QUEER REPRESENTATION IN MEDIA: She-Ra vs. Glee
The Queer Minority:
The perpetuation of rituals and mythologies in media and storytelling is an example of the creation of common culture. Television and assorted other media texts demonstrate the structure of society by dramatizing and depicting its norms and values (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). Queer representation in modern media texts is minimal and often unrealistic or damaging to the minority groups they claim to portray. The purpose of this essay is to identify how queer people are represented in the television series Glee versus. the television series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. This report will examine how each show triumphs or fails in its efforts to construct a fair image of this minority in the media, and it will analyse how these representations relate to broader ideological perspectives concerning queer people.
And that’s what you missed on Glee:
The show Glee first aired in May of 2009 (Insider, 2020). Throughout the show’s run of six seasons, it presented several queer leaning characters, including both a lesbian and a gay couple. Unfortunately, however, Glee’s representation of these characters was flawed. Its character portrayals were often riddled with harmful stereotypes and additionally, the show often actively defamed and attempted to erase the idea of bisexuality. Glee can be termed a piece of ‘transmedia’. Transmedia is a term used to refer to media texts that are supplemented with other media in order to increase show presence, further immersion and provide other avenues of content (Jenkins, 2006). Examples of transmedia relating to Glee are the separately available soundtracks, concert tour, reality show and YouTube channels run by cast and crew of the show. The additional media texts and content pieces allow for greater show immersion and are part of why Glee was so far-reaching in its success and with its influence.
Historically, queer coded characters have been cast as villains in media texts, if they were present at all. Termed ‘symbolic annihilation’ (Gerbner & Gross, 1976), the goal is to ensure minorities remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy by systemically and systematically erasing them from popular culture. When queer characters are portrayed in modern media texts, this representation is often soured by the use of stereotypes and tropes, as well as by writing characters to be palatable for straight audiences by undercutting characters with themes and plotlines regarding traditional values such as monogamy, family and stability (Avila-Saavedra, 2009). Glee is critically acclaimed, having attained several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Additionally, the audience for whom its content is tailored has utilised the show as a malleable and symbolic object (Marwick, et al., 2014). In other words, the LGBTQ+ youth watching the show have been able to use it as an exploration of their own potential queer thoughts and desires (Meyer & Wood, 2013). It is within this that both the success and failures of Glee’s queer representation are apparent. They provided queer characters for their audiences to relate to and learn from, but the ones they provided were fundamentally flawed caricatures as opposed to fully fleshed out and accurate. An example of this is the character of Kurt Hummel. Depicted as incredibly effeminate with a high-pitched voice and peculiar sense of fashion, Kurt embodies almost every ‘gay man’ stereotype that there is. He adores musical theatre and is already consider by the majority of his cohort to be gay. However, throughout the first season he struggles with his sexuality before coming out, even going so far as to experiment with normative masculinity through clothing choices and romantic experimentation with a girl (Dhaenens, 2012). The character of Kurt may provide solace and relatability for other gay teens, but he also suggests they give heterosexual practices a good run before they make it official.
Glee’s representation of gay men and women is, just as so many modern popular culture representations are, governed by heteronormativity. It can be argued that even rounded and heterogeneous representations of queer people are characters who long for and desire to engage with traditionally heterosexual practices, values and norms (Dhaenens, 2012). In addition to this, Glee puts heavy emphasis on the supposed necessity of ‘coming out’ while refusing to acknowledge the risks that come along with doing so. This is exemplified in the storyline of character Dave Karofsky, who admits to Kurt that he is also gay but doesn’t want to come out yet. Upon Kurt’s coming out, Dave is treated akin to being shunned by the now proudly ‘out’ Kurt, an unfair result of Dave’s refusal to share his true identity with the rest of the school.
Finally, Glee wages a war throughout its episodes on bisexuality. Brittany S. Pierce, a bisexual woman, is portrayed throughout the series as ‘slutty’. This portrayal of Brittany goes hand-in-hand with commonly biphobic viewpoints, such as the slanderous suggestion that because bisexuals prefer multiple genders, they must also prefer multiple partners (Ochs, 1996). Often, bisexuals are seen as predatory, promiscuous and adulterous (Sutherland, 2017). It’s a harmful stereotype that contributes to the phenomenon of bi-erasure, wherein other members of the LGBTQ+ community insist that being bisexual is wrong and that these such queers simply need to pick a side: straight, or gay. A final example of Glee’s war on bisexuality is evident in the very brief engagement that character Blaine Anderson has with the sexual identity. Blaine speaks to his partner Kurt (aforementioned effeminate gay man), to admit he is questioning his sexuality and thinks he might be bisexual. As a result of this thought, he is ridiculed by Kurt and abandons the idea, the issue dropped and never mentioned again. Glee tries very hard to present relatable and accurate queer characters. It should be commended for its efforts in including the characters at all, but it is a far cry from a positive nor a fair depiction of the queer minority.
