In today’s upgraded entertainment culture, it’s almost possible to forget there was once a time, not long ago, when the queer presence on television was essentially non-existent. Not only do LGBTQ characters now appear regularly across a wide variety of viewing platforms, they are a far cry from the “coded” stereotypes that occasionally flitted across our screens in the old days.
It’s such a comparative embarrassment of riches that it’s easy to see why there are many, even within the queer community itself, that assume we’ve “arrived” and there’s no need to be concerned about representation at all.
One look at GLAAD’s latest “Where We Are On TV” report, which was released on Jan. 14, is enough to shake that illusion.
In 2020’s edition, the findings reached a record point in the survey’s 25-year history, with 10.2 percent of characters appearing on primetime scripted broadcast TV being LGBTQ. That figure doesn’t tell the whole story, of course; it can be broken down into more specific data, like how many characters were gay, lesbian, bi, trans, etc., or how many of them were people of color. Still, it doesn’t take much analysis to recognize enormous progress from the days when the only queer representation you could be sure of getting on TV was from Paul Lynde on “The Hollywood Squares.”
At the same time, it’s also not hard to see that, despite making big strides, the LGBTQ presence on television still has room to grow before the industry can afford to stop and pat itself on the back – especially in a culture still reeling from four years of Trump-ism. That’s why many shrewd observers have looked to this year’s report to provide a particularly important gauge.
On the face of it, the news is more good than bad.
This year’s study found that of the 773 series regular characters on broadcast television this season, 70 of them are LGBTQ. That’s 9.1 percent, but though it’s a smaller number than last year (and the first decrease since 2014), it’s a drop that was expected due to the impact of COVID-19; with many shows halting production and development delayed on new ones, the smaller percentage reflects a decrease in the total number of scripted shows overall.
When we look at the nuances revealed by further data, however, the picture is a little less rosy.
On primetime scripted cable, GLAAD reports that representation has consistently decreased year after year. This season, the total number of LGBTQ characters appearing on that platform has decreased from 215 to 118. Streaming networks have also fallen short of last year’s total, dropping to 141 queer characters from 153. Again, these numbers are impacted by the pandemic; among the shows out of the running this season due to shutdowns were “The L Word: Generation Q,” “Euphoria,” “Killing Eve,” and many more of the titles that feature LGBTQ characters and storylines.
A more concerning trend can be found around the representation of LGBTQ people living with HIV. In another 2020 report, “The State of HIV Stigma” survey, GLAAD found that nearly 9 in 10 Americans believe “stigma around HIV” is keeping progress back. With only three HIV-positive characters on TV (all of them on the same show, “Pose”), down from only nine last year, it’s clear there’s a need for television creatives to fill the gap. In response, GLAAD has issued a new challenge to the industry, setting a goal to introduce no fewer than three new regular or recurring LGBTQ characters living with HIV each year in the scripted shows tracked for the survey.
The full burden of HIV representation falling on the shoulders of “Pose” underscores another eyebrow-raising statistic revealed by this year’s report. Of all LGBTQ characters on television, 17% of them are in shows from just four creatives: Greg Berlanti, Lena Waithe, Ryan Murphy, and Shonda Rhimes. That’s nearly one in every five, a severely disproportionate tally that becomes even more glaring with the knowledge that they account for only 16 of the series included in this year’s study.
Additional findings include:
Streaming was the only platform where white LGBTQ characters outnumber non-white LGBTQ characters, though racial diversity of LGBTQ characters on streaming did improve by six percentage points (46 percent of LGBTQ characters also being people of color).
For the fourth year in a row, lesbian representation decreased on streaming (28 percent of LGBTQ characters).
Across streaming television, Netflix’s “Special” was the only show featuring an LGBTQ character confirmed with a disability. The percentage of series regular characters with a disability on all TV went up to 3.5 percent from last year’s 3.1 – still a severe underrepresentation.
29 regular and recurring transgender characters (15 trans women, 12 trans men, 2 non-binary trans characters occur across all platforms.
There was only one asexual character on television (in the show “BoJack Horseman,” which has since been cancelled). One lesbian asexual character is expected in the upcoming season (in a scripted primetime show on the Freeform cable network).
In the 2020-21 season, bisexual+ characters account for 28 percent of all LGBTQ characters on all three platforms, up 2 percent from last year. 65 of them are women, 33 men, and one is non-binary.
Of the 773 series regulars counted on broadcast television, 46 percent (354) of characters are people of color, a one percentage-point decrease from the previous year’s record high of 47 percent. The racial diversity of LGBTQ characters on all platforms increased.
There are obviously a lot of moving parts included in all this data, but the simple takeaway seems to be that even if we haven’t really rolled backward, we haven’t really rolled forward, either – and in the context of an ongoing pandemic, even that conclusion is a little unclear.
What isn’t unclear is the need to keep the pressure on as we push toward the path ahead. As GLAAD Director of Entertainment Research & Analysis Megan Townsend sums up, “With LGBTQ inclusion in the industry still being led by a concentrated number of creatives and several inclusive series ending in this year’s study, networks and streaming services need to be taking note of the value of this dedicated audience. It must be a priority to introduce nuanced and diverse LGBTQ characters in 2021 and beyond, ensuring that this year’s decreases do not become reverse progress as the industry continues to evolve and adjust to this unique era’s challenges.”
As for Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s seemingly tireless president and CEO, her statement about the report reminds us why keeping tabs on the way LGBTQ people are portrayed is possibly more important than ever.
“In the midst of a destructive pandemic, a long overdue cultural reckoning with racial injustice, and a transition into a new political era for this country, representation matters more than ever as people turn to entertainment storytelling for connection and escape.”
You can read the full report on GLAAD’s website, at glaad.org/whereweareontv.
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