The good news from GLAAD’s new report on LGBT representation is that there are more regular gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters on television than ever before. The bad news is that there would be even more if showrunners were less prone to killing them off.
In GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV report, the LGBT media advocacy group found that 6.4 percent of regular characters on broadcast scripted primetime programs were LGBTQ—the highest of any year on record.
But GLAAD also specifically called out the trend of killing off an LGBTQ character “in [the] service of another straight, cisgender character’s plot line”—a trope known as “Bury Your Gays” that has become especially common over the last two seasons of television, which saw “the deaths of an overwhelming number of lesbian and bisexual women characters.”
“The number of queer women on all of television—and broadcast especially—took a severe dip in the past few years,” Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research and Analysis, told The Daily Beast. “While we did see cable and broadcast increase in lesbian representation this year, TV has still not bounced back to some of the higher percentages we’ve seen in the past—and gay men continue to outnumber every other part of the community.”
As Dorothy Snarker noted for the Hollywood Reporter last March, four lesbian and bisexual female TV characters were killed in the span of a month: Jane the Virgin’s Rose, The 100’s Lexa, The Magicians’ Kira, and The Walking Dead’s Denise.
This trend only added to a preexisting gender disparity in LGBTQ representation. GLAAD’s latest report shows that, for the 2017-2018 season, 43 percent of LGBTQ characters on TV are female, down one percent from last year, while male LGBTQ characters were bumped up from 56 to 57 percent of the pie. That gendered gap in representation has held more or less steady for over a decade.
“Networks need to introduce more queer women, and give them fully nuanced stories that don’t end in death,” Townsend said.
Indeed, GLAAD’s report speaks to the crucial distinction between quantity and quality when it comes to LGBT media representation, most notably when it comes to the lack of romance and sex LGBTQ characters have on TV, compared to their straight counterparts. Equality for LGBTQ characters on TV isn't measured in just numbers, but in terms of what they are shown doing and saying.
“LGBTQ characters remain largely on the fringes of ensemble casts, rather than the leads of the series,” Townsend explained. “As such, their screen time tends to vary based on how many plots the overall series has time to handle. It is then easier to treat this character as expendable – either killing them off when in need of a buzzy shock or otherwise writing the character off.”
The result is something of a “revolving door” effect: there are a record number of LGBTQ characters on TV, but—with rare exceptions like Will & Grace—very few lead characters.
As GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis noted in the report itself, “when a show needs to downsize,” LGBTQ side characters get axed—or, in one recent lesbian character’s case, shot in the eye socket with an arrow.
That raises the question of how much comfort LGBT viewers can take in these numbers, like the fact that there are 17 regular and recurring transgender characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming networks, including four non-binary characters—or that two asexual characters have now appeared on TV, one of them in Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman.
LGBT representation on TV is still leagues beyond LGBT representation in film. But what good are more characters if the characters themselves aren’t that good?
Bisexual characters, GLAAD found, are still shown participating in “schemes [that] are tied directly to their bisexual identity,” too often portrayed as “manipulative villains.”
While some shows like How to Get Away with Murder honestly tackle issues like having sex with an HIV-positive partner in a “normalizing” way, broadcast television is still largely struggling to create fleshed-out LGBTQ characters like Connor and Oliver—although GLAAD highlighted the forthcoming Alan Cumming show Instinct on CBS, in which the actor plays a gay ex-CIA agent, as a potential positive step forward for the big networks.
Even the sizable boost in transgender reprsentation has an underside. Sure, there are more transgender characters but GLAAD found that “only 11 of [them] have identifiable sexual orientations” because “the networks were unable to confirm the character’s sexual orientation.”
GLAAD is willing to grant that some of these characters are young and may not have romantic storylines for that reason, but also noted that, “in some instances it appears that the show’s creators haven’t given much thought to the fact that trans people also have sexual orientations.”
Indeed, TV shows are often so focused on telling “coming out” stories or depicting a gender transition that—with few exceptions, like Netflix’s recently-cancelled Sense8—transgender characters often don’t get the romantic subplots that cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters are getting.
“We hope to see more trans characters especially who become integral in their series with storylines beyond their gender identity or the ‘transition narrative’ which we have seen so often,” Townsend told The Daily Beast.
So while GLAAD will keep counting the numbers of different kinds of characters, they are also urging networks to make the characters they do have count. Ellis noted in the report that shows like How to Get Away with Murder are still “the exception to the rule,” urging the industry to introduce “more diverse LGBQ characters on multiple levels,” including racial diversity and characters with disabilities.
“While we have seen some great changes,” Ellis concluded, “in this current culture of divisiveness our need from Hollywood is greater.”