Honest, thoughtful, and well-rounded popular representation of historically oppressed groups in the media is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Even women, arguably the most prolific group that has experienced historical inequality, are underrepresented on film and television, so much so that the Bechdel Test has gained popularity as a way to measure whether female characters on-screen do not entirely revolve around men. Dynamic queer characters are even rarer; the LGBTQ+ on-screen demographic is oversaturated with white, gay men who are either brimming with sassy one-liners or are deeply tragic. Many of them also die at the end, a feature that is perpetuated by the legacy of the Hays Code. Unsurprisingly, when the queer and female demographics are combined, numerous problems arise, creating a surplus of poor representation. Transgender women are so underrepresented that they are essentially nonexistent in fictional media. Lesbian and female bi+ characters do exist, but those characters are almost universally fraught with issues, three of which are distressingly pervasive: the “predatory lesbian” trope, bi+ erasure, and oversexualization.
Many queer women can recall a time when a straight woman made a remark insinuating that lesbians are naturally vulturine or greedy, and oftentimes such statements are upsetting to hear. The “predatory lesbian” archetype only bolsters the ideas behind these comments. In a nutshell, the trope consists of a self-assured lesbian “converting” an apparently straight woman. The novel, The Price of Salt, is generally considered the stock example of this plot, along with its movie adaptation, Carol. The cliche can also take the form of a young queer girl exploring her sexuality by kissing her straight friends without their consent, as in the Netflix show Insatiable and its character Nonnie Thompson. Admittedly, both The Price of Salt and the character in Insatiable are considered to be at least slightly more complex than just the trope, but the overtones are still definitely present. Representation in this form is generally detrimental to the status of queer women, because it implicitly adds predatory undertones to their actions in the eyes of straight women.
The representation of bi+ women in cinema and popular culture is also faulty and largely contributes to the erasure of their demographic. There are many characters who are “just experimenting,” or “don’t want to put a label on it.” Alternatively, they can be obviously bisexual and yet never say anything about it at all. Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory is an example of a character that is clearly bisexual but never actually addresses the topic. And although the show Glee is often held up as a paragon of queer representation, the character of Brittany S. Pierce is actually deeply problematic in terms of a well-written female queer character. Not only does she never say that she is bisexual, she plays into the “slutty bisexual” stereotype. The same goes for the show Orange is the New Black. Language like “she used to be gay and now she is straight” permeates the dialogue. The character of Beca Mitchell in the Pitch Perfect trilogy has an ongoing joke about her sexual confusion, but never actually acknowledges the topic head-on and instead treats it as a punch line. Bisexual erasure is a real issue, and it is exacerbated by the existence of characters like these in the mainstream.
One of the most egregious issues when it comes to creating valuable representation of queer women is their oversexualization. “Lesbian” is one of the most popular search terms on porn websites, and there is no shortage of queer women in popular media whose characterization is either the direct product of male fetishization or indirectly stems from it. The popular sitcom Friends falls victim to a litany of jokes about the character Joey’s fetishization of lesbians, and Ross treats his ex-wife Carol as if her being a lesbian is a personal affront to him—a point which the show never fully contends with, thereby centering its female queerness around men.
Here again Glee fails, especially in its early seasons: many aspects of the relationship between Santana Lopez and Brittany S. Pierce are mildly ludicrous. There is a scene in one episode where they share a fateful kiss. And people in same-sex relationships being openly intimate in the same high school corridors where homophobic bullying is rampant is momentous, but that point is completely undercut by the fact that Santana and Brittany kiss from roughly a foot away and pucker up a ridiculous amount. It looks exactly like two straight girls putting on a show for the male gaze. It was almost certainly not intended that way, but the director and the writers clearly did not understand how to depict queer female relationships in any other light, which is indicative of the larger problem of fetishizing lesbians and bi+ women. Poor representation usually begets poor representation if nothing changes, and the writers who grew up with poor representation then begat poor representation.
