vastly improved, particularly in the last ten or so years, although the Hays Code has a legacy that we still very much see. For one thing, queercoding has stuck around, with the established media tropes used semi-regularly, likely unknowingly for the most part, purely for the ease with which they can communicate things such as villany to the audience. Take a simple narrative of good vs. evil: it is very easy to place a hypermasculine hero, something celebrated in society, in direct contrast to a more feminine villain. Although the more feminine traits are in no way bad, the association with villany creates a negative image, and serves the dual purpose of making the hero seem more virtuous by comparison and the villain’s traits seem worse because they aren’t shared with the hero. Queercoding isn’t inherently bad, many people who conform to these stereotypes and who have these mannerisms exist, it always depends on the framing and development of the character beyond the simple stereotype, which requires knowledge of these tropes by writers to allow them to be subverted or overcome. Many people can also relate to these characters, despite their problematic origins, and find a certain power in their existing outside of certain gender and heteronormative structures. It should also be noted that there are some writers deliberately using queercoding, in places where consors prevent them from creating explicit queer characters. Instead they can use these shorthands to create positive representation. One place this is happening is in children’s cartoons, although happily in some shows, it was eventually allowed towards the end, after seasons of coding, for example in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
So as media moved into an era where some sections of the audience still held onto beliefs that seeing gay people onscreen was unacceptable, whilst a growing number of people existed for whom seeing LBGT+ characters would be a draw for them, there arose an attempt to please both groups in the form of queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is the practice of hinting at but not confirming a queer character or relationship onscreen. While similar to queercoding it is a bit different, in that it happened after the code, so an audience could reasonably expect them to eventually be revealed, and it could also often be linked to marketing or interviews where the creators would deliberately be vague about the characters’ relationship or sexualities when asked. To put it simply it’s more of a deliberate marketing strategy, where everything is done except explicitly confirming a relationship to avoid alienating straight conservative audiences who won’t pick up on the breadcrumbs. Some of these shows would have very minor queer side characters but rarely gave them development or depth as characters, or kill them very quickly (falling into another trope known as ‘Bury Your Gays’).
It would make sense for the next step from this to be to have representation but, whilst it is slightly better, only marginally. Rather than hint vaguely, in a show or film and interviews, in the promotion of a TV show or film it will be explicitly stated that a character is queer but never followed through in the piece of media in a meaningful way. It can also be the reverse, where little or no hints of a character’s sexuality is placed in the work but the creator will then retroactively inform the audience that they were LGBT+ all along. This is known as queercatching. Companies such as Disney are particularly bad for this, as it becomes increasingly obvious that there is not enough representation in media, and with the rise of social media people can question this with a larger platform. This can be seen in Beauty and the Beast for example, with the character of LeFou, Solo, Thor: Ragnarok, the Star Trek films, and so on. In large part this is often perpetrated by large media companies for mainstream franchises.
Queer Representation has come a long way in recent years; there are countless films and TV shows that have good, positive, nuanced representation, more and more of which are breaking into the mainstream. Take the very recent example of the Netflix show Hearstopper, a show that quickly became very popular and which depicted a large cast of queer characters in a genre (teen romance) which in the mainstream has remained fairly devoid of LGBT+ characters. Such an unambiguously positive show, particularly one aimed at a younger audience, that still deals with the realities and hardships of queerness in our society is vital and it, along with other films and TV shows paving the way with different characters and genres, is another hopeful step in the right direction.
Trans representation in media has been and still is littered with as many or perhaps even more problems than representation of sexual minorities, whether through the very common overt transphobia that has been pervasive through much of cinema, exclusion or mishandling of representation. There is the common idea that a narrative cannot be transphobic if there is not explicitly a trans character, although this is false; the way a film portrays and frames gendered stereotypes, attitudes to gender and not conforming to the cisnormative expectations pushed on people, still has a great influence.
Cross dressing is a common trope in comedy. Often the character's identity is known by the audience and it is revealed to the other characters eventually. This trope originated thousands of years ago in Homer and later Shakespeare (and likely before even that), and still persists to this day. Many others exist and are seen, for example, in the pantomime dame, one of the most mainstream instances of drag used for comedic purposes. In 1959, the film Some Like it Hot was released, a romantic comedy following two musicians who have to dress as women to escape and hide from gangsters in an all female band, meanwhile competing for one of the band members affections. Like the others listed here, it is a mostly comical depiction cross-dressing although, like all of them, there is the idea of deception and trickery in the trope, as well as part of its use being to gain access to women’s spaces. Despite this, the fact that it was released without code approval, and was a huge success anyway was an important development. Of course gender nonconformity and cross dressing for a specific purpose is vastly different from being transgender, the perception of these shows attitudes at the time and have created tropes and ideas that are pervasive in both real life perceptions of both binary and non-binary trans people and media that portrays (or alludes) to them.
Alternatively, the horror genre has a surprising of trans and gender non-conforming characters. Alfred Hitchcock for example, originated many different tropes still in use today. In Psycho, Marion Crane is murdered whilst staying at the Bates Motel, after stealing money from her workplace. She realises her mistake and decides to return it and make amends but before she can, she is murdered by Norman Bates, the hotel owner. It is later revealed that Norman killed his mother and takes over her persona, killing women in drag. Similarly, The Silence of the Lambs employs a similar trope. Clarice Starling, having been tasked with profiling the serial killer Hannibal Lecter to find another - Buffalo Bill. The interesting thing is that although both are serial killers, Lecter is the only person who seems to treat Clarice with respect and while his manner is chilling, he is framed as a protagonist. Whereas, Buffalo Bill is coded as monstrous in a different way, not because he kills but for his wearing of women’s clothes and makeup.
According to a GLAAD survey of trans representation on TV from 2002 to 2012, trans character were cast as killers and villains in 21% of storylines, with their most common profession being as sex workers. Transphobic slurs, language and dialogue was present in at least 61% of catalogued episodes and storylines. There is more and more positive representation which seems it can only increase, but still far too much of mainstream cinema is still very behind and long established harmful tropes take time and education to overturn.
Above everything, I think it must be acknowledged that there is not really an objective answer to the question of how to well represent queer people in media. There are tropes, as explained above that are clearly and obviously harmful, but also that have a grounding in storytelling and some of them removed from the context of the historical (and current) treatment of LGBT+ people in society, would not be nearly so bad.
Surrounded by a media landscape of positive, normal representation, one villainous queer character of a cast of many others becomes almost unambiguously fun rather than disappointing. Of a number, one queer character who dies of many others who live on to see the rest of a film is not playing into the Bury Your Gays Trope but is simply a character who dies. There can be messy characters and paragons, and everything in between, all of which are vital. While this essay highlights a lot of the negatives of past and present, we are starting to see a great deal of positive change, particularly for gay and lesbian representation, but there is still a great deal to do. So perhaps this is a very long winded way to give a very simple answer: the only way to truly create good representation is to have more of it, beyond simply the idea of LGBT+ audiences as a marketable demographic, because this allows for a shift backwards as soon as it is no longer profitable, but because it’s a good thing to do, and something that can create real positive change.