For the honour of Grayskull!:
She-Ra and the Princess of Power is a Netflix animated reboot of the original 1980s series. It’s bright, colourful, and queer as can be. Created by a queer woman, the most wonderful thing about this show is that it presents an abundantly queer cast painlessly. She-Ra normalises queerness where a majority of other shows both within and outside of its own genre attempt instead to simplify or excuse such a thing for a predominately heterosexual audience. Additionally, the show presents non-romantic affection between friends, as well as featuring solidly gay secondary characters who are stable in their relationships and sexuality, focussing instead on the main storyline. Finally, She-Ra portrays a slow-burn queer romance between two of its tertiary characters. All of these show characteristics lead to it being a positive and fair representation of the queer minority.
When the first few seasons of the show were released, many audience members were worried that She-Ra was queerbaiting its audience based on interactions between antagonist Catra and protagonist Adora. ‘Queerbaiting’ is a term used to describe the phenomenon of writers creating two characters who seem to be headed towards a homosexual relationship, but instead end up ‘happily’ in heterosexual ones instead (Ng, 2017). It’s suggested that this is done to engage the minority queer audience without jeopardising the interest of the majority straight audience. This is incredibly frustrating for members of the queer community who must rely on popular media to increase visibility of queer people through accurate embodiments of them on television (Levina, et al., 2000). The characters of Catra and Adora are friends turned enemies, and Catra often seems to be acting more as a petty ex than an angry friend. At a formalwear level event, Catra wears a suit instead of a dress and openly flirts with the character of Adora. This led to the audience ‘shipping’ the romantic pairing and hoping that the relationship would be made official in the final season. It was.
This is a huge step for shows of our era, a step that should have been taken long ago. Presenting a queer relationship as the important romantic focus for a show over a heterosexual one is leaps and bounds in the direction of queer normalisation (Weekes, 2020). The queer community deserves to see queer romances that don’t end in misery. The ‘bury your gays’ trope is defined as the occurrence in media texts wherein of a same-gender romantic couple, one of the lovers must die or otherwise be destroyed by the end of the story (Hulan, 2017). This often occurs just after the confirmation of such a queer romance, or a milestone in the couple’s relationship. Originally the trope was used as a way to tell the story of queer characters without the authors risking breaking laws ‘promoting’ homosexuality but it continues to be used in modern settings. A recent set of examples that received backlash being the television series’ The Walking Dead and The 100. Continued usage of the trope suggests that attitudes towards queerness haven’t changed, and that is abhorrent. This is why a show like She-Ra is so important. By presenting queer characters in all levels of the cast who focus on more than just their own sexualities, the show helps to promote the far healthier message that queerness is normal and accepted.
In another example of queer normalisation, She-Ra presents a nonbinary character in the form of shapeshifter (a tongue-in-cheek nod to genderfluidity,) named Double-Trouble. Other characters use the pronouns of they/them without discussion or explanation from the moment the character is introduced. The character plays in both the leagues of good-and-evil and highlights how inclusive queer creator Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra world really is. As well as creating a non-binary character, Noelle also cast a non-binary actor to voice the character. For an off-screen minority, seeing queer people on-screen in high visibility roles is incredibly important. It proves that there are options for queer people, and not just as laughable caricatures on shows aimed at straight people. Finally, the show highlights non-romantic affection between friends as normal. A common facet of the queer community is the fresh perspective on friendships and the recognition that affection is important in non-romantic settings too. She-Ra has characters hug, hold hands and be generally affectionate in a platonic sense. Platonic touch is important for development and growth, and so this is a great example to set for young kids and even for older audiences watching the show (Field, 2011). She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is beautifully animated, artfully created and wonderfully inclusive. It takes the legacy pioneered by shows like Glee and pushes it a step further, creating truly positive and accurate depictions of the queer minority.
Are you still watching?:
In summary of the above, the two programs addressed in this essay feature queer representation. The first television show and media text that was analysed was Glee. Glee’s form of queer minority representation is often stereotypical, vapid and damaging — but it helped to pioneer the featuring of queerness in popular television culture. The second television show and media text that was analysed was She-Ra and the Princess of Power is a result of this movement. Featuring a diverse cast both in ethnicity, gender and sexuality, She-Ra exemplifies positive queer representation. As can be observed through the creator/showrunner and writer’s choices, a person’s queerness doesn’t need to be excused. Additionally, queerness doesn’t need to be made more ‘palatable’ for heterosexual, cisgender audiences. Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t weird, abnormal or bad: it simply is. One’s sexuality isn’t the defining characteristic of their existence and it’s the refusal to normalise such a thing that leads to trouble down the line. Hollywood’s preference for continually writing gay characters instead of characters who also happen to be gay, is where many shows fall shy of success in their efforts to emulate positive queer representation. Thankfully, shows like She-Ra are evidence that the pop culture scene is expanding to be more inclusive of all minorities. It presents a fantastically well-rounded cast of characters who symbolise a change in the broader ideological perspectives regarding queerness around the world.
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