TV character sexuality as an identity, not a plot device
In the wake of Mac’s (second) coming out on the new season of FXX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” I began to wonder about how the representation of sexuality in entertainment has changed over the 12 seasons of the show. Looking over the lineups of shows currently airing, it seems that the television industry is finally starting—emphasis on starting—to understand intersectionality.
Newer shows like “Insecure,” “The Returned,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “This Is Us” display fragile intersectionalities that nuance sexuality and gender empowerment: race, disability, weight, sexual orientation. The GLAAD summary of the 2016-2017 television season announced that 4.8 percent of characters identified as LGBTQ, which is the highest percentage in television history. With the increasing saturation of the television market and the introduction of narrowcasting, especially on streaming services, there is more cultural and economic call than ever to increase representation and intersection.
Despite these positives, there are still many troublesome issues that linger. The first is shows’ habit of killing off lesbian characters—GLAAD announced that there were 25 lesbian and bisexual female deaths on TV in 2016, most of which acted as auxiliary plot points to a greater arc, rather than drawing attention to the deaths as their own events. In “The Walking Dead,” Denise acted as a scared counterbalance to the tough, weathered characters that populate the series. But, sadly, she was killed off in a sudden unsentimental moment that was barely mulled over or grieved.
The other bone to pick is the representation of bisexuality. Across content platforms, the number of bisexual characters has risen by 10 percent since last year, but the majority of these characters are women, and their sexuality is often viewed through a heteronormative lens, as periodic sexual experimentation. Female bisexual relationships are often framed as a momentary sexual overcoming, in a step toward a male-female relationship.
Equally problematic is the still too prevalent idea of the love triangle. So many quality shows—season 1 of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin,” the “Gilmore Girls” revival, “UnREAL,” “The Man in the High Castle”—subscribe to the idea that the only way to keep an audience’s interest is to perpetually toy a protagonist between two romantic interests. These shows, for the most part, depict the female protagonist as helpless, unable to make up her mind and thoughtfully evaluate her desires.
Intersectionality has reached a turning point in television. Now that demographic representation is on the rise, it’s time for networks to evaluate validity of experience and the nuances of tropes that are easy to fall into. A “will they or won’t they?” plotline is easy to construct, but in the long run, it isn’t satisfying. What is more satisfying is the representation of a quasi-reality, the acknowledgement that shows like “Stranger Things,” “Transparent” and “The OA” give to the complexities behind all relationships, not just gender- and hetero-normative groups.
Lying beneath these claims is that characters each need to have their own backstory and independent arc. If shows want to create a lesbian character, they can’t do so in order to kill her off when a romantic interest needs character development; if a show wants romantic tension, it doesn’t have to rely on a love triangle as the only option.