It’s always been hard finding queer fiction in media. Despite the explosion of queer-focused television, movies and books into the mainstream through the past decade – including massively popular shows like Modern Family or Orange is the New Black, and even cheesy daytime TV like The Ellen DeGeneres Show – there still isn’t a whole lot of representation. Screen Australia surveyed diversity on television in 2016 and found that five percent of main characters were identified as LGBTQI – seemingly an insignificant fraction, but one in line with the current peaks of representation throughout western media.
But, what of quality? I’m not just asking whether these are objectively good, entertaining pieces of fiction. Do the few queer narratives in media make for good representation? What does make good representation, and for who? Is it inclusivity of the entire LGBTQI community, or just focus on desirable images of queer people? Who makes these narratives? What happens when queer people are involved in these narratives, or when they’re directed by straight people?
There is easily a difference in the queer fiction that is produced by queer writers, as opposed to straight writers. It’s not a question of whether straight people should or are allowed to write queer characters, necessarily, it’s just whether these narratives end up being harmful to the community and individuals. One of the ways that writers can create harmful fiction is through tropes. Tropes exist in all forms of fiction, but harmful tropes – full of stereotyping and condescension – can influence how people think down to the most fundamental level. What nature of tropes end up in fiction is very much determined by the writer.
For an example, take the films Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight. Both were critically lauded upon release. Brokeback Mountain’s loss of a Best Picture award is a legendary snub, but Moonlight’s almost-loss turned into a historic win for African-American and queer representation. Brokeback Mountain, a film directed by a straight man based on a novella written by a straight woman, depicts a romance between queer men in the American Midwest during the 1960s. They are oppressed by the heteronormativity and homophobia of the time, ending in tragedy for both men and their relationship. Moonlight was based on a play written by a queer man, based on his personal experiences growing up as a gay African-American in Miami. The tone is melancholy and the story explores the personal tragedies for the protagonist, all interwoven with the formulation of his identity – one facet of which is queer. Yet, it ends hopefully, in regards to the protagonist’s personal life and his romantic connection with another man.
Both were written to reflect a gay man’s identity and experience in America. Hate crimes, as depicted in both, are still a universal issue in queer lives. To ignore depicting this in any piece of fiction would be untruthful to these experiences. Yet, an overwhelming number of narratives about queer men is about violence directed towards them, their deaths and their misery, and little are other facets; healthy sex lives, family building or career successes. Brokeback Mountain and its commercial success propelled these negative tropes into the future depictions of queer men’s narratives. It creates a formative image for both straight and queer audiences of what the universal experiences of queer men are, and when this picture neglects one set of experiences in favour of the other, the image is unbalanced and harmful.
And yet, you can compare dozens of representations of queer men in media, from Brokeback Mountain to Modern Family. Turning your eye to queer women shows an entirely different landscape; for one, it’s far, far smaller. This speaks enough about the prioritisation placed on certain queer narratives in fiction, what is more desirable to creators, straight and queer, and to gain the approval of audiences. However, what does exist also reveals the dynamics between straight and queer writers, and their audiences.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is a similarly accoladed title, focusing on a romance between two queer women, and famous for its graphic sex scenes. Based on a graphic novel by a queer woman, the author criticised the film and its crew for not including any lesbian voices, and for essentially turning her depictions of lesbian sex into porn. The image of two conventionally attractive, femme women in a relationship – two outwardly gender conforming and ‘straight passing’ women – is the desirable narrative of a queer woman. The only purpose it serves is to gain the approval of a straight audience. But not only that – depicting these women having sex in order to titillate is harmful in other ways. Objectification of queer women and the idea that queer women’s sexuality is an object for audiences’ sexual pleasure, is very much a trope in the depiction of queer women in all mediums. It reduces and limits queer women’s expression of sexuality to serve that of straight men. It also limits the expression of queen women’s lives to only their sexual experiences, ignoring the vibrant and multifaceted existences queer women lead.
It’s heartening to see queer stories come out of the niche and be displayed proudly as mainstream media, produced by straight and queer authors alike. It’s a step towards creating understanding and acceptance; normalising, de-stigmatising queer experiences, validating them as part of the universal human experience. It’s making the lives of queer people easier, even if in a little way. However, this doesn’t mean these narratives, if handled badly, can’t do harm as well.