Although queer representation on television has improved over the past twenty years, this has been very much a case of uneven development, replicating rather than challenging the existing power dynamics within both the queer community and wider society. Critically lauded though it may be, Transparent’s casting of a cis man as a trans woman continues to imply that trans identity is just a costume to be donned or removed as the situation requires—exactly the same trope used by transphobes in the US to attempt to bar trans people from using public bathrooms without a modicum of consideration for their dignity or safety. It also deprives yet another trans actress of a role that should have been tailor-made for their demographic. Meanwhile the few shows with a good representation of trans people have relatively small broadcast audiences, being largely restricted to those able to afford a Netflix subscription.
The situation is much better for cis queers who are far more likely to be able to play characters of their own marginalised identity, and also to be given major roles. Shows with major roles for cis queer characters are also more likely to be broadcast on free-to-air channels, and to receive primetime slots on those channels. These shows are more likely to be marketed directly at the cis section of the queer community, and this has been the case for some time—the UK version of Queer as Folk’s premiered in 1999, while The L Word was first aired in 2004. However this often turns out to be disingenuous; for example Netflix’s teen drama The 100, which heavily courted a queer audience, had one of the two queer women on the show shot dead in its third season. The shooting followed the queer women’s sex scene in an almost exemplary use of the infamous ‘Bury Your Queers’ trope; where queer characters are far less likely to receive happy endings and far more likely to end up dead or dying. This trope is far too common and even supposedly feminist shows employ it; Buffy the Vampire Slayer went so far as to kill the only gay man on the show.
Of course this does not mean there are no good shows aimed (wholly or in part) at queer audiences, one of which is Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. While the show has problematic elements, it is still worth celebrating the fact that it was one of the first shows to not only have a sympathetic portrayal of a trans woman character, but also to hire an actual trans woman (Laverne Cox) for the role, and not a cis man. Also in this category is Sense8, another Netflix show, which has a trans woman (Jamie Clayton) in a leading role, and is in large part written and directed by two (the Wachowski sisters). Other recent or current shows with good representation for queer people include AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, CBS’s Person of Interest, and MTV’s Faking It.
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Mere representation is not enough, however. The fact that a show has queer people in key roles does not necessarily mean it will do anything to advance queer liberation, as seen by shows involving the obnoxious Caitlyn Jenner, or notorious transphobe Ru Paul. What we need are shows that go beyond the tired old stereotypes and stories (how many new variations of the coming out story do we need?), that treat queer characters, actors, and off-screen staff like humans first, last, and always. Yes, things have improved over the last two decades and will doubtlessly continue to do so, but that does not mean we can sit on our laurels and trust that “it’ll get better.” History shows that the only way to win liberation, or even mere tolerance, for queer people (or any marginalised group) is by fighting for it. Stonewall was a riot, after all.