Representation of LGBTQI Characters: Stereotypes and Tokenism

Feature Image Source: The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor, publisher of the film or the graphic artist.

There are numerous criteria for judging a character which we come across in books, TV shows, movies and other popular media platforms. We look for characters who are relatable and memorable with adequate character development, yet none of these traits should seem forced.  It must be genuine for us to appreciate it. However, when you look at the LGBT representation in popular media, we find that well developed LGBT characters are rare. Instead, the majority of LGBT characters can be fit into two broad categories – (i) stereotypes or (ii) tokens.

The first category of LGBT characters is more prevalent in Indian media, with a LGBT character (usually a transgender) had one of two roles: either a villain or a comic relief. The purpose of both roles was to better portray the heterosexual male protagonist as a hero and emphasise on his masculinity as natural. Similarly, when male actors crossed-dressed on-screen for a role, this was often followed up by comic reveal that it was ridiculous for a man to wear women’s clothes.

The second category of LGBT characters is a milder portrayal. A lot of contemporary media usually has at least one LGBT character. However, such characters are rarely developed, with their only feature being the fact that there are LGBT. Although they are given a comparatively better character development, the entirety of this development revolves around them being LGBT with complete disregard to other traits.

There are numerous implications of such stereotypical and tokenistic representations. Firstly, popular media has a significant normalising effect on portrayal of character traits. This implies that wrongful representation of LGBT characters causes the consumers to treat such character traits as normal and natural. This normalisation further strengthens and perpetuates the stereotypes which exist about LGBT people as ‘unnatural’ or ‘evil’. Secondly, with no real substance or character development of LGBT characters, the creation of such characters is criticised heavily by consumers. This is especially prevalent in the case of reboots of popular films or movie adaptations, where a LGBT character is introduced merely for the sake of representation and diversity in the show.

We need to have a conversation on who makes the media content that perpetuates this stereotyping/ tokenism. Most of them, are either cisgender-heterosexual people that have very little or no understanding of what being queer means, or queer people that are misinformed. It might be understandable in the instance of under-informed cisgender-heterosexual people, but the case of the queer person that is vastly misinformed is a curious case.

They is a product of inadequate conversation around being queer.

In saying conversation, we mean, the conversations that happen at home, or in the immediate environments of queer people, that shape their thinking. They are formative conversations in more cases than not.

There are some factors that determine the nature of this conversation, these factors specifically for queer people, have changed over the years. It is important to note that the visibility of the queer community has improved over the decades, gone is the era when being gay was something one had to conceal, now a days, it is the norm that one is atavistic about their gender rights and identity (this is not to deny that there was ever activism in the past, but that it was a more repressed sort of activism) currently, it is easier to get permits in cities to carry out pride marches, to have cases heard on gender rights and to get a decision in your favor, and the queer person’s existence, by virtue of the internet is no longer limited to their immediate surroundings, they have ideas and concepts about their identity that would have been hard to come by, in their parent’s generation. This generational gap means that a lot of ideas that prevail in the media are anachronistic, the people that create this media, are from that generation and hold the same outdated opinions. What this means is that, as a queer parent when guiding their children through the maelstrom of emotions, the media one consumes and bases their worldview on is not going to be a useful reference. And this is just parents that are already queer. If the parent/ adult/ people [person] responsible for these guiding conversations, is not queer themselves, they are left to the mercy of the many stereotypes that a queer parent knows to filter out, leading either to the conversations not occurring, or occurring in extremely negative contexts.

This in turn will lead to the loss of any natural identity traits. The queer people that are left to consume this media in the absence of someone that can parse the fact from fiction, will ultimately have no alternative but to adapt to the stereotypes, because at that point, even they does not know how to live this new identity. This process of outdated stereotyped information propagating the presence of stereotypes in communities will remain an unending cycle, unless active effort is made to learn and adapt the media to the generation (like a lot of conservative judges in the U.S have done).

This is one side of the representation, but what about the instances where there are ‘normal’ queer characters, and they are throwaway? In that instance, where a lot of the portrayal is caricatured, or too focused on the identity of that character (as being queer) opens a new plethora of issues.

For one, it will limit the perception that a queer person might have of themselves, what it means to be queer will have a very limited understanding. Because most of these characters are (to be honest) the bare minimum stereotypes, and often just their sexuality personified, the people that are questioning what it means to be queer, will then begin thinking (in the absence of solid advice and guidance from older queer people) that they are the sum product of their gender identity. This leaves the actual queer community, looking a lot like the stereotypes, and also will stifle any meaningful discourse that can be had around one’s gender identity

There is another element to the cyclical fallacy of a lack of conversation around queerness, the law. Because the law is the cornerstone of what society (especially Indian) perceives to be moral/ acceptable. This comes from a culture of laws being imposed upon us, and their acceptance having little or nothing to do with the actual culture they played a role in regulating (which is not a good pedigree of law and a whole other discussion for another day). What this law has done, is illegalized homosexual intercourse. Now, not everyone may have something against it, but the very fact that it is enshrined in the company of sections that ban and prevent the illegal taking of property, murder and the like, the ethos around it is the same as them. Not everyone might have qualms about killing people, but because killing another person has been included in a statute criminalizing it, it will slowly but surely be considered immoral as well as illegal in a society like India. This is the origin point for the perception that limits conversation around homosexual intercourse, and as a consequence makes media prone to display homosexuality in a less than favourable light, and the process continues as a perfect cycle, unbreakable as long as something doesn’t change.

Editor’s Comments:This article was written prior to Supreme Court judgement in the case of  Navtej Johar v Union of India. It would be interesting to see if the recent judgement decriminalizing consensual homosexual acts would have an impact on representation of LGBT persons in media.

This article was contributed by Sai Ram Kaushik Dhulipala, a fourth year student pursuing B.A., LLB. at National Law School of India University and Arjun Singal, a second year student pursuing B.A., LLB. at National Law School of India University. 

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