Censorship reigned during Hollywood’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, with the implementation of the religiously-motivated Production Code, a.k.a. the Hays Code, which banned nudity, suggestive dancing, lustful kissing, and of course, depictions of "homosexuality" on screen. But clever filmmakers and writers found a way around a complete ban of LGBT characters and developed a system of semiotics that would tip viewers off to queer characters. They got around the ban as long as their LGBT characters were nefarious, lonely, and doomed like Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the protagonists of Rope. As the code weakened in the 1950s ’60s, queer characters became more overt, but they were no less sad and tormented. While the code was done away with in 1968, its shorthand persists in film and television in the form of tropes that are dangerous for representation, like the compulsory killing off of queer characters, the depraved or promiscuous bisexual, the sissy villain, and the worst of all — complete erasure of queer existence. The following pages include now-hackneyed, hurtful tropes that must be retired immediately.
The GBF, or gay best friend, has become a common trope in modern-day television and film. Increasing acceptance over the past few decades has allowed gay men to come out of the cinematic closet, albeit in a limited capacity. They share screen time with their female heterosexual friends — but usually in a supporting role that ranges from a relationship adviser to a fabulous fashion accessory. Some are quite charming. My Best Friend's Wedding featured a notable film example of the handsome and stylish Rupert Everett crooning "I Say a Little Prayer for You" to Julia Roberts. Examples in television include Sex and the City's Stanford Blatch, Glee's Kurt Hummel, Faking It's Shane Harvey, and Search Party's Elliott Goss.
At the opening-night red carpet of this year's Outfest LGBT Film Festival, the special guests cited the transgender sex worker as one of the most overused LGBT tropes that need to be retired. It's easy to see why. Transgender people struggle for representation in media. They were almost nonexistent in big-studio films in 2016. And for women in particular, the roles disproportionately swing to some variety of this character. Past productions have handled this trope with varying decgrees of of success. Tangerine, with its casting of trans actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, was a revelation in its human portraits of people who work the streets of Hollywood yet have been historically erased from Hollywood's films. Other productions have struggled with stereotypes and have been met with casting controversy — particularly when the role goes to a cisgender actor, such as Matt Bomer in Anything or Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. Crime procedurals are also notorious for this trope, which often ends in a grisly death. The consensus seems to be that yes, sex workers deserve to have their stories told, as long as they are told well and authentically. But with so many other transgender stories that have been left untold, why not diversify the canon?
He's hot. He's on the football team. He's homophobic. At some point, it's revealed that his homophobia is rooted in a "surprising" revelation — the jock is actually gay. There are of course many real-life examples of people (*cough* Republican politicians) who are forced into the closet by their conservative environment — and their repression and self-hatred manifest as bigotry. But after all these years, perhaps it's time to give athletes in film and television — and the sports world more broadly — a little more credit and a little less hypocrisy. Examples include Glee's Dave Karofsky, Queer as Folk's Drew Boyd (pictured), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower's Brad.
It’s no secret that bisexuals continue to get a bad rap with depictions of bi characters in film and television ranging from promiscuous to confused, but one of the more persistent shorthands for bisexual characters is that of the hungry, thirsty, blood-lusting, murderous bisexual. The depiction of bisexuals as murderous reached new heights in the early ’90s with Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, but its malignancy has continued to pervade on the big screen in the form of Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley and on the small screen with characters like Oz’s Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni), Queen Sophie Anne (Evan Rachel Wood) on True Blood, and most recently, President Frank Underwood on House of Cards, whose body count grows exponentially with each season.
Queer characters have a long history of meeting unceremonious deaths, as was well-documented in The Celluloid Closet. Films including The Children’s Hour, The Fox, Rebecca, and Brokeback Mountain have featured the death of a lead character. Now there are more LGBT characters on television than ever, but there’s also an alarming uptick in the deaths of queer characters relative to straight. GLAAD revealed at a panel in August that 62 gay and bisexual television characters were killed off on television in the past two years, including on Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Pretty Little Liars, The Walking Dead, and Empire. But a particularly unwarranted death — of the lesbian warrior Lexa after she and the bisexual lead Clarke had consummated their love on the CW’s The 100 — set off unprecedented fan backlash that resulted in Twitter campaigns and threats from the relatively small audience of a boycott. Showrunners far and wide heard the battle cry from fans, so here’s hoping this trope gets killed off really soon.
