When the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement began in response to the death of the queer character Lexa on The 100, a conversation emerged over Twitter regarding the necessity of the movement. Some argued that the focus and energy would be better utilized in real world situations, specifically mentioning the beheading of queer people in the Middle East by ISIS. Others argued that LGBT characters didn’t need to be treated with respect because television was under no obligation to be better than reality.
There is an important correlation between fictional portrayals and real life events that many have yet to acknowledge. They are not separate or mutually exclusive from our experiences. It is not merely a TV show because media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It influences, touches and affects real life, even if we don’t care to admit it. Most people feel above the media influence and don’t realize how engraved its messages have become in our subconscious. It simply doesn’t matter that Lexa herself was not “real” because the people experiencing her are real.
Emotions are not any less valid because they are triggered by stories. Every day we engage with each other and we share our experiences or the experiences of others through stories. Some stories are fun, some boring, some exciting, and some tragic. Human beings have been telling stories since even before we developed language, when we drew paintings on caves. We use them to express ourselves, we use them to discover ourselves, and we use them to inspire ourselves.
The media, however, has been using them more and more to shock, to anger, to elicit horror or fear. We’ve grown used to these types of stories playing out on our televisions and have even become desensitized to them, forcing storytellers to push the envelope further and further to cause bigger reactions. TV has become a game of who can provoke the worst reaction from the audience. While it can be a fun experience for many, unfortunately, it leaves minorities scrambling for better representation because they’re often cast as secondary characters who are the first ones to be killed.
Autostraddle wrote two revealing articles regarding queer female characters on TV. One counted the amount of lesbian and bisexual characters who were killed, and the other counted the number of lesbian and bisexual characters who received happy endings. 152 were killed and while that might not seem like a high figure, when you compare it to the 29 who received happy endings — it’s abysmal. It sends a disproportional message to an already vulnerable queer audience that misery is common and expected.
When non-queer people are raised in homophobic atmospheres in their home and don’t see a counter example in the media, it begins to shape their beliefs. This then affects the way they react and respond to queer people in their lives. When cities and even countries have rampant homophobia, queer people stay closeted out of fear for their safety. This ensures that homophobic people don’t get access to positive and personal connections with known gay people, which can help provide an antidote for ignorance and hate. Instead, lack of genuine experiences with queer people perpetuates their negative beliefs because for them it continues to be those “other” people. This is where TV and the overall media come in. Through positive portrayals it removes the “other”ness of the other.
Going back to one of the original counter arguments against the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement, I would like to pose a question. Would Isis behead queer people if they had grown up with positive stories and portrayals of queer people in their books, movies and shows? Would it have come about if the culture wasn’t so heavily influenced by negative stories? The reason why they are beheading queer people is because they grew up with the type of narrative that justifies their actions, at least to themselves. All they have heard are stories of perversions and pedophilia. These are the stories that get passed down from generation to generation and the media perpetuates them instead of offering a more humane and accurate alternative. That’s why they respond the way they do because stories shape our expectations of others and therefore our behavior toward them.
Back in February of 2012, George Zimmeman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was simply walking home from the store while wearing a black hoodie. Zimmerman, who was sitting in his car at the time, believed that the boy looked as if he posed a threat to him and his gated neighborhood. He immediately called the police and the dispatcher advised him to stay in his car until police arrived to investigate the situation. Zimmerman did not listen but instead confronted Martin, eventually shooting him point blank and killing him.
What kind of stories was Zimmerman told about black males in hoodies? What threat did Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, hold for a 28-year old man with a gun? Who did Zimmerman really shoot? A teenager walking home from the store or the threat of the scary black male who is often depicted as a criminal? There are countless stories of unarmed black males who were killed by white police officers. While the media isn’t completely to blame for this, it hasn’t helped either. Instead it has created an atmosphere of negative racial expectation through the black criminal stereotype that is often depicted on TV.
The media, specifically, how we tell stories in the media, play a huge role in shaping cultural bias toward minority groups. They tell the wider audience that these people over here are good and these people over there are bad. Stories influence feelings, assumptions, actions, and beliefs. When we fail to recognize or acknowledge the power the media has over society we become careless in its use, which leads to harmful consequences. However, when we put it to better use, it can have real life benefits as well.
It is no surprise that the rise of the number of queer people on TV corresponded with the rise of public poll numbers for marriage equality. In a poll published in The Hollywood Reporter 27% of people polled said queer TV shows like Modern Family and Glee influenced them to be more pro-gay marriage, while only 2% said the shows made them more anti-same-sex marriage. Even former republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s supporters admitted to changing their minds because of those shows. In other words, people who didn’t have access to queer people in their real lives connected with the representations of them through characters on TV, thus making them change their attitudes and beliefs. Being able to laugh with them, cry for them, and see them as human beings, touched on a very real humane emotion: compassion.
The stories we tell and retell shape our lives. Positive portrayals on TV are important for minorities because TV is an intimate form of media. It’s in your house, and now, in the palm of your hand. You can lie in bed and watch shows on your phone. The characters enter your house, your bedroom. They’re in your sacred spaces, inviting you to their intimate moments. It becomes a personal experience. We feel for the characters we watch. We care for them in the same way we would care for those we know in our real lives. Emotions don’t know the difference between a real experience and a fake one. Anger is anger, sadness is sadness, regardless of what triggers them.
When we come across people in our own lives who look, act, or feel like those characters we are used to seeing on the screen, we are likely to associate them with our previous experiences in the media. If we don’t have a lot of real life experience with people from other groups, the media will shape our understanding and expectations of them.
The natural antidote to ignorance is travel; it’s meeting new people and staying open-minded to new experiences. However, not everyone has the luxury of doing that. A lot of people are stuck in their physical environments, surrounded by people who are similar to themselves. This is where the media comes in. It is a form of mental traveling, full of experiences we are unlikely to have in our real lives. However, how likely are we to stay open-minded if the media constantly tells us that the world is violent, evil, and full of people who want to do us harm? What kind of expectation will that create in meeting new people? If the media continues to perpetuate fear, anxiety, and xenophobia it will be minorities who will continue to pay the price.
Harvey Milk was right, we change the world by coming out, by being ourselves. By showing people that we are their sisters, brothers, uncles, neighbors, co-workers, teachers. That we are like everyone else in how we feel and live. Personal connections are important to changing people’s minds and hearts. If it can’t be accomplished because of an unsafe environment, then we need the media to participate in making it safer. We need the media to show counter examples of the negative stories we tell culturally. We need the media to offer representation that produces better conversations through better examples.
What is the media other than the medium through which we filter and reflect the stories of our lives? Now more than ever we need the media to do better because it is, in fact, a matter of life and death.
Image credits: glaad.org/Tumblr/5by5brittana/barryspivot/coalitionclexa