The ‘Record Number’ of LGBTQ Characters on TV Remains Depressingly Low
On first glance, a cause for celebration: Today media-monitoring group GLAAD released statistics that show LGBTQ representation on broadcast television has hit a zenith in the 12-year history of the organization tracking regular characters on prime-time shows.
GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report reveals that 4.8 percent (43 characters) of characters in the 2016/2017 TV season are LGBTQ, compared to 95.4 percent (854 characters) being heterosexual. On cable shows, there are 92 LGBTQ characters (up from 84 last year).
It feels odd, though, to be celebrating what remains a paltry number; if 5 percent against 95 percent is a number we should celebrate, it also shows how far Hollywood has to go in fully evoking LGBTQ people, and our diverse lives, on the TV shows it makes.
Quite besides the numbers game is what those LGBTQ characters are doing on the shows they appear on. Apart from well-publicized standouts, such as the characters of Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, and the shows of Shonda Rhimes, are they being given the same depth of storylines and nuances of character as their straight counterparts?
GLAAD also recorded 16 trans characters on broadcast, cable, and streaming series (double last year’s number), and compiled statistics on race: Of the LGBT characters on screen, around 70 percent of LGBTQ characters on both broadcast and cable were white.
Overall, nearly 36 percent of characters on broadcast programming were people of color.
Of the LGBTQ characters on screen, nearly half were gay men, 23 percent were bisexual women, 17 percent were lesbian, 7 percent were bisexual men, and 4 percent were transgender.
GLAAD also noted that since the beginning of 2016 more than 25 queer female characters have died on scripted television and streaming series.
Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s entertainment media senior strategist, who compiled the research, said she was especially heartened to see the increase in trans characters, particularly with Laverne Cox about to play a regular character in CBS’s Doubt.
In doing so, Cox, as Variety noted, will become the first-ever transgender actor to play a transgender character in a series regular role on broadcast TV.
“To have a trans character in prime-time broadcast television in people’s living rooms is to have an opportunity to make real change,” Townsend said.
Townsend also noted that HIV-positive characters were featured in broadcast, cable, and streaming series all together for the first time, noting that Oliver in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder would become a series regular this coming season, “and so hopefully they will develop his character more.”
Conversely, the high number of lesbian characters’ deaths—the erasure of Commander Lexa in The 100 was notably much-criticized—“sends a very toxic message,” said Townsend, and was “part of a decades-long trend in how Hollywood has treated LGBTQ characters.” GLAAD hopes that networks and producers address this “Dead Lesbian Syndrome.”
“While there’s been a lot of progress, and TV is far ahead of film when it comes to portraying us, there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Townsend. “It’s not enough for these characters to be on your screen. It’s about the screen time they’re getting, what the storyline is, and what impact they’re having. These characters need to be created with thought and care, not just playing out the same harmful tropes over and over again.
“Queer characters—and mostly queer females brought into the show—end up being killed or dying in some sort of way, and often to further the development of the more central and usually straight cisgender character.”
Townsend also noted that bisexual characters are portrayed as “inherently untrustworthy and manipulative,” the source of their badness rooted in their sexuality, rather than their bisexuality being seen as their “lived identity and part of their life.”
Townsend said that despite flagging the 4.8 percent figure as a record, GLAAD did not have an ideal or aspirant percentage of LGBTQ characters it would like to see on TV.
GLAAD naturally hopes the figure will rise, and that “broadcasters and networks will do better to reflect the reality and diversity of our community,” Townsend said. “That includes characters of color and those who may be disabled (like Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy), and really getting at all the people who live at the intersections of multiple identities.”
The problem, said Townsend, was one of “consistency.” Award-winning and critically hailed streaming shows like Transparent set a sterling example around diversity of LGBTQ stories and characters, and the numbers of those characters on screen.
“These shows are dragging the rest of the industry along to emulate their success,” Townsend said. “Our hope is that all shows will become more nuanced, and we will see those shows doing well with queer people at the center of them.”