For all the acclaimed representation of LGBTQIA+ lives and experiences on shows such as Pose, Special, and Sex Education, stereotypical depictions of the LGBTQIA+ community continue to appear on TV. Representation in media has been shown to change real-life attitudes towards queer people; stereotypes are more than just lazy writing, they can be an active disservice to the communities they supposedly portray. Here are the most common LGBTQIA+ stereotypes in the media.
The Promiscuous Bisexual or Pansexual
The idea that being attracted to more than one gender leads to excessive sexual promiscuity is a stereotype Hollywood has had a difficult time letting go of. Bisexual characters have been depicted as driven by lust like Oberyn Materll on Game of Thrones, and continuously dismissed while regarded as sexual objects as Brittany Pierce on Glee showed.
Max Wolfe, a pansexual main character on HBO Max’s recent Gossip Girl reboot, was sexualized to the point where it was often the punchline of jokes. Even his last name, Wolfe, is hardly subtle as it implies some sort of primal hunger. It wasn’t until later in the season that the writers began to afford him emotional depth beyond sex at any cost.
The Gay Best Friend
Bold Culture has previously covered the gay best friend: the comically effeminate, retail therapy-loving stereotype used as a sidekick by women protagonists. Through classic examples like Stanford Blatch on Sex and the City, gay best friends started off as an easy way to introduce audiences to queer characters before quickly becoming television’s most overused cliché.
TV shows like Girls and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt initially positioned their gay characters as “GBFs” before fleshing them out with proper storylines, but the cliché persists through newer characters like Julien on Emily in Paris.
The “Butch” and “Lipstick” Lesbian
Lesbian characters on TV have historically been caught between exaggerated femininity and extreme masculinity. Well-regarded as it is in the LGBTQIA+ television canon, Showtime’s The L Word was almost exclusively populated by femme-presenting lesbian women that made the show all the more palatable to non-queer audiences.
Discussing portrayals of masculine “butch” and femme “lipstick” lesbians on television is not as straightforward as noting the problematic nature of promiscuous bisexuality or dismissing simplistic gay best friends. Queer writers have noted how shows like The L Word helped shape femme visibilty, while others have praised the rise of “butch” lesbian characters on Orange is the New Black and Lena Waithe’s Twenties.
As with the evolution beyond the gay best friend trope, current characters like Leighton, a white, wealthy, conventionally attractive, hyper-feminine closeted lesbian on HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, become impactful characters when they move past the “lipstick” generalization of their sexual orientation.
Often written with the positive intention of queer representation, the prevalence of LGBTQIA+ stereotypes on television serves as a reminder that representation does not always result in balanced on-screen depictions. Queer people are needed in decision-making media positions to ensure representation of them is accurate.
Omar Taleb is a Toronto-based writer and publicist fascinated by the future of news media and the intersection of pop culture and politics. On any given day, you can find him bouncing around between HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime, or on Instagram @omar.taleb5.