Looking into the representation of minorities from different racial and sexual preference backgrounds, Ruth Murphy questions how they are treated on the small screen

Television tries to show us another form of reality. A world with similar people, similar roles and a similar society, but one that is more exciting than our own. Except sometimes television fails to reflect our society.

According to a survey carried out by the US census bureau in 2011, 36.2% of Americans are of colour. Can you name a current American programme where a third of the cast are people of colour?

In addition, it is generally thought that one in ten people fall under the LGBT bracket. In 2012, American organisation GLAAD estimated that “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scripted characters represented 4.4% of all scripted series regulars on ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC.”

They seemed to praise this percentage as it was a vast improvement on previous years, despite the fact that this clearly represents less than half of the LGBT population.

Is there some idea going around that including LGBT and coloured characters in television lowers ratings? Many of the most popular programmes on TV today are those which include a racially diverse cast including LGBT characters, for example, Orange Is the New Black, Glee and Modern Family,.

The idea of LGBT and coloured characters is nothing new. Programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess and Different Strokes have been showing diversity on our screens and getting good ratings for years.

Still, TV programmes are struggling to insert in their shows that one token coloured or LGBT character who is put there simply to make their programme seem more diverse. 90210, Girls and Pretty Little Liars all have their token LGBT characters whose relationships don’t get as much screen time as the others.

Often when only one character is different from all the others, that character seems to represent for that programme their entire race or community through stereotyping, and the programme may exaggerate what makes this character different.

It’s ironic that token characters are put in programmes to give an impression of diversity when the character is often portrayed in a skewed, humorous way that doesn’t represent their minority kindly.

All of these shows had good ratings and were watched not just by the minorities they represented, proving that black characters can serve more purpose that just placating a community with air time.

More recent versions of this type have turned towards the LGBT community, particularly with the programme The L Word. This television show is somewhat successful, but unlike the black family sitcoms it doesn’t attract many audience members from outside of the community.

So it’s clear that there are lesbian and gay characters on some TV programmes, and they are being watched, but where are the bisexual and transgender characters? Also where are the LGBT characters of colour? Transgender people represent almost 1% of the population, but trans* characters are so few on TV that they don’t come close to being even 1% of characters.

Most transgender characters on television, of the few that are out there, are male-to-female trans characters such as Alexis Meade in Ugly Betty, Chandler’s father in Friends and Sophia Burset in Orange Is The New Black.

Are we more comfortable with these transgender people than others? Surely the story of a female-to-male trans person should evoke just as much sympathy.  Bisexual characters also seem to get less airtime and appear less significant than gay or lesbian characters.

A programme may dedicate a whole episode to the difficulties a character faces when coming out as gay or lesbian as was the case with Santana and Kurt in Glee, or Emily and Paige in Pretty Little Liars, but when a character is bisexual such as Brittany in Glee it just doesn’t seem to matter.

Maybe the message is that bisexuality is more acceptable, but it seems unlikely. When we approach the fear a gay person feels when coming out, we should not ignore the fact that bisexual people feel that same fear.

Luckily, in the last decade a lot of new, more diverse programmes have been created, such as Skins, Pretty Little Liars and Dexter. Unfortunately, the programme The New Normal, a show about a gay couple trying to adopt a child, was cancelled after its first season.

Is the world not ready for a programme where the most important characters are gay and want to adopt? Modern Family includes a similar storyline, but we must ask if it is more successful because the gay couple doesn’t always take centre stage.

It is odd that diversity seems in any way post-millennial, as Will & Grace and Sex and the City have featured many gay characters in the past who have been quite popular.

Is it possible that the only programme that seems to almost successfully represent minorities is set in a prison? Orange Is The New Black features many LGBT characters, as well as black, Hispanic, and older women.

The programme delves into the difficulties of Sophia Burset’s life as a trans black woman with a wife and child (the character is also played by a trans woman) and it shows in the main character, Piper Chapman, that sexual orientation is not always easy to define.

With there being so many of each minority in this programme, no one person represents their whole race or community, bar possibly Sophia Burset. Her loneliness shows clearly the lack of transgender supports available.

This programme is proof that LGBT and coloured characters can pull in viewers, but since it isn’t even shown on television and is instead a Netflix original programme, one wonders if it faced fewer barriers being on the popular site and what this avenue represents?

With shows like Orange Is The Black, Skins, Pretty Little Liars, Glee, Modern Family and many others, we can assert that the representation of minorities does exist in television, but more importantly, that it still has a long way to go.