Contributor

The Importance of True Representation

Opinion of Noelle Avena

Identifying tokenism and its negative impacts on LGBT youth

The mere presence of an LGBT character in a piece of media is not progress made. There is nuance
to portraying diversity in a way that will not be harmful to the community it’s representing. At its best, representation allows the straight audience to learn about and empathize with queer experiences while resonating with and validating the LGBT audience. Unfortunately, finding TV shows or movies with satisfactory LGBT representation is almost impossible, but learning this distinction is much needed
in the everlasting effort to protect and support queer youth. One of the easiest concepts to understand
and identify is stereotyping. When a queer person sees a stereotype of their own identity, it creates a false statement about what queer people should look like and be. The negative connotations stereotyping develops hurt everyone. For example, a show might portray a gay teen as feminine, with little to no other
traits. Someone watching that, say, a straight teen, will create a connotation between femininity in men and that person’s sexuality. This has further pushed toxic masculinity onto men and perpetrated cultural hatred for femininity. However, it’s not always this easy to see the direct negative impacts. Tokenism is when a minority character is placed in a story to forward or aid the main character’s journey with no attention
to their own development. Tokenism is less destructive and more lazy on the creator’s part, but writing in an LGBT character just to have an LGBT character is still wrong. It speaks of a greater issue— a writer is looking for diversity points without giving screen time to developing a character that a straight
audience can learn from and LGBT people can actually identify with. There’s a joke that these are queer characters written for straight people, not queer characters written for
queer people. There are several types of generally harmful portrayals. Oversexualized LGBT characters
in mainstream media make it difficult for queer youth to communicate their identity comfortably and have it respected. Contrastingly, a lot of modern media with LGBT people contains excessively graphic
hate crimes or other traumatic material. While it is important to share these stories, there needs to be balance. It’s exhausting to constantly see people like you being harmed or killed. For example, look at the horror genre. While of course violence is to be expected, just about the only time queer people are
included in horror is when it’s set in an asylum where the patient is administered shock therapy, hydrotherapy, or even lobotomies, which is a disturbingly common trope that gets increasingly difficult to watch the more it’s used. These media vices that severely limit queer characters are the catalyst for another
new and surprisingly frustrating pattern: queerbait. Queerbaiting is a marketing tactic used in shows and movies where the writers hint at, but don’t include, queer characters to gain viewership. This tactic reveals that creators use queer people’s struggle for good representation for their own profit. This is
cruel and unusual, but it goes to show just how desperately LGBT people are searching
for any non-demeaning representation. Navigating the terrain of representation in media is complicated— there’s nuance to what is good or bad. The bottom line is this- seeing people who identify the same way you do should feel good. If an LGBT friend says something makes them uncomfortable, listen. They should feel seen, accounted for, and proud. Hopefully, one day queer youth
won’t have to keep settling for less.

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