Graphic by Jeanine Lee
The genre of queer television and film is slowly evolving. This fatigued pace is worrisome, as queer media has arguably never been more influential and we have reached a pinnacle for social change. The process of shifting attitudes is integral to changing cultures and laws, so it must be carefully considered how queer lives are represented and how their stories are altered for mainstream consumption. But goals concerning the extent of assimilation vary across the community, and the watering down of queer storylines for straight audiences has been a common way for queer narratives to get their foot in the door. However, queer identities do not exist to be digestible for straight society, and making character arcs appeal to straight feelings steals authenticity from the real lives that media is supposed to be representing.
Though every new piece of queer media adds to our visibility in some way, not all representation is as progressive as others. Just as casting white faces and writing cis roles is not revolutionary, tame depictions of queer people that shy away from our experiences – specifically in favor of straight feelings – reduce us to side characters in our own narratives.
Though a bonafide feel-good hit with endless positive reviews, Queer Eye on Netflix falls victim to the idea that queer people are not useful unless they are servicing straight people. While they do help change the lives of a gay man and a trans man, the show is primarily straight “hero” focused. The allure of the show rests on conservative heterosexual southern America not knowing any queer people and having their first introduction to the community through the Fab Five. At times, the heroes’ teary goodbyes to the Fab Five echo the “Magical Negro” trope of a person of an oppressed group helping a privileged person and thereby enriching their lives. Discernibly, the show delves fully enough into the Fab Five’s lives to make them more than side characters in their own show, but there remains the implication that queer people’s lives are for the servicing of others and never for themselves.
While the show does not ignore the personal experiences of the Fab Five (and instead, chooses to embrace them, much to the delight of audiences), it maintains a certain uneasy relationship with queerness. This is most notable when they are helping their first trans hero, Skyler Jay, in episode 5 of season 2. Bobby repeatedly emphasizes that the Fab 5 want queerness to only be a single facet of who they are and not their whole personalities. While this may seem to embrace individuality, it actually does the opposite. Though a seemingly progressive theme, it distracts from the idea that queer people may want to be able to embrace their unique queerness rather than assimilate into straight society. Bobby, in his plan for redecorating Skyler’s space, says that he wants “Skyler to realize that queer is just a column – a column that holds up the house of Skyler.” He continues by saying that Skyler needs to be proud but “flags are meant to be flown; they’re not decor.” Apart from the condescension of an older gay man who has been out for a while telling a younger trans man that he should not be as publicly forward with his identity, there is a sense that the main purpose of the show is to show a convergence of all people, rather than an embrace of queer individuality.
Reality television is not the only genre guilty of watering down our experiences – so are fictional depictions. The 2018 silver-screen hit Love, Simon succumbs to making queer stories more about others’ reactions than the queerness itself. While coming out is an anxiety-ridden experience in and of itself, the pain experienced is pertinent only for the person coming out, not for others. Much of Simon’s anxiety comes from a fear of both being outed and the possible negative reactions (which is a very real pain), but the focus on his pain is redirected to the feelings of everyone else. This is principally shown by the emphasis on his parents’ reactions to his coming out.
Both of Simon’s parents take it very well, and while it is tear-jerking and is a scenario that many queer kids hope for (but not all get), the film places the emphasis on how Simon’s queerness does not change his parents’ perception of him. His mother describes him as “still the same son who [she] love[s] to tease and who your father depends on for just about everything,” and “the same brother who always compliments his sister on her food, even when it sucks.” This dependence on similarity to heterosexuality rather than the uniqueness that is queerness distracts from why queerness is marginalized in the first place: it is seen as deviant from the heterosexual behavior expected from society. The embracing of one’s queer identity is an acceptance that queer people are different but deserve to be respected for their individuality, not ostracized for it. Furthermore, the coming out process is most difficult for the one who is coming out, and the feelings of others shouldn’t be the focal points of queer narratives in popular media. Simon’s character arc is not fully formed because the people around him are still missing out on a crucial bit of information: queer people are allowed to change, and their queerness is allowed to be the catalyst for that change.
Much of the argument for tame queer depictions is that we will never progress as a society without baby steps, and that we should be grateful for the representation that we are given. But queer subjugation will only continue if we allow our liberation to be a slow and steady process. How queer people are depicted in media is not the most pressing problem that our community faces, but how our stories are disseminated to popular society (and what stories they are) change how we are viewed by those who have the power to alter our oppressions. Well-executed, authentic queer storylines have the power to change lives, but they will never be revolutionary unless they are willing to push the boundaries of what queerness looks like.