Introducing: LGBTQ+ Representation
Before I dive into everything, I want to make this clear that I do not want this piece seen as just another shill for Pride Month. And this is going to be outside our usual scope of just games as LGBTQ+ representation is attempted in more than just video games for different reasons.
This is an actual passion of mine as the representation, or lack thereof, of LGBTQ+ people is a very important topic and impacted my personal growth. If you are just wanting the bare bones to this discussion than here it is; there is a direct connection between positive media representation of the LGBTQ+ community and the changing of social norms. Now, I hope that you will still join me as we take a trip through key representation events in various media outlets, be that TV and news coverage, or movies and video games.
Let’s Talk Historical Treatment
Before we dive into the media portion of this piece I want to touch on a bit of little known world history regarding the way the LGBTQ+ community was treated. Because while we have certainly come a long way, it will do to remember the past we came from and ever so recently it was. I will not be touching on the Stonewall Riot however, as I want to keep this piece relatively media focused.
All the way up until the late 1970’s most of the world classified being gay or queer, essentially anything non-straight, as a mental illness and tried various methods to cure people of it. Such treatments including chemical castration for gay men and electroshock therapy. I would love to say this has changed but we just changed the discourse from mental illness to genetics. Now it is focused on isolating what has come to be called the “Gay Gene” so we can “cure” people as if it is still an illness.
Ah, but that isn’t very media related, just something that I find interesting since no one seems to know we basically tortured innocent people, so let’s look at the US Government for the next example. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s the US government trademarked a short propaganda film titled Boys Beware. The film was made to “warn teenage boys and their parents about the dangers of the predatory homosexual.”
Not only is this a dangerous stereotype that was perpetuated back then, but the media will still perpetuate it today and you still see anti-LGBT ads. Hell YouTube has even made a point of the past few years to place these anti-LGBT ads onto known LGBT Creators videos. Not sure how you read that but to me it sounds more like a, “not welcome” sign than anything else could. Quick side note, Creators cannot control what types of ads are on their videos. The algorithm determines the best ads.
But that last bit is jumping the gun. Let’s get into how the LGBTQ+ community has been featured in various media outlets in more modern times.
LGBT and the Evolution of TV Show Representation
While researching this, I didn’t expect to find a whole lot of representation from popular shows. Hell, back in the 1990’s an entire episode of Roseanne needed a viewer discretion warning simply because two women kissed. Now we can fast forward to the 2010’s and representation in popular cartoons, including those made for children, has seen rampant spread and general success.
Adventure Time flirted with the idea of non-binary genders a lot. What with characters that didn’t have an apparent gender such as BMO. To characters having traditional characteristics of certain genders such as long eyelashes and nails while having no specified gender themselves.
Another cartoon that flirted with various LGBTQ+ related themes was Steven Universe. There are quite a few different things to touch on here. The fusion of Steven and his friend Connie into Stevonnie, whom was later declared as inter-sex and non-binary. Showing the first same-sex wedding between Ruby and Sapphire on Cartoon Network in 2018.
What surprised me more than seeing this recent growth in non-heteronomative representation in children’s programming was the general acceptance of it. Though that is not to say there has been perfect acceptance and even generally poorer representations in television exist.
Here Comes Queerbaiting
Man, I could write you a whole book on this topic but will try to keep it short and only use a few examples. For those that do not know, queerbating is the term used to describe the practice of authors, writers, or showrunners (etc) attempting to attract an LGBT audience by hinting at same-sex relationships between characters, but rarely following through on them. They do this simply to attract a queer audience without having to offend their heteronormative audience by showing relationships they won’t like.
Why does this happen though? Well, like in our society, a queer audience is in the minority, but are still seen as viewers with spending power. Actually, GLAAD makes an excellent report ever year tracking LGBTQ+ Representation, which can be found here for the year of 2020-2021.
To appeal to a queer audience, a writer will hint strongly at a non-heteronomative relationship potentially forming without following through on it, generally just using the queer audience they attracted. Causing the LGBTQ+ audience to feel like there is not a real representation of the community on TV.
Some shows guilty of this were: House between Gregory House and James Wilson, Riverdale between close friends Betty and Veronica, and Sherlock between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. All of these popular shows that to some degree did hint about same sex relationships between high profile characters in their shows and all of them failed to follow through with it.
Thankfully we have shows that do not skirt the fact that LGBTQ+ people exist. Orange is the New Black had an astounding reception by mostly all audiences. And with such a positive reception all around, it makes me wonder why the industry still feels the need to resort to queerbaiting anymore to begin with?
Hollywood’s Aversion to LGBTQ+ Films
Yeah, I hear you saying, “not every movie can have LGBTQ+ representation.” I agree with that point. Not every movie that comes out has to have LGBTQ+ representation. But at the same time movies that focus on LGBTQ+ characters are very few and far between.
For all of the romance movies, both romantic and romantic comedy, there is maybe one a year that focuses on LGBTQ+ people. Hell, it wasn’t even until Love, Simon came out in 2018 that Hollywood even gave us a movie focusing on a gay teen romance. And they tend to even create what tends to be thought of as a straight version of a gay teen. (The video above is a good example of this point.)
I also need to touch on the, “Bury the Gays” trope. Which has a few meanings. In a non-LGBTQ+ focused story you could wash out the non-conformimg characters or “bury” them within the larger story without having to confirm anything, think back to our queerbaiting conversation. But the horror genre in particular seems to take the trope a little too literally. As the kill order tends to be the promiscuous person, than either the LGBTQ+ person or the non-white character and then whichever they didn’t kill. It is so consistent that you can basically play a game of “Determine the kill order,” after all characters are introduced.