Purveyor of bad taste John Waters skewered the trope that all lesbians are desperate for children back in 1972 with his avant-garde masterpiece Pink Flamingos; one of the plots of the film is that an evil couple kidnaps women, impregnates them, and sells the babies to lesbians. Of course, that’s a trope taken to the extreme for satirical purposes, but it’s one that has stuck around, and frankly, silently paints queer women who don’t want kids as monsters incapable of nurturing anything other than a cat. The "all lesbians want kids" phenomenon kicked into gear just as lesbian representation on TV ramped up with Melanie and Lindsay on Queer as Folk, Bette and Tina on The L Word, Stef and Lena on The Fosters, and Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy. Of course, Callie was bisexual, but Arizona was the adorable lesbian pediatric surgeon who never wanted children until an epiphany (actually, a life-threatening run-in with a mad gunman) made her change her mind.
One of Hollywood’s most treasured depictions of queer men is the character of the sick, depraved gay man. From Alfred Hitchcock’s oedipal Bruno in Strangers on a Train to his Leopold and Loeb stand-ins in Rope to the serial killer offing gay men in the deservedly much-maligned Cruising to the recent French film Stranger by the Lake, the depraved homosexual has been a mainstay of the big screen. But the semiology for gay equals sick has pervaded the small screen as well. Examples of the evil and conniving, while not necessarily murderous, gay can be found in Downton Abbey’s footman Thomas, Orange Is the New Black’s Piscatella, Scandal’s Cyrus, and Bates Motel’s iteration of Norman.
Two women together is a beautiful thing, but too often it’s played strictly for the pleasure of a male character who hopes to jump in the middle of the action and, by extension, for the pleasure of the male viewer who identifies with the male character on the screen. Examples of girl-on-girl action strictly to titillate have come up in Wild Things, Cruel Intentions (albeit, the scene between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair does hold some appeal for queer women), Chasing Amy, and more recently in Neighbors. Thankfully, the girl-on-girl kiss for sweeps appears to be becoming a thing of the past, but it was a staple of the ’90s on shows including Ally McBeal and Friends. Most recently, and also surprising on a series that’s fairly forward thinking, the live-action noir version of the Archie comics, Riverdale, featured Betty and Veronica in a deep lip lock for shock value.
Another favorite of classical Hollywood cinema — the lesbian or the character coded as a lesbian who is mentally unstable goes back at least as far as Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, who was so obsessed with her female former employer who died that she became deeply jealous of her employer’s new wife. The trope has been used as shorthand for female prison matrons, for unscrupulous madams like Barbara Stanwyck in Walk on the Wild Side, and of course, for lesbian vampires in films like Daughters of Darkness and The Hunger. On television, the psycho lesbian has appeared in the form of Dark Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and on Orange Is the New Black in Suzanne, who has been allowed to flourish as a character in recent seasons but who was literally nicknamed “Crazy Eyes.” Lately, showrunners and filmmakers have subverted the trope or flipped it in interesting ways. The character of Paige on Pretty Little Liars struggled with her own demons while she was viewed through the eyes of some of the other characters as completely murderous until she proved she wasn’t and then they were forced to admit that they jumped to conclusions. Most recently, filmmaker Ingrid Jungermann’s Women Who Kill creatively utilized the psycho lesbian theory as a metaphor for paranoia in relationships.
If you've ever seen a Disney movie, you've seen a sissy villain. He's thin, charming, intelligent, effeminate, and ultimately duplicitous, using his skills to betray the protagonist and worm his way into power. The sissy villain is cultured — he loves poetry or art or music, and may have a familiar like a cat or a bird. He's usually brought down by a product of the patriarchy — a straight, masculine hero who fights to restore the so-called natural order of things. In addition to Jafar and Scar, other cinematic examples include Skyfall's Silva, Torchwood's Captain John Hart, and Alien: Covenant's David.
