Queer Representation in the Media, what’s wrong and what can be done?
Representation is the way we choose to represent a certain group of people to the public. It is theoretically what enables oppressed, marginalised and underrepresented groups to gain invisibility.
This year, the organisation GLAAD (which studies queer representations in the media) revealed that through the year 2019 the number of films that contained lgbtq+ characters rose by 0.4%. If we do not take a closer look at these statistics, they can easily appear to be encouraging. Nonetheless, among these 22 films with lgbtq+ characters, the amount of non-gay representation dropped by a lot. Indeed, none of those contained a transgender character, the percentage of lesbians dropped from 55% to 38%, queer people of colour also found themselves to be way underrepresented and the same phenomenon can be witnessed in regards of handy-queers, pansexual and bisexual people. It is thus safe to say that the situation is not getting any better and that only a small percentage of what makes the lgbtq+ community is gaining invisibility through the years.
For a better understanding of why representation is crucial to the well-being of queer people, we can refer to Didier Eribon’s book Réflexions Sur la question Gay. In his book, the author comments on the mechanisms of power and how representation and language influence social behaviour; who dominates the other, and who the other is. In his words, the « dominant » is the one that manages to impose the way he wants to be seen whereas the « dominated » is the one that is being defined by the other and doesn’t manage to impose the perception he has of himself. Eribon continues by explaining how the fights for representation are fights for the perception we have of the world, and more precisely how they come to define the perception and the definition of a group by the words and perceptions of another group; of the « dominated » by the « dominants ».
Now, if we try to analyse these reflections and try to understand clearly what it all means, we have to consider other reasons why representation is important.
First of all, and as stated earlier, it is important for the community itself. Growing up queer in society shaped for cis and straight people means not having anyone to look up to. Rare is the queer kids that grew up in an environment lgbtq+ enough to make them feel like they belong. We all know how that feeling of belonging, of being a part of something, is important and this, to anyone.
Queer kids grow up feeling lonely, sometimes knowing they are not the only ones being like that, but most of the time feeling like there is no one out there understanding who they are or, in other words, no one like them that they can identify with. That process of identification is important for absolutely everyone, which can be considered to be part of the reasons why people, especially teens, get so attached to characters from books or shows as well as to celebrities. They give them the representation they need. Straight, queer, cis, black or white, representation is important to every being in the universe. There, the issue is that marginalised groups (be they queer, people of colour, etc.) don’t get as much representation as to the ones that fit the norms (which is what makes the latter the norm). If we take the example of France, the representation of queer people in the media is poor, not inexistant, but poor.
Once again, we can all agree that it’s important for queer people to feel understood and represented, but how are they supposed to do it if society doesn’t give them the keys?
Secondly, lgbtq+ representation is also important for a more global audience. Indeed, non queer individuals benefit from this growing representation of queer identities in the media as it gives them the opportunity to educate themselves and acknowledge identities they were not necessarily familiar with beforehand. To be accepted by a wider range of people, queer people need that representation, and they need it to be accurate and intelligent.
It is certainly true that representation, good or bad, is always representation; but accepting it simply because it exists, being grateful to be seen no matter how that is, is not the solution.
To make progress in our society, whilst being surrounded by homophobic and transphobic narratives, we need to ask for more than clichés, we need to be more demanding in regards of how our identities are presented and represented to the public. Even more than that, queer people have the right to ask for more than slightly better than nothing. What straight people are able to take in is not the matter here. Queer lives are at stake and making lgbtq+ representation about straight identities is telling a marginalised group that once again, they are not the priority.
Therefore, when we talk about good or bad representation, we talk about what we have to offer to an oppressed and underrepresented part of the population.
When « Blue Is the Warmest Colour » came out in 2013, the praise was huge. This film, adapted from a comic written by a queer woman seemed to many like the beginning of something new for the lesbian community.
There are, among others, two types of representation. The first one targets an external public, it addresses queer identities from a straight point of view and for a straight audience mainly. The second one addresses these topics and questions directly for the concerned audience. Both can be equally good and only differ in their aim and means (and one film, or book, doesn’t have to be of only one of these two types, they can obviously be mixed). What changes though, is how we choose to treat the subject. If the comic by Julie Maroh was part of the second category, the film was quite obviously part of the first one and both artworks could have been necessary although completely different from one another. The issue with the film is that Abdellatif Kechiche chose to represent lesbian relationships, and more specifically lesbian sex in a caricatural way, almost porn-like and particularly offending for the concerned community.
What this means is that although it might not have been the targeted audience, women loving women (be they bisexual, lesbians, etc.) found themselves in a position that no-one wants to be in. As much as it is true that there is as many kinds of good representation as there are of people, we should not ask women to accept being represented in an inaccurate way to an audience that has yet a lot to learn and unlearn.
If we now come back to Eribon’s work, it becomes clear why, if we want the system to become less heteronormative, we need to create more accurate representations of queer identities. Indeed, words and images bare a certain power that we need to acknowledge. They define the way people are seen by the audience and, consequently, society.
The praise directed at « Blue is the Warmest Colour » is a result of these mechanisms of power Eribon was writing about. It demonstrates how the « dominants » have got control of « the dominated »’s identities and of how they are being perceived by society.
This is why it is crucial to address the underrepresentation of queer people. Not only can we do better, but we also have to.