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4 Ways TV Shows Are Ruining LGBTQ Representation For Us

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The landscape of television has undergone massive social changes in the past decade, it also brought upon the inclusion of LGBTQ characters on television. Now, we have multi-layered gay and lesbian characters on shows instead of the one token stereotypical gay character usually thrown in to make the audience believe the show is progressive. With characters like Piper Chapman (“Orange Is the New Black” or OITNB) and Annalise Keating (“How To Get Away With Murder”) even leading their respective shows, the future of LGBTQ representation looks optimistic. But there’s still a number of problems that need to be addressed.

Queer-Baiting

Dean Winchester and Castiel, from “Supernatural” (Season 10)

For those unfamiliar with the concept, queerbaiting is when a TV show baits its queer audience by hinting a romance between non-heterosexual characters or a character whose sexuality is suggested as anything other than heterosexual but with no intention to deliver on that promise.

Dean/Castiel (“Supernatural”), Sherlock/John (“Sherlock”), Emma/Regina (“Once Upon A Time”), Jane/Maura (“Rizzoli and Isles”) are some of the few shows that have deliberately created gay subtext between the characters.

All the lingering touches and the longing stares that clearly hint towards a romance, and most likely would be if the two characters were of the opposite sex. Most of the times the chemistry between the two same-sex characters is much more prominent than their respective partners, sometimes even intended to be played out as such to keep up interest within the queer audience. At the same time emotional or flirtatious moments between the two characters are downplayed by some variation of a “no homo” comment to keep the conservative fans satisfied.

Angie Harmon, who plays Jane Rizzoli on “Rizzoli and Isles”, has admitted the show plays up the relationship between titular characters Jane and Maura as something more than a friendship though she maintains the fact that both characters are heterosexual.

Misha Collins (who plays Castiel on “Supernatural”) has been an ardent supporter of ‘Destiel’ while Jensen Ackles (who plays Dean) claims Dean is straight.

There’s two factions of people that remain divided on the issue. One side believes that the audience is seeing something that simply isn’t there and is merely a figment of their imagination. The other vehemently believes there’s a possibility of a romantic relationship. While there’s no way to determine whose side is more credible the responsibility falls onto the creators to deliver honest and inclusive storytelling.

Creators should either be explicitly clear about a character’s sexuality or stop adding strong subtext. Stringing along an already vulnerable audience that is starving for representation to profit off of them and keep up the views is immoral.

What is worse is the directors and actors keep fueling the fans by repeatedly assuring them but it never culminates into anything and the fans feel duped.

‘Bury Your Gays’ Trope

Although the term isn’t relatively new it came to light with the death of the character Lexa on “The 100”. Fans were continuously assured that this queer character wouldn’t be killed off, the creator even inviting the fans to see the season finale being filmed with the character in question, but then ultimately killing her in a way quite similar to Tara from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

Clarke and Lexa, from “The 100”.

This is an emerging pattern where queer characters (notably lesbians) are killed off for the sake of shock value. Rarely does a gay or a lesbian couple get to have a happy ending. The problem isn’t that gay characters are being killed because a show has to keep up the suspense (specially in shows with frequent character deaths). It’s just that they are being killed far more often than straight characters, or they’re being killed simply for being gay.

And killing a queer character just to further the story-line of a straight character or couple is extremely problematic.

One reason for this trope could be that directors don’t know how to flesh out gay characters as well as straight ones, and they eventually write them off. A creator should know how to treat their queer characters, considering how significant representation is for the LGBTQ community. And in light of the Orlando club attack, killing off a queer character for no good reason sends out a harmful message.

In 2016, LGBTQ characters made up 13% of character deaths on television (10% LGBTQ women 3% LGBTQ men) which is staggering considering how they only constitute of a mere 4.8% of characters on television.

The soaring number of lesbian deaths on television last year led to the inception of the Lexa pledge, where television writers and producers swore to never kill off a gay character solely to further the plotline. The pledge also included the assurance of including queer writers and consulting with the LGBTQ community when writing a queer character and that said character will have a meaningful storyline handled with utmost delicacy as the death of a queer character has deep psychological ramifications on its queer audience.

Samara Wiley as Poussey, and Danielle Brooks as Taystee, in “Orange is the New Black”.

Last year also raised several questions regarding the trope. If the trope applies to apocalyptic shows or whether a show comprising mainly of queer characters like OITNB, does a death of one come under the BYG trope or not. Fans were left contemplating when last year OITNB killed off Poussey, a black lesbian character. The creators justified their decision by saying they wanted to portray real life events that are happening in USA but is killing a black lesbian (who finally found happiness after battling with alcohol addiction and had a job secured when she got out of prison) the way to go? Killing a black woman to portray the Black Lives Matter movement is problematic enough on its own, but killing her when she finally overcame her obstacles just for shock value is way worse. Does her death fall under the BYG trope or not?

Lack Of Queer People Of Colour

While LGBTQ representation on television has improved in time it still isn’t that inclusive of people of colour and mainly comprises of white characters. Queer characters of colour only constitute of 31% on broadcast, 29% on cable and 27% on streaming. Racially marginalized characters already form a small portion of the screen time allotted, and queer characters of colour are even fewer. They are rarely part of the main cast or are supporting characters with no real depth. Television needs more queer representation in terms of other cultures and racial backgrounds.

Shameless Bi-Erasure

Source: lookhuman/Tumblr.

TV shows have a rather regressive and annoying habit of never outright saying the word “bisexual”. Bisexuality or pansexuality is rarely discussed or addressed, and bisexual characters are often swept under the “it’s complicated” rug. Bisexuality is almost never taken seriously as a separate sexuality, but a variation of gay and straight. It is often at the receiving end of many jokes. Bisexual characters on television also perpetrate negative stereotypes such as bisexuals are cheaters, greedy, or just confused. Bisexual characters often have a variation of the same answer when confronted about their sexuality, including outright denial or saying something along the lines of “I like a person based on their personality not their gender“, which is completely fine as sexuality is fluid, but apprehension towards saying the words “bisexual” is a step backwards.

Another infuriating aspect of bisexual representation is that a bisexual character is referred to as straight when in a heterosexual relationship and gay/lesbian when they’re with someone of the same sex.

This might seem trivial and banal in the never-ending struggle for equality for minorities in the real world, but seeing oneself represented in the right way and witnessing healthy queer relationships that doesn’t end with death of one of the partner is essential for the queer audience.

So come on, television! Get with the programme!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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