Queers For The Straight Eye

What does it mean when so many of the queer characters we know and love have been created and acted by straight folks? What happens when queer identity is so scrubbed clean it becomes virtually straight? It's time to talk about being queer on screen.

Queers For The Straight Eye

Queers For The Straight Eye

Queers For The Straight Eye

Updated
August 15, 2019
Medically Reviewed by
3 minute read

Representation of all identities in the media is so important. But if representation is done incorrectly, it can cause more harm than good.

In this stream, sex educator Dawn Serra talk about how queer folks are portrayed in mainstream pop culture, and how straight washing affects our understanding of queer identity.

Serra begins with the example of Call Me By Your Name — a movie that offers a lot of value as a kind of antithesis to toxic masculinity but still features two conventionally attractive, affluent cis White men playing queer characters. This is apparently “what Hollywood thinks queer people need to be in order to be sellable and consumable by the masses,” says Serra. This is also seen in Will and Grace, Love, Simon and a whole host of other movies and television shows.

This kind of media may feature queer story lines, which are important but aren’t themselves very queer.  “[...] queer characters are ultimately really written for straight audiences and they're straight versions of what queer looks like,” says Serra. These characters sexuality are also often stripped unless it serves the male gaze. For this reason, we don’t usually see gay characters having sex on screen. We will, however, see lesbians being sexual, like in the L Word, which features affluent, cis White, thin-bodied actresses playing queer women.

When it comes to trans characters — such as with Sense8 — Serra points out they’re  only seen as valuable on the screen if they are passing “and highly subscribed to the gender binary.” There are, of course, exceptions. In Orange Is the New Black, we see fat-bodied, butch, and trans characters. The show still follows a trope, however, as the story line is about tragedy and violence against queer bodies. Other tropes we often see on screen are queer characters serving as comedic relief or a sidekick, or playing hairdressers and interior designers. We don’t often see queer characters with much nuance or edge as most are very binary and cis.

“Where are the people of color?” asks Serra. “Where are the intersex characters? Where are the gender-nonconforming characters? Where are the trans characters who don't pass and maybe don't want to, who don't want to subscribe completely to the gender binary and be a version of hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine? Where are the action heroes that are queer?

We need to do better by representing queerness across a larger spectrum to prevent erasure of identities. We hardly ever see intersex actors playing intersex characters, for example. We rarely even see bi characters.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t heading in a positive direction, however. Television such as Pose shows trans actresses of color playing trans characters. Moonlight is a beautiful portrayal of a Black man coming out. One day, we can have stories about these people that don’t center on their identity or coming out, however. Serra hopes for a world where we could have a movie like Hunger Games where Katniss is a trans woman, but the story line is exactly the same. Audiences must demand these stories so they will be funded by Hollywood with the confidence they’ll be sellable. This is so important, because as Serra says, “pop culture is a powerful, powerful tool for influencing the ways we experience ourselves and our lives. It’s a way to engage in really empathetic exchanges with people who have different experiences than we do.”

Dawn Serra

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Dawn Serra began her work a sex and relationship educator in her early 20's, when she started selling sex toys. Today, Dawn hosts the weekly podcast Sex Gets Real, runs the bi-annual online Explore More Summit, speaks at colleges & universities, teaches online & in-person workshops, and so much more in the realm of pleasure, desire, and connection.

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