Of course, prison rape is a real, horrifying act, but it’s also become a mainstay of film and television that’s often played for humor or, in the case of drama, for shock value rather than for perhaps awareness that could lead to reform. And often, the inference of rape is used for humor as in the classic Richard Pryor–Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy and the recent film Guardians of the Galaxy. On television, the trope was most prevalent on HBO’s Oz in the late ’90s but has been employed on shows including Prison Break, Rectify, and Sons of Anarchy. The women’s prison series also dig deep into that well. Australia’s Wentworth uses rape to terrifying effect while this season’s Orange Is the New Black even included a flashback sequence of gay male guard Piscatella’s incarcerated love interest being gang-raped.
Piper Chapman has never said the word “bisexual” to describe herself on Orange Is the New Black although she's had a few female love interests and a male fiancé. And neither did The Good Wife’s Kalinda or House of Cards’s Frank Underwood. That show’s creator Beau Willimon went so far as to say that he liked that Frank never says the word. "He’s a man with a large appetite, he’s a man who does not allow himself to be placed in any sort of milieu or with one definition,” Willimon said. Stories exist in real life and on-screen of characters who have yet to define themselves or to even know what they are, and this is a valid journey. But with bi erasure being an issue the bisexual community bucks against daily, it’s time for Hollywood to start saying the word.
The Unsetting Gender Reveal is a trope employed by Hollywood, usually for comedic or shocking effect, which may have tragic undertones of homophobia and transphobia. The Crying Game is one of the more famous examples regarding gender identity — but the trope has been a staple of Hollywood pictures for decades: e.g. Some Like It Hot, Victor/Victoria, and Yentl. Less artful productions include Ace Ventura, The Naked Gun 33 1/3, and The Hangover II, which show that some Gender Reveals (particularly in more modern productions) are far more Unsettling to LGBT audiences than others.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having sexual agency, but when it’s conflated with the inability to be emotionally intimate or used purely for shock value it becomes a problem. Films going back as far as the ’80s British period piece Another Country have featured gay male characters who use sex to cover for their inability to feel true intimacy with another human being. Since then, characters on TV who use hooking up as a replacement for true love include most of the characters on Queer as Folk, although primarily Brian. Meanwhile, The L Word’s Shane’s craving for sex with different people led her to become a serial cheater, even going so far as to leave her one true love at the altar. More recently, The Good Wife’s fabulous bisexual investigator Kalinda used sex to gain information and to run from commitment while How to Get Away With Murder’s Connor has used hooking up as a distancing device.
The "coming out" trope is a perennial of LGBT film and television. Like in Amazon's Transparent, it can be an inciting incident for a production, or in Empire, the climax of a season. But it can also be a plot device, a Surprising Reveal, or an easy way to add a queer character into a storyline. Coming out will likely never disappear from the world of television and film — nor should it. It remains a necessary step in the lives of most queer people in the real world. However, Hollywood should remember that queer people are defined by more than just their coming-out — and there are far more interesting stories to be explored that extend beyond the revelation of a person's identity. There are also more inventive ways to address coming out, rather than having it perpetually be the Big Dark Secret weighing on a character's soul. Other recent examples include Supergirl's Alex Danvers and many cast members from Glee and Faking It.
In its 2017 Studio Responsibility Index, GLAAD found an abysmal lack of LGBT representation in films produced by major studios. And the representation that exists is, unfortunately, reduced to small parts that amount to sight gags or punch lines for outdated humor. Queer people deserve more than the mockery of trans/nonbinary people seen in the Zoolander 2 character of All, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, or the butt-of-gay-jokes character Bradley in Dirty Grandpa. We can be hilarious — but not at the expense of our dignity.
Perhaps the most dangerous trope is Everyone Is Straight, which is a decision, either conscious or unconscious, not to include any overtly LGBT people in the universe of a production. In this world, everyone is heterosexual. Boys like girls, girls like boys, and no one steps outside the boundaries of so-called traditional gender roles. Organizations like GLAAD exist in order to fight this narrative — because it is false, and it is harmful both to LGBT young people who feel they are alone as well as those who harbor anti-LGBT views and would prefer to believe we don't exist. Representation is essential to progress. Without it, the LGBT movement would not have achieved the gains that it has. So let's celebrate diversity and include as many beautiful, queer, and complex characters as possible.