Queer Joy, Queer Trauma, and the Media

Content warning: homophobic violence, transphobic violence

Please note: Spoilers below for GLOW, Sex Education, Sense8, Duck Butter, Blue Is the Warmest Color, and Carol

The other day, I was watching yet another TV show that was benevolent enough to offer some queer side characters tucked into a mostly straight narrative, and in this particular episode, the queer characters actually got some screen time. The show I was watching was “GLOW,” and I was excited to spend more time watching the queer story lines develop, but at the same time, a familiar dread was starting to creep into my belly. Near the end of the episode, the queer characters and the straight characters all go together to an underground drag show, and it’s glittery and colorful and happy and, well, queer. So far, so good. But then, sure enough, someone smells smoke, and then everyone is running out the door, and when they get outside, spray painted all over the walls are, “F*ggot,” and “AIDS Kills F*ggots,” and crudely drawn dicks, and, well, you get the picture. In the middle of all this trauma, the lesbian character, who hasn’t been able to say, “I’m gay” yet, has this epiphany looking at all the scrawled messages. In the next episode, she comes out to all her friends, and everyone is accepting of her, and she decides to join the fight for gay rights, and isn’t that great.

Except it’s not great. It sucks, actually. Why did the writers think they had to create a traumatic experience in order for the lesbian character to “realize” she had to come out of the closet? Why are writers and directors so obsessed with coming-out-of-the-closet story lines in the first place? I’m so tired of narratives like this one, where the hate crime precedes character development for the queer person. The phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes gay narrative. The sad lesbian trope, the tortured queer, the my-parents-don’t-know and the my-dad-beat-me-and-threw-me-out-of-the-house narratives. Don’t we deserve a little better? Don’t we deserve joy that isn’t interrupted by a fucking hate crime? 

This is not an isolated incident. We see trauma representation like this all the time in modern television and books and movies. Representation isn’t enough if it’s this particular story that we’re telling. Because the whole reason that representation is important is because it offers an opportunity to see ourselves reflected back to us, and maybe even to see a stronger, better version of ourselves on screen. And if that person is someone who is constantly beat down, constantly fighting to be “accepted” by straight society, then that is who we learn that we are.

Queerness is a unique identity because, unlike the myriad of other marginalized identities out there – like being a woman or being a person of color, for example – queer people aren’t necessarily born into a family or community that shares our identities. Furthermore, we may not even understand that we are queer until adulthood. So for many queer people, the early stages of our identities can feel very isolating. We emerge from our presumed straight, cis lives into a new reality, but we’re often surrounded by the same straight, cis people we knew, before we knew. Of course, everyone’s coming-out experience is different, but this is the way that it was for me. When I first came out, I yearned desperately for an older queer mentor to help me understand this new reality that I was living in. I wish that I had had someone to tell me that it was normal to doubt myself, that it would take some time to figure things out, that I didn’t owe it to anyone to define myself, and that, in fact, it was a good thing to allow some room to be more fluid, to not define myself. But I didn’t have that person, because most of my friends were straight. (Or at least they thought they were at the time!) And for me, “acceptance” wasn’t enough. I needed understanding. I needed community.

So I turned to television. I watched anything and everything on Netflix that had to do with queer women. “The L Word.” “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” “Duck Butter.” “Orange Is the New Black.” “Below Her Mouth.” “Sense8.” “Lost Girl.” “Sex Education.” “Pose.” Some of these shows offered positive representations of queer women. Some of them offered extremely problematic representations. Most of them were a mix of both. Mostly through television, I slowly gathered an image in my mind of what it meant to be queer. Of what versions of people like me were out there. Of who I could be.

And this is why representation matters. This is why it’s so important to offer narratives that allow queer people to fill out a variety of roles, for queerness to wear different faces. So that we can explore what it might mean to be ourselves. But we need more than that. We need to represent more than just the world that we live in, but also the world that we want to live in.

I have watched too many TV shows and movies that cast queerness as a weight that the character is burdened with. The character might be striving to be their truest self, but everyone wants them to be different. It might be their family, or their school mates, or their boyfriend that they’re cheating on, because isn’t forbidden love oh-so-sexy? There’s Eric from Sex Education who goes out in drag and gets teased all day and then badly beaten up by some men who were driving by. There’s Nomi from Sense8 who is constantly misgendered and outcast by her family until the big scene when her dad finally defends her and calls her his daughter. 

Perhaps most troubling is when the trauma comes from within the queer relationships themselves. I’m talking about the movies where the characters are so damaged that they sabotage their own relationships. Naima in Duck Butter falls in love with Sergio, the mysterious manic pixie dream girl who ends up being a destructive and manipulative asshole, and they both destroy their relationship from the inside out. In the movie version of Blue Is the Warmest Color, Adele and Emma have intense, steamy sex, but then Adele cheats on Emma with a man, they break up, and the last scene shows her gazing wistfully at Emma from afar, before walking away. In the book, it’s the same storyline, except Adele dies at the end. In Carol, Carol and Therese run off together, but they are followed by an investigator that Carol’s husband sends, and Carol loses custody of her daughter in the process. Also, there’s some weird power dynamics, and I honestly don’t think have great chemistry. By the way, all those movies are directed by men.

And of course, this kind of fictional trauma wasn’t invented in a vacuum. Queer people deal with these kinds of issues all the time. But shouldn’t we be able to imagine a world where that’s not the case? Shouldn’t we be able to finally feel truly seen at a drag ball and not worry that someone is going to set it on fire? Or that someone is going to shoot a machine gun into a crowd of people?

It’s also critical to point out that the vast majority of queer representation only depicts a tiny subsection of the population. Mainly: thin, white, cis people. This is probably old news to a lot of people, but if not, I would encourage you to go type “LGBTQ” into any streaming service, and consider the ridiculous percentage of white people crowding the screen. Only in recent years have trans and nonbinary folks received a modicum of screen time where they weren’t the butt of a joke. And people of size? The lack of representation across all genres has dire, far-reaching consequences. I’m not trans, and I’m not a person of color, but if I am having this much frustration over representation when the people who are given screen time mostly look like me, I can only imagine how trans and BIPOC folks feel about it.

We need to figure out how to depict a world where we’re not shoving difficult truths under the carpet, but also one where trauma isn’t portrayed as an inevitable part of queer story lines. I want to be able to enjoy the budding lesbian relationship on screen without worrying about when the femme one’s boyfriend is going to predictably show up and lash out, or when one of them is going to experience sexual trauma – or die. And sure, I’ll admit that I often enjoy the intense, steamy, lesbian sex, but I also get annoyed, because it’s almost always porny and unrealistic. And given the prevalence and frequency of explicit sex scenes that show up in lesbian movies — compared to the sex scene count in your average straight romance movie — the constant over-exaggerated moaning starts to feel exploitative, rather than liberating. (Did I mention that most of these movies are directed by men?)

We need to invent a world where queer joy not only exists, but thrives. Writers and directors who write story lines that interrupt that joy with trauma and heartbreak create a reality that I don’t want to see myself in. I want more from my representation, and I want more for those baby queers out there who are still figuring it out, and who are still looking for direction from media when they can’t get it from the people around them. We deserve better, both on and off the screen.

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