“No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
― Ingmar Bergman
Television shows and movies alike are guilty of continually casting the Hollywood standard: a straight, white male. On the exceptionally rare occasion that a woman or a member of the LGBTQ community is cast in a leading role or – god-forbid, a protagonist – national uproar ensues. We have become so accustomed to this Hollywood standard that any sign of a powerful minority or female character launches national debates. This is extremely detrimental to young, impressionable minds everywhere, and confronting the problem is the first step in changing this broken system. The underrepresentation of people of color is another immense problem in the film industry, but that topic is worthy of its own investigation, so this article will focus on the two groups in which I am most invested.
Through the years, women have slowly climbed the Hollywood ladder, achieving new heights previously deemed unattainable, but we are far from the standard that society must reach. In a study published in 2014,
Dr. Martha Lauzen, the Executive Director for the Center of the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, reported that, unsurprisingly, women as a whole are immensely underrepresented in the film industry. The upsetting statistics showed that only 12% of all clearly identifiable protagonists in 2014 were female. Male characters were also more likely than women to be identified by a position of power such as a doctor or business executive (61% of males vs. 34% of females), while female characters were more likely to be identified only by only a wife or mother (58% of females vs. 31% of males). These numbers come as no surprise to me, a woman who has experienced the common, chronic yearning for female characters that are not included simply to facilitate the male protagonist’s plot line. Due to this deficit, young girls across the world are left with only three characters to which they can relate: the princess, damsel in distress, or the girlfriend. Neither of these roles is inherently damaging, but when these are the only characters portrayed, girls will become conditioned to believe that they can never be the hero who saves the day, only the girl who needs saving. Dr. Lauzen concluded her study by stating, “The chronic under-representation of girls and women reveals a kind of arrested development in the mainstream film industry.” With the third wave of Feminism is upon us, it is now that we must recognize this “arrested development” and completely alter how we see women in Hollywood.
As a busy high school student largely consumed by school, I had little time for television shows or trips to the movies, so it wasn’t until recently that the abysmal LGBTQ representation in the film industry came to my attention. Until I stumbled upon Orphan Black, a phenomenal Canadian television show driven entirely by powerful women and minorities (10/10 would recommend), I had never actually seen characters with whom I could resonate. This subversive show, with its diverse cast of non-stereotypical characters including a gay artist/call-boy, a geeky lesbian scientist, a brilliant bisexual doctor, and a badass transman, forever changed my view on LGBTQ representation, proving to me that it is possible for a show to be successful AND contain an array of minority representation. Like the majority of the members of the LGBTQ community, I had become accustomed to typical straight characters claiming all major roles in media. With only 17.5% of major studio releases in 2014 containing at least one LGBTQ character, according to a study by GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), myself and many others have a right to feel excluded from the silver screen. These numbers also ignore the frustrating issue of queer characters who are not complex, rather they are defined solely by their sexuality or gender. Straight characters rarely, if ever, have a story line that focuses solely on their “journey” as a heterosexual. Although shows about queer characters and their self-discovery can help kids who identify with the character’s struggle, the lack of character development that many LGBTQ people are given is a problem that must be confronted on the road to more equal delineation in media. The importance of representation for queer people of all ages and backgrounds cannot be stressed enough. This representation has a broad spectrum of benefits, ranging from aiding in self-acceptance to providing a solace for those who feel that they are completely alone. Too often, kids struggling with a gender or sexual identity crisis are forced to suffer in silence for fear of discrimination or their own personal safety. Seeing a relatable character on their television screens can provide these young people with a profound sense of hope and belonging. Television shows with positive LGBTQ role models can save lives, it’s as simple as that.
If you still believe that representation in the media is unimportant, you probably aren’t the one who needs representing.
Gates is a contributing writer for LGBT, Political, and Feminist Thoughts.