OPINION: The nuances of representation

The entertainment industry only includes LGBTQ representation when it serves them, viewing queer people as just another group to profit from. Corporate greed leads to bland representation that only showcases certain people deemed palatable for mainstream viewers in an effort to not alienate straight audiences while the industry remains toxic to LGBTQ people.

GLAAD’s 2021 to 2022 “Where We Are on TV Report,” states that 11.9% of primetime recurring characters are LGBTQ, which is an increase from previous years. However, only 2% of the LGBTQ characters are disabled, significantly below the estimated 32.5% of LGBTQ people who are disabled. Out of the 637 characters GLAAD surveyed, only two were asexual and two were living with HIV.

At the same time, the entertainment industry remains discriminatory. 53% of LGBTQ respondents to a poll by the UCLA School of Law felt that LGBT people were discriminated against by directors and producers in hiring. LGBTQ actors often report being pressured to stay in the closet to preserve their careers. Although entertainment now includes more and more LGBTQ people, it is hostile to those it profits off. Corporations’ desire to use representation as a means to profit from LGBTQ people does nothing to make the entertainment industry more accepting and creates stale and flat representation.

Recent efforts to include representation have largely been put into the movies to gain publicity. Disney is especially guilty of this, claiming to have numerous first gay characters in recent years. These efforts include a lesbian couple quickly on screen in “Finding Dory” and an “exclusively gay moment” involving Lefou in the remake of “Beauty and the Beast.” All of these have been advertised before the film’s release, drumming up publicity. In actuality, they are all largely quick moments that can be edited out for release in different countries and will not overly offend homophobic audiences, preserving profits.

Movies and TV shows that do focus on LGBTQ stories are often narrowly focused on white, middle-class LGBTQ people. Media like the film “Love, Simon” create one image of LGBTQ teens: a single able-bodied white person whose only worry is coming out and being accepted by those around them. This narrative is incongruent with the lived experience of many queer teens. While coming out is a real concern for many, it is not the start and end of queer people’s lived experience. The emphasis on coming-out narratives ignores the experiences of many LGBTQ people in favor of the same bland narrative audiences have come to expect.

Efforts to include more varied representation are often stifled by those in power. Both Korra and Asami in “Avatar Legend of Korra” and Bubblegum and Marceline in “Adventure Time” were confirmed to be dating in the final episodes of their shows. The shows’ creators have spoken about having to fight for representation to be included, with the relationships only being confirmed in the final episodes acting as a compromise. Confirming representation in the final episodes of a show minimizes the loss of revenue feared by executives. When and how LGBTQ characters are included is governed by profits.

The unwillingness to fully commit to representation is contrasted with modern works published outside of large media corporations. Contomerapy podcasts and self-published novels are able to portray large and varied casts of LGBTQ characters, showcasing a broad range of experiences. This dichotomy between representation in large corporations and smaller endeavors reveals just how much of an effect the media industry’s attitudes have on representation.

Some of the most notable works of queer media from the 20th century were only able to reach broad audiences because they were published through independent publishers and LGBTQ-specific papers. Works from the twentieth century like “Dy*es to Watch Out For” by Allison Bechdel and “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinburg showcase a diversity of representation rarely seen in mainstream media. Both works are currently available to the public for free via the internet, positioning them as the antithesis of corporate greed. Own Voices works published outside of large corporations provide current generations with a connection to queer elders and history, something that is missing in mainstream media.

When representation is removed from corporations’ primary desires to make money and placed in the hands of those who it represents, it is able to become more varied and accurate. Corporate greed leads to flat, dull and monotonous representation while harming the people within the entertainment industry they seek to represent.

Including diversity into media is important, especially since the voices of minorities are not captured accurately in today’s media landscape. Throughout films, there has been an uprising in having more representation in racial backgrounds. This, however, can sometimes leave holes, leading to misconceptions of certain groups of people and reinforcement of stereotypes.

With the intention of adding more representation, white-predominant media can deviate from having a correct and accurate representation, especially because of the perspective it is coming from. In the case of predominantly Black casts, their representation can be altered because of the individuals creating their roles.

If the roles created for people of color are from perspectives of primarily white or other individuals, POC perspectives are often not captured correctly. In the media, it can be obvious to recognize if certain groups are not represented by their own people and are usually written by another. Statista found that 67.7% of all film writers are white. With the recent efforts to diversify Hollywood’s cast, the predominantly white production crews may not be able to fully and accurately capture the lives of cast lists of Black, Hispanic, Asian and others.

According to the Washington Post, a prime example of writers creating stereotypes is in the original film of “Dumbo.” There have been scenes throughout the movie where there were controversies surrounding what the show was trying to implement and in one of the songs in the film, the lyrics portrayed racist implications towards African Americans. The graphics showed faceless people of color working and doing labor while the song was playing in the background. The film failed to properly represent Black folk, exemplifying long-standing racist attitudes in Hollywood. The misrepresentation created a running dialogue of Black people as cartoons at the hands of white folk.

In “Princess and the Frog” the main protagonist is a Black waitress who is mostly shown in the film trapped in a frog’s body, dehumanizing the character. According to The Week, some suggested aspects of the film dehumanized black folk. Additionally, the film was written by predominantly white people, failing to capture the true lives and voices of Black Americans. The movie provides diversity by adding other characters with different backgrounds. However, their dehumanizing portrayal defeats the purpose.

The value of the voices of differing ethnicities, cultures and races is being cheapened by the stale and corporate portrayals in modern media. A new generation of enlightened writers and producers have proved the value of cultural richness.

Donald Glover’s TV show, “Atlanta,” accurately captures the lives of poorer Black folk in America. Eddie Huang’s “Fresh off the Boat,” reflects the struggles of an Asian family of immigrants. Nirav Bhakta’s movie “Thank You, Come Again,” is an amazing portrayal of Gujarati Americans. Of course, older generations have provided clear and effective portrayals as well. Michael Cacoyannis’s 1964 film “Zorba the Greek” captured the essence of Greek and Turkish culture perfectly in a time when these immigrants in America faced discrimination.

What all of the aforementioned movies have in common is the diversity of their cast, writers and directors. The key to advancing Hollywood’s inclusivity and colorfulness is to have writers tell the stories of their own peoples and cultures. An entire peoples’ story cannot be captured at the hands of a stranger.