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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
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!