The television show The L Word, another classic example of a trailblazer in the field of LGBTQ+ representation, also has its own points of contention regarding oversexualization. For instance, many of the scenes are unapologetically sexual. This is not an issue on its own, especially since queer people having healthy sexual lives is a topic that is generally unexplored on film and television. However, the problem arises when these scenes become oddly numerous and graphic, and appear to cater to a male audience. People disagree about whether this is in fact true, but the issue is still there as long as people can interpret those scenes that way, because that means that dubious undercurrents are present.
Both The L Word and Glee showcase the pervasiveness of the problem of oversexualizing queer women. They are hailed across the board for their levels of inclusivity and pioneering natures, and even they fall prey to the same pitfalls. Incidentally, both also have poor representation when it comes to bi+ people, and the character of Kurt Hummel in Glee displays “predatory gay” behavior early on in the show.
Queer women of color have a particularly difficult time finding themselves onscreen; their characters fall prey to tropes more often and are much rarer. The majority of characters on The L Word are white, and those that are not are often tropes. The character of Bette and other characters of color are generally depicted as more belligerent than their white counterparts. The show Orange Is the New Black also has a limited number of Black lesbians, and there are no bi+ people of color at all. Glee has a Black genderqueer character, Unique Adams, but her identity is handled in such a ham-fisted way that it does not really count as proper representation. Her characterization regarding her gender is muddled and inconsistent; the show conflates gender performance with gender identity and the writers are only ever vaguely sure of obstacles that she should face. One memorable scene involves the bigoted principal being so opposed to making the bathrooms inclusive that she dumps a Porta Potty decorated with a question mark into the center of the choir room of the high school. Such an action, while based in a real issue, is so utterly outlandish that it loses touch with reality. Clearly, the writers have never witnessed a real “bathroom battle,” and Unique’s storyline suffers because of it. Furthermore, treating bigotry in such a lighthearted manner is actively dangerous. Unique constantly faces a mountain of transphobia, but the harm done is often laughed off or ignored. Since her identity is so unclear, and since her roadblocks are so grievous yet treated with so much levity, Unique Adams does not feel like a person with real struggles, meaning that her character does not represent those people.
None of this makes any of these television shows or movies terrible pieces of media, of course. They are flawed, as is everything we consume on a day-to-day basis, and they deserve credit for the ways they did advance representation. You are allowed to enjoy flawed media—that being said, it is important to acknowledge and think critically about those flaws, or you risk internalizing queerphobic messages.
I remember when I discovered my sexuality. I immediately went on a hunt for characters I could watch on screen that would represent my experience as a bi+ girl. For the most part, I was only able to find static, oversexualized characters. There definitely were several gold nuggets: the character of Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Reagan in New Girl, and, more recently, Amy in Booksmart. The landscape is changing, and every year there are more fantastic female LGBTQ+ characters. However, Brittany and Santana in Glee were really considered the premier example of queer female relationships on television when I was exploring, and I ended up internalizing some of the harmful aspects of that depiction. I did not know what well-rounded queer female characters were because there were so few of them and, consequently, I suffered. When I was still in elementary school, I saw the first two Pitch Perfect movies and the lesson they taught me was to treat attraction to the same gender as a joke.
That is why representation is so important. If I had been surrounded by thoughtful and relatable queer characters, especially when I was younger, I would have grown up to be more accepting of myself, and those around me would have been more accepting too. As is, the media has a plethora of issues regarding representation, but, with more care from creators, they can be overcome. Again, the situation is improving. Shows like Sex Education feature a diverse cast of queer characters, even including an asexual girl, and that is a fantastic step in the right direction. Nevertheless, we have room for improvement, especially when you consider that the most inclusive media often cater to the same demographic and thus reach the same audiences again and again. We need more diversity across the board, and, until then, we all have to gauge even champions of inclusivity with a critical eye.
Natalie Parker is a longtime literature lover and current high school junior from Long Island, New York. Her writing has been recognized in a contest affiliated with the AAUW and her local library, for which she wrote a prize winning essay. She has also been published in the online literary magazine Inspired Ink. When Natalie is not writing, she enjoys acting in community theatre productions.