Alright, just because Hollywood is failing us in the film representation there is a thriving LGBTQ+ film industry. Foreign markets tend to make a fair bit of LGBTQ+ focused videos. Also, there are even tons of creators out there making short films surrounding various themes around the community. You can find a lot of these short films on YouTube, but also at massive film festivals. Like the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, which has been going strong since 1991. Hopefully in the next few years we can hope for more and better representation in major motion pictures.
Time to Talk Video Games
I wish I could tell you that the video game industry is ahead of the curve in LGBTQ+ representation. Sadly, this industry doesn’t seem to have too much going for it in terms of proper representation.
Game series such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age have commonly featured characters of different sexual orientations, including the main character. In fact I want to praise them for being sort of pioneers into representation of LGBTQ+ people in video games. Though that doesn’t mean I don’t see some issues with the industry just treating the community as a vehicle for sex between characters.
Other games, such as the Borderlands series, have done great with representing characters in the community. Several characters in the series have been explicitly told to be of varying sexual persuasions and even tied into the story of those characters in various ways. They do get characters like Sir Hammerlock right, like when you look for audio logs concerning his ex-boyfriend or the marriage between him and his non-binary lover in the DLC Love, and Tentacles. And Tiny Tina has a cute bit of dialog about liking Maya and asking Maya if she likes her back.
Though for the characters they represent well in this series they have a strong tendency to depict bisexual/pansexual people as unfaithful and promiscuous with Mad Moxxi. It is hard to play those games and see the very dated stereotypes embedded in Moxxi’s character.
The Warner Bros. And David Cage Fiascos
As I was working on this piece, two bigger news stories broke that directly tied into how certain parts of the video games industry view the LGBTQ+ community. And I could not pass up this chance to make a rather modern point on this.
Let’s start with the David Cage incident. For those that don’t know who he is, David Cage is the CEO of Quantic Dream. Quantic Dream is the game studio behind Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human. Well, David Cage decided that he wanted to air his dirty laundry in court regarding a lawsuit from former employees of Quantic Dream. During court proceedings, Cage was reported to have claimed that all women in his games are whores and that his company doesn’t make games for fags. And yes it disgusts me to even type that word.
First off, just wow, David Cage. I am not going to spend too much time harping and bashing this man here because I already did it on our podcast Into the Multi-Voice (and you can check that episode out here.) But I will say, how does a major game developer still have these thoughts and this type of language and keep his popularity? How do you put mostly naked men into your game, looking at you android strip club scene of Detroit: Become Human, and make a statement like that? It almost seems like it would have been better for this man to not open his mouth in public and yet to have this break during Pride Month is even worse for him. I won’t say I want the whole company to fail, because I surely doubt most of them hold the same thoughts as Cage, but if I was the board at Quantic Dream I would try to distance myself from this man as much as possible.
Now then, let’s dig into Warner Bros., who clearly doesn’t understand the LGBTQ+ community or the meaning of Pride Month. Warner Bros. decided to run an event in their mobile version of Injustice 2. The event was called “Love Conquers All” and tasked the community with beating the crap out of Poison Ivy. For those that don’t know, Poison Ivy is one of the few DC comic book characters that is openly non-straight. In this case she is bisexual. This sexuality has also been shown to be canon within the Injustice 2 universe as well. So why in the world would you think it is a good idea for an event Warner Bros.? You could have easily made a simple, “fight matches and get rewards” event, but instead it had to be “beat up queer character specifically and get rewards.”
As I said at the start of this section, I would have loved to sit here and tell you that the video game industry gets LGBTQ+ people. I don’t want to end this section on a horrible note so let’s talk about the game Tell Me Why. This game made waves back when it released as it is one of the first video games to feature an openly transgender character as a main character. And the issues they handled within the game were done super well. They did capture the essence of coming out and a loved one’s attempt to understand. The only shame with Tell Me Why is that instead of focusing on this plot, it sidelines into some mysterious occult stuff and never really touches back to the starting theme. But it is still baby steps for video games to effectively handle LGBTQ+ characters as things other than romance options for the player or vehicles for a different story.
I sincerely hope that if you made it this far that you enjoyed this piece. It is a little outside our normal scope, but I felt that limiting this topic simply to video games wouldn’t have been enough. Now, I want to tie back to my original point at the beginning, that positive and healthy representation can lead to better acceptance.
With media outlets focusing on positive aspects of the community, instead of treating us like sexual predators and degenerates, it helps to foster a positive image of the community. But sadly the news has been focusing hard against transgender people as of late. Some lawmakers want to even put in place invasive laws, such as genital inspections and forced reporting if you suspect a child of being non-gender conforming. I hope that I don’t have to explain to you why that’s just asinine and a horrible idea.
You may think this doesn’t affect the greater whole of the LGBTQ+ community, but you would be wrong. Lawmakers have used this kind of targeted lawmaking in the past in order to branch out and start hitting the community as a whole. And this ultimately is why a conversation like this is important.
Also, as a gay man growing up, it would have made a world of difference to see LGBTQ+ characters on TV. This representation does more to help struggling youth find a sense of self and realize that there are other people like them out there. And speaking from experience, perhaps I would have not struggled with my own sexual identity if positive roles of LGBTQ+ characters were seen more often in our media.
Before I sign off, I want a quick side note here for my fellow LGBTQ+ members. Have patience when someone seeks understanding. If you are not going to take the time to discuss the issues of the community, how can you hope to get understanding and acceptance from them? Remember that allies are just as important to the fight for equality. Though I wish we wouldn’t have to still be fighting for basic human rights.