Can visual media feature queer representation, even if it is not explicitly focused on LGBTQ+ issues? Ilaria Riccio discusses how casual queerness makes this possible.
When thinking about LGBTQ+ representation in visual media, chances are the first examples that come to mind are highly stereotypical queer characters that fail to embody what it means to be queer. For instance, The L Word, which ran from 2004 to 2009, was revolutionary in its depiction of sapphic sexuality. Despite this, the stereotypes about women in relationships with women (ie. possessiveness and hypersexuality) are scattered throughout the show, making it difficult for newly identifying queer people to relate to the characters. Because the intense level of scrutiny and discourse on proper queer representation is fairly recent, one might assume The L Word's mishaps simply reflect the era of when it was released. However, greater awareness of LGBTQ+ issues does not always translate into better discernment on how to create queer characters and narratives. Think of the repeated instances of queerbaiting in mainstream media (Supernatural, BBC’s Sherlock, etc). How many more films and shows where queer characters or relationships are hinted at must audiences tolerate?
The resigned tone of this introduction stems from how queerness is generally treated in the media. it is either relegated to queer-centred narratives or added just for the sake of it- and therefore, stereotyped, as mentioned earlier. However, quality queer representation in the media is possible even if the media in question is not inherently queer or explicitly targeted toward LGBTQ+ audiences.
Introducing “casual” queerness, an increasingly common device in film and television.
The term casual queerness is fairly self-explanatory. Characters are queer because people are queer, and their presence normalises (at least, it should normalise) queer presence in mainstream media - and consequently, in society. Similarly to having a queer person in a group of predominantly straight people in real life, a (mostly) heterosexual set of characters can include one or more LGBTQ+ characters without having to centre the narrative around them and their identities.
Queer representation is either exclusive to ‘queer’ media or needs explaining if LGBTQ+ themes aren't the narrative's focus. It’s almost as if the presence of queer characters has to be justified, while audiences need warning that the media they want to consume includes queer characters
Unfortunately, often queer representation is either exclusive to “queer” media, or needs explaining if LGBTQ+ themes aren't the narrative's focus. It’s almost as if the presence of queer characters has to be justified, while audiences need warning that the media they want to consume includes queer characters. In other words, some people need “trigger warning: queerness” written in bold, capital red letters before deciding whether to watch that specific piece of media or not. This is where casual queerness enters the scene. Queer characters can be integral to the narrative of a film or TV show without the story having to revolve around their identities - and without the narrative having to prepare audiences on the sexual orientation or gender identity and expression of some of its characters.
For example, casual queerness is heavily present in Once Upon a Time (2011-2018) (don’t say I didn’t warn you: spoilers ahead). It’s groundbreaking to find casual queerness in a series based on fairy-tale stories, the epitome of (compulsory) heterosexuality. Running themes in season 2 and early season 3 are Mulan’s (Jamie Chung) romantic feelings towards Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger). Yet, Mulan’s “queer origin story” is never explained: she's born this way.
Queer characters can be integral to the narrative of a film or TV show without the story having to revolve around their identities- and without the narrative having to prepare audiences on the sexual orientation or gender identity and expression of some of its characters
Similarly, in season 5, Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory) and Dorothy (Teri Reeves) grow closer until realising they have feelings for each other, sealed through a True Love's Kiss. As with Mulan, neither character’s queerness is previously explained in the series. The romance between Red and Dorothy develops naturally (as the media generally portrays in the case of straight characters), suggesting that a queer love story doesn’t need a moment where everything falls into place for the (queer) characters. Similarly, the show (or film) doesn’t need to alter its narrative to ensure LGBTQ+ characters fit within the story because, believe it or not, these characters can fit a story even when it’s not queer-centred.
Another relevant aspect of casual queerness is that it doesn’t reduce the characters to their identities but adds a trait that contributes to the complexity and depth of those characters. In the hit Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-), Maya Hawke’s character Robin Buckley remains a brave and intelligent character even after her coming out, whilst Noah Schnapp’s Will's yet-to-be-officially-confirmed homosexuality pervades the series but doesn’t reduce him to his queerness. Well done Netflix, for having used casual queerness in one of your blockbusters. Although I bet they didn’t even notice…
Although positive for advancing queer representation in mainstream media, casual queerness is not exempt from criticism. Is casual queerness token representation, rather than a genuine attempt to portray queer experiences? If, as discussed, queerness adds depth and complexity, then no, queer characters are not LGBTQ+ just to tick a box. Is casual queerness well-accepted by audiences? Not always, as I sadly witnessed in the context of 2022’s Willow. On a social media platform, people invited others to boycott this serial TV adaptation of the eponymous 1988 film because “everybody is gay these days''. Yet, these kinds of comments contribute to making casual queerness in the media extremely powerful. It shows that queer characters belong on TV shows and films that are not queer-centred and, thus, that LGBTQ+ representation is possible. Genuine portrayals that aren’t for inclusivity's sake are essential for further normalising the presence of queer people in the media and real life.