Racism and LGBT Representation in TV

October 29, 2014 in inQueery

jesus and lafayetteToday in the media we are seeing an increase of LGBT representation in TV shows. Characters are more often playing central roles in how the storylines evolve and play out.

In the past, a character’s identity as LGBT in television in the past was considered a defining character trait. Shows like Will and Grace prompted people to speculate as to what the real sexual orientation of the actor who played Will, Eric McCormak, was. It seemed that the idea of a man playing a gay character was only possible to America if he was actually gay. Although he turned out to be gay, the issue still stands the same. But why was it even an issue? Today a character’s sexuality doesn’t seem to be a big topic of discussion within a television series storyline, people seem to glaze over LGBT characters, or briefly mention them, unless their sexuality plays a particularly important role in the storyline. Unfortunately the approach that the media is taking towards LGBT representation is not all positive. A lot of characters still reflect many biases found in this country regarding race and the different roles race plays in TV. In this article, I will discuss a few TV shows that have prominent LGBT characters whose queer identity is either a central plotline or LGBT characters who play a mainstream role with their LGBT identity marginal to the plot line, and how these different representations may reflect some of the same cultural stereotypes we fight against so adamantly today to stop.

One of the most recent LGBT characters I can think of today in pop culture is Ethan, gay brother to Aiden (straight) from Teen Wolf. Both characters play a very central role as villains when they first come onto the show, but eventually they re-emerge as allies in fighting other protagonists as the show advances. Throughout their entire presence in the show, sexuality is briefly mentioned and when it is, it is not seen as perverted or abnormal in anyway. Ethan does not play a “flamboyant” or stereotypical role as a gay male, he seems to function as equally accepted to all other characters within the television show. This representation of a gay character with a central role separate from their sexuality was also featured in True Blood for numerous characters. Almost all of the characters in True Blood had personality traits and roles separate from their LGBT identity. But unfortunately, those characters were all white.

The counter point to this seemingly positive development in pop culture are the characters Tara Thornton and Lafayette Reynolds in the TV show, True Blood.

Above is Tara’s first scene, where she is featured reacting in an aggressive manner towards an annoying, but not hostile, customer. She is shown physically attacking her boss and makes a comment on racial stereotyping as she leaves. This is a very well known stereotype of African American women, and to some extent butch lesbian women. The other African American character, Lafayette, is a gay man who works as a fry cook and moonlights as a sex worker and drug dealer. He is often depicted as violent and aggressive towards those who cross him. Lafayette’s behavior in the show pushes stereotypes that cover both the gay male community and the African American community. Why is it that these two African American characters are represented so stereotypically in such an obvious and extreme way? If we are really moving forward then shouldn’t all LGBT characters, regardless of the color of their skin, play a role that doesn’t reinforce cultural stereotypes of minority groups?

The most obvious differences that I can see between the black and white LGBT characters is ethnicity. This leads me to believe that this is not an issue of homophobia, but is an issue of racism that is deep-seated in our country, especially pertaining to the perception of African Americans. It seems that only white characters seem to be moving forward in shows in terms of the roles their characters play. Even if you were to take away the queer aspect of the identities of the characters in True Blood you would still have very stereotypical depictions of African American men and women. It is important to realize that as we strive for progress, it often comes with a hidden price. As racist laws were struck from the book, Supafly came out; as Hip Hop became more popular, only violent hip hop was shown. As gay characters become less stereotypical, it was really only the white characters who changed. Unless we remain conscious and critical in questioning so called “progression,” we will miss the subtle cultural representations of minority groups that permeate our culture today.

Connor Payne is a Guest Contributor for InQueery.