By Maria Rotelli
In 1998, “Will and Grace” premiered and pushed the United States out of its comfort zone by starting a show with very open gay characters, something that had rarely been seen before. During its run, it was very popular and was rated in the top 20 highest-rated shows for four seasons in a row.
Queer theorist Robert Tobin, who teaches at Clark University, notes that the character of Jack McFarlane is probably one of the most recognizable characters that fall on the most recognizable trope in queer television.
When asked about famous fictional characters and their stereotypes, the professor mentioned that he was continuing to see many Jack-like characters, “It seems to me that we still have a very consistent what I call ‘effeminate’ male and ‘masculine’ woman,” he said.
Professor Jonathan Katz at Buffalo University, founder of the Harvey Milk Institute and the Queer Caucus for Art of the College Art Association, said that today’s stereotypical roles assigned to LGBTQ+ characters are a holdover from the, “Will and Grace” era.
“Part of the enjoyment of the series in the gay community is a self-conscious citation. In other words, these are like vaudeville skits. These roles, we know. It’s like Commedia Dell’Arte or something, it’s an extent social system that is enjoyable in its rehearsal,” Katz said.
Kaaz also noted that straight people still find queer comedy or jokes at a gay person’s expense enjoyable.
“Because it’s always been common character, because it struck people then and now as unnatural and funny,” Katz said.
Katz, explained the origins of these stereotypes date back to the early 20th century.
“I think what we see is this holdover of this earlier stereotype of the ‘queer’ in which sexuality is determined not by the gender of your partner but by your own gender in the sexual acts,” Katz said, “Hence, the effeminate male is the classic homosexual in representation. The man who seems to be woman-like.”
Tobin said that the effeminate, gay, male stock character is a product of lazy writing, “I think it is probably easiest to use, quickly recognizable images, that we quickly understand as, ‘Oh that’s the boy with the limp wrist, he must be gay’ and you get laughs out of it.”
Michael Loman, a professor at Boston University and a former sitcom writer said, “There are always stereotypes. We grew up with stereotypes. The trick is to recognize it and change it.”
Loman, who wrote episodes for, “One Day at a Time” and, “All in the Family,” confirmed Tobin’s theory that writers stick to these stereotypes because they are easy to make jokes out of.
“Writers go for jokes that have always have worked,” said Loman, “On, ‘Will and Grace,’ Jack is still asking Will for his credit card. That joke always lands. Stereotypes are easy to use for comedy. It used to be the battle-ax mother-in-law or gay effeminate male who was a florist or hairdresser. Those were easy jokes,” he said.
Meanwhile, bisexual characters tend to get flak from both hetero and homosexual people on social media for their seeming inability to, “pick a side” and that they are, “not really” queer.
The Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black” has a very diverse cast of characters in terms of different sexualities. In 2014, the show received a GLAAD Media Award for, “Outstanding Comedy Series.”
Despite GLAAD’s seal of approval, over the course of the show, they do not say the word, “bisexual” at any point and instead, characters like the lead character, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) will say something along the lines of, “I like hot girls. And I like hot boys. I like hot people.”
Schilling’s character also is called, “a former lesbian,” and, “a straight girl,” by both gay and straight characters in the ensemble, which is similar to real life.
Amara Cash, director of the film, “Daddy Issues” knew that her first feature-length film was going to include a bisexual character because she wanted to draw a lot from her own coming out story.
“I feel people a lot of times think that it’s a phase or it’s not real or you’re going to leave something for the other gender,” Cash said, “Still there’s a lot of stigma around bisexuality, so that’s been very important for me, to label myself and talk about it…there’s a, B and ‘LGBT’ for a reason.”
A most unsettling trend in the treatment of queer characters on TV relates to the number of lesbian and bisexual women who have been killed off on shows. Out of 198 queer female deaths, 131 are murders. These instances often come with an outburst from the LGBTQ community and the trope, “Bury Your Gays.”
In March 2016, four different queer women were killed off on four different TV shows, practically one queer female character each week.
“The guess that I would hazard, is that you have to contain strong women in some way,” said Christina Baade, professor of communications and musicology at McMaster University.
Baade has observed that before they are killed off, queer women often seem powerful in these narratives. She explains that this is because they seem to have taken a dominant position over all the other characters, male and female, using the “power” of sex.
“Queer women are often portrayed as strong because of their relationship to hetero-patriarchy and it’s a really unsettling place to have that person thriving,” Baade said.
In, “The 100” for example, the show that got a lot of attention after the death of one of their lesbian characters in March 2016. The show developed a relationship between the show’s bisexual lead, Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and a lesbian, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey). Moments after their relationship is consummated on the show, Lexa takes a bullet for Clarke.
Originally, Lexa was seen as an antagonist, which follows a long list of LGBTQ characters being powerful and manipulative, or “villains” à la, “Basic Instinct.” But villains in TV often don’t survive. As Baade put it, “The way that you deal with powerful women is you could enjoy their powerful performances, but then you have to have some sort of narrative closure and you have to get rid of them by killing them off.”
Fans on Twitter and on Tumblr were furious and very vocal about it. They got the hashtag, #LGBTFansDeserveBetter trending on Twitter after the episode aired. Some of the directors and producers of the show were receiving death threats via social media.
However, a different group of fans decided to make something positive out of this concept of, “LGBTQ+ fans deserve better” and started, “Clexacon” which is the world’s only convention about LGBTQ+ women in media and pop culture.
The women on the list of 198 dead queer female characters were very diverse racially, class-wise, butch or femme. If a female character on a show reveals herself as queer, fans immediately know that she will be dead in a few episodes and that has become the automatic expectation. Andrea Klassen, a writer for the audio drama network, Crossroads Studios, explained that when she and her friends watch a TV show and a female character comes out as a lesbian or as bisexual, they immediately are cautious.
“When I am reading a piece of literary fiction or watching a really big franchise TV show and there are queer characters, I am often, very often, unless I trust the writer a lot from previous works; I’m always kind of waiting for them to do something with this character that I hate,” Klassen said.
Klassen explained that the kinds of things that she is waiting for include: the bisexual character putting the “gay stuff” behind her to give her a male love interest. Or, that the writers will just kill off one of the only LGBTQ+ characters during sweeps week, without a second thought.
But Klassen isn’t saying that all LGBTQ+ characters should be invincible.
“People die in some kinds of stories or get hurt or experience awful events,” Klassen said, “I agree that having more queer characters helps. If you have one person who is trans or queer in your entire narrative and you kill them off it’s going to feel and look differently than if you’ve got multiple characters,” she said.
Queer writers and scholars seem to agree that one way to combat harmful LGBTQ+ stereotypes on television is to do what Klassen is suggesting: have more than one LGBTQ+ character.
“I think stereotypes are harmful to the degree to which they often are the only form of representation. I would have no problem if there were a range of good representations,” said Katz.
“I know when I was coming out of the closet, one of the difficulties was the fact that, that as somebody who wasn’t diverging from gender norms, I had difficulty recognizing myself in popular representations of homosexuality,” said Katz.
Gordene MacKenzie, professor of Gender Studies at Merrimack College, said that the best thing writers who are straight and cisgender can do is to educate themselves.
“Don’t make the queer person the joke,” MacKenzie said, “Make queer people complex and central to the plot. Tell it through queer eyes. Work with queer writers. Pay queer consultants. Do your research. Not all transgender people want to be medicalized. Talk to queer people. It is not your story to tell.”
These scholars and writers all said something about how television writers should ask an LGBTQ+ person for help in writing these characters to make them more authentic and less stereotypical. They agree that once television gets more diverse voices in the writer’s room, we will see them change the channel.