In terms of reach and scope, nothing brings queer stories and characters to audiences with the same effectiveness as television. Sure, films like The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club get nominated for Oscars and attain a higher profile than most TV shows, but in terms of pushing the limits of what mainstream audiences encounter, it’s impossible to beat a medium which reaches a captive audience in living rooms across the world.
The problem with these films is the fact that they’re fundamentally heterocentric works. While they may have queer characters at their core, they’re not actually interested in those characters’ queerness in a way that understands the increasing significance of LGBTIQ representation. Television, on the other hand, has become adept at doing this, but it still has a ways to go.
As Kyle Buchanan explains at Vulture, a recent spate of films about queer people has shown that filmmakers are finding “juicier opportunities in the conflicted characters who orbit our queer and trans leads” than in the leads themselves. It’s a provocative argument, because it raises the question of whether the nebulous ‘goal’ of representation is to foreground a character’s queerness – usually in romances or comings out – or to quietly background them, weaving them into the tapestry of the everyday.
Television has a distinct advantage in this sense, because it’s very difficult to push aside a character’s sexuality or gender identity if they’re fundamental to a character’s involvement story being told. The presence of Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black has provided some terrific moments and a warm, textured performance, but so often the writing makes the character feel – for lack of a better word – instructive because the writers seem to be able to find so precious little for her to do.
However, the show’s commitment to including numerous facets of sexual identity among the inmates of Litchfield makes it one of television’s most progressive examples. Despite pushing aside vastly more interesting characters and actors for a wan romance between Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Stella (Ruby Rose, more photogenic than telegenic), its third season still found ways for its queer characters to be involved in the narrative while never downplaying their queerness or necessarily making it the subject of their presence. Consider the fact that the series has never really explicitly addressed Suzanne’s (Uzo Aduba) sexual identity, instead laying out her idiosyncratic tastes on a rug like a wonderfully bizarre picnic.
The widely acclaimed Amazon drama Transparent frequently suffers the same problem. Its creator, Jill Soloway, recently dedicated her Emmy win for Best Director in a Comedy Series (an egregious instance of category fraud) to her “Moppa”, her trans parent – get it – whose transition inspired the show. The series’ title refers to its central character, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), but the show as a whole is far more interested in the way Maura’s coming out, which occurs in the pilot episode, affects her neurotic children, all of whom have their own disparate sexual identities or proclivities.
It would be unfair to ping Soloway for writing what she knows, and the show’s decision to delve so deeply into the way Maura’s transition changes her relationships is more than valid, and frequently compelling. But the show is at its best when it leaves those elements behind; its eighth episode, “Best New Girl”, flashes back to show Maura pre-transition as Mort at Camp Camellia, a getaway for transvestites, and its honing in on Maura’s experience of living in hiding is infinitely more potent than, say, her son Josh’s (Jay Duplass) generic fear of commitment. Transparent’s writing has never lived up to its visual storytelling.
Not only that, but it manages to find a way for trans woman Nomi (Jamie Clayton) to have an explicit discussion with gay man Lito (Miguel Silvestre) about the distinct effects their identities have had on their lives. We often talk about media as ‘starting a conversation’ on these issues, but Sense8 manages, in some ways, to have that conversation for us.
Other shows, such as Looking, Cucumber and Please Like Me, more than succeed in emphasising the essential queerness of their narratives and arguably to a greater extent than any of the aforementioned series. But their specificity may perhaps be their undoing, with the tremendous Looking cancelled by HBO after two seasons (with a wrap-up telemovie to come) and Cucumber being a finite story and its diverse sister series Banana looking unlikely to continue.
Looking has shown that a very narrow a focus, no matter how well-crafted, can create a distance with a wider audience
How to Get Away with Murder recently made a significant leap by revealing main character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) as a queer woman, adding to the evolved representation found in the relationship between Connor (Jack Falahee) and Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), whose diagnosis as HIV-positive has produced some of the most lucid discussion about the effects of a change in status that TV or film have ever seen.
Younger-skewing series like Steven Universe and Faking It manage to incorporate themes of sexuality in ways which place embed queerness at their core, and Hulu’s Difficult People and Empire have found entirely unique ways of approaching LGBTIQ characters. These shows form a terrific basis on which writers and creators will look to build going forward.
But the concern of the commercial will always loom large. Looking has shown that a very narrow a focus, no matter how well-crafted, can create a distance with a wider audience, and television remains a numbers game even with increasing diversity and audience stratification. Despite the low ratings of the truly awful Scream Queens, American Horror Story and its bastardisation of camp shambles on, popularity unabated. Ryan Murphy’s almost tokenistic inclusiveness becoming more and more hollow with each passing series.
These shows – good and bad – nevertheless show how far television has moved in terms of productive representation. With the ability to explore themes across many hours, TV doesn’t necessarily have to centre on queerness to be queer, though it is preferable, and the nature of production means a greater diversity of voices behind the scenes. The challenge now is to place these voices at the forefront and support them to success. Television wants to move forward, but it’ll need viewers to follow it.