So, I watch a lot of TV, probably too much. But I can count on one hand the number of positive queer characters within the multitude of programs I watch. Most of the time, when a character is gay or trans or whatever, their identity is either highly stereotypical or it is the character’s defining characteristic. The problem with TV today is that we queers rarely see our stories told in a sensitive, accurate way that does not sensationalize, condemn, or eroticize the queer experience.
Here are some examples of where I think writers got it right. Or at least tried, and then maybe reverted back to the safety of the mainstream.
Emily Fields of Pretty Little Liars, played by Shay Mitchell
So Pretty Little Liars is kind of a guilty pleasure show for me, but I was surprised when I first tuned in that the acting was not so terrible and that the story held my interest, no matter how implausible it is. For those of you who don’t know, the show follows four girls as they attempt to learn more about the mysterious death of their friend while they are simultaneously blackmailed by a seemingly omnipresent tormentor known only as “A.”
For those of you who do follow the show, you may be saying what is so queer about Emily Fields? Throughout the first season Emily comes to terms with her identity as a lesbian and even starts dating her first girlfriend. Despite the costumers’ attempts to butch her up (leather jackets, motorcycle boots, leather cuffs, etc.) Emily does not actually appear any more “gay” than her decidedly straight friends.
But that, my friends, is exactly what makes Emily a positive representation of a queer character on a television show that is extremely popular with girls ages 12 to 25. Emily is gay, as made obvious by her biker boots and her gay pride bracelet, but that is not the only thing that makes her interesting. Emily is also on the swim team. Her father serves in the military. She is trying to solve her friend’s murder! What I’m saying is, the fact that Emily is gay is not sensationalized and it is certainly not a main problem on the show. After some initial conflict, in the show’s current season Emily’s sexual orientation is generally accepted, unquestioned, and even normalized. We see Emily dating women, just as we see her three friends dating men and yet somehow Emily is not ostracized for her behavior. She is a beautiful, intelligent, lesbian swimmer who solves murders in her spare time. She is a role model to all girls, but gives an extra nod to the little gay girls, as if to say, “Hey you can be gay and happy and do other things too!”
Max Blum of Happy Endings, played by Adam Pally
Happy Endings is a gem I discovered by accident on ABC. I didn’t have high hopes for it since it’s a pretty standard Friends-formula: six friends, three girls, three guys, one married couple. But this show is surprisingly hilarious. Unlike Friends, which was overwhelmingly White and tended to be callous towards lgbt folks, Happy Endings includes one Black character, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), and one gay character, Max. The humor is fast-paced, so you may miss a lot of the depth regarding race, class, masculinity, and femininity, but a quick rewatch will reward all you social justice nuts out there.
Max is similar to Emily of PLL in that he is openly gay but it is not his defining characteristic. He is not the stereotypically flamboyant gay man we are so overexposed to, which is so refreshing. Max’s loud-mouthed, messy persona is truly a sight for sore eyes.
Frankie Fitzgerald of Skins, played by Dakota Blue Richards
This one is frustrating.
The British show Skins is set up so that there is a new cast of kids every two seasons. Basically it’s just this group of kids running around getting into trouble and figuring out who they are. I personally think seasons one and two feature the best group; I didn’t really connect with either of the following casts. Frankie Fitzgerald first appeared in season 5 sporting a fairly genderqueer look. On top of her ambiguous gender expression she had two gay dads, so her sexuality was inevitably questioned by her peers. Frankie was reluctant to pin down her sexuality into one category and the writers hinted at romantic relationships with both men and women, thus Frankie became the only genderbending non-identifying queer character that I am aware of on a show so widely watched.
And then came season 6. In this season Frankie is much more femme, her sexual relationships are solely with (cisgender) men, and the relationship with her best friend, Minny, which bordered on romantic in the previous season, is strictly platonic.
I understand that the writers were trying to show the evolution of a girl who was unsure about her sexual orientation. Sexuality is fluid and it is highly likely, and probably more realistic, that a genderqueer individual would at some point in her romantic life be in a relationship that looks straight when viewed by an outsider. My disappointment is not in her love life, but that sexual orientation and queer identity are dropped from her character arc altogether. They are no longer issues in her life; out of nowhere Frankie’s queerness is merely absent.
Elliott of Girl/Girl Scene, played by Jackson E. Cofer
I’m assuming most people haven’t heard of this but who knows? Girl/Girl Scene is a webseries that’s mostly about lesbians, but it features a trans character named Elliott who is played by real life transman Jackson Cofer. So rarely do we see a trans character who is actually played by a trans actor. The character of Elliott gives a unique insight to an authentic trans experience. Celebrated performances by Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica or by Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry can’t quite get at that thing, that embodiment. Even Degrassi’s Jordan Todosey cannot quite convince me of the struggle of being a trans youth, although I think that one may have been the most valiant effort. He might not completely pass but that’s the point; Cofer offers something those women can’t capture and it’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and stunning to watch.
Wade Adams aka “Unique” of Glee, played by Alex Newell
Was anyone else completely blown away that Glee attempted a trans storyline? I was. I was sitting on my coffee table yelling at the screen because I thought they were just going to have another flamboyant character which further solidified the flamboyant gay man is the only acceptable queer on TV. When all of a sudden Wade started saying he felt more like himself as a woman (Unique) and my faith in Glee was restored. After watching this episode, I’m sure a lot of people will think cross-dressing and transitioning are the same thing (they’re not, but they’re also not mutually exclusive) and that to question one’s gender identity is to question one’s sexuality (it isn’t, but they can coincide), but hey it’s a start. Glee is the mainstream-iest of mainstream television that actually does the community some good once in a while, but nevertheless my jaw dropped when I realized where Wade/Unique’s storyline was actually headed. Way to go Glee!
Well there you have it folks, my picks for the best/most interesting/most progressive queer characters on TV now. Not sure if I have enough followers for this yet, but I’d love to hear your thoughts! Who tells your story?