It was around middle or high school when I first saw gay people on screen. For myself and many other people in our generation, those gay people in question were Kurt Hummel and Blaine Anderson from Glee (2009). As someone who was on the cusp of realizing they were queer, seeing gay people on screen was enlightening. The internal experience of struggling with romantic and sexual feelings for the same sex was more common than I thought. For many people who wouldn’t grow to find themselves a part of the queer community, this visibility taught them the opposite of what a lot of religious and social sectors had to say about people like Kurt and Blaine: They were people just like their heterosexual counterparts, as opposed to a hiccup in the way of peaceful society. Seeing Kurt and Blaine interact with each other–both as individuals and as part of a relationship–helped me navigate to this truth about myself. This is, in part, why representation for the LGBTQ+ community is important.
Representations of queer people appeared before the Glee age, with Paris is Burning (1990); Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001); and Brokeback Mountain (2005), to name a few. Since then, the world of LGBTQ+-friendly media has expanded, with a plethora of characters that includes transgender, non-binary, and other sexual & gender-fluid personalities. Pushback from more conservative sectors still persists, with books involving LGBTQ+ portrayals being banned from schools and libraries around the country, and LGBTQ+-centric films bombing at the box office. However, in recent months with the release of the film Bros (2022), and The Real Friends of WeHo (2023), pushback has come from members of the LGBTQ+ community itself. As the variety of representations emboldens itself in mainstream media, the heaviest critics of it often comes from the target audience.
Take this for instance: RuPaul’s Drag Race is a show beloved by millions of fans worldwide. It has sparked counterparts of the competition series around the world. In this television phenomenon, RuPaul, one of the most famous drag queens in the world, judges a cast of drag queens from around the United States until one is named America’s Next Drag Superstar. The show has given a platform to gay men–as well as non-binary and transgender people–to share their stories and the obstacles they face beyond the show, which has been received well by audiences worldwide.
While it previously aired on VH1 with 90-minute episodes, Drag Race has since switched to MTV and a reduced timeslot of 60-minutes, leaving fans feeling as though the episodes are rushed. This reduction in airtime comes with the introduction of a new reality show, The Real Friends of WeHo, a show that follows the lives of six successful LGBTQ+ celebrities, including Todrick Hall, Jaymes Vaugn and Brad Goreski, among others, in Real Housewives-esque fashion. MTV planned to make these evening timeslots a destination period for LGBTQ+ viewers to flock to MTV, but their best intentions weren’t received as such. Reception of Real Friends became overwhelmingly negative over the fact that the show was reducing Drag Race’s airtime, as well as showing a somewhat arrogant and diverse-less cast of people. The show was dubbed an unrealistic and stereotypical representation of the queer community, where a lot of its subject matter focuses on the cast members talking about themselves. Additionally, the cast lacks representation of Latin, Asian, and transgender populations, hosting only Black and white people on the show. Bookended by RuPaul’s Drag Race and its companion behind-the-scenes show, Untucked, Real Friends has received low ratings on its episodes as they premier, while both of the Drag Race installments maintain their high viewership. This means that viewers tuned in, changed the channel when Real Friends came on, and then switched back in time for Untucked.
We live in a world where the wide acceptance of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream media is a new societal attitude. A barrier has existed between the many realities of living as a LGBTQ+ person, and what is represented on screen. The latter has remained predominantly heterosexual, cisgender, and white. In recent years, cracks have formed in that barrier, and the representation of diverse populations has spilled into the mainstream limelight. Pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community, Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Love, Simon (2018) have both been highlighted as landmarks in the advancement of positive representation in film, with the latter being hailed as the first film by a major movie studio to feature a queer teenage romance.
At the time, the release of these films were a huge deal for many members of the queer community, although those same people may now find problems or drawbacks with them as time passes. This may be because media where queer characters are front and center are few and far between compared to the multitudes of ways queer people live out their lives beyond the screen or page. The controversy of Real Friends comes from the fact that we already have film and television featuring Black and white queer men at the forefront, while RuPaul’s Drag Race has given a strong platform to Asian, Latin and transgender people, alongside other underrepresented demographics. It has also been entertaining to the masses. Nothing is inherently wrong with showing the lives of prominent queer figures in West Hollywood, although frustrations arise at energy not being allocated to telling the stories of queer people of different races, or gender non-conforming, transgender and non-binary individuals.
Additionally, a lot of the characterizations of these persons are able-bodied, or fit, perhaps to make it more appealing to some heteronormative demographic. This is touched on a lot in Bros (2022), in which the masculine, muscular male persona is heavily discussed in terms of queer men’s preference in partners. Bros does well to reflect the reality of this common behavior in a way that reveals a new sense of homonormativity that subliminally exists within the queer community. In light of this, more energy should be placed on telling stories of people with disabilities, or plus-size individuals. Widening the lens of queer visibility to the various realities of being LGBTQ+ in different circumstances would, surprisingly, appeal to the entire community, since stories like those would be considered novel or original in a sea of heteronormative queer media.
All in all, the visibility of diverse groups of people is important. Despite the target audience, these films and shows are mainly marketed toward the white, cisgender, and heterosexual population that America is predominated by. As a result, this population is what is reflected in the media. What is important to remember is that while representation of LGBTQ+ individuals can help people questioning their identity maneuver through that stage of life, equal representation of underrepresented subgroups can make the media much more worthwhile to those groups, instead of making it more “palatable” to the audience outside of the target audience.