Rainbow Representation: A letter to filmmakers
Updated: Jun 30
TRIGGER WARNING: To disclaim, this article makes reference to teen suicide.
Writer: Isabelle Greco
Edited By: Haneesa Begum
To the people who make the movies,
Let me start with a disclaimer. As a pan-romantic asexual woman, I have a fair bit of bias when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation in film. That, however, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Also, as a white, neurotypical, able-bodied, cis-gendered person from a comfortable background, I have a fair bit of privilege. I’ll do my best to point you to the right voices to listen to when it comes to issues that it’s not my place to speak about. Also on terminology: I’ll be using ‘queer’, ‘rainbow’, and ‘LGBTQIA+’ interchangeably as I recognise that none of these labels are perfect but all are valuable.
We’ll never escape our own lived experiences, so if we wish to learn about people other than ourselves, and particularly people outside of our own tribe, storytelling and cinema are key.
So, for better or worse, you have an important job. Media consumption is a form of education, making you a teacher in the world’s biggest classroom. We’ll never escape our own lived experiences, so if we wish to learn about people other than ourselves, and particularly people outside of our own tribe, storytelling and cinema are key. Consequently, the movies you create, and media more broadly, is a critical creator of the stereotypes we internalise. And here we come to my problem - your rainbow curriculum is sorely misinformed.
Movies with complex, intersectional, and lovingly constructed LGBTQIA+ characters have the potential to be an awesome way to advance queer rights. A study by GLAAD has shown that non-LGBTQIA+ people who are exposed to LGBTQIA+ inclusive media are 48% more likely to feel positive and accepting towards the rainbow community and support equal rights. Clearly, familiarity is an important first step to acceptance and it’s a lot harder to hate on a large swathe of the population when you have a more personal connection with members of the group. These benefits aren’t just vague and abstract feelings: GLAAD also noted that respondents exposed to the rainbow media became more comfortable interacting with LGBTQIA+ people in their everyday lives. When we bear in mind that 1 in 5 queer teen suicides are caused by bullying in the US, the importance of this impact is never more apparent.
Unfortunately, all those lovely benefits are conditional upon people like you actually making LGBTQIA+ inclusive media. This is a non-trivial demand, as today’s representation is few and far between and continues to perpetuate narrow stereotypes of what queer people look like. First and foremost, members of the rainbow community portrayed in film are most often white (to be precise, 69% of queer characters in mainstream American films in 2016 were white). It goes without saying that, surprise surprise, not all queer people are white, and so perpetuating the implicit stereotype that the only acceptable LGBTQIA+ folk are white folk is clearly problematic. Further, LGBTQIA+ characters of colour who are represented are often presented for the white gaze. Please don’t take my (white) word for it, check out, for example, this piece on why people of colour deserve more than just tokenistic representation in films.
The lack of intersectionality of rainbow representation in films and the shallow nature of any such representation is not just a problem in terms of race. Whilst 83% of mainstream inclusive films released in 2016 featured gay men, lesbian women were featured in only 35%. Of these so-called ‘inclusive’ films, 43% allocated less than one minute of screentime to their queer characters. Comedies remain the most likely films to include LGBTQIA+ characters, who are often caricatures included for cheap laughs. Children’s films that include queer characters are considered to contain mature content, but cisgendered heterosexual couples can happily fall in love without comment.
And if you are going to be queer, you’d better fit into a shallow little box which can be easily put aside and ignored when we’ve finished exploiting your identity for a cheap plot point (see, for example, all the commentary on why the gay best friend is a damaging stereotype).
We deserve better than minor characters labelled queer as an afterthought (yes, I’m looking at you JK Rowling). We deserve better than being straight people’s accessories who never get plot arcs of their own. We deserve better than being included only for our sexualities and genders.
We deserve better than being straight people’s accessories who never get plot arcs of their own.
Write me stories about a black neurodiverse lesbian who loves art and can create the most beautiful sculptures. Write me stories of an elderly Aboriginal Australian brotherboy who is a leader in his community and beyond. Write me stories of a quietly confident bisexual engineer who smashes stereotypes of what it means to be a woman in STEM. Write me stories in every shade of the rainbow that shine light upon the diversity of experiences that come under the queer umbrella.
Only then will you be worthy of your